Daniel Deen and Joel Oesch: The Lutheran Voice and Crosswise Institute

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

On August 21 - August 23, we will be holding office hours with Daniel Deen (@Philosurfer) and Joel Oesch (https://vimeo.com/156847083), an LCMS Lutheran Theologian and Philosopher.

They invited me to be a speaker at the CrossWise Institute this summer (https://www.cui.edu/academicprograms/christcollege/crosswise). The students were thoughtful and engaged, and I’m sure I was the first person that most of them had met that affirmed evolution. To introduce me they thought it would be clever to start out with a video from Micah Bournes on Evolution and Injustice. So we had this room full of homeschool / christian schooled high schoolers, almost exclusively white, contemplating racism and evolution together.

I responded by telling them I wasn’t there to change their mind on evolution. Instead, I talked about Jesus, and how the Gospel changes everything. I insisted we needed them to be better than their parents generation. They agreed. Seeing students like this gives me a great deal of hope for the next chapter of our society. Then came the questions, and they wanted to talk about racism and evolution, so we did. If we are lucky, @Philosurfer might be able to give us some video clips these interactions (is that possible?).

This high school camp was the best of Lutheranism.

Those following Peaceful Science will remember the constant appeals to Lutheran Theology. Our currently absentee YEC moderator is a YEC LCMS Lutheran. I’ve drawn attention to the (too) slow unveiling of the The Lutheran Option. I’m convinced there is a critically important and missing voice missing in the conversation. To get a sense of what it sounds like, look at my favorite post from the last Office Hours:

Regardless, in this office hours, we are hoping to have some interactions with the many Lutherans that lurk around here, like @J.E.S, @CPArand, @acuriousmind, @JustAnotherLutheran. If we are lucky, @TedDavis will also show up, who has given a few talks at their St. Louis Concordia seminary. To kick us off, I’m asking:

  1. How would you summarize the Crosswise Institute as a whole, and the small role I played in it? What was the aftermath like? What have they been hearing from students?

  2. Where does LCMS stand on young earth creationism and evolutionary science?

  3. Why would a denomination with so much controversy about the age of the earth invite me, a scientist that affirms evolution, to speak to their high school students? Why take the risk of bringing me (a non Lutheran) to speak to a group of your high school students?

  4. How does true Lutheranism depart from the fundamentalism? What are the Lutheran distinctives the rest of us (non-Lutherans) might benefit from as we engage with science and theology?

Looking forward to the conversation. See you guys soon!

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

Looking forward to the conversation starting soon. Feel free to join in when the thread opens. Hopefully @J.E.S and @CPArand and @acuriousmind will join us too. Peace.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #8

This topic was automatically opened after 32 days.

(Jonathan) #9


To kick this off, I would like to quickly address question no. 2…

Here is the excerpt from the ‘Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod’ concerning Creation:

Of Creation

We teach that God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days. We reject every doctrine which denies or limits the work of creation as taught in Scripture. In our days it is denied or limited by those who assert, ostensibly in deference to science, that the world came into existence through a process of evolution; that is, that it has, in immense periods of time, developed more or less of itself. Since no man was present when it pleased God to create the world, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God’s own record, found in God’s own book, the Bible. We accept God’s own record with full confidence and confess with Luther’s Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures.”

(@swamidass, thanks for the clarifying edit!)

(Daniel Deen) #10

Thanks Josh for setting this up. I’ll provide a few brief comments on your particular questions and let others pick up on threads they want to further discuss. I know Joel will be coming in soon and providing his own thoughts on a few of the questions.

Broadly speaking, I like to introduce Crosswise to people as the liberal arts meets Sunday morning youth group. It is a project that is housed at a university, so we treat the summer program as such. We are attempting to show high school students that conversations surrounding Christ and culture generally and science and theology specifically are often much more complex than first thought. We do this in a resurrection centered assurance that no matter how messy the details of the conversation may get, our identity is baptized into Christ . We have confidence to engage the culture in, as our website says, “risky, but rewarding” fashion. We can do this, I believe, because we have the backing of our various departments on campus to help us with providing excellent Lutheran professors who are professionals in their various fields. This last time around, we had professors from communication/rhetoric, biology, anthropology, and psychology leading break out sessions. The hope is that we are modeling and cultivating a better conversation for the youth as they become masks of Christ to others in the lives they live and the vocations with which they find themselves.

Your role, as I saw it, was to come in and illustrate how one can navigate the waters of undergraduate and graduate scientific education (practical MD and theoretical PhD) while remaining a confessing Christian. I learned about you through the article you wrote for Concordia Journal (Summer 2017). Your introduction was spot on as to why you practice science due to your identity in Christ. I knew you were also a practicing evolutionary biologist, so I figured that would spark plenty of conversations with our students as they processed your confident faith in Christ alongside your evolutionary commitments. The aftermath was positive. I distinctly remember one student commenting to me that your talk was the most challenging in that they expected an evolutionary biologist NOT to be Christian. Your clear pronouncement in Jesus and the non-wavering evolutionary views clearly got many of the students thinking through a position they have never encountered. This, coupled with the small group time the students had with resident theologians, really marked a high point in cognitive tension and resolution with out students. They grew.

As @J.E.S pointed out below, our Brief Statement on Creation is pretty clear that the LCMS is in tension with evolutionary theory. I would point out that the language in the Brief Statement is a little unclear as to the nature of evolution:

The statement seems to be thinking of evolution as a grand materialistic cosmic evolution in its reference to the “world” coming into existence and “developing more or less of itself.” This has been further clarified in Resolution-2-08A on teaching of evolution in our synodical schools:

WHEREAS, The hypotheses of macro, organic, and Darwinian evolution, including theistic evolution or any other model denying special, immediate, and miraculous creation, undercut this support for the honoring of life as a gift of God; and

WHEREAS, Any teaching that advocates the transition from one species to another, as opposed to maintaining the distinction of species “according to their kinds” (Genesis, Chapter 1), rejects the clear teaching of Scripture; and

Resolved , That all educational agencies and institutions of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod including early childhood programs, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries continue to teach creation from the biblical perspective; and be it further

Resolved , That no educational agency or institution of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod tolerate any teaching that contradicts the special, immediate, and miraculous creation by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as an explanation for the origin of the universe; and be it further

Resolved , That the Synod’s educational agencies and institutions properly distinguish between micro and macro evolution and affirm the scriptural revelation that God has created all species “according to their kinds”; and be it finally

Note that there is no mention of age of earth in this resolution. However, going by our popular literature, radio interviews, and conference speakers, young earth creationism (YEC) is the going position that is promoted through official synodical channels. Which, makes that statistic of LCMS views of human evolution found by Pew research all the more disconcerting!

This is an interesting question and I think drives at the heart of what we at Crosswise and Concordia University, Irvine (as well as PeacefulScience) are driving at – better conversations. I’ll let the new readers here explore PeacefulScience a bit to see the sorts of conversations are happening. However, at Crosswise, we are trying to break a trend in high school textbook thinking about science as well as deepen the naïve youth group thinking about faith and reason/science often perpetuated in youth ministry. Concordia is a Liberal Arts University within the Lutheran tradition, thus we adopt Luther’s own words as our aim in education, “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens” – the liberal arts is about producing liberal minds (not necessarily politically liberal!), but a mind that is open and flexible to discovering one’s God-given talents to better serve their neighbors. The Lutheran tradition aspect is to securely anchor students in the forgiveness of Christ. Hence, the play on words in our title, Crosswise. When one fears the Lord, becoming wise in the ways of the cross, then one is truly free to engage in science, philosophy, and theology in previously unimaginable ways. It is an identity thing. If your identity is bound to Christ, then nothing can separate you from His love and one is called to venture into any area required to serve our neighbors (including infiltrating brothels, money laundering tax organizations, and cleaning out the temple if we are to ask the question WWJD?). This is the essence of Luther’s notion of the “Freedom of a Christian.” It puts us in a paradoxical bind to be utterly free while completely bound to service to our neighbors, even when our neighbors are evolutionary biologists!

In my opinion, you were not a risk but the exact sort of person we at Crosswise are looking for to challenge our students. You provided a voice in a conversation that has not been present in a lot of our student’s past conversations. The dissonance you brought required a changing of gears for our students to grow intellectually and spiritually. I liked the way you challenged them to be better thinkers.

Seeing as this is already a long post, I’m going to “send it” and then reflect a little further on your question four, let Joel get something posted and see what people want to talk about!

Cheers all and I look forward to some conversation!

(Joel Oesch) #11

From the beginning, the Crosswise Institute was designed to challenge high school students to confront the more difficult questions that emerge from the Christianity-culture conversation. We wanted to resist two common impulses that naturally arise when we deal with complex issues: 1) Off-loading our responsibilities as thinking Christians to some esoteric position paper issued from our Church body (though these certainly have their proper use) thereby exculpating us from entering the fray, and/or 2) Avoid the conversation altogether for the purposes of “keeping the peace.” The Lutheran liberal arts mentality, when it’s at it’s best, openly confronts the world in all of its complexity. There can–and should be–an expectation that the world we encounter every day is full of surprises, tensions, and paradoxes. In the end, any earnest pursuit of truth drives us closer to the heart of God, not further away. Crosswise was built, in part, to invite students to participate in a life of examination–a life that acknowledges cultural complexity as but one of many gifts God provides for his children.

We invited Josh to speak about evolutionary/genealogical issues and their relationship to Scripture in hopes that his words would knock the students off-balance. In last year’s event, we invited an atheist transhumanist (Zoltan Istvan) to be the keynote speaker, thoroughly surprising and delighting the student crowd. Josh skillfully opened new vistas of thought without sacrificing his commitment to the biblical text, and the students were IN. I clearly remembered one student, a young woman, flatly stating that she had never been exposed to some of Josh’s propositions. Far from being turned off, however, she found that talking about such topics drove her deeper into the biblical text and further conversation with her peers. I call that a successful event.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

Thanks @Philosurfer, @joel.oesch and @J.E.S for joining in here.

For reference, @J.E.S has been a kind and gracious YEC, who is also part of the LCMS.

This is the best of Lutheranism, and exactly what I have experienced with you. Thank you so much for inviting me too.

Can you tell us some more about what was important in that article? What did you learn about me from it?

I must truly commend you for caring enough about students to challenge them. I’ve always been skeptical of Christian education institutions, because they often adopt the language “protecting” students from challenge. This over-protectiveness ultimately undermines confident faith. If we need our teachers to protect us from scary ideas, what happens when we enter the real world? You are presenting a better way forward. This the type of Christian education that could produce a confident faith in a scientific world.

Can you tell me more about the aftermath?

What sorts of conversations took place with the students and faculty in response to me? What sort of questions arose?

I also talked about racism and injustice, and most the students where white suburbanites, often home schooled too. How did they respond to that part of the conversation?

(Joel Oesch) #13

This is an important point, I think. For a sizable number of Lutherans, a disconnect exists between the church’s teachings on Gen 1-4 and the average parishioner’s actual beliefs. I can only assume that this disconnect will continue as church membership and monthly worship numbers tumble, as it is doing across a broad swath of mainline denominations. Perhaps there’s another reason… I think it’s entirely possible that our theological education all too often discourages the average high school student from asking the difficult questions that the biblical text raises in light of modern science. Quiet obedience becomes the game they’ve learned to play, surrendering their engagement to “an adult who knows what’s going on.” Then, when the student heads off to college, he/she is confronted by an avalanche of worldviews that undercut the narrative they’ve been told all along. They lack the tools/arsenal/conversational skills to fruitfully engage these competing beliefs. Instead, many give up the faith of their fathers for something else or nothing at all. I hope that, in some small way, Crosswise invites students to test their conservative Christianity against a bevy of competing voices and emerge on the other side, knowing that 1) their identity is forever preserved in Christ through baptism, and 2) they have the Christian freedom to ask the questions that don’t have easy answers. And then, when the dust settles, they enter the fray yet again as Christians of conviction and integrity.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #14

@J.E.S, thanks for raising this point.

It is important, because it exposes how your view on these issues is more grounded in fundamentalism than lutheranism. This statement does NOT constrain LCMS Lutherans from affirming to an old earth, or for affirming evolutionary science.

Let me explain a couple points, to show how my view of evolutionary science entirely consistent with this statement.

The “six days”, even if they are ordinary days, allows for the age of the Earth. Here is one of at least 3 ways to make sense of that: A Telling in Six Ordinary Days. Perhaps @deuteroKJ might pipe in too.

So this is not a description of the evolutionary science I affirm. What is described here is atheism, but I hold that God was involved, though I cannot say precisely how. So I agree with the statement in denying Godless evolution. This is the only form of evolution denied here, and every Christian should deny it.

I also confess that God has made me and all creatures.

Three more ways we know this statement allows for evolution.

  1. Most LCMS Lutherans actually do affirm evolutionary science.

  2. LCMS Lutherans place a high value on paradox, so embrace oft two apparently contradictory things can be possible.

  3. Your understanding of that statement, and perhaps the statement itself, is a product of Fundamentalism, not Lutheranism.

For those three reasons, alongside the wording of the statement, most LCMS Lutherans have not feel the need to reject evolutionary science. That is good news. You don’t have to remain in the @J.E.S unless you feel Scripture tells you different. Your doctrinal statements are entirely consistent with my position.

@Philosurfer and @joel.oesch, do I understand that rightly?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

I suppose I take a different angle on this.

I’m curious your thoughts.

I should add that the wording in the resolutions is not a challenge either. I am, for example, not a theistic evolutionist.