A Lifelong LCMS Member and the CTCR

Robert Sylwester

I’m a lifelong member of the LCMS. All of my formal education through my undergraduate degree was in LCMS schools. I spent 16 years as a teacher in LCMS elementary schools and at a synodical college. Since 1968, I’ve been on the faculty of the University of Oregon, where my focus was on the applications of cognitive neuroscience research to educational policy and practice. I  was thus very interested in the recent Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) 139-page document on The Intersection of Science and Christian Theology.

As a long-time author, editor, and reviewer, I always first checked the authorship and bibliography when reviewing an article or book. It’s important to know both the author’s credentials and the general quality of supporting sources. The CTCR document doesn’t list any authors or reviewers. Since it was a Commission document I assumed that the members reviewed (but collectively didn’t write) the manuscript. The Commission is composed of fifteen men and one woman.  Twelve are professional church workers. Checking backgrounds, it seemed that only two or so of the members had sufficient backgrounds in science to review the science elements beyond their personal (rather than professional) knowledge. I thus assumed that the Commission’s capability to review the theological elements of of the document was adequate, but that their understanding of mainstream science might be questionable.

A request to CTCR Executive Director Joel Lehenbauer answered some of my questions. CTCR documents are sometimes developed over time, and thus can include shifting authors and Commission members. The principal author for the science/theology document was Angus Menuge, the head of the Concordia Wisconsin philosophy department. Lehenbauer didn’t indicate that any of the Concordia system’s well over a hundred science faculty was involved in writing or reviewing the document. That seemed odd to me, given that the theological element of the document seemed adequately covered within the Commission’s membership.

Further, it seemed to me on reading the document that Menuge doesn’t really represent mainstream science, but is rather oriented to the concepts of Intelligent Design and Creationism. I have no problem with that, if this focus would then be balanced with input from other Concordia faculty who understand and can adequately explain mainstream science perspectives and how they might intersect with LCMS theology. As is, the document now reads to me more like a philosophy or history of science text than an analysis of the current scientific understanding of the issues covered. This is perhaps consistent with Menuge’s background, but all the more reason for someone else to adequately explain legitimate scientific perspectives that might intersect with LCMS theology (the presumed point of the document). The document thus included a lot of positive things about theology but science seemed to get short shrift.

I sent my critique (below) to Lehenbauer with the hope that he would pass it on to the Commission who reviewed the document and to August Menuge, the document’s author. He didn’t respond. After a couple weeks I resent it to him and asked him to let me know that he had received it, and to indicate what he planned to do with it. Again, no response at all. As I wrote above, I’ve been involved in all levels of publishing for well over fifty years (including materials that the BPE and CPH published), and I’ve never experienced anything like this. The normal practice is to immediately let authors and reviewers know that the materials arrived, to indicate the next steps in the process, and to determine what to send on to the author.

What thus follows is my critique of the document. Mainstream science investigators also researched many of the issues that have become part of a LCMS theology that rejects the scientific evidence on the three issues I selected as examples, (1) new developments in our understanding of the cosmos and our solar system within it, (2) the beginnings of the earth and the emergence/development of life, and (3) human sexuality and its variants. I wrote a non-technical explanation of the issues and the support that mainstream science has developed on these issues. This kind of material could and should be a part of a dialogue to see if an intersection between LCMS and mainstream science exists.

I regret seeking another venue for publication, but what other opportunity does a lifelong member of the LCMS have when a Synodical Commission disrespects a legitimate critique?

Intersecting issues between science and theology that don’t seem adequately covered in the CTCR document

Introduction.  I completed my undergraduate degree with a major in biology four years before the discovery of how DNA/RNA allow for differentiation within and among species. The discovery was perhaps the beginning of modern biology, which has since flourished tremendously. What follows is a non-technical discussion of some of the science that I felt was missing in the CTCR document.

Modern science is a very complicated phenomenon that involves theoretical models, observation, analysis, and application. Scientists study natural rather than spiritual phenomena. Science per se thus neither accepts nor rejects the existence of a deity, since it’s not something that scientists study. One could ask scientists if they believe in God. Some might and some might not, but deities aren’t something that scientists study professionally. The question that scientists ask of themselves and theologians on issues is simply, “That’s interesting. What evidence to you have to support your position?”

Beginnings.  The Bible had to be written to a human scale, so that the people who lived in the pre-Christian, pre-scientific era could understand it. The Bible thus begins with  “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth”. It doesn’t provide either a time frame or how it occurred. The basic statement  was sufficient for thousands of years until science matured sufficiently to better (but not yet completely) explain what might have occurred before and after the Biblical term “beginning”. Theology similarly lacks clear answers to those questions. The issue is thus something that science can legitimately explore given the technological capabilities it now has.

The current scientific estimates are that the earth’s  beginnings occurred about 4.5 billion years ago from a very much earlier “big bang,” the details of which are perhaps still a work in progress. The earth wasn’t hospitable to life for a million or so years, which seems somewhat similar to the Biblical comments about the early condition, “without form and void.” Theologians can argue if a day represents an era or a 24-hour period. Scientists think in terms of an era. The issue thus seems like an intersection that theologians and scientists could discuss, and even finally agree on or else agree to disagree. It would require both groups to provide the evidence they have to support their position.

The theology taught in my LCMS schooling was of a young earth. Suppose though that it’s actually 4.5 billion years old (and the scientific evidence for it is overwhelming). Would that necessarily negatively affect the centrality of one’s Christian beliefs?

With the current Pluto venture, science seems to be at the beginnings of explorations well beyond the earth, with probably even more wonders about the fundamental nature of the cosmos to emerge (including the possible existence of life on other planets and systems). I had thus hoped that the CTCR document would have begun the theological exploration of this issue. Alas, that didn’t occur. When LCMS cosmological theology was originally written, the realities of it that we’re experiencing today didn’t even seem a remote possibility. They are now.

Life.  Genesis similarly isn’t all that clear on the emergence of life. “Let the earth bring forth grass.”  “God made the beast of the earth after his kind.”  “Let us make man in our image.” How life began and developed are still a work in progress to scientists, but it’s safe to say that the biological community overwhelmingly supports the basic principles of biological evolution.

During the past decade, our perception of ourselves as solitary human beings has shifted to something closer to an assemblage within an encased water bath.  We’re composed of various human cells plus 10X as many microbiological cells (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc). We’re thus biologically the sum of minuscule parts, and scientists now have the technology to explore into this nanoverse (as it’s called), where inorganic becomes organic.

In view of theologians who argue that biological evolution is scripturally wrong, scientists wonder why theologians would consider an Almighty God to be incapable of using the elegance of an evolutionary system to develop and regulate the complexity of life.

Menuga writes (p 128), “Science’s steady progress against infectious disease, infant and maternal mortality, disruption and disease of vital organs, and countless other human scourges and illness is so widespread, and its theoretical and technological advances have become so commonplace that we often fail to realize the enormity of their benefits.”

But all such biological advances are based on scientific research that has basically emerged out of principles of biological evolution. How can the CTCR write glowingly of the wonders of medical advances and then reject the basic principles on which they’re based?

Sexuality.  Reproduction was very important to populate the earth, and so was the maturation of children once they were born. We’re a social species, dependent on our family, kin, and the larger community. The idea of social stability was thus important, and monogamy was seemingly the preferred state.  Polygamy and homosexuality didn’t fit into species needs and so were discouraged, although both continued to exist (OT polygamists included Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Sampson).

We now have a better understanding of the science of sexuality. To simplify things, it’s composed of two elements, (1) an objective plumbing system of complementary tubes that move male sperm to female egg cell, and (2) a subjective selection system seemingly centered within our brain’s hypothalamus that determines with whom to get sexually involved, when and how often to engage in intimacy, and issues like that. The dual system functions as a standard system in approximately 95% of the population. In the rest, the selection system can function differentially, and such variants as homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, pedophilia, fetishes, hypo/hyper-sexuality, etc., can occur. It’s considered a condition, not a matter of free choice. Still, societies appropriately punish those who force sexual behavior on others (pedophilia, rape), but most now allow consenting adults to engage in almost any sexual behavior they wish.

The SCOTUS recently voted 5-4 to allow same sex marriages to occur throughout the country. The LCMS is officially opposed to that decision, basing its opposition on scriptural statements. Since marriage includes substantial tax and other benefits, marriage is basically a secular issue in the US. A couple first has to go to the courthouse to get a license, and then a marriage ceremony may or may not include a pastor. Fifty years ago, it was also illegal for a white to marry an African American or an Asian. The SCOTUS also overturned such state laws, and I suspect that few if any people now felt that it was an inappropriate decision.

For those who argue that marriage implies procreation, many older folks such as my father-in-law married again a couple years after his wife’s death. Procreation wasn’t an option for them, but they received tax benefits that assumed procreation. If churches want to determine who can get married, are they also willing to forego the civil benefits that come with a secular system of marriage?

Women historically played the central reproductive role and most had the primary parenting role. They also often had a short lifespan because of numbers of births and parental demands. Cultures became patriarchal, and that persists. Women today have fewer children and a longer lifespan than men. They also have the intellectual capabilities to function well beyond what’s possible in our continuing patriarchal society and some of its religions.

Summary.  The LCMS has changed its views on issues in the past. My adolescent generation wasn’t allowed to attend social dances, and until 1969 adult LCMS women weren’t allowed to vote in parish voters assemblies. Both were based on scriptural beliefs. The LCMS didn’t apologized for evidently getting such scriptural prohibitions wrong, and I suspect that no one today really wants to go back to those repressive beliefs the LCMS had then. Further, my late 1940s synodical theology course used Pieper’s Dogmatics. That book implies that the Copernican view of the universe is contrary to scriptural doctrine.

Major scientific and related cultural changes are thus occurring that the LCMS should seriously consider. The knowledge base in biological and cosmological science is becoming much stronger. Perhaps it’s now time (or past time) to rethink some of the LCMS beliefs in the light of such developing discoveries.

Menuge advises teachers to “teach the controversy” and uses climate change as an example (p 128). His extended discussion is mostly focused on the beliefs of the small number of deniers. He doesn’t report on the overwhelming amount of discoveries that relate to the negative effects of global warming. Later in this segment, Menuge writes that “…this approach to science education helps students to see the fallibility and limitations of scientific claims and arguments and has the clear educational objective of promoting critical thinking and objectivity” (p 129).

He doesn’t identify the scientific nature of the controversy in global warming. The reality is that an overwhelming number of scientists perceive no controversy about the validity of their biological or climate discoveries.

The document leaves a question. Do scientific or theological investigations have the best chance of approaching the solution to the three issues identified above (and others in which science and theology intersect)?  If mainstream scientific investigations seem more promising, why didn’t the CTCR seek the most capable LCMS scientists to explain the case for science?

A biologist once said to me that he’s sorry for theologians. A few thousand years ago, they got a few Biblical sentences about the outside perspective of organisms, but most theologians seemingly didn’t have the curiosity to get into the cellular structure, or to study all the other fascinating things that scientists discovered over time. The other fascinating thing is that scientists leave plenty of other discoveries for the next generations to discover, but theologians who seemingly already know the answers don’t even get to do that.

 

Robert Sylwester is a lifelong member of the LCMS.  All of his formal education through his undergraduate years occurred in LCMS schools. He subsequently taught for sixteen years in Lutheran parochial schools and at Concordia Seward. He’s been a member of the University of Oregon faculty since 1968.  Much of his professional work has focused on cognitive neuroscience developments that are transforming educational policy and practice.  He remains professionally active as a writer, editor, and reviewer. He’s published ten books and edited five more. His most recent books are The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (Corwin Press, 2007) and A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (Corwin Press: 2010).  He has also published over 200 professional journal articles, and along the way has received three Distinguished Achievement Awards from the Education Press Association of America. In addition to his regular doctorate, he’s received honorary doctorates from three of the Concordias (Chicago, Seward, and Portland).

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7 thoughts on “A Lifelong LCMS Member and the CTCR

  1. The LCMS has only given up on literalism (bibliolatry) when it has become overwhelmingly evident that such views simply don’t hold up. And even when science is plainly evident the reluctance remains. Seeing the world through the eyes of pre-Copernican dogma has rendered the LCMS irrelevant and obsolete. A recent note cited the fact that if Jesus’ ascension was physical, and he traveled at the speed of light, he would not yet have escaped even our own galaxy. And, Dr. Sylvester, don’t hold your breath waiting for a response!

  2. I agree with the sentiment of Dale Getz (above) that the powers-that-be in the LCMS are leading ‘their’ church toward irrelevancy. They, being proud of the purity of their doctrine, can not comprehend any whose thinking would differ from theirs. They don’t even want to hear dissent or be confronted with counter-arguments drawn from scripture and the Symbols. Thus, the constructive firing of Dr. Matt Becker–clearly an aggressive and political act. And the purists are very proud of what they’ve done to Dr. Becker. Truth, love, kindness, and toleration, yes, the very characteristics of the Jesus they teach, are their enemies.

    So they teach about the world being 6,000 years old; so they teach from the pulpit (and I have heard this myself) that human and dinosaur footprints were found in the Paluxy River bed. It would be much better pedagogically if they just said nothing about it. That way, at least there might be people sitting in their pews in 10 years.

    It is intellectually humiliating and spiritually denigrating for a church body-politic to make statements about science and reality; statements drawn from their 19th century pseudoscientific notions, biblicism, and fundamentalism.

    Unfortunately, they can and never will learn.

    Dr. Mark G. Woodworth

  3. Johannes Kepler was a university grad and candidate for Lutheran ministry who, while waiting for a position which never came, wrote the first public defense of Copernicus and his own breakthrough works on planetary motion. Question: Would he be forced out of a teaching position today if he were in the Missouri Synod’s Concordia system? The question answers itself in view of the CTCR’s position and Professor Becker’s defrocking.

  4. It seems there is a typo in this paragraph:
    Menuga writes (p 128), “Science’s steady progress against infectious disease, infant and maternal morality, disruption and disease of vital organs…”

    It is (and should be) “mortality”, which is a significant difference. I don’t know if it is in the original, very helpful review, or in the posting to the journal. In any case, it should be corrected.

  5. Chuck, you have a solid career in editing awaiting you! You’re correct. It should be mortality. It will be changed.

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