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Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Points of Fracture (Part 2): Science as a Young Adult

A photo I took in 2011 at Waldo Canyon in Colorado.

For several posts, I will be writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, something I learned in the Bible, or something else.[1]

Points of Fracture: Science as a Young Adult

The cognitive dissonance that I experienced regarding Christianity and science continued to mount as I got older. My previous post went over times in which I recall finding those points of fracture. I left off there in about 8th grade at an LCMS school. Here, I’ll share some of the times as a young adult in which I truly began to struggle with science and my faith.

In college, the hints of fracture at the edges of my view in the world became fault lines. I so often see the narrative of how allegedly secular colleges will destroy the faith of kids, but I was at an LCMS University, and being there nearly destroyed my faith. There are more reasons for this than science, as we’ll see in future posts. For now, though, the focus on questions of science loomed large when I was in college.

I came to college as a faithful Lutheran, though I had my ups and downs. For the first time, I really could not go to church all the time and it wouldn’t matter or hardly even be noticed by most people. Then, I had a major religious experience and realized I wanted to learn about and know God more every day. One way that manifested is that I started reading apologetics. It quickly became clear that issues of science and faith loomed large, and for the first time I truly began to think about the implications of some of these issues.

Then, I had a geology class in college. The professor was an adjunct who, I’m fairly sure, was neither Lutheran nor particularly interested in the theology of the university. He seemed blissfully unaware, as he taught his geology course, that what he was teaching would be worldview-shattering at least for one of his students. It was a course full of students who were on campus for many reasons, not just to attend an LCMS school. Many of them there were on athletics scholarships, and I heard some openly talking about the only reason they were at the school was because it was the only one that offered them such a scholarship. No one was dissenting from this professor, who stood there teaching mainstream geology. This was all stuff I’d never even been exposed to before. How beaches formed, how we could accurately predict how long some formations would take to form, how rock layers could be formed apart from Noah’s Flood. Indeed, Noah’s Flood was never even mentioned in the class. What I thought was the explanation for basically every geological feature on the planet wasn’t even in the index of my geology textbook!

I was totally devastated. Here was evidence, presented in the most mundane, disinterested fashion possible, that the Earth simply could not be merely 10,000 years old or so. While I didn’t really have a grasp on the science, the course taught me enough to realize that something had to give. The way I had been raised made the choice quite stark. The Bible just clearly taught that the Earth was young. “Millions of years” was a lie. Either the Earth really is six to ten thousand years old because the Bible says so or the Bible is untrustworthy and Christianity is false.

We had leaders in our dorms who were called “Spiritual Life Representatives” (SLRs). Think of an RA, but who you could go to in order to discuss spiritual questions or crises. They’d lead devotions and generally make themselves available to students to talk to. I went to my SLR and I was weeping in his dorm room. I was convinced that the geology I had learned had proven that the Earth could not be young, and so how could I possibly continue to believe Christianity was true? He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “If the Earth is more than 10,000 years old, would it really mean that Christ has not been raised from the dead?”

I sat there, tears streaming down my face, and I realized it wouldn’t mean that. He said other things, of course, like that he wasn’t as confident as I was about geology proving things differently, that there were other resources to read. But in that moment, he said something that allowed me to preserve my collapsing faith. I realized then that my faith was built on Christ, not on the age of the Earth.

I threw myself even more into apologetics now, because I felt even more confident that Christianity was true and that I needed to prove it to other people. The freedom provided to me by this conversation with my SLR had me flirt briefly with theistic evolution, but when I mentioned that in apologetics groups I was in, it got shot down hard. Instead, Young Earth Creationism (YEC) was the way to go. I needed to start seeing science the right way, they said. I searched around for groups to help build my faith and defense thereof, and started subscribing to Acts & Facts Magazine from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). I was hugely impressed by the production values of this creationist publication, with its gorgeous pictures and lengthy articles about things like RATE research and the like. For the uninitiated, RATE stands for Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth. I was convinced by these publications that, among other things, radiometric dating was falsified, that the Grand Canyon was evidence for a young earth, and that if you just looked at things in nature in the right ways, you’d see a young earth all around you. Reading about creationism in some LCMS literature convinced me even further, and speaking with a few pastors about the topic had me once more feeling rock-solid about my YEC convictions.

I love walking in nature, and I went for a hike somewhere in Michigan and I saw the distinct layers in the rocks. I walked up to them and put my fingers on them. I could trace the layers with my fingers and see how they were distinct in coloration after a certain point. I remember very clearly the feeling of washing over myself of total confidence that these layers were laid down by Noah’s Flood. Later in the hike, I saw a different formation of rocks thrust up through the other ones, so that they were nearly perpendicular to the other layers surrounding them. I stood staring at it for some time, trying to figure out how this could have happened due to Noah’s Flood. I simply couldn’t come up with such a scenario, but I trusted further study would alleviate the stress. I left the hike somewhat disturbed, but mostly confident in my young earth beliefs.[2]

Then, I started noticing that many of the published apologists I was reading weren’t convinced of YEC. I started to dive deep into Old Earth Creationism, which is very similar to YEC except that the direct creation of all animal life happened over long periods of time instead of in a single week of seven 24-hour days. I became deeply engrossed with another creationist organization, Reasons to Believe. This organization taught that there were real, scientific models that could show both that the Bible was true and that you could effectively map it out with special creation of creatures over time. It was a kind of chimerical creature, picking and choosing scientific discoveries that aligned with it while also finding isolated verses in the Bible to say it taught modern science (eg. using Psalm 104:2 to suggest it taught Big Bang cosmology).

Then, I took another science class in college. This one was a biology class to finally knock off my requirements for graduation. The professor had some extremely non-mainstream views. I remember him frequently talking about smoking and insisting that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. How did he know? His repeated refrain was: “Correlation is not causation.” If I’d known more at the time about science, I would have pushed back harder on this. At the time, though, it still seemed pretty ludicrous. My grandpa had died of lung cancer, and I was very well aware of it being caused by smoking. The same professor would go wildly off topic during class, frequently shifting to pet issues that he would lecture us about. Several students offered pushback on some of these topics, most of which I don’t remember.

I do recall, though, one day when he talked about creationism. He was very adamant that YEC was the only way to believe, basically pulling the LCMS party line about it being essential to affirm that in order to believe the Bible. But even for the LCMS, some of this guy’s views were far afield. For example, he insisted that the Earth wasn’t tilted before the Fall, which he said meant the Garden of Eden would cover the whole planet as the whole planet would therefore have the same weather as the equator currently does. Dinosaurs, he insisted, all ate plants, and even the teeth we associate with Tyrannosaurus Rex were adapted for eating plants before the Fall.

The whole thing seemed preposterous to me, even as someone who had been steeped in YEC literature. It was at this point I basically realized going back to YEC views was impossible. As someone who wanted to be an LCMS pastor (at the time), that caused me no small amount of trepidation. After all, I’d already heard a story from a pastor who approvingly cited a large group pastors literally shouting down two other pastors who tried to introduce a resolution to even discuss the possibility of anything but a Young Earth in the LCMS. I was aware of the many, many pastors I knew who were totally convinced of YEC. How would I survive in a denomination that was so firmly entrenched? Even the few exceptions I knew about were just that–exceptions. For that reason, I still held my views close to my chest.

Online, I started to write a series of blog posts examining four major views (as I saw them) in Christianity: Young Earth and Old Earth creationism, theistic evolution, and Intelligent Design. The pushback I got for even mentioning theistic evolution from apologetics-interested friends was massive. I’d get warning messages on Facebook about even considering publishing posts about anything but YEC that could be remotely positive.

In an art class, our professor casually went over dates of artwork. We came to some cave paintings, and this professor said they were dated to 13-16,000 years ago. One pre-seminary student raised his hand and pushed back on the date. “The Earth isn’t even more than 10,000 years old. How could there be cave paintings that are older than the Earth?” How, indeed? I wondered. Again, I was a closet Old Earth Creationist at this point. The professor, to their credit, took it in stride. They answered, “I’m reporting the dates that mainstream art historians have given these works. To get credit, you’ll need to give those answers on the test. But you can definitely do your research project on how art dating works!” It was a masterful response.

Later, I was at a bookstore with some LCMS members. We were milling about the shelves and I went straight to the Christianity section to see if there were any apologetics books. There, I saw this book with a striking cover that said it was written by a scientist exploring faith. The Language of God , by Francis Collins, unapologetically defended the view of theistic evolution, and I found myself paging through it quickly. I felt guilty for even reading it. Evolution, as I knew, was the enemy of Christianity. But this author was writing about evolution with such confidence as a Christian scientist. He’d had a religious experience himself, and he wrote accessibly and in a winsome fashion. I bought the book away from the others, afraid they might ask me about it. When I read it, it opened my eyes to many possibilities. I wouldn’t immediately come to believe evolution and Christianity were compatible, but I believed that it was possible to believe they were. That wording is intentional, because I want my readers to understand how many steps I had to take along this journey. At this point, I’d come from believing scientists were liars trying to deceive people about the age of the Earth for well, some reason anyway, to believing that it was vaguely possible someone could be a Christian and believe evolution and Christianity were compatible. I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was to get to that point, and how many side roads and challenges and tears were along the way.

It would take several more years before I could become comfortable with affirming evolution while remaining Christian. I do, now. My first post mentioned religious trauma as part of my time in the LCMS. I haven’t had a lot of ways to portray that so far, but one way I believe I experienced religious trauma from within the LCMS was in the extreme, repeated resistance I experienced regarding science. I adored science, and the religious teachings I experienced led me to be mistrustful of science, and scientists in particular. Christians who were scientists were questionable at best. Like, why would you engage a field full of lies? It would take me more than a decade as an adult to undo that mistrust. Alongside that, it has forced me to question many other things. When you believe things that are easily falsifiable (such as men having one fewer rib than women) and discover that they are, in fact false, it causes a kind of lingering cognitive dissonance that is hard to overcome.

Science is one of the reasons I left the LCMS, but it was intertwined with emotional highs and lows. I experienced crises of faith due to my false beliefs about science. I thought I could no longer believe the Bible because I found evidence in nature that contradicted what I was taught it said. These may seem like small issues to some, but I cannot emphasize how important they were to me, and how important they remain to many others.

Next, we’ll begin exploring other reasons I left the LCMS.

Next: Points of Fracture Part 3

[1] I’ve addressed this in my previous post, but want to point out here that not everything held positionally by the LCMS is spelled out in their teachings. One friend pointed out the helpful categorization related to the LCMS and creationism: the LCMS has a de facto affirmation of young earth creationism, though it is not always made explicit. The evidence is abundant, though one may point to the occasional, very rare exception. On the flip side, the evidence that the LCMS is intrinsically tied to young earth creationism continues to mount. See, for example, my post about an official stance in 2019 that reaffirmed a creationist position.

[2] To tell this story and other parts of this post, I’ve had to very quickly summarize or even skip over parts of creationist arguments. I was fully engaged with YEC at this point and to this day could very easily rattle off numerous arguments in favor of YEC, though I now believe they are mistaken. I know some YEC explanations do exist for these types of formations, but here my goal is to list things that, in the moment, caused me to realize points of departure.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Points of Fracture (Part 2): Science as a Young Adult

  1. Loved and relate to your journey. I grew up in LCMS. Well written.

    Posted by Glenn Larson | March 28, 2022, 8:47 AM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: Links Hub | J.W. Wartick - Reconstructing Faith - March 28, 2022

  2. Pingback: Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits… (Part 1) | J.W. Wartick - Reconstructing Faith - April 11, 2022

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