Thursday, January 6, 2011

Rep. Shimkus, Global Warming, and Creation

For 14 years U. S. Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) has been representing the 19th District of Illinois, an area that encompasses the I-70 corridor east of St. Louis to I-57, the area north of 70 that bends around to Springfield, and the large area south of 70 that follows much of I-57 down to I-24 (east of Cape Girardeau). I have been interested in his service partly because his wife, Karen, and I have been long-time friends (she, her sister, and I graduated together from tiny Concordia College, Portland, Ore. in 1984), I know his brother, Bill, (he and I are both Lutheran pastors from the Northwest District of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, and he and I stay in regular contact through the online discussion group, Daystar, of which I am president), and I've met the congressman a couple of times. I remember I once gave him and Karen a brief tour of Concordia's campus when I was then serving on the faculty there in the mid-1990s.

Rep. John Shimkus
For the past couple of months Congressman Shimkus has been in the news because of his role on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a committee that he sought to chair following the Republican victory in November. While Fred Upton (R-MI) was recently elected chairman of that committee, Congressman Shimkus will continue to serve on it as well. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is the ranking member.

In November, Newsweek placed Mr. Shimkus and his colleague Joe Barton (R-TX), the guy who apologized to BP for how the government had been treating it in the wake of the Gulf spill, in the "awful" category on its spectrum of politics. Representative Shimkus got this rating because he "says he's not worried about climate change."

That same month The New Yorker ridiculed him: "At a congressional hearing in 2009, he dismissed the dangers of climate change by quoting Genesis 8:22: 'As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.' He added, 'I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.'

I wish the congressman could have taken part in my seminar on "creation" this past semester at Valparaiso University. There were 26 students in the course. We devoted our attention to key biblical texts (e.g., Psalms 8, 19, 104, 139; Job 38-42; Isaiah 48; Gen 1-11; John 1; Rom. 8; etc.), to key thinkers in the history of Christian thought (e.g., Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Tillich), and to several important contemporary theologians. Our main secondary texts were Keith Ward's Religion and Creation, the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, and John Haught's God after Darwin. Along the way I introduced important ideas from other significant thinkers in the area of science and theology, notably the physicist/theologians John Polkinghorne and George L. Murphy. We then spent time exploring key Christian ideas in the doctrine of creation, such as God as creator, the nature of space and time, creatio continua, the imago dei, the nature of "Adam," sin and the promise of redemption. And we explored the interfaces between current scientific consensus (on the so-called Big Bang, age of the universe, evolution, freedom/determinism, etc.) and Christian faith in God the creator (e.g., creatio ex nihilo, the apparent order and mathematical nature of reality, novelty in creation, ongoing creation, etc.)

I was especially grateful that about a third of the students in the course were science majors. These included very bright individuals who are majoring in biology, meteorology, environmental biology, physics, and chemistry. Other students were theology majors, and a healthy number were in the class because they had to fulfill an upper-division theology credit and the course sounded interesting. As one student put the matter to me, "A course entitled simply 'creation' caught my attention. What could this course be about?"

Near the end of the semester we discussed the much-discussed problem of global warming. I think Congressman Shimkus would have enjoyed these class sessions. One of our meteorology students (who I'm encouraging to minor in theology) gave us an excellent, easy-to-comprehend overview of the scientific data that relate to the so-called greenhouse effect. While before coming to Valpo he had been a skeptic about whether human beings have contributed to this effect, he no longer doubts the connection. Through the increased burning of fossil fuels there have been an increase in carbon dioxide and a decline in the rate at which CO2 is being exchanged for oxygen because of deforestation. The student showed us charts and graphs to make absolutely clear that the earth's average temperature has been increasing at an alarming rate, that weather patterns have been changing, that the polar ice caps have been melting, and that other effects have been detected. The student was direct: Our technology and our burning of fossil fuels are having an adverse effect on the planet. They are heating the planet in such a way as to make for a truly catastrophic future. More pointedly: "God holds us accountable for our sinful actions toward God's creation. God calls us to be stewards of God's creation. This includes stewardship of the earth's finite natural resources. As in other areas of our lives, God does not always intervene to stop evil from happening. We cannot take God's care of creation for granted. That is like cheap grace..."

Leviticus 25 reminds us that the land is not ours, but God's. Before God we are but aliens and tenants. "Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land" (Lev. 25:24). This same section of the Bible states that the land, too, needs rest. There are many clear passages of Scripture that indicate we are to care for the land and the neighbor, mutual concerns that are not always easy to balance. But what will happen to both land and neighbor, if indeed our burning of fossil fuels will cause the earth's average temperature to rise so high that the earth becomes like Mars?

Finally, the course was an opportunity to show how Christians have often failed to learn from sources beyond the Bible, sources that could help them not to misinterpret their sacred texts. Obvious examples are Galileo and Darwin, but there are others. Both Augustine and Luther acknowledged that there are legitimate sources of knowledge beyond the Bible that Christians ought to accept as providing insight into the nature of creation itself. These sources provide knowledge that leads the Christian to avoid making foolish pronouncements about complex matters on the basis of a simple appeal to a Biblical text. The famous quote from Augustine is worth quoting again:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brothers when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertions. (Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols., trans. John Hammond Taylor [New York: Newman, 1982], 1:42-43)

I wish Congressman Shimkus well in this new congress. (I wish God's peace and blessing upon his family, too!) My hope is also that he will reconsider his understanding of global warming and the relation of his faith in God to that complex ecological problem. If you wish to contact the congressman, he can be reached through


  1. It's commendable that Valpo would allow such a course to be taught and equally commendable that Matt was willing to teach it. This is a refreshing change from the job's training orientation which is too common in today's higher education. Now how about a sequel: the theology of evolution. John Haught has made a stab at it from a RC perspective. More needs to be written on the theological implications of evolution.

    Bill Oehlkers

  2. Matthew -- I wish I could have "audited" your course. Harold Rollig was a member here at Faith in Monmouth, and in the few years I knew him before his death I learned more about "Creation AND Evolution" than in all my previous years in school and in the ministry. I hope you will be able to publish a book about this subject. (And when you do, make sure you also publish an EPub edition so I can read it on my new Nook.) Paul Doellinger

  3. Matt--thanks for your comments on this topic. Have you read the book "The Deniers" by Lawrence Solomon? I stumbled upon it on Amazon once, when looking for books on global warming. I was very challenged by his book, and would be interested to hear your take on it. I also found it interesting that Solomon himself is an environmentalist, but that he sees the issue of global warming as a political issue that can actually end up destroying the environment (through the selling of carbon offset, for example).

    That being said, I totally agree with your idea of Christians as stewards of God's creation, and think that this issue is rarely taught in the Church...