Editor’s Introduction: Faith, Science, and Climate Change

[1] The calendar has rolled over into 2020, starting a new year and a new decade that many had hoped would be marked with clear 20/20 vision. But January 1st did not bring a sudden clearing of our eyes and of the air. Instead there has been marked political turmoil and fiery natural disasters. Our smart phones and televisions broadcast news of embattled politicians and nations and show pictures of koalas begging for water as their trees burn. In response, many people are wondering if all knowledge is politicized. We are wondering who to believe and asking the central question of ethics: What should I do?

[2] The April issue of JLE will look specifically at the relationship of faith and politics, publishing three papers presented to the Lutheran Ethicist Gathering on this topic which is so important today. This current issue looks at the relationship of faith and science especially as we reflect on what we can know, what sources we can trust, and what we are called to do to help those suffering the most from changes and turmoil in our climate.

[3] Over the past decade, The Journal of Lutheran Ethics has dedicated several issues to the topic of environmental ethics. In particular, interested readers are urged to consider the essays published on environmental ethics in February 2015, on Care for Creation in March 2013, and on climate justice and climate policies in April 2009.

[4] In this issue, the call for submissions raised three specifically focused questions that authors might address: What is the proper use of science in ethics generally?  What are the limits of science in providing ethical solutions? In particular, how should faithful Lutherans use science as they consider political choices, as they consider individual responsibilities, and as they specifically consider the ethical issues involved in climate change? Thoughtful essays were submitted on each of the three questions by Lutherans from diverse disciplines.

[5] The first paper in this issue, by philosopher Thomas Pearson, is a response to the first question. The essay not only explains the current crisis in academic ethics, where science and ethics are pitted against each other as dominating frameworks, but also explains the reality as Luther saw it and then proposes a way forward. According to Pearson, for Luther, neither science nor ethics has the upper hand. Human beings are unable to understand nature perfectly through science, at best science involves constructing theories that best account for the empirical data.  But human beings are also unable to understand the Law perfectly; they bend God’s commands in Scripture to fit their own personal preferences and often fail to see the real needs of their neighbor. While some might see this Lutheran humility as a reason for apathy, Pearson explains a path forward in which we are urged, as embodied creatures, to recognize that all our knowledge and understanding comes from and is embedded in the natural world. Even as we are called by the divine command to serve our neighbor, we must recognize that the practical content of how to serve our neighbor must be worked out using empirical data and practical reason. This means, as Pearson says, “relying on the wisdom of those immersed in the vocation of climate science, and it means fashioning an ethical response that takes seriously how the internal goods of that vocation can inform our own moral judgments.”

[6] The second essay, by physicist and current seminarian Kristi Keller, is a response to the second question. This essay provides a helpful explanation to scientific lay readers on how climate scientists create and use models that detail past climate conditions and predict future climate change. In doing so, Keller explains both the limits and use of these models. Ultimately Keller asserts that “the ethical use of science comes with understanding the limits of scientific knowledge” but that “in the absence of complete knowledge, our actions should be based on acting with the least harm to the environment as best as we can determine.”

[7] The third essay, by theologian and pastor Eric Trozzo, responds to the third question by reflecting on his experiences teaching in Malaysia where the smoke from the rainforests, which are being burned in order to create plantations for palm oil production, create a literal haze.  Trozzo uses language from contemporary science and from Luther’s theology to try to help readers understand climate change as a real presence in our lives even as many of us, because of our physical and social location, cannot see, touch, or feel it directly and immediately. Trozzo’s essay seeks “to orient us in a world in which we recognize that there are powerful objects beyond our capacity for perception – that are withdrawn from us – which impact our world and our lives.” As he concludes, “Such a framing provides a theological sense of ethical urgency to confronting these entities that exceed human comprehension.”

[8] The final essay, by accountant, business professor, and congregational leader Heather Lee Schmidt, focuses the third question in a personal and actionable way. She shares her reflections on how she listens to the natural world and to the call of God through nature and through the church.  She gives examples of how her listening has called her to respond in specific tangible ways, and she asks thoughtful questions to readers to help guide their further thinking and acting. Her closing questions for meditation and conversation serve as the Congregational Discussion section for this issue. These questions might be used in formal adult education classes or in informal small group discussion in order to encourage constructive discussion within congregations about the topic.

Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.