The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung Footnote 1
This question, which Bonhoeffer posed in 1942, was motivated by the devastating experience of wartime and focused on the next human generation. Today the task of intergenerational ethics remains urgent in the face of climate change and global economic inequality.Footnote 2 Yet we are also facing a new, interrelated crisis. Threats to other species are so acute that scientists now speak of a coming mass extinction event – a ‘sixth extinction’ – so called because its scale is comparable with the five previous mass extinctions shown in the geological record.Footnote 3 The difference in the present case is that the extinctions are largely anthropogenic, or human-caused. Thinking in terms of generations, Holmes Rolston puts the matter starkly: ‘to superkill a particular species is to shut down a story of many millennia, and leave no future possibilities’.Footnote 4
In the face of such loss, it is critical that ethical concern for the coming generation go beyond human exceptionalism.Footnote 5 Other species have played an integral role in human evolution, and theological ethics is now being pursued with an explicitly multispecies approach.Footnote 6 This has been motivated in part by recent developments in evolutionary biology and anthropology, which identify continuities in the niche construction activity of humans and other creatures.Footnote 7 Adapting Bonhoeffer's question, we would do well not to seek to extricate ourselves from our natural situation.Footnote 8
To take responsibility for future generations – human and other-than-human – in the face of rising extinction rates, I argue for the recovery and adaptation of Bonhoeffer's ‘orders of preservation’ [Erhaltungsordnungen].Footnote 9 There is considerable ethical value in the concept of preservation orders, as Bonhoeffer articulated them in 1932, but they have been neglected for two main reasons. First, Bonhoeffer is typically styled as a ‘theologian of resistance’, such that to speak of a ‘Bonhoeffer moment’ is to speak of opposition.Footnote 10 However, Bonhoeffer spoke not only of breaking – and indeed, in 1932 he makes clear that all orders can be broken – but also of building. He has a clear interest in how to build and maintain the kind of society that keeps political tyranny from arising.Footnote 11 The emphasis on building will be important for the next phase of the environmental movement, now that the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. has initiated a historic level of investment into green technology and other efforts to address climate change. Moreover, it is in proposing the preservation orders that Bonhoeffer argues for a global alliance, which is the level of coordination required in the present to effectively counter threats to biodiversity.Footnote 12
The second reason that the preservation orders have been neglected is that they are often understood as a temporary, compromised concept on the way towards Bonhoeffer's mature account of the ‘mandates’. A recent study titled Bonhoeffer and Climate Change ranges widely over Bonhoeffer's writings but the preservation orders receive little mention.Footnote 13 Admittedly, Bonhoeffer's concern with the term ‘order’ has to do with its ‘inherent danger of focusing more strongly on the static element of order rather than on the divine authorizing, legitimizing, and sanctioning, which are its sole foundation’.Footnote 14 He therefore later changes to the term ‘mandates’ to convey the divine authority given to human institutions.
While I affirm a certain primacy to the divine address, as well as proper acknowledgement of human social construction, I argue that the ‘orders’ have a productive role to play in a theology of creation. Although Bonhoeffer avoids the term ‘creation orders’ [Schöpfungsordnungen] because of its misuse in his day, his account of human social orders acknowledges a certain givenness to creation. That said, his early deployment of the preservation orders demonstrates both necessary safeguards and creative variations. For example, he designates a new order of international peace, showing how the shared task of preservation goes beyond the völkisch interests to which creation orders can be susceptible. Moreover, against the temptation to a premature, falsely ultimate account of peace, he claims that social and political struggle is an order of preservation.
Bonhoeffer's orders of preservation can likewise communicate stability in a time of great ecological, social and economic flux without resorting to an imperious force. His work stands in contrast to his contemporary Carl Schmitt, a legal and political theorist who derived from the New Testament the concept of the ‘restraining force’ [katechōn in Greek] against chaos and applied it first to the Roman Empire, then to the Third Reich.Footnote 15 Schmitt's work has had a significant influence in contemporary political theology, including on questions of international governance in a time of climate change.Footnote 16
My argument unfolds in three parts. In the first, I set the original context of Bonhoeffer's ‘orders of preservation’, sketching his historical situation and proximate foil. Here I note his emphasis on the scope of the whole creation, the criterion for orders’ legitimacy, and his discernment of a new order of international peace. In the second, I note the ‘great acceleration’ in population and consumption levels that has taken place since Bonhoeffer's time, which extends the scope of the threat to coming generations. I also explain what is meant by the ‘sixth extinction’ and consider the range of human responsibility given that extinction is an integral part of natural history. In the third, I adapt key insights from Bonhoeffer's use of preservation orders in order to formulate a theological and ethical response to the problem of rising extinction rates. This section includes addressing the use of de-extinction technologies as well as the importance of building alliances between ecclesial and scientific communities. Finally, in a Coda I draw on Bonhoeffer's treatment of the ‘natural’ in his later Ethics to identify a further ally in working for sustainability.
The agility of Bonhoeffer's orders of preservation
Bonhoeffer presents the notion of preservation orders to a country in economic and political turmoil. In the aftermath of the First World War, Germany struggled under heavy debt and reparation payments. In 1929 the Great Depression further destabilised a vulnerable economy, fatally weakening the democratic prospects of the Weimar Republic. Facing the downfall of economic and political institutions, theologians were understandably drawn to the notion of order. Infamously, Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus presented an account of ‘creation orders’ [Schöpfungsordnungen], including ‘people’ and ‘race’ [Volk and Rasse], that was quickly assimilated into the aggressive ideology of national socialism.Footnote 17
In January 1932, Bonhoeffer presented a set of theses titled ‘The Discernible Nature of the Order of Creation’, an argument he delivered as part of a Working Group of Theologians and Economists. Despite the title of his theses, and in contrast to Althaus, Bonhoeffer claims that in a fallen creation we must instead speak of orders of preservation. The difference, he wrote, is that ‘historical orders as such do not possess ontological validity [keine Daseins- oder Soseinswertigkeit] in an absolute sense but are only preserved by God for the sake of their openness toward the gospel, for the hope of new creation’.Footnote 18 The sole criterion for recognising an order is whether the gospel can still be heard in it.Footnote 19 His claims led to intense discussion and direct opposition with another member of the working group who was associated with the German Christian movement.Footnote 20
Bonhoeffer's theses inform his address to an ecumenical conference, delivered in the summer of 1932, titled ‘On the Theological Foundation of the Work of the World Alliance’.Footnote 21 In this address he argues for the need to challenge appeals to created intent that do not adequately account for the fall into sin and the coming of Christ. He identifies how such appeals go wrong in both geopolitics and marketplace ethics:
One need only portray something that exists as willed and created by God and then everything that exists is justified for eternity: the strife among the peoples of humanity, national struggle, war, class distinctions, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, economic competition as a matter of life and death.Footnote 22
Such justification is illegitimate. The Schöpfungsordnungen cannot have revelatory force after the fall. Rather, God's commandment only comes from ‘the one who has fulfilled God's commandments for us, as the one who brings and promises the new world’.Footnote 23 Bonhoeffer emphasises that Christ's coming is about the scope of the earth: ‘We understand the entire world order [die ganze Weltordnung] of the fallen creation as directed only toward Christ through the new creation.’Footnote 24 This is not to draw back from the expansive scope of die Schöpfung; it is to turn towards the continuous, yet even greater scope of die neue Schöpfung.
Based on the revelation of Christ and the new creation, Bonhoeffer's criterion for the legitimacy of orders is as follows:
In the historical change of the orders of the world, [the church] must keep its eyes on this alone: which orders are most likely to stop this radical decline of the world in death and sin and will thereby be in a position to hold open the way for the gospel.Footnote 25
At that time, Bonhoeffer discerned a call to ‘the order of international peace’.Footnote 26 Discerning God's commandment to the church, he sought to stem the tide of nationalist resentment and the prospect of a war for territorial expansion.Footnote 27 His appeal remains highly relevant today, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has drawn Europe into the most destructive war since Bonhoeffer wrote.
Remarkably, Bonhoeffer goes beyond the orders that had relatively provincial scope – family, Volk, state, church – to call international peace an ‘order’. He thereby introduces the commandment of a ‘very specific’ and ‘completely concrete understanding of God's will for our time’.Footnote 28 To speak of an order as commanded rather than merely created in a general sense is to begin the transition to his later language of ‘mandates’. The command is for a new order, envisioned by an ecumenical global alliance, which is not solely aligned with any one Volk or nation.
Although Bonhoeffer retains the term ‘orders’, he brings significant dynamism to the concept. He will challenge narrow appeals to one's own national interests, seen as aligned with God's original will, when these national interests came to threaten life itself. Along with his claim that international peace is an order, he claims that struggle [Kampf] can be an order of preservation, though it is beyond the given order of creation.Footnote 29 That is to say, whichever nation takes part in the struggle for peace is taking part in God's orders of preservation.
Bonhoeffer's dynamic use of the ‘orders of preservation’ pre-empts Barth's later criticism of the mandates. Barth questions why Bonhoeffer limits himself to only four mandates – work, marriage, government and church – and seeks a more dynamic account of the ‘ethical event’.Footnote 30 He also asks whether their framework of authority is too regional, specifically an expression of ‘North German patriarchalism’.Footnote 31 By way of a response, one can see that in Bonhoeffer's deployment of the ‘orders’ (supposedly a less dynamic term than ‘mandates’), he is quite free to designate new orders – international peace, struggle – which draw the other orders away from regional stasis. There is a certain agility to the concept of preservation orders for those who would seek to discern the necessary response to present challenges. Given the drastic changes have taken place since Bonhoeffer's time, I suggest that global sustainability can be one such order.
Reckoning with our ‘extinction imaginary’
It was ninety years ago that Bonhoeffer delivered his ecumenical address and proposed the term ‘orders of preservation’. Since that time, the world has seen an astonishing rise in human population levels, with corollaries in increased levels of consumption and pollution. Human activity has put other species under serious pressure, leading scientists to speak of a new mass extinction event. So who is Jesus Christ, and what is the new creation, for us today?
Bonhoeffer wrote up until the mid-1940s, right on the cusp of what has been called the ‘great acceleration’. Charts that span from 1750 to 2010 reveal a series of steep curves in terms of pollution, habitat loss and ocean acidification after the mid-twentieth century, which track with the dramatic rise in earth's population from 2 billion to 8 billion over that same period.Footnote 32 As a result, in the past century human activity has led to an exponential rise in the number of extinctions as seen against a statistical background rate.Footnote 33
Just as we begin to reckon with the reality of five past mass extinction events, we encounter claims that we are causing a sixth. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes, ‘[i]n what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one’.Footnote 34 She offers vivid accounts from around the world, observing staggering losses from the worlds of amphibians to coral ecosystems. Her narrative has been reinforced by a 2019 UN Biodiversity study, which identifies one million animal and plant species under threat of disappearance.Footnote 35
These statistics are not gathered and presented in a vacuum. There are deeply held cultural values behind our particular form of catastrophic thinking, which are different than those held by Darwin and other scientists of the past. As David Sepkoski observes, there have been distinct ‘extinction imaginaries’ to suit the French Revolution, the Victorian era, and the present cultural moment with its calamitous images of earth's future.Footnote 36 Our particular imaginary, he notes, developed ‘in the shadow of the bomb’. In the 1980s the extinction crisis was called a civilisational threat that rivalled that of nuclear war.Footnote 37 It is therefore important to critically appraise the numbers involved in the calculations of a ‘sixth extinction’, which are based on best estimates both of the current number of species and of historical extinction rates and so should not form a statistical ‘black box’.Footnote 38 Historicisation does not negate the facts that we are seeing a serious rise in levels of extinction, but I invoke claims of a ‘sixth extinction’ advisedly.
While the concept of an anthropogenic mass extinction is relatively new, we have long understood that extinction is an integral part of natural history. Beginnings are entangled with endings, as Darwin observed: new species emerge through natural selection, a process that is usually hardest on their closest kin.Footnote 39 Gradual selection pressures along with sudden mass extinction events produce the brute fact that the vast majority of species that have lived on earth have gone extinct. Moreover, it is only because of previous mass extinction events that new species, such as Homo sapiens, could develop.
In light of this reality, how do we avoid working against nature herself in the interest of preservation? Ecotheology has been criticised for its tendency to impose certain human models of liberation or peace onto nature.Footnote 40 This is because, Lisa Sideris observes, ‘[e]cotheologians are unsure of what constitutes nature's true nature’.Footnote 41 The application of a principle of ‘preservation’ could similarly suggest a blanket ethical statement that does not adequately account for the fact that nature can seem to put the species before the individual. Bonhoeffer recognised this reality, acknowledging in his later Ethics that in the ‘domain of natural life’, and over vast time periods, the preservation of the species is more important than individual lives.Footnote 42 Working with this dynamic, wildlife management strategies do not proceed according to a communitarian ethics.Footnote 43
Nevertheless, some theologians have challenged an approach that takes its moral bearings from nature as it allegedly is. Along with seeking to cut the number of human-caused extinctions, the reality of the new creation may grant humans a new freedom to seek not only to reduce anthropogenic extinctions but even to reduce the statistical background, or ‘natural’, rate. Christopher Southgate makes this bold proposal, claiming it as an expression of Christian freedom. Per Romans 8, it would be a way to liberate creation from its ‘bondage to decay’. He writes that ‘a sign of our liberty as children of God starting to set free the whole creation would be that human beings through a blend of prudential wisdom and scientific ingenuity cut the rate of natural extinction’.Footnote 44 Rather than invoking the dynamics of an original creation, Southgate argues on the basis of gospel freedom. Such an appeal returns us to Bonhoeffer's own shift away from an ethics based in nature as it allegedly is.
Adapting preservation orders for the biodiversity crisis
In this section I propose an adaptation of Bonhoeffer's thought with a view to preserving life for the coming generations, both human and other-than-human. I identify three convictions that arise from Bonhoeffer's theology that can help us to discern, and to build, our own preservation orders with a view to global sustainability.
First, preservation is ultimately the act of God. Although we are dealing with human social orders, they only have legitimacy and true power insofar as they are the work of divine providence. ‘The preservation is the act of God,’ Bonhoeffer claims in his ecumenical address, ‘within the fallen world through which he guarantees the possibilities of a new creation’.Footnote 45 He goes into more detail on God's preserving work in his lectures on Genesis, later published as Creation and Fall, which he delivered shortly after his ecumenical address in the winter semester of 1932–33. Commenting on how God looks upon, or ‘beholds’, creation, Bonhoeffer regularly repeats the verb erhalten, which is alternately rendered as ‘to preserve’ and ‘to uphold’:
God looks at God's work and is pleased with it, because it is good. This means that God loves God's work and therefore wills to uphold and preserve [erhalten] it. Creation and preservation are two sides of the same activity of God.…As God looks at it, that work comes to rest and becomes aware of God's pleasure in it. God's looking keeps the world from falling back into nothingness [Nichts], from complete destruction [Vernichtung].Footnote 46
Bonhoeffer claims that God's work of ‘upholding creation’ is essentially different from the ‘discontinuous continuity’ of creatio continua: ‘It means that the world, which was “once” wrested from nothingness, is upheld in its being.’Footnote 47 The concept of continuous creation also diminishes the reality that we live in a fallen world, ‘which is the creation upheld [die erhaltene Schöpfung], not created ever anew’.Footnote 48 On this theme, one can compare Karl Barth's more elaborate account, written from the relative stability of post-war Switzerland, of preservation within the trifold definition of providence – conservatio, concursus, gubernatio – he inherits from Protestant scholasticism.Footnote 49
Bonhoeffer's conviction that God preserves the world through human social orders offers an invitation for persons of faith to act with a certain transparency about the understanding of divine action that animates their work. Bonhoeffer's later counsel about standing up for natural life remains apt: one ought to do so in such a way as to make it credible that God is standing up for life rather than seeking to draw attention to one's own efforts.Footnote 50 This conviction can inform ethical approaches to de-extinction technologies. Once their actual conservation value has been properly assessed, one can ask whether the use of the technologies is primarily an expression of the shift from wonder at the natural world to wonder at the scientist who discovers or, in this case, ‘re-creates’ the natural world.Footnote 51
Second, the gospel addresses the very conditions of life. While Bonhoeffer would certainly insist on interpersonal proclamation, he is after something more ambitious than freedom of speech. He is after the very conditions of created life:
God's will is directed not only at the new creation of humanity but toward the new creation of the conditions [Zustände] as well. It is not right that only the will could be good. Conditions can also be good; the creation of God was as such ‘very good’.Footnote 52
Even after the fall, conditions can remain good through the action of God in and through them, in view of the new creation at hand.
What, then, is the human role? Presaging how he will later speak of ethics as ‘preparing the way’ for Christ, Bonhoeffer writes:
We cannot reconstitute creation but we should create such conditions under God's commandment – and on this rests the entire weight of God's commandments – that are good in reference to that which the God who commands today will do someday himself, in reference to the new creation through Christ.Footnote 53
Such creative work acknowledges the work of God, a conviction that does not ‘compete’ with the work humans must do. Recall that struggle is an order of preservation: people will have to fight for good conditions, conditions favourable to life. Such struggle involves decisions in the face of contested questions. In situations of triage, which species should be saved? How should the work of preservation be carried out vis-à-vis the development of human industry and business? These questions lead to our next conviction.
Third, God's commandment is best discerned through alliances. Bonhoeffer was arguing for an ecumenical alliance to advocate for international peace, which involved the authorisation to command people not to fight in a particular war. Such a global body requires a strong theological foundation, along with the unifying power of a great, common proclamation.Footnote 54 Although Bonhoeffer emphasises unity, he is realistic about the fact that the church is ‘torn asunder’, a state of affairs that renders the word powerless, even mendacious.Footnote 55
International ecumenical efforts have been addressing the ecological crisis more directly in recent years. These efforts include the World Council of Churches’ initiatives on ‘Peace, Justice, and the Integrity of Creation’, as well as Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. There remains much work to be done among churches in order to expose denial about the ‘climate of injustice’ that exists between wealthy, high-emission countries and those nations that are less responsible for climate change but more vulnerable to its catastrophic effects.Footnote 56 Ecumenical networks can also alert people to ways that they are remotely responsible for extinction pressures placed on species that other Christians know as ‘native’ to their context.
Given the scope of our current challenges, Bonhoeffer's appeal for global alliance can be productively extended beyond churches towards scientific communities. Such an extension is motivated by Bonhoeffer's statement, in his 1932 argument for a world alliance, that ‘[a] commandment must be concrete or it is not a commandment. God's commandment demands something absolutely particular now from us’. There is, however, a ‘tremendous difficulty’, namely, that ‘the church must know the situation in detail before it can command’.Footnote 57 If it does not know the complexity of the subject matter, or fails to consider certain objective points of view, it will be uncertain in its commandment. In the case of such an insoluble dilemma, the church will either resign itself to ‘avoidance and withdrawal to the level of principle’, or it will dare a ‘conscious and qualified silence of ignorance of the commandment’.Footnote 58
When faced with serious social and ecological problems, many faith communities still do not know how to begin. Certain communities may need simply to admit incompetence in order to see a new future.Footnote 59 But faith communities need not, and should not, go it alone. Many scientists, both within and beyond communities of faith, are engaged in struggle – again, understood as itself an order of preservation – on behalf of creaturely life as we have it. They will often have detailed knowledge about the needs of local ecosystems and the species that inhabit it.
Take the Fraser Estuary in British Columbia, Canada, a heavily urbanised, biodiverse area with over 100 at-risk species, including the southern resident orca and various species of salmon. Local scientists have pointed out that we do not have an adequate governance strategy that takes these species’ needs into account.Footnote 60 In response, they have proposed a plan based on priority-threat management that seeks to engage multiple stakeholders, including indigenous peoples in the area.Footnote 61 This is a way of concretely asking local inhabitants to take responsibility for the ways that human niche construction affects the habitats of the other species with which we share a world.
Moreover, scientists are working on a global level of coordination to identify and promote a target for biodiversity, one that can complement the 1.5-degree goal of climate-change politics. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has articulated a detailed post-2020 framework that lays out a strategy to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.Footnote 62 Economists are also working to demonstrate the high financial cost of unsustainable practices such as overfishing, outlining the positive economic case for the preservation of regions such as the ‘high seas’.Footnote 63
While the church can come to know the situation in detail through alliance with scientists, it retains its unique role. The church reminds its allies that biodiversity and the preservation of other species – even peaceable co-existence within our own species – are not merely ends in themselves. Bonhoeffer makes a related point while criticising a tendency, brought in by the ‘overpowering influence’ of Anglo-Saxon theology in the World Alliance, to treat peace as an end in itself, an inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth.Footnote 64 The problem here is the static notion of peace, which must be preserved unconditionally. In contrast, Bonhoeffer maintains that a properly ‘evangelical idea of peace’ must exist in a ‘vivid relationship’ to truth and justice.Footnote 65 Moreover, the church proclaims that preservation is for the sake of God's ultimate work of salvation and renewal. This is not only a matter of survival, but of redemption and flourishing in a world made new.
Coda: Life is the strongest ally
In the face of mounting extinctions, there is another ‘ally’ in the work of preservation: life itself. In Bonhoeffer's Ethics, written in the early 1940s, he argues that Protestants ought to recover the category of ‘natural life’ [das natürliche Leben]. This is not a direct appropriation of natural law thinking, but a discerning account of postlapsarian ‘nature’ that is preserved by God in its penultimacy.Footnote 66 He describes natural life with a now familiar term: ‘How is the natural recognized? The natural is that form of life preserved by God for the fallen world that is directed toward justification, salvation, and renewal through Christ.’Footnote 67 Justification, salvation and renewal are the works of God that Bonhoeffer describes as ‘ultimate’. As noted above, they are not merely about humanity – not ‘monospecies transactions’, in the words of David Clough – but are effective realities that transform the very conditions of life for all creatures.Footnote 68
Preservation remains the act of God. God's defence of life against the unnatural involves using life itself, ‘life that sooner or later prevails over every violation of the natural’.Footnote 69 When standing up for other life – including the life of other species that have effectively been deemed ‘unworthy of life’ – we can be assured that ‘life itself is the strongest ally’.Footnote 70 God is always acting to preserve the world through the sheer persistence of life, over and against the death-dealing actions of earth's dominant, though fallen, species. When it comes to forming alliances between churches and other publics on behalf of endangered creatures, life itself can serve as our unifying force.
In this essay I have argued for the recovery and extension of Bonhoeffer's concept of preservation orders to meet the challenge of the ‘sixth extinction’. I began by setting the orders of preservation in context, noting Bonhoeffer's claim that in 1932 international peace was an order commanded by God to which the ecumenical church should bear witness. I next reckoned with our ‘extinction imaginary’, demonstrating what is at stake for other creatures, and indeed humanity itself, as a result of human activity. I then returned to Bonhoeffer's 1932 address in order to derive three convictions to guide the task of preservation today: first, preservation is the act of God; second, the gospel addresses the conditions of life; third, God's commandment is best discerned through alliances. On the latter point, I argued not only for ecumenism but also for an alliance between ecclesial and scientific communities in order to make the commandment concrete.Footnote 71