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Cosmo-Politics: A Biblically Inspired Social Ethical Reflection on the Limits of Order-Ethics

Current global society is marked by a series of world-spanning crises.[1] Each of these crises taken for itself, and even more so their mutually reinforcing synchronicity, gives a strong impression of dis-order – or at least feeds strong doubts that our world is “in (good) order”:

  • The anthropogenic climate crisis has taken a long time to gain the attention of at least a large part of our contemporaries as a universal threat to living spaces – with floods, heat waves, storms, famines, and the extinction of species. A widespread ecological rethinking process is occurring very slowly at best, while – as the for-future movements, which are mainly supported by members of the younger generations, urgently point out – the time is already “five past twelve.”
  • Violence, war, the collapse of states and political chaos plague many of the world’s countries and regions; the political will to take countermeasures often depends primarily on the self-interests of those states and alliances that are capable of intervening. In many cases, sustainable improvement is prevented by a lack of forward planning – as seen in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other places of the world.
  • In Europe and other parts of the world, it took the Corona pandemic to raise awareness for the fact that large-scale health crises do not only threaten regions of the so-called global South – and that in a globalised world, health protection cannot work as a national-insular project but must be understood as a crucial act of justice and systematically implemented both on a global scale and as an integral human and non-human issue (one health or planetary health).
  • All these crises act as drivers of poverty and need; they intensify poverty-related migration and refugee movements – while simultaneously driving political efforts in the target regions of the Western world to prevent this need-driven immigration, or at least to keep it away from their own territory.

Even in comparatively privileged regions of the world and in communities that are relatively stable politically and economically, no one can ignore the threatening phenomena of dis-order. At best, these experiences awaken a new awareness of the universal scale of the problems at hand and of the need to re-examine existing standards of quality of life and prosperity, of just coexistence and good order. In view of the global interconnections of risks and the interactions between ecological, economic, and political conditions, it is obvious that the challenges of safeguarding livelihoods, overcoming violent conflicts, containing pandemics and other health hazards, and combating poverty cannot be solved with technocratic means alone, but require an ethical compass and a vision of what is just and good.

Christian Social Ethics and the social teaching of the churches is challenged to address the ethical dimension of this all-encompassing task by developing global ethical approaches. In doing so, they need to continuously develop and modify social-ethical traditions to match the complexity and magnitude of the current challenges. This is precisely where the cosmo-political dimension becomes relevant for a social ethics grounded in theology. Here it seems promising to rely on the cosmo-political dimension unfolded biblically in Genesis 1 under the sign of God’s activity as King and Creator[2], in a threefold way: (1) it encompasses the foundations of life in time and across epochs; (2) the interconnectedness and interdependence of living spaces – from concrete local conditions to global dependencies and influences; (3) the totality of all life in which humanity is embedded, even as its genuine capacity for responsibility sets it apart and particularly challenges it at the same time.

Regarding the dimension of time, it is not enough to look only at the present situation. The present is caught between the past and the future. In this horizon, it emerges as a moment in a fragile continuum of action and the chains of effects of specific historical decisions, including the ruptures they may have induced. Looking to the past integrates the victims of past decisions as well as the signposts of the humanisation of human coexistence and carries the weight of remembrance along with the precarious chance to learn from history. An integrated perspective of past, present, and future focuses on the responsibility between the generations and illuminates diachronous intergenerational justice as well as synchronous intergenerational care and solidarity as a task to be shaped by society and to be secured by a reliable legal and political framework.

The dimension of space focuses on the places and levels of society and social responsibility, from the local environment (both private and public-communal), the different levels of communalisation and interaction (civil society; the third sector; the market), the national political levels of action and responsibilities, various scopes of international contexts of action on a social level and between states, all the way up to the global international community. Complex ethical challenges arise, on the one hand, from the fact that in a globalised world society, these levels are interconnected by diverse and asymmetrical interdependencies, and, on the other hand, from the fact that requirements of the common good or justice at a lower level (may) collide with those at a higher level. This may require very complex trade-offs and compromises and can create serious ethical conflicts for political decision-makers.

Finally, in the dimensions of time and space alike, demands based almost exclusively on human needs come up against the need to protect and respect the overall ecology. The anthropocentric matrix of decision-making must be fundamentally re-examined in view of severely damaged ecological integrity. Standards of life quality and good living must be radically revised in terms of socio-ecological intra- and intergenerational justice as well as sustainable development.[3]

Integral ecology and the global common good

The encyclical Laudato si’ (2015) takes up these dimensions of ethical challenges. The core of Pope Francis’ first social encyclical is the concept of a holistic ecology. In view of the (self-)destructive effects of human activity, which is increasingly turning the earth into an “immense pile of filth” (LS 21), he promotes an integral (holistic) ecology as a guiding principle and objective for living, managing, and steering political processes in a way that ensures social and environmental justice. The biblically inspired (regulating) idea of solidarity with all fellow creatures translates to respect for the whole of creaturely reality for its own sake and, accordingly, the principle of frugality in the use of what is necessary for life. Social and ecological processes – as well as the effects of the utilisation of nature that are relevant to justice – cannot be viewed separately. Because the industrial societies of the global north have been consuming a disproportionate number of natural resources over an extended period of time, the Pope attests them a heavy “ecological debt” (LS 51) resulting in an excessive burden on the poor worldwide due to the social and ecological consequences of overexploitation. The only way to meet this existential global crisis in a forward-looking way is through a radical “ecological conversion” (LS 216ff.), which the encyclical wants to encourage. In contrast to the (right-wing) populist crisis rhetoric of the present, which is mainly oriented towards the past, the encyclical trusts in the addressees’ ability and responsibility to change their way of thinking and acting (see LS 13) and thus makes crisis awareness the starting point of an – albeit extraordinarily urgent – reorientation.

Corresponding to this cosmo-political, ecologically determined approach of the common home, the encyclical emphasises the regulative idea of a broadly viewed global common good, which takes precedence over particular interests (economic or political) of individual nations or powerful economic actors (cf. LS 156-158; GS 26). Here, Pope Francis takes up a concept that has been anchored in the theological tradition since the days of Scholasticism, but which has been interpreted quite differently in modern Christian Social Ethics and which – in terms of its power of orientation and its ability to connect to secular scientific debates – is extremely controversial. In view of a world situation marked by social injustice, the withholding of human rights, and social exclusion, Pope Francis links the normative orientation towards the common good with the call to solidarity and the preferential option for the poorest – based on the recognition of the rights of the person (cf. LS 157f.). These rights call for every possible effort to overcome the extreme global imbalance when it comes to partaking in the goods of the earth and to ensure fair access to the goods of the earth (LS 158) for all people living today as well as for future generations, namely “the poor of the future” (LS 162). This basic decision also corresponds to a preferential option for “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste,” because it is “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (LS 2). This preferential option is based on the ethical guiding principle of intertemporal-intergenerational justice as well as the duty derived from it to practice “intergenerational solidarity” as an indispensable prerequisite of “sustainable development” (LS 159). The question of “What need does the earth have of us?” (LS 160) articulates a fundamental change of perspectives: A habitus that uses natural resources instrumentally, like consumer goods, is juxtaposed with a close interconnectedness between the earth and human beings (cf. LS 2) as a frame of reference for a new principle of action (cf. LS 161f.). In this framework, in which human beings do not arbitrarily have the goods of the earth at their disposal, but instead integrate themselves as a part of this whole, the common good is conceived of in socio-ecological and global terms. Accordingly, the encyclical critically opposes prioritising the particular interests of any kind over the protection of the global common good (cf. LS 54, 135; 188).

The visual language of the encyclical helps to profile the outlined concept and to bring it closer to the biblical source texts through the motif of creation and the narrative-metaphorical form of language: Together with the titular image of the common house, the motif of the family of creation comes to represent a universalistic model of thought that allows and even requires diversity to be considered and integrated. Both image complexes in Laudato si’ represent the goals of overcoming particularism and promoting inclusivism rather than exclusivism. Implementing these goals is subject to ethical requirements: in addition to the categories of intra- and intergenerational justice as well as the preferential option for the poorest, the encyclical uses quality of life (LS 142; 144; 147 et al.) as a criterion; in the framework concept of integral ecology (LS 137-162), these criteria are linked to a revised understanding of progress (LS 194 et al.).

Against this backdrop, we can outline some implications of the normative orientation towards the global common good and some approaches to putting it into action:

The key insight is that the effects of climate change and the overall ecological crisis cannot be separated from the associated social consequences and burdens, which are highly unequally distributed across the world. The empirically irrefutable connections and interactions between the ecological and social phenomena of crisis mark the normatively significant starting point of the search for ethical approaches to crisis management.

Furthermore, the search for ethical answers is rooted in the insight that the phenomena of crisis are provoked by a profound dis-order or global disequilibrium. It results from the dominance of agents from both the private and the political sector asserting their economic interests as opposed to political negotiation processes according to generally accepted and fair procedures. This dominance is politically dis-ordered as far as these actors are either not bound to democratic legitimation processes in their decisions and strategies (such as internationally operating corporations) or powerfully assert national interests in sovereign disregard of international agreements (as recently experienced in various states of the world). This endangers the general intra- and intergenerational availability of those goods that must be protected as global commons for the benefit of the livelihoods for all those living today and for future generations.[4]

The task of safeguarding this protection overstretches the capacity of national policies and therefore requires a strengthening of international political institutions: “Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.” (LS 175). The demand to strengthen the international level of political governance is rooted in the social tradition of the Catholic Church. In this context, it is connected to the idea of a “genuine world authority,” which has been taken up repeatedly from Pope Benedict XV’s efforts to end the First World War all the way to Benedict XVI.[5] Pope Francis  adds new notes. For one, he would like to see tasks of implementing global political order entrusted to a plurality of international institutions that are equipped with sanctioning power based on intergovernmental (international law) agreements but are not state-analogous themselves. In addition to strengthening international law, he highlights the role of diplomacy, ascribing to it “new importance in the work of developing international strategies which can anticipate serious problems affecting us all” (LS 175) and combines this with a plea for multipolar or universal dialogue. At the level of international relations, diplomacy functions as a place for and medium of political dialogue; it presupposes the order of states but is treated here as a mode of politics sui generis. When it comes to diplomacy, dialogue is the only promising means of negotiating an order approaching the common good.

Regarding the ecological crisis, this objective requires access to and consumption of natural resources to be regulated in a manner that guarantees global sustainability and intergenerational justice. The political dialogue should be conducted on all politically significant levels, as well as between them. Three key requirements must be fulfilled for this dialogue to help an integral ecology to prevail or to implement a fundamental ecological-social transformation: (1) The ecological-political tasks must be thought of in the long term: they must not be thwarted by short-term interests of maintaining power or profit. (2) The necessary debates must be conducted publicly and transparently. (3) Those affected by decisions must be involved, and the processes must be permeable from the bottom up.[6]

Beyond the arrangement of order

The encyclical can be seen as an example of how the biblical narrative of creation (Gen 1) sharpens awareness of current global challenges (the socio-ecological crisis) and inspires us to search for constructive approaches to addressing them: The idea of solidarity with all fellow creatures and the search for a good order serving the lives of all creatures make an impact here. But the biblical “staging” of creation as God’s cosmo-political project is at the same time a foil for the challenging scenarios facing modern Christian Social Ethics and theology as a whole: no ethics and no politics can presume to “solve” the cosmo-political task of establishing and upholding order. They cannot invoke a human authority analogous to the almighty God-King, the biblical narrative pronounces as the one to defend us all against dis-order and guarantee a sustainable global order. Accordingly, while the impulses of the encyclical, especially the plea for diplomacy and dialogue, appear ethically convincing and sympathetic, they seem somewhat tenuous in the face of the powers that create or exploit dis-order. In view of the challenges at hand, agents from the political, social and religious spheres are more likely to find their experiences and fears mirrored in the series of narratives of disaster and failure that follow Gen 1f – from the failure to achieve freedom (Gen 4) to God’s revocation of His work in the great flood in the face of the “wickedness” of human beings (Gen 6). It is necessary to consider soberly and modestly what ethics and politics can at best contribute to curb the destructive excess of dis-order and the abuse of power, and what they may fail to do due to lacklustre political will, national egoisms, strong particular interests and/or fundamental misjudgements, as can be observed, for example, in the disastrous situation in Afghanistan that has developed since the summer of 2021, or in the cruel Russian war against Ukraine which shatters Europe and the World since February 2022 – while it already reaches back to 2014 when Putin invaded the Krim peninsula.

At the same time – and for this, the biblical stories are a valuable resource of motivation and orientation[7] beyond the claim to arrange and order – a theological ethics will also discover its task by not losing sight of the counter-image of a good, just, and family-like world beyond the indispensable and unsparing analysis of time. It is a necessary task of theological ethics to keep the compass pointed towards the goal and to keep alive the impulse of hope that another world is possible. In view of the complex scenarios of global crises, theological ethics is committed to a counterfactual endeavour that must be made concrete in specific contexts, in relation to specific people (groups) and living conditions or constellations: to support more justice (or less injustice), more peaceful (or at least less violent) conditions, more sustainable living opportunities (or less poverty, hardship and ecological depletion), increasing inclusion (or less exclusion) of diversity. The alternative – positive or negative – formulation of goals indicates that this effort always includes several dynamics at the same time: the indictment of what is not good, of unjust and destructive conditions, the critical self-reflection of one’s own entanglements in these conditions and the reproduction mechanisms of injustice, violence and exclusion, and an offer of orientation towards a possible alternative that serves the life of all creatures.

[1] The following essay presents (with permission of G. Steins) a slightly modified version of the second, social-ethical part of M. Heimbach-Steins/G. Steins, Cosmo-Politics. An Exegetical and Social-Ethical Reading of Genesis 1, in: M. Eckholt (Ed.), Creation – Transformation – Theology, Berlin 2022, 181-198 (pp. 189-196).

[2] Cf. M. Heimbach-Steins /G. Steins, Cosmo-Politics, 181-189: In our interpretation of Gen 1 we make the case that everything about this text is determined by the central ‘political’ background metaphor of God the king as the one who creates, establishes and guarantees the order of the whole creation.

[3] Cf. e.g., M. Vogt, Christliche Umweltethik. Grundlagen und zentrale Herausforderungen, Freiburg i.Br. 2021.

[4] On the inclusion of this category in the encyclical Laudato si’, cf. O. Edenhofer/C. Flachsland, “Laudato si’: Concern for our global commons,” in: V. J. Miller (ed.), The Theological and Ecological Vision of Laudato si’, 177-191, 180.

[5] Cf. M. Heimbach-Steins, Polyzentrik und Dialog. Ansatzpunkte für eine politische Architektur des globalen Gemeinwohls in der Enzyklika Laudato si‘ (2015), in: M. Heimbach-Steins et al. (Ed..): Globales Gemeinwohl (GER 17), Paderborn 2020, 115-138, pp. 118-122.

[6] Cf. B. Emunds/ M. Möhring-Hesse, “Die öko-soziale Enzyklika”. Sozialethischer Kommentar zum Rundschreiben “Laudato si’. Über die Sorge für das gemeinsame Haus” von Papst Franziskus,” in: Papst Franziskus: Die Enzyklika “Laudato si.’ Über die Sorge für das gemeinsame Haus.” Vollständige Ausgabe. Ökumenisch kommentiert von Reinhard Kard. Marx, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Metropolit Augoustinos. Sozialethisch kommentiert von Bernhard Emunds und Matthias Möhring-Hesse, Freiburg/Br. 2015, 217-355, p. 300.

[7] Cf. M. Heimbach-Steins, “Sozialethik und Theologie,” in: Idem. (eds.): Grundlagen – Kontexte – Themen. Ein Lehr- und Studienbuch, Regensburg 2022, 62-80.