Book Review: Bonhoeffer and Climate Change: Theology and Ethics for the Anthropocene by Dianne Rayson

 [1] As we are launched into the Anthropocene era—the proposed new geologic period defined by climactic changes and mass extinction brought on by humans—Dianne Rayson takes us through an analysis of this event through the lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings. She asks if the theology and ethics of the young pastor Bonhoeffer that were formed in the turmoil and tragedies of World War II could be useful as we face another, different, world crisis.

[2] Rayson calls us to move beyond an anthropocentric eco-theology reflecting stewardship of a creation separate from us, and into “the emergence of a sacramental approach to the environment, whereby the Cosmos itself has become the ‘primary text of revelation.” (19) This book gives us a view on climate change and our required human response from an unabashedly Christian point of view that is firmly grounded in both science and God’s grace.

[3] Bonhoeffer and Climate Change is not light reading: it has the tone and depth of a doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, I found it to be helpful from my perspective as a practicing parish pastor, not an academic. The dense text and length meant I spent many hours with this book, but I felt it was worth the time. The Bonhoeffer quotes alone are worth the read—a collection of snippets from his writing that refer to the earth and our belonging to it, in and through Christ.

[4] The book begins by asking why theology is relevant to climate change and moves in Chapter 2 into an overview of eco-theologies, discussing how these relate to Bonhoeffer’s work. Chapter 3 takes on Bonhoeffer’s Christology and how it is especially relevant to an environmental worldview. Chapter 4, “Creaturely Theological Anthropology,” makes the case for other-than-human life and all elements of creation as being in direct relation to — not separate from, or under —humanity. (There are interesting nuances from Bonhoeffer here on the well-worn debate over our assigned “dominion” over the earth.) Chapter 6, “God’s Kingdom on Earth,” takes Bonhoeffer’s real world approach and helpfully applies it to our work on climate change. The book ends with chapters 7 and 8 proposing an eco ethical application of Bonhoeffer’s work.  Rayson takes the image of Christ as the vulnerable other  and suggests that it be a lens through which we see the entire environment today.

[5] There is much covered in these pages, and the extensive notes provide helpful pointers to further exploration. I return often to Bonhoeffer’s writings to help frame Lutheran theology for myself and others, and I will go back to my many highlights in this book as I continue to deepen and define my own eco-ethics.

[6] My perspective as a pastor who leans into outdoor worship, and a white woman in the United States make me both attracted and acclimated to Rayson’s themes. There are a few times in the book when statements about rapid recent human acquisition of knowledge and separation of life from both nature and the divine seemed Euro/white/western-centric, but I appreciate that Rayson confronts this reality at various points. She begins with a land acknowledgement of the Awabakal and Bipiri people of what is now known as Australia, and she names the dominant culture bias and the problems it causes: “Populations that will be (and are being) first and most affected are … those often least culpable for the problem as well as least able to effect mitigation and adaption. It is sometimes these groups that have maintained …belief systems which are the very antithesis of the capitalistic and industrialist imperative that have contributed so heavily to the problem.” (13)

[7] In places she also notes that there exist healthier earth-humanity relationships than that of dominant Christianity, especially in indigenous belief systems (151-152). I would have loved to see more explicit discussion of our potential to learn from other religions and social structures about care for the earth, especially given the disproportionate role currently assumed by indigenous people in protecting ecosystems and biodiversity.[i]

[8] Rayson believes that Bonhoeffer’s “worldly Christianity” concept is particularly helpful as we face the Anthropocene.  She translates it into an “earthly Christianity” for today. “Bonhoeffer’s theology is consistently concerned with human flourishing ‘here and now,’ a ‘worldly Christianity’ that addresses the one, unified reality in which we find ourselves, together with its problems with which we must deal … in a way that benefits us all. “(3)

[9] One of the most compelling things about Bonhoeffer for me as a working pastor is that he was a theologian in practice, and a full participant in Christian community, or, a “practical mystic.” (4) Rayson combines Bonhoeffer’s explicitly lived theology with insistence in a Christ concretely in the world, and then pulls from his own writings to make a case for him as “proto-ecotheologian.” (245) While noting Bonhoeffer’s move away from institutionalized religiosity, his foundational practices and beliefs in scripture as a guide, prayer as essential, and his insistence that we are made for and formed by community, are accurately portrayed and integrated here. Rayson also makes a good case for expanding Bonhoeffer’s strong sense of relationship and obligation to those within a community and to the other, including other beings and all of creation.

[10] Another highlight of the book for me was Rayson’s exploration of Bonhoeffer’s approach to ambiguity as important to our ethical response to climate change:  “The notion of ambiguity is one that recurs in Bonhoeffer’s writings, reflecting his rejection of a divided world of false dualisms, preferring to describe reality which, whilst unified, is experienced in grey and difficult choices, not so much between good and evil but more often in seeking to live responsibly when there is no clear ‘good’ path.” (145)

[11] I loved the use of his concept of twilight, the time in between, both to illustrate the complexity of ethical decision-making in time of crisis, and in describing the Anthropocene era itself as a time of twilight – a time in between.

[12] Rayson shows eco-ethics through Bonhoeffer’s lens as complex and mandatory – we are required by our faith to act on behalf of all of creation. “The authentic expression of Christian faith, for Bonhoeffer, extends the theological imagination into the ethical act. Manifesting God’s presence on earth in the Anthropocene…is action to restore what were once seen as normal and natural systems and to limit the sequelae of weather weirding, natural disasters, and the loss of human and other life.”  (183)

[13] I am sure this book adds to the body of academic work on both Bonhoeffer and eco-theology, and I know that Rayson has helpfully put forth Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a guide for pastors and other everyday Christians seeking to put our faith into action on behalf of the earth.



[i] “Indigenous People and the Nature They Protect,” 08 Jun 2020, United Nations Environment Program,


Carmen Retzlaff

Carmen Retzlaff is a pastor at St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and also works on staff at the Southwestern Texas Synod of the ELCA. She is a proponent of outdoor worship and a member of the Wild Church Network.