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Resilience – Normatively Conceived, Transformatively Developed

Resilience is on everyone’s lips right now – from climate resilience to resilient structures in government.[1] It’s all about becoming more resilient for the next crisis.[2] Resilience seems to be the answer to the constant crisis mode of our current times.

Like many other popular ideas, it is ultimately a container term that can be filled by very many different agendas from various sides. It is only in the context of specific resilience measures, however, that the various differing concepts finally come to light. Do you build a dam against rising sea levels or do you motivate the people affected by sea level rise to relocate? In the first case, a short-term technical solution is considered. The second is a long-term, more comprehensive adaptation. What about the people affected and their attitudes? And what is the general policy on the issue?

It is a challenge for ethics in particular to clarify questions about the underlying normativity. At the same time, it is important to avoid introducing yet more unclear terms and concepts. Referring to more or less obvious ones like freedom, human dignity and so forth does not reveal the standards inherent in the resilience discourse. It means that again the agenda (only) contains different hidden thrusts.[3]

This article therefore aims to provide a basic introduction to the concept of resilience, and elucidate some common and workable different approaches. Subsequently its relationship to vulnerability will be discussed – since vulnerability is often mentioned as a counterpoint to resilience – and the link between resilience and spirituality will be considered before concluding with an examination of peace spirituality in the context of armed conflicts.

Differences that lead us to a (resilient) definition

There is a fundamental distinction between a conservative concept of resilience (comparable to returning to an original state), and a creative one (which thinks about an accompanying transformation). Another memorable and influential distinction was made by the sociologist Wolfgang Bonß, who drew a line between simple and reflexive resilience.[4] The former – simple resilience – is a response to a past event, while the latter – reflexive resilience – mobilizes resources in anticipation of future major and minor crises, in order to make provisions for them. Self-protection and the need for persistence – i.e. maintaining the status quo – are the primary focus of simple resilience. Reflexive resilience, in contrast, focuses on engaging with disruptions and challenges in a more productive way, aimed at learning and development.

Basically, it is always a matter of considering whether the thrust should be toward changing conditions, or returning to the initial structures

Basically, it is always a matter of considering whether the thrust should be toward changing conditions, or returning to the initial structures. In the second case, these are seen as implicitly worth preserving, which signifies a first normative component. This may well be the goal of resilience in the material sciences (when a spring returns to its initial state), but less so when it comes to the major and pressing issues in a socio-ecological transformation of society.

Moreover, it is important to make an intelligent distinction between the target groups. Who or what should become resilient? The individual, or the society, or the structures? Psychology as a discipline has contributed a great deal to the understanding of resilience, and in a psychological discourse, for example, the focus is usually on the individual: How does one become psychologically resilient in crises and problem situations? What helps individuals to cope with crises? In the debate informed by ecosystem theory, however, there is more of a focus on an ecological system: By what measures can forests best be adapted to rising temperatures and the associated consequences?

Ultimately, one sees that the disciplines each work with a different understanding of resilience. For example, from a moral psychology perspective, Sautermeister emphasizes the role of facilitating and impairing factors: “As a variable and dynamic process parameter, resilience is multidimensional and dependent of situation-specific and biographical factors. Because of the interdependencies between vulnerability factors, risk factors and protective factors, it is not possible to derive a linear model of resilience.”[5]

This is relevant for the societal resilience discourse inasmuch as we should warn against a possible pitfall: focusing resilience efforts too much on the individual level and forgetting about the fundamental transformation of society. Placing the responsibility and burden of crisis management solely on the individual will lead to social upheaval in the climate change crisis, or possibly even thwart the fight against the causes, i.e. the shift toward a climate-friendly, sustainable way of life with a commensurate economic system.

To summarize once again: On the one hand, resilience can be understood as stability (persistence); one can think of the simple meaning of resilience – the capacity to resist – in the material sciences. But it also includes adaptation strategies (in climate impact research, this could be planting heat-tolerant trees, for example). Not to be forgotten in the concept of resilience presented here, however, is a third point: the question of transformation, i.e. a complete change affecting not only the individual but also society as a whole. In this way, one can place the full spectrum of possible measures on a scale of resilience efforts ranging from problem-oriented to solution-oriented. My understanding is that resilience must encompass all three dimensions.

From adaptation (of the individual) to transformation (of society)

In this reflection on resilience, I am particularly interested in what contemporary theoretical approaches from social science can bring to the discussion. In particular, the account of adaptation presented by the sociologist Philipp Staab seems useful to me as an aid to thinking through the resilience discourse.

Firstly, adaptation can mean the stabilization of a social order, for example, also when confronted with climate impacts. But at the same time, in today’s highly consumption-oriented society, adaptation is “perceived as an affront to the deserved self-fulfillment of the individual”,[6] where required adaptation measures curtail an individual’s lifestyle or self-fulfillment.

If adaptation is seen as the goal, the consequence may be that the struggle for fundamental changes in structures and systems at the political and societal level is no longer fought

With the focus on adaptation, however, there is the danger not only that individuals might not “get on board”, but also that it might not leave any room for other responses to normative questions. If adaptation is seen as the goal, the consequence may be that the struggle for fundamental changes in structures and systems at the political and societal level is no longer fought. The focus is then more on fighting symptoms and less on fighting the causes.

For example, under the exclusive paradigm of adaptation, it is possible that averting climate change and the discussion of its causes might no longer be given sufficient attention. Prevention practices, relating to climate change for example, no longer seem appropriate if the paradigm of adaptation as mitigation is applied too one-sidedly as a form of reflexive resilience. Therefore, adaptation must constitute only one dimension of resilience. And all measures must be considered to prevent the further progression of climate change.

Ethics therefore considers the interplay between individual and social ethical approaches and, more closely, the premises of organizational ethics, primarily in relation to structural questions. In this way, ethics responds to the focus on adaptation that accompanies the striving for resilience. As mentioned earlier, this adaptation usually takes place within the framework of already existing structures and conditions. At the same time, responsibility for the task of adaptation tends to be left to the individual level. For this reason, in the context of resilience issues and measures, transformation – especially at the societal level – must be retained as a goal.

The geographer Markus Keck translates this into a concept of social resilience which consists of three components.[7] First, tactical resilience, the ability to cope with a crisis. Second, Keck talks about strategic resilience, which involves learning from past crises and adapting to future developments. Third, there is transformative resilience, i.e. the ability to change.

Relationship with the complementary concept of vulnerability

In order to give further substance to the concept of resilience in a normative context, the common complementary concept of vulnerability (from Latin vulnus: wound, injury) will be briefly outlined at this point, and then thought through in terms of the resilience dimension. Resilience is often presented as a strategy for dealing with vulnerability, or as a counterpart to it. But this is too simple, as can be seen, for example, from the concept of resilience described by the German Ethics Council in its paper on Vulnerability and Resilience in a Crisis – Ethical Criteria for Decision-Making in a Pandemic.[8]

Vulnerability was a buzzword on everyone’s lips during the pandemic crisis, when particularly vulnerable groups were accorded far-reaching protection measures. Along with the associated appeal for special protection, it should not be overlooked that the labeling of a group as vulnerable was accompanied by a certain stigmatization.

In contrast, it should be noted that vulnerability is an aspect of the human condition that is common to all human beings and inescapable. “It denies every form of idealisation which defines the human being first and foremost as a self-sustaining being that is only impaired in its self-sufficiency and strength if adverse events occur, and that needs solidary support only in these cases.”[9]

Because humans are physical beings, the vulnerability of the body is an inescapable fact. Social and mental vulnerability can become visible when recognition and appreciation are lacking. Humans are regarded as being not at the mercy of vulnerability, but as resistant to it. Thus, in the opinion of the German Ethics Council, resilience is conceived normatively as follows: “Rather, resilience is the power to deal with the challenges resulting from a situation of vulnerability or of actual harm, in a way that the option to successfully lead one’s life remains valid or may even be increased by an enhanced sensitivity for the vulnerabilities and strengths of life.”[10]

If everyone is equally originally vulnerable, everyone also has the same claim to solidarity and justice

Like vulnerability, resilience is therefore also an anthropological given. It is about the self-preservation of the human being and of human beings as well as of the world. Without this will to self-preservation, the question of resilience cannot be asked any further. But to add to this basic assumption, the vulnerability interpretation trail must be pursued further. The consequences of thinking about common vulnerability as a social bond cannot be overestimated in terms of the link to solidarity and the desire for just participation.[11] If everyone is equally originally vulnerable, everyone also has the same claim to solidarity and justice.

As well as highlighting the human dimension of vulnerability, however, the German Ethics Council also discusses structural vulnerability and resilience – especially in view of the COVID-19 crisis. “The resilience of organisations can be seen in their capacity to adapt. In this context, situational resilience means dealing with unexpected events at the micro level (e.g. patient flows, bottlenecks in supply), structural resilience the optimisation of resources and practices at the meso level (e.g. adjustment of workflows, staffing, hygiene concepts or communication processes) and systemic resilience the long-term changes of resources and practices at the macro level (e.g. through administrative or political decisions).”[12]

If we think further not only about the structures but particularly the basic anthropological statements and take the concept of resilience seriously, then the highlighting of responsive resilience by Martin Schneider and Markus Vogt is groundbreaking. For all resilience efforts, what is needed after all and ultimately are the human beings who react to the demands placed on them: “To be resilient means to act in a responsive manner, he or she gives an answer to something, to another person, to a situation, or to a development.”[13]

This concept is important for questions of climate research and more precisely the implementation of measures, but it could also benefit peace ethics. In his reflections on peace ethics and resilience, Alexander Merkl asks how previous thinking about security is changing in light of new concepts of resilience. Could resilience – one is almost tempted to say simple resilience – be used to initiate adaptation in a crisis to circumstances that supposedly cannot be changed? Does resilience mean something more like crisis prevention, or are we talking about an all-too-quick belief in progress? Is the demand for resilience only associated with and intended to combat symptoms, or also causes?[14]

This article, however, is not so much concerned with questions of security architecture. Rather, it seeks to link another concept with resilience – namely spirituality and especially the spirituality of peace – in order to justify and support the transformative goal of peace discourse.

With the quotation above from Jochen Sautermeister, it has already been suggested that a unilinear model from spirituality to resilience falls short of the mark. Just as resilience cannot be thought of as a simple counterpart in its relationship with vulnerability, nor should resilience be understood as an outflow from spirituality of whatever kind.

Resilience and spirituality

When it comes to exploring the connection between resilience and spirituality, we need to get to the deep structure, in contradistinction to that which remains superficial and less concrete. At the same time, the aim is to highlight spirituality as a factor that can be productive in the resilience discourse.

If we refer once again to the various definitions of resilience, spirituality as a transformative force can be located on the individual level. Of course, different forms of spirituality would have to be distinguished here, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The dwelling on the purely individual level – which was already criticized in the resilience debate – should also be brought up in this discussion.

So, precisely in the connection between resilience and spirituality, it is important to take a look at the structures. In terms of different levels, this can mean distinguishing between first-order solutions (building dams in response to rising sea levels), and second-order solutions, which in this example would mean resolving issues of justice globally. We need to be clear about the structures behind both concepts.

As Sautermeister summarizes: “Ethical reflection on resilience with a moral psychology orientation must therefore also take into account identity-forming processes of self-care, of practicing and training, of existential, moral and spiritual learning, and of the habitualization of corresponding behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles. For it is in them that human beings engage seriously in their struggle for self-development and meaning.”[15] In other words, looking at the underlying processes enables us to grasp precisely the depth dimension of spirituality. Resilience has also undergone the same shift in thinking. In both cases, the aim is not simply to adapt, but to strive for creative transformation.

Alongside questions of peace ethics, such as the question of just war or just peace, spirituality is concerned with thinking about these abstract questions of life on a personal level

In my opinion, this is especially applicable to a spirituality of peace that is necessary in our times. Alongside questions of peace ethics, such as the question of just war or just peace, spirituality is concerned with thinking about these abstract questions of life on a personal level. Merkl / Schlögl-Flierl (2022) pointed out this inescapable connection between spirituality and moral theology.[16] Moving from the field of (theological) peace ethics to the spirituality of peace, it can be stated that the transformation which is central to resilience can only be achieved if these themes also penetrate to the spiritual level. But the direction of thinking can also be reversed: How can spirituality inform peace ethics? This will now be examined both theoretically and concretely.

Responsive resilience: peace spirituality based on the doctrine of just peace

Peace spirituality can all too easily degenerate into a routine exercise and be perceived as such. Light another candle … say a quick prayer for peace … pin a peace badge on your lapel. What can you do when confronted with a war which is geopolitically close but ultimately far away from everyday life (unless you are in contact with refugees, of course), and as an individual person who is not directly affected?

Of course you can always say a prayer. But do you experience that as a consequential action, or more as an evasive maneuver, as a contemplative exercise for yourself? Peace in the world, which has become so brittle, is a theme at various points in the celebration of the Eucharist. But this may seem even staler than usual in times of a geographically proximate war and geopolitical upheavals, although of course the various wars around the world should not be forgotten. Such a feeling reflects a sense of perceived powerlessness at not being able to end the war by spiritual practice anyway. Finally, one also has to consider whom to include in the prayer. The aggressors too?

So what to do? Perhaps resilience can give peace spirituality a helping hand: What does spirituality of peace mean in the light of resilience thinking? To conclude, I will explore this question, not by looking at different devout practices, but rather by considering the transformational effect between the two for spirituality and resilience, and, more precisely, as a connecting element for a spirituality of peace.

At this point it should be stated very briefly that not only each and every individual, but also the powerful must be lifted out of a possible helplessness. This is also a noticeable difference between the COVID-19 crisis and the still ongoing Ukraine war. During the pandemic, it was possible to protect oneself and others with simple measures, which admittedly were also felt by many to be very severe. But this activity, which was perceived to be more or less effective, is not possible in the search for peace when war is being waged only a few kilometers away.

What to do? It has been said that resilience here – and this should be remembered once again – should be understood responsively. It is about people acting in response to what is happening, i.e. actively participating. But how can this be done effectively when faced with war? When faced with what is no longer an abstract vision, but a concrete reality? It should not be denied that a spiritual “practice” understood in this way can prove to be exhausting in such a complex matter.

Three possibilities or places come to mind: First, it is time to ask the question about shared responsibility and involvement, and to do so clearly and publicly. If the transformative goal described above is to be taken seriously, it is essential to broaden the perspective and to reflect on and state what one’s own personal interest is. This involves not only the question of previous policies, but also, from a peace-spiritual perspective, one’s own interest, one’s own bias, which must first be consciously perceived in order to counteract an all-too-simple friend/foe formula: for oneself, but also in order to keep asking questions of politicians.

By what signs could or should one have recognized that war was inevitably imminent? How can all forms of nationalism be overcome? What dependencies were established and promoted in the past that have now led to problematic asymmetries? A spirituality of peace is concerned precisely with preparing the discourse for this far from easy undertaking. Yet the direction in which we look should not be backwards – but toward learning for the future.

The second possibility targets increasing emotional blunting in the face of and in times of war. The World Press Photo of 2022 is still dedicated to the horrors of war, personified by a fatally wounded pregnant woman in Mariupol. But how quickly public interest wanders to the next topic, along with media attention. More than a few of you will have noticed that the question of the Ukraine war no longer moves and inflames the hearts and minds quite as much as it did, the longer it carries on.

More than a few of you will have noticed that the question of the Ukraine war no longer moves and inflames the hearts and minds quite as much as it did, the longer it carries on

Spirituality here is understood as “being on the move”, as practicing a critical attitude and not passively suffering or enduring military strategic operations that are perceived to be unpreventable. The spirituality of peace becomes stronger in its political dimension. An attentive and alert reception of the media discourse is also part of this. In a spirit of responsive resilience, it could be said that it is a matter of allowing oneself to be moved again and again by the consistently terrible news. This would be one possible peace spirituality exercise, which of course everyone would have to put into practice on a daily basis.

Third, responsive resilience in the context of peace spirituality involves clearly addressing the question of the foundation, the fundamental attitude toward the legitimacy of military force. Some of you may have noticed that there was no mention at all of “just war” in the subheading. For centuries, the question has been discussed as to when one can or may speak of a just war and what criteria must be fulfilled in each case. The new – not so old – paradigm of just peace, however, widens the perspective: It encompasses much more than the questions of the reasons and conditions for permitting the use of violence, because the prevention of violence is considered from the outset and the time horizon also is by no means limited to the events of war. It is about ways of ensuring peace so that conflicts do not lead to war yet again.

Thinking in categories of just war would therefore more likely be associated with simple resilience, and thinking in terms of just peace with transformative resilience. The transformative capacity would be more likely located in the concept of just peace, while the return to deterrence and armament would be a possible outflow from simple resilience. The question of just peace transcends that of just war, while still giving space to the right of self-defense based on criteria that have long been discussed. The concept of just peace is more comprehensive, but also more complex, because transformation has to be taken into account.

This also immediately echoes the shift in thinking about resilience: returning to existing conditions would be exactly the wrong way; instead, resilience thinking has brought the focus onto transformation. How can this happen? Not the unquestioning continuation of existing conditions, but the transformation toward just peace structures would be the way here. So it is about a change in behavior as well as in conditions. Conditions must be changed (indeed, they may first be perceived as changeable as a result of this resilience approach) in order to enable a just peace. Then it is not a jumping back into the original state that peace spirituality should pursue – which humans merely endure as passive figures – but instead actively doing something within the scope of one’s own possibilities.

What drives people to become active? Here I would like to direct your attention to the hope for a solution. This view of the goal also distinguishes peace ethics from a spirituality of peace – because the latter means being on the move and having a goal in mind, rather than hammering out criteria for a possible crisis. But along with this, it is basically a question of an attitude that is called for in our times. To simply put up with the war, not challenge arms deliveries, to delegate everything to others without complaint … that would not be a resilient spirituality of peace as I have described it here.

Conclusion: Understanding peace as a task again

But why exactly is this something to strive for? Because all human beings are vulnerable, as outlined above. Here is the common bond that unites all people, and so promotes solidarity without regard to person or merit. Out of the experience of vulnerability, one enters into solidarity with those affected by war in different ways, and then adopts an active attitude that strives for transformation and envisions resilient, sustainable strategies. For me, this would be a living spirituality of peace that is underpinned by virtue ethics – in contrast to ossified forms like the routine recitation of peace prayers.


[1] I would like to thank Rüdiger Frank for his constructive comments.

[2] Cf. Schlögl-Flierl, Kerstin (2022): Was lehrt uns die Pandemie in ethischer Vergewisserung? In: Werz, Joachim and Faber, Toni (eds.): Zwischen Himmel und Erde. Die Himmelsleiter von Billi Thanner. Regensburg, pp. 106-114.

[3] Cf. Schneider, Martin and Vogt, Markus (2017): Responsible resilience. Rekonstruktion der Normativität von Resilienz auf Basis einer responsiven Ethik. In: GAIA 26/S1, pp. 174-181.

[4] Bonß, Wolfgang (2015): Karriere und sozialwissenschaftliche Potenziale des Resilienzbegriffes. In: Endreß, Martin and Maurer, Andrea (eds.): Resilienz im Sozialen. Theoretische und empirische Analysen. Wiesbaden, pp. 15-31.

[5] (Translated from German.) Sautermeister, Jochen (2016): Resilienz zwischen Selbstoptimierung und Identitätsbildung. In: MThZ 67, pp. 209-223, p. 217.

[6] (Translated from German.) Staab, Philipp (2022): Anpassung. Leitmotiv der nächsten Gesellschaft. Berlin, p. 26.

[7] Keck, Markus (2015): Gewalt, Raum und Resilienz. Handeln im Kontext bewaffneter Konflikte. In: Benedikt Korf and Conrad Schetter (eds.): Geographien der Gewalt. Kriege, Konflikte und die Ordnung des Raumes im 21. Jahrhundert. Stuttgart, pp. 146-162, p. 147.

[8] Deutscher Ethikrat (2022): Vulnerabilität und Resilienz in der Krise – Ethische Kriterien für Entscheidungen in einer Pandemie: Stellungnahme. Berlin, p. 24.

[9] German Ethics Council (2022): Vulnerability and Resilience in a Crisis – Ethical Criteria for Decision-Making in a Pandemic. Opinion. Executive Summary & Recommendations. Berlin, p. 21.

[10] German Ethics Council (2022), p. 22.

[11] Cf. German Ethics Council (2022), p. 163.

[12] German Ethics Council (2022), p. 24.

[13] Schneider, Martin and Vogt, Markus (2017), p. 176..

[14] Merkl, Alexander (2017): Schlüsselbegriff Resilienz. Die europäische Sicherheitsagenda in ethischer Lesart. In: AMOS international 11, pp. 30-36.

[15] (Translated from German.) Sautermeister, Jochen (2018): Selbstgestaltung und Sinnsuche unter fragilen Bedingungen. Moralpsychologische und ethische Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis von Resilienz und Identität. In: Karidi, Maria, Schneider, Martin and Gutwald, Rebecca (eds.): Resilienz. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven zu Wandel und Transformation. Wiesbaden, pp. 127-140, p. 138.

[16] Merkl, Alexander and Schlögl-Flierl, Kerstin (2022): Moraltheologie kompakt. Regensburg.



Kerstin Schlögl-Flierl

Kerstin Schlögl-Flierl hat seit 2015 den Lehrstuhl für Moraltheologie an der Universität Augsburg inne und ist in diversen Gremien als Beraterin in ethischen Fragen tätig. So ist sie seit Mai 2020 im Deutschen Ethikrat und seit 2016 Beraterin der Bischöflichen Unterkommission „Bioethik“ der Glaubenskommission (I) der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz. Vor allem Fragen der Bio- und Klimaethik beschäftigen sie. Seit 2022 ist sie verantwortliche Wissenschaftlerin im RAICenter, bei dem es um die Frage nach Verantwortung und Vertrauen in der KI-Forschung geht.

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All articles in this issue

Resilience: A Container Term with Strategic Significance
Herfried Münkler
Resilience – Normatively Conceived, Transformatively Developed
Kerstin Schlögl-Flierl
Resilience from the Perspective of Christian Theologies: An Essay on Current “Resilience and Humanities” Research
Cornelia Richter
Resilience, Virtue Ethics, and Mental Health Care
Craig Steven Titus
Disinformation and Disinformation Resilience
André Schülke, Alexander Filipović
Resilience: A Care Ethical Perspective
Eva van Baarle, Peter Olsthoorn


Ulrich Wesemann Peggy Puhl-Regler, Alexandra Hoff-Ressel, Peter Wendl Rüdiger Frank