Original Research - Special Collection: Johan Buitendag Festschrift

Can norms bridge boundaries? Systems theory’s challenge to eco-theology and Earth system law

Nico Buitendag
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 79, No 2 | a8587 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v79i2.8587 | © 2023 Nico Buitendag | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 27 February 2023 | Published: 26 May 2023

About the author(s)

Nico Buitendag, Faculty of Law, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


The following article was written to honour Johan Buitendag’s contribution to the discipline of eco-theology. Assuming an interdisciplinary stance, eco-theology in general and his work, in particular, is observed from the position of legal theory and sociology. As such, eco-theology is not assessed on theological grounds but is treated interdisciplinary through comparison with environmental law. More specifically, the project of eco-theology is shown to share certain characteristics with the nascent subdiscipline of Earth systems law within environmental law. It is argued that one of the most important of these is the use of norms as an ecological strategy. This is understandable as both the religious and legal systems rely on the norm form to a lesser or greater extent. However, in the legal sociology of systems theory, the shortcomings of norms have been eloquently argued. This article thus posits the limits of norms to eco-theology and Earth systems law as a challenge deserving attention. However, social systems theory has its shortcomings, and a preliminary line of flight away from this challenge is suggested in the shape of Agamben’s description of the monastic form-of-life, where life and norm overlap so intensely that suggestions of a new worldview gain plausibility.

Contribution: This article argues for the similarity in theology and law’s respective strategies for combatting climate change, most importantly, that both employ a normative form. It points out that norms have crucial shortcomings but suggests that they might be overcome through reinterpretations of normativity.


eco-theology; environmental law; Earth systems law; norms; systems theory; autopoiesis; Niklas Luhmann; Giorgio Agamben


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