Heike Springhart (University of Heidelberg) contributes the next installment in our new extended issue with her essay, “Vitality in Vulnerability: Realistic Anthropology as Humanistic Anthropology.” The November-December issue of the Forum features the Enhancing Life Project, which takes aim at addressing one of the most basic human questions—the desire to enhance life. This desire is seen in the arts, technology, religion, medicine, culture, and social forms. Throughout the ages, thinkers have wondered about the meaning of enhancing life, the ways to enhance life, and the judgments about whether life has been enhanced. In our global technological age, these issues have become more widespread and urgent. Over the last two years, 35 renowned scholars from around the world in the fields of law, social sciences, humanities, religion, communications, and others, have explored basic questions of human existence. These scholars have generated individual research projects and engaged in teaching in Enhancing Life Studies within their fields, as well as contributed to public engagement in various ways.

Over the next month and a half, Enhancing Life scholars associated with the Divinity School will share essays and reflections on the Enhancing Life Project that will explore its implications for their own scholarship and teaching. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.

Posted Essays:

  1. William Schweiker, Enhancing Life and the Forms of Freedom
  2. Anne Mocko, Attending to Insects
  3. Kristine A. Culp, “Aliveness” and a Taste of Glory
  4. Heike Springhart, Vitality in Vulnerability: Realistic Anthropology as Humanistic Anthropology
  5. Andrew Packman, Enhancing Racialized Social Life: The Implicit Spiritual Dimension of Critical Race Theory

The Enhancing Life Project was made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and the support of the University of Chicago and Bochum University, Germany.

by Heike Springhart


Introduction: Vitality in Vulnerability—what is enhancing life?

The question of what is enhancing life opens out to a complex web of answers and perception of what it means to be alive. In my view, part of that is the discovery and valuing of vulnerability as an essential part of vitality. Enhancing Life means for me to think about vulnerability in a way that distinguishes between vulnerability as a value of life and vulnerability as something threatening, endangering, and worth fighting against.

My basic assumption: Life’s vulnerability is a powerful, threatening, and at the same time enriching dimension of all human life. Incidences like terrorist attacks, Chernobyl and Fukushima, natural catastrophes, the endangerment of democracies due to populism, and the rise of threats to personal data due to digitalized communication, lead to attempts to increase security, hence invulnerability. At the same time, this development contributes to a heightened awareness of vulnerability. In terms of individual life, disease, dying, violence, and trauma mark the threatening dimensions of vulnerability. Vulnerability has become a crucial term in medicine and health politics, in geology and economy, philosophical ethics and anthropology, as well as in research on conflict and peace, urban planning and migration, and resilience and happiness.1 Theology has only recently joined these conversations, but it has a lot to contribute. I am a Christian theologian, and I am exploring vulnerability from this particular perspective.

This exploration will take place in three moves. The first one is focused on the conceptual level and offers a notion of vulnerability that distinguishes between ontological and situated vulnerability. The second move goes to the counter-cultural aspects of vulnerability with respect to invulnerability and resilience. Both moves address the question: How can a concept of vulnerability help us better understand human life and contribute to its enhancement?

The third move shifts to the hermeneutical level and addresses vulnerability as a value of human life.


Vulnerability: situated and ontological

Theological anthropology addresses the question: what does it mean to be human? How can we understand human life? It offers a conceptual framework to grasp the broad variety of human experiences. As a theoretical conceptual field, theological anthropology explores lines of reflection of the human condition and helps orient us in relation to the question: what does it mean to live a good life? It does so within a theological context. Hence, human beings are seen not only as individual subjects, but also within their social, systemic, and religious contexts.

Anthropology becomes a realistic endeavor by daring to be challenged by real-life-experiences. It faces those experiences—as multifaceted as they are—and it raises questions about the goodness of human life and the value of vulnerability. In this respect it is also a humanistic approach.

While vulnerability as a phenomenon is hardly controversial, the question whether and in which respect vulnerability is a value is an issue to be discussed further.2 Vulnerability is the human condition that becomes real in various forms and situations: dying, disease, harm, and violence, as well as love, trust, and aspirations for enhancing life, just to name a few. I am convinced that especially the threatening aspects of human life—like disease and dying, violence and trauma—need to be grasped anthropologically—rather than as discreet unrelated experiences—in order to come to a realistic approach to human life.

The notion and concept “vulnerability” can be applied to theological resources. For instance, we can talk about the vulnerability of Creation or the vulnerability of God—if we think of Jesus Christ, in particular. And from that vantage point we can also reframe these aspects of Christian faith and theology and shed new light onto them. For this essay, though, I will remain with the question of human vulnerability and the enhancing of life.

In order to understand what life’s vulnerability means we have to differentiate between ontological (or fundamental) vulnerability and situated (or contextual) vulnerability.3 The notion of “ontological vulnerability” means: There is no invulnerable human life. Birth and death mark the vulnerable transitions in which the interrelated dependency, fragility and the bundle of possibilities ahead and behind become real. Human life is susceptible to harm and to love, to transformation and violence, to disease and decay. Human life as such is vulnerable. Ontological vulnerability is the shared human condition of every human being.

Situated vulnerability addresses vulnerability in different levels of realization as there are social, cultural and environmental conditions that increase or lower vulnerability. With respect to situated vulnerability, natural, social and theological aspects are overlapping. Talking about situated vulnerability implies considering the conditions under which vulnerability is increased or decreased and also the conditions under which vulnerability is life-threatening and endangering. If one seeks the enhancing of life, one can likewise consider the conditions under which vulnerability fosters openings for deeper interpersonal or religious relationships, for love and for mutual trust.

In order to enhance life, we have to keep the ontological and situated vulnerability together. Why is that important?

If one would reduce vulnerability to its ontological dimensions, it would lose its transformative power and also the realism in taking the human condition seriously.

If one would reduce vulnerability to its situated dimensions, one would run the danger of discriminating against vulnerable social groups which would then be seen as deficient, weak, or even not fully accountable for life. A thick theological concept of vulnerability is counter-cultural in the sense that it puts a critical sting to the attempts to describe humanity primarily or even exclusively as autonomous, independent, strong, and powerful. But: It is important to note that vulnerability is not meant to deny the importance and constitutive character of human freedom, which leads to autonomy, independence, and strength. It forms an anthropological and theological space for suffering, disease, risk, and tragedy in human life and beyond.


1. Counter-Cultural aspects of the concept of vulnerability

Thinking about vulnerability and enhancing life is often related to the strive for invulnerability on the one hand or the focus of resilience on the other hand. There might be concrete situations where striving for invulnerability or resilience is what you have to do, but for a general understanding of what it means to be human, the strive for invulnerability and resilience has its limits.

What can we learn along these two lines?

A. The line between vulnerability and invulnerability

From ancient philosophy until today’s national security-based politics, striving for invulnerability has been a leading principle, or at least vision, of anthropological, social, political and theological thought.4 The traditional struggle for invulnerability can be seen in the Stoic philosophy, but also in the mythologies about Achilles and the Germanic myth of Siegfried whose bath in dragon blood was meant to make him invulnerable. Heroes are those who are invulnerable and who are not affected by what is opposed to them.5 This leads to a subtle connection between invulnerability and shame. If we think about the deaths of soldiers that were called the death of a hero (so-called “Heldentod”), the shame of being overwhelmed and killed was covered by attributing this death to specific strong conditions or for the sake of a higher good, like the nation or the ideology. With the current awareness of vulnerability through terrorist attacks, shootings or plane crashes, as well as the manifold attempts to enhance personal health and fitness, the increasing awareness of vulnerability leads to aspirations to invulnerability, which in the long run increase vulnerability instead of decreasing it.

We may think here of the attempts of states to become more secure in the face of terrorist attacks by intensifying the activities of national security agencies. While they in most cases fail to avoid those attacks, they increase the vulnerability of communication among citizens of free countries. We may also think of authoritarian ways of leadership on all social levels, which is based on the attempt to have an invulnerable leader but which leads in fact to a loss of trust and hence to a weakened leadership.

The striving for invulnerability is basically reduced to situated vulnerability, as it is related to specific situations and conditions under which invulnerability can be sought, enhanced and envisioned.

In contrast, consenting in vulnerability instead of invulnerability has existential and conceptual aspects of calmness and an acceptance of the fundamental openness of life, because it is connected to an acknowledgment of the contingency of life. The concept of vulnerability is a counter-cultural force. It is counter-cultural because it denies the surprise about the fundamental vulnerability which becomes visible in the sudden aspirations and attempts to become invulnerable after incidents that confront us with vulnerability.

Paradoxically, it is not the struggle for invulnerability that enhances life and gives room for vitality, but the venture of vulnerability. The venture of vulnerability enhances vitality because it strengthens the susceptibility to change and transformation. Its enhancing force lies in the processive character that comes with this susceptibility to change and transformation. It takes the course of life and the ongoing transformation of life not only seriously, but considers it an essential part of life rather than an endangerment of a certain status of life.

B. The line between vulnerability and resilience

In psychological perspective, resilience is often considered the appropriate response to vulnerability. In a narrow sense, resilience is the capability to survive under threatening, traumatizing conditions. In a broader sense, it is the power to get along and to arrange oneself with the given, which aims at the acceptance of a given situation and the focus on how to live with it.

Here again, the distinction between situated and ontological dimensions is of importance. In terms of situatedness, there is no doubt, that resilience can be seen as a capability to live on, to survive and to cope with threatening situations. In terms of ontology, though, resilience as a basic concept has its limits. The reason for that is that it stops the struggle for improvement, hinders resistance in a political sense6 and is not open to the vision of enhancing life.

Due to the basic assumption that a specific situation is what it is instead of the assumption that a specific situation can be or has to be transformed, enhanced, or made flourishing, resilience lacks the vision of a possible transforming and enhancing of life. While invulnerability tends to nourish the anxiety and be overly disquieting, resilience, in contrast, nourishes pacification and tends to be overly quieting.

Resilience as a basic pattern of culture and conceptualization needs to be corrected by a concept of vulnerability which is more on to the transforming visions of enhancing life due to the susceptibility to life-threatening and enriching facets of human and social life. Unlike resilience, vulnerability implies both the acceptance of given vulnerable situations and the need to enhance life and deal with risky parts of vulnerability.


2. Vulnerability in vitality

How can we value vulnerability as a human good and at the same time stay sensitive about the ambiguities in vulnerability as threatening and enriching? Naming and facing those ambiguities, I argue, is part not only of the realism but also part of the enhancing of life in its vulnerability.

It is the complementarity of ontological and situated vulnerability, that makes vulnerability a value of human life. As ontological, vulnerability is the human condition, and as such it is the precondition of trust, love, communication and mutual affection, and also the finitude and fragility of human life. As situated, vulnerability is shaped by actual conditions and factors and can be decreased and increased. In both perspectives, ontological and situated, vulnerability is a risk and a resource of human life.

On the fundamental or ontological level, we can say that it is good to live a vulnerable life, while at the same time, vulnerable vitality exists under the threat of death and its finitude.

On the situated level, we also may value the multifaceted vulnerability, but face at the same time the strife-filled and threatening dimensions that come with it. In other words: the full range of vulnerability makes it a value, not the particular situations of vulnerability, or at least not all of them.

Enhancing life means both to see and to live: the fundamental vulnerability that makes a human being human, loving, affective, empathetic and able to trust, but also frail and endangered – and the situated vulnerability that requires attention, awareness of multilayered diversity and mutual love and respect. ♦


Heike Springhart is Dean of Theologisches Studienhaus Heidelberg and Lecturer of Systematic Theology at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg, Germany. She received her doctorate in Theology from Heidelberg University, and was awarded the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. In her scholarship she aims at shaping the conversation between developments in culture and society which are relevant for religious practice and contemporary theological questions with a strong interest in doing constructive theology. In her work as Dean she combines academic teaching, advising and supervision with ministry work in the community of students. She has published a book on religion and democratization in Germany after 1945, Aufbrüche zu neuen Ufern. Der Beitrag von Religion und Kirche für Demokratisierung und Reeducation im Westen Deutschlands nach 1945 (2008). In her second book she developed a realistic anthropology based on the notion of vulnerability, circling around the questions of dying, death and finitude. It is published as Der verwundbare Mensch: Sterben, Tod und Endlichkeit im Horizont einer realistischen Anthropologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016). In The Enhancing Life Project she explored a multi-dimensional concept of vulnerability that leads to an enhancing of life, and she has a consulting task for the summer residency seminars.

* Feature image: “Ballerina 2” Steel Sculpture by Regardt van der Meulen

  1. H. Keul, “Verwundbarkeit – eine unerhörte Macht”, Herder Korrespondenz 12 (2015) 39-43, on p. 40; S. Stålsett, “Towards a Political Theology of Vulnerability: Anthropological and Theological Propositions”, Political Theology, Vol. 16 No. 5 (2015) 464-478, on p. 464; M. Wenner, “Vulnerability, food aid, and dependency. Views from development geography”, Hermeneutische Blätter 1 (2017) 158-170, on p. 160; Based on a survey of the projects of the German Research Council (DFG), Hildegund Keul shows that the number of vulnerability-related research projects is constantly rising. In 1999 it was only two projects, in 2015 already 20 projects were realized, none of these, though, was a theological project. H. Keul, “Resilienz aus Verwundbarkeit. Der Vulnerabilitätsdiskurs als Chance für eine gesellschaftsrelevante Theologie”, Hermeneutische Blätter 1 (2017) 105-120, on p. 111.
  2. Stålsett, “Political Theology”, 467.
  3. H. Haker, “Vom Umgang mit der Verletzlichkeit des Menschen”, in M. Bobbert (ed.), Zwischen Parteilichkeit und Gerechtigkeit. Schnittstellen von Klinikseelsorge und Medizinethik (Münster: Lit-Verlag, 2015) 195-225, on p. 197.
  4. E.C. Gilson, The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2014), 75.
  5. The Hero was considered to be a person whose nature is characterized by an attractive shape and with extraordinary bodily strength. See the article on “Held / heros” in “Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon Aller Wissenschaften und Künste”: „Held, lat. Heros, ist einer, der von Natur mit einer ansehnlichen Gestalt und ausnehmender Leibesstärcke (sic!) begabet, durch tapfere Thaten (sic!) Ruhm erlanget, und sich über den gemeinen Stand derer Menschen erhoben.“ Vgl. Art. Held, heros, in Johann Heinrich ZedlerGrosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon Aller Wissenschafften und Künste. Band 12, Leipzig 1735, Spalte 1214 f.
  6. See the contributions in J. Butler et al. (ed.), Vulnerability in Resistance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
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