Part 3 – The Courage to Be (1952)

A note before reading:

These posts are condensed versions of a paper I wrote last quarter at seminary.  Thus, for the blog’s purposes, I have edited down the posts to the simplest and most straightforward explanations of Tillich.  However, for those who want to know more, please read the footnotes.  There is much more information on Tillich in them.  So, without further ado…

It is in light of the context of fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and malaise that Tillich wrote The Courage to Be. For Tillich, courage is both an ethical concept and an ontological (nature of being) concept.  It is both because it is an act where one affirms their being in spite of those things that come in conflict with and threatens one’s existence.[1]

And if you gaze into the paragraph, the paragraph gazes into you.

Tillich begins with a survey of the historical concept of courage, from Plato to Aquinas, the Stoics, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. The inclusion of Nietzsche is very important, for in the early twentieth century “the highest human virtue is the Nietzschean virtue of the strong man, courage.”[2] In a post-Nietzschean world, however, the “strong man” is unmasked as the man of anxiety and fear; but for Tillich, humanity can stand in and through anxiety. This stance is “courage to be.”[3]

This anxiety constitutes three features: the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation.[4] For Tillich, the second type of anxiety is the “deepest level of anxiety.” The fear of doubt and lack of meaning in life is threatening to one’s identity and being, but this anxiety is addressed by “absolute faith.”[5] Absolute faith is taking this kind of anxiety upon itself and affirming oneself and one’s being.[6] In this stance within anxiety and against the threat of nonbeing, we actually come closer to our being itself, and especially to “Being-itself.”

The face of anxiety, or of absolute faith?

The courage to be brings us to a place of acceptance of ourselves, and in this we have an encounter with God as Being-itself, the ground of being. In the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, “the courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”[7] What this means is the courage to be is not in the encounter of God as a being, but as Being-itself, that which holds all existence together.[8] Thus, in spite of anxiety and despair, an absolute faith accepts our being in the midst of the threat of non-being. In this experience, we come to the source of being, identity, and security in God.


[1] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 3.

[2] William Earle, James M. Edie, and John Daniel Wild, Christianity and Existentialism, Essays. (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1963), 140.

[3] Ibid. The concepts of anxiety and dread were first developed by Heidegger and the existential psychoanalysts, but it is in Tillich, Heidegger’s contemporary whilst at Marburg in 1924, that Tillich develops them as concepts with hope. Earle remarks on the differences between Heidegger and Tillich: “The difference between Heidegger and Tillich is that, whereas Heidegger calmly accepts the nothingness which is in man as definitive of the human condition, Tillich considers it as a threat. Whereas Heidegger is resigned, Tillich is impatient.” (Id. at 141)

[4] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 40-45.

[5] Earle, 141. The anxiety of fate and death, Earle argues, can be “resolved in a kind of stoic moralism” and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation “by traditional Christianity,” it is the anxiety of emptiness and meaningless that can only be answered in absolute faith. Earle goes on to summarize Tillich: “…is not faith in any traditional sense (faith as belief) but a power of self-affirmation through which man is enabled (the power is not wholly his own) to assume his responsibility for be-ing. The various levels of anxiety are not removed in faith they remain and continue to be experienced, but the man of faith is free to live “in spite of” the threat of non-being.” (Earle 1963, 141)

[6] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 155.

[7] Id. at 190

[8] “The courage to take meaninglessness into itself presupposed a relation to the ground of being which we have called ‘absolute faith.’ It is without a special content, yet it is not without content. The content of absolute faith is the “God above God.’ Absolute faith and its consequence, the courage that takes the radical doubt, the doubt about God, into itself, transcends the theistic idea of God” (Tillich, The Courage to Be, 182). “Theism” here means “the unspecified affirmation of God.” It is an affirmation of God apart from the encounter of the God above God, the ground of being. It can also mean a description of the “divine-human encounter,” or what Tillich describes as, the “nonmystical side of biblical religion and historical Christianity,” for it personalizes absolute faith. Finally, the third meaning of theism is in how it attempts to prove the existence of God. Tillich sees the first theism as “irrelevant,” the second theism as “one-sided,” and the third as “wrong” and “bad theology.” In all of this, Tillich argues, theism makes God to be a being, not being-itself, and for Tillich, the God of theism must be transcended in order for “the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness (to) be taken into the courage to be” (Tillich, The Courage to Be, 186).

1 Comment

Filed under The Courage of Paul Tillich

One response to “Part 3 – The Courage to Be (1952)

  1. Ryan Braley

    John, great post! I resonate deeply with Tillich’s “second anxiety” – this is the one that also haunts my dreams. It truly is paralyzing.

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