Paul Tillich

The Courage to Be

Review by Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, 2008

Paul Tillich,The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Paul Tillich was one of the, if not the, most influential theologians of the Twentieth Century. In his introduction to the Second Edition of The Courage to Be, the Reverend Dr. Peter J. Gomes refers to Tillich as a “public intellectual” (xxvii) and “intellectual celebrity” (xv) who caught the imagination of the public and other theologians alike, and credits him with the presentation of a “new and dynamic theological vocabulary” (xi) to address the century’s concerns with modernity’s crises of death, meaninglessness, and anxiety; The Courage to Be, he writes, best captures the essence of Tillich’s thought” (xii).

This book began as a series of Terry Foundation lectures at Yale University in 1952, when Tillich was teaching at Union Theological Seminary. “In agreement with the stipulation of the Terry Foundation that the lectures should be concerned with ‘religion in the light of science and philosophy’, I have chosen a concept in which theological, sociological, and philosophical problems converge, the concept of ‘courage’. Few concepts are as useful for the analysis of the human condition. Courage is an ethical reality, but it is rooted in the whole breadth of human existence and ultimately in the structure of being itself. It must be considered ontologically in order to be understood ethically.”(1) With this opening paragraph Tillich explores the concept of courage throughout history and the history of philosophical, theological, and sociological thought. Along the way he marks in particular the challenges of Stoicism, and Existentialism as a form of Stoicism, to Christianity, the tension in human existence between the individual and collective existence, the similarities and differences between medicine, psychology, and ministry as healing professions, the overtaking of humanity by its own production, and how the end of an age is recognizable by the breakdown of the familiar and the secure. All of this is background and support for his argument that the “courage to be’ is (and always has been) the courage to be “in spite of” the existential threat and reality of non-being, and that this courage is possible for humanity only because it is possible in and part of “the God above God” (itself a term inspired by Stoicism)(15), who is the content of absolute faith, the consequence of which is the courage to take meaninglessness, radical doubt, doubt about God, into itself, and so is the courage to be.

In his argument, Tillich both defines terms to clarify and support his argument and redefines words and phrases that give them new meaning. His meticulous delineation of the term “anxiety” in its several forms throughout history gives the reader a firm grasp of the issue as well as its gravity and portent as it has developed to our own days’ particular manifestations, and his descriptions of various philosophies are useful beyond the argument of this book. His adaptation and/or creation of the phrases “God above God”, “absolute faith”, “ground of being”,
power of being”, and “the courage to be” bring freshness, attraction, and challenge to the words themselves and to the ideas of “God”, “faith”, “being”, “power”, “courage”, and “be”. The language of the book is clear and direct, and the argument is well-organized, following a logically built-up and orderly progression. Not at all “dumbed down” or patronizing, The Courage to Be presents challenging concepts in an engrossing, engaging manner that leaves the reader more widely informed as well as theologically inspired and challenged.

There are some caveats. The language is as well so exclusively masculine that a female reader might well wonder if any of the argument were in fact addressed to her or included her, and since there are no clarifications from the publisher and Tillich can no longer respond, one can never really know. While Tillich insists that the “centered” person is in balance between being an individual and being a part of a whole/collective and that these two states are interdependent, he is much more uncomfortable with the possibilities of collective dysfunction than he is with that of individual dysfunction (and given his experiences with Nazism and the failure of Soviet communism, that is perhaps understandable), and states flatly that there is no collective (that term itself is telling) but only a collection of individuals pursuing their own ends, although the concepts of the Holy Spirit and even contemporary ideas of ecology might argue differently. While the concept of the “God above God” is intellectually compelling, it is hard to fathom how one could be “grasped” by something so finally nebulous, and why that something would want to accept or grasp or encounter a person anyway. Given the fifty years since this book was first written -- with the increase of war as a preferred first choice of response to any difficulty, the increase of violence against women and children, the increase in numbing out through addiction and/or consumption, and the increase of choices that go against our best interests as individuals and as a species -- one might now argue that the fear of life, not the fear of death as Tillich would have it, is the greatest existential fear.

And, as Tillich might say, all these too are held not just up against, but within the possibilities of being. So there is still hope, beyond any caveats we may have. The Courage to Be is, finally, a book about hope, even in our time of the Twenty-first Century, with its last sentence a ringing call against despair: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”