Review: The Courage to Be

The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952 (Link is to the third edition, published in 2014).

Summary: A philosophical discussion of being or ontology, the crisis of anxiety, and the nature of the courage to be, the affirmation of our being in the face of nonbeing, accepting our acceptance by the God above God despite our unacceptability.

This book has been around all my life (plus a couple years) on certainly on the edge of my awareness. I read, more or less uncomprehendingly (this is a dense read), an excerpt from this in my Intro to Philosophy course. Tillich was one of the giants of Twentieth century theology. In my Jesus Movement evangelical days of the early ’70s, I just dismissed him as one of “those” theological liberals.

Consequently, I ignored him in my reading. Until now. The Courage to Be, based on the Terry Lectures given at Yale in the early 1950’s, strikes me as an attempt to do at Yale something like another Paul did on the Areopagus.

Tillich writes in what has been describe as “The Age of Anxiety,” memorialized in a poem of W. H. Auden by that name. One of the most significant contributions of this book is an analysis of our anxiety, which he describes as coming in three forms: ontological, concerned with death (non-being) and our ultimate fate, spiritual, concerned with despair and loss of meaning, and moral, concerned with guilt and condemnation. The “courage to be” is the honest facing of this anxiety and choosing to affirm one’s being.

He traces the expression of this “courage” in the history of thought, discussing collectivist thought under the head of “courage and participation,” from feudal societies to Nietzsche, Marx, and the rise of communism and fascism. Under the head of “courage and individualization, he looks at the concept of selfhood both in religious contexts and the rise of Romanticism and naturalism, culminating in Existentialism, a radical courage in the face of life without inherent meaning.

The concluding chapter is the most “Christian” as he describes courage as the ultimate faith that accepts our acceptance despite our guilt and unacceptability, finding its source in “the God above God” the ground of our being. Tillich concludes with this italicized peroration:

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubts.”

In his analysis of anxiety stemming from the human condition and his historical survey of forms of “the courage to be” in face of the inescapable realities of death, the loss of meaning, and our implicatedness, Tillich names our reality. His framing of justification by faith is an imaginative re-framing of this core Reformation idea that retains the “I-Thou” nature of faith. Yet it is a framing without the central figure of Jesus and the crucial events of cross and resurrection. Jesus only receives two passing references in this work. As such, this work is only prolegomenon, leaving me wondering what follows in Tillich’s thought.

Perhaps that was Tillich’s intent in these lectures and this book, to invite his hearers and readers to ask more about “the God who appears.”

One thought on “Review: The Courage to Be

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2022 | Bob on Books

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