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.”

Review: 12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful MenCollin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, editors. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Twelve thumbnail biographies focused on pastoral leaders who served faithfully through suffering.

Pastoral ministry is not for sissies, contrary to some popular stereotypes. The hours can be long, you often encounter people at their worst (and sometimes at their best), your call is to be faithful to God’s word, and a shepherd of God’s people. Sooner or later, conflict and criticism homes in on you. Pastors not only help the suffering. If they are at all faithful to their work, they are the suffering.

This is a book to give courage to pastors. It consists of twelve thumbnail biographies of faithful men (I would hope a companion volume on faithful women is forthcoming–there are a host of examples). Some are quite familiar: Paul, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon. Some you may have heard of: Andrew Fuller, Charles Simeon, J.C.Ryle. And some like John Chavis, an early Black preacher; Janani Luwum, the Ugandan archbishop martyred under Idi Amin; and Wang Ming-Dao, a Chinese pastor who led the house church movement under Mao.

What they all have in common is that faithfulness in ministry led to some form of suffering. A number went to prison, including Paul, John Bunyan, Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao. Others faced controversy with their people, including Calvin and Edwards and Simeon. Spurgeon struggled with the black dog of depression throughout his ministry. Chavis, highly educated and even a tutor of white children was barred from preaching, though licensed, simply because he was black.

Each of the biographers in this volume explore the ways these men were formed through suffering. For Paul, suffering portrayed what he proclaimed, focused him on eternal things, authenticated the integrity of his ministry and destroyed self-glory. Calvin came to understand through the suffering of exile the call to exile we all share. Prison plunged Bunyan into the scriptures such that Spurgeon comment that if you cut Bunyan, he would bleed “bibline.” Fuller learned through the heartbreaks of the death of his wife and son, and another wayward son, to give comfort to all who struggled with similar circumstances. Simeon pressed on despite great opposition in prayerful, humble expository ministry from which might be traced the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the United Kingdom, InterVarsity/USA and the ministry of John Stott, Kent Hughes and others.

I appreciate the inclusion of examples of African American, Chinese and African examples and would hope that the western Church might hear more examples of Christian faithfulness around the world. In a culture where it seems that the most common prayer is that things would go “smoothly,” the honest portrayal of the various forms of suffering that is the lot of faithful pastors is both a bracing word, and a welcome balm. I suspect many pastors wonder if they are alone, and if they have done something wrong if they are not “prospering.”

The biographies are short, rather than exhaustive, averaging about fifteen pages, making this ideal for devotional reading. While more lengthy and definitive works have been written about many, the focus on the theme of endurance through suffering and God’s provident work makes these pithy biographies welcome support amid the press of pastoral duties. Buy two of these, one for your pastor, and one to understand and pray for her or him (and other faithful pastors around the world).


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Impossible People

impossible people

Impossible People, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Delineating the advance of modernity and its negative consequences, Guinness calls upon Christians to be the “impossible people” who both resist and positively engage the culture to “serve God’s purposes in this generation.”

I’ve been reading the work of Os Guinness since my student days when he wrote The Dust of Death and it is my feeling that his many books are really one extended and developing argument both describing modernity’s impact upon the culture in it’s movement away from God and its exhaustion of its Christian heritage, and the nature of Christian faithfulness in the face of these developments.

What distinguishes this book for me seems to be a certain urgency, captured even in the title Impossible People. He explains his choice of this striking phrase:

“The term impossible man was used to describe the eleventh-century Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c. 1007-1073). Dante placed Damian in the highest circle of paradise as a saint and the predecessor of Francis of Assisi. A thousand years ago, as in our own time, there was little regard for truth or for the integrity and purity of the Christian faith. Nor was there much sense of the gravity of sin, so the church was easygoing, corruption was rife and the moral and theological rot was as pervasive among the clergy and the leaders of the church as among ordinary people.

. . .

Unquestionably, the term impossible man was ambiguous. It could be taken either as a
compliment or an insult. Doubtless, many of Peter Damian’s generation admired him for his stand, just as many hated him for his fervor, and many were frustrated and made
uncomfortable by what they saw as his intransigence. In other words, the same term could express either admiration or exasperation, as it will again today. But all that was irrelevant to Peter Damian. He spoke, wrote and acted solely with an eye to the audience of One. He could not be deterred by other voices. He was faithful to Jesus alone and above all. His faith had a backbone of steel. He was the impossible man. (pp. 30-31)

Guinness proposes that distinctive witness in our time will be much like that of Damian, and will require of us the qualities of “impossibility” evident in Damian — not only integrity and courage, but spiritual power that apprehends the dynamics of spiritual warfare behind the principalities and powers dominating modern life, and the weapons of such warfare, which is not against other people, whom we are called to love and win.

This incorporation of the spiritual powers behind the cultural forces confronting Christians seemed to me more clearly drawn than in any of Guinness’s other books, which emphasized clear understanding of cultural forces, and our calling to distinctiveness of thought and life in their midst. I cannot recall in other books where Guinness so clearly affirms the reality of the miraculous and works of power as he does here.

There also seemed to be a greater urgency in Guinness in his denunciation of what he sees as the church’s compromises both of integrity and doctrine, including what he sees as the rapid, revisionist shift in the understanding of human sexuality in broad swathes of the church as it embraces the social construction of reality rather than transcendent understandings that have been held through the church’s history. He decries a generationalism within the church which prevents the passing of the baton of faithful witness and presence from elder to rising generations in our present time.

Part of Guinness’s concern is for what he sees to be modernity’s impact on the wider culture as well as upon the church. He sees in such things as the interest in singularity a kind of “tower of Babel” hubris bound to disillusion. Likewise, perhaps in his best chapter, he explores the lingering spiritual memory of modern atheism, that he describes as “life without an amen.”

There is much here I appreciate in his analysis of our present cultural moment. His grasp of the pluralizing, privatizing, and relativizing elements of a modernity rooted in the social construction of reality describes the water we swim in and often have become accustomed to. I wholeheartedly affirm his description of what it means to be “impossible people” and particular the call to a recovery of spiritual power in a materially affluent but spiritually flaccid church.

What I think would have made this case more compelling to me would have been to apply this analysis not merely to the politics of the left, but to our idolizing of politics of all stripes. He takes several swipes at Barack Obama (who was sitting president when he wrote this) but is silent about the politics of the right. I personally believe that one of the things that would make Christians the “impossible people” he would have us be is to forsake all political alliances to left or right to be a prophetic voice toward the versions of idolatry and corruption across the spectrum of our political life.

I also wonder if Guinness’s word about generationalism might have carried more weight were this book to have been co-written with a millenial. My sense is that this is a work that will resonate well with those of Guinness’s own generation, but much less well with many of those he most needs to convince of the case he is making — millenials — if they even pick up this work.

That would be regrettable because the matters Guinness raises are ones of grave concern if true, and ones around which the church needs consensus. We are, sadly as Guinness notes, often divided in the church across the same fault lines as our culture, including those of generation, as well as ethnicity, economic status, and social class. Guinness has been a principled voice for the civil and public engagement of Christians in the wider culture, one respected in many quarters both here and abroad. My hope is that in whatever years remain for him (hopefully many!) he will find more partners across these divides who dialogue, dream, and pray together about what it means to be the “impossible people” he describes. Perhaps that would be something all of us might aspire and pray toward, within our own potential spheres of influence, as well as in our own faith communities.

The Line Between Prudence and Courage

I am participating this week in a conference on higher education and the role of Christians in exercising a redemptive influence in the academic world. A message this morning told the story of a pre-tenured professor who was respectful of others but forthright in sharing how his faith informed his academic work in public presentations. As anyone who is familiar with the academic world knows, this can be risky business. Tenure depends not only on objective things like publications, funding, service, and teaching, but also on what your colleagues think of you. And no matter how good the former, if the latter is a problem, a way often can be found to deny the candidate tenure.

Truth is, this poses a serious question for any person of faith. For such people, one’s beliefs are not confined to a small segment of life but inform how one thinks about all of life. And yet increasingly, people of faith are asked to keep those beliefs to themselves and not allow it to inform their ethics or their scholarship in the academic workplace, except where that conforms to academic orthodoxy.

Admittedly, there are times for prudence. Not every outrageous remark requires an answer. Not all battles are worth fighting. There are some sleeping dogs it is best to let lie. And there is the issue of recognizing that the university is supposed to be a place where no religious view is privileged. Hopefully what that means is that we can have respectful and civil conversations about differences. It does not mean we get to enforce our faith informed view on any issue unless we can persuade others that it really makes the most sense.

But when is courage called for? That is the harder question because courageous acts always require risk, and prudence often suggests avoiding risk. It seems that one instance is where the “prudent” act would be one that deceives others about oneself and denies the truth of what one believes, perhaps including the God one believes in. Courage seems in many cases to involve simply honesty when the alternative is evasion, deception, or denial.

Courage may also be called for when the welfare of others is endangered and trouble can be avoided by avoiding speaking up. I’m reminded of a faculty member who spoke up for a Christian student group whose status on campus was called into question simply because they required their leaders to be Christian. This person, who was highly respected, was not directly connected to the group and did not need to do so, yet was convinced that the university was wrongly using its power and put his own reputation (and power) on the line to make that point.

Those are a few of my reflections. I’d be curious what others think about this issue of where the line between prudence and courage is drawn?