Paul Tillich sees that there is courage in taking on despair and doubt, such courage, ‘takes despair [into itself] and resist[s] the radical threat of nonbeing by the courage to be as oneself’. So if we are brave enough to accept the negative and face things as they actually are and not be seduced by temporary security Tillich thinks that we arrive at a deeper hope.
‘The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing…. The act of accepting meaningless is itself a meaningful act.’
There is an affirmation of life even as we suffer. When one has the courage to take the anxiety of meaningless upon oneself, a true power of being is revealed. ‘The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt’.
So how much did I get from this book over thirty years ago when I was trying to unpack and understand Tillich’s rather dense prose – a lot of which I just didn’t understand? Realistically and consciously not that much but the title did mean something and perhaps at a deeper level I began to appreciate that psychology and religion did have meeting places and that one could inform the other and could co-exist and indeed nurture one another. Perhaps most importantly the gift of the book convinced me that my then psychotherapist understood what I needed and where I was coming from and that action in itself gave me courage.
When I looked through the book this week so many years later I found a card inside where I had copied out three extracts from psalms. I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian then though I was attending Quaker meeting and later became a member of the Society of Friends but I clearly did search for biblical inspiration.
The card is headed ‘Thoughts’ and includes the following extracts from The New English Bible version that I then used:
‘When in my distress I called to the Lord, His answer was to set me free’ (Psalm 118)
‘I love the Lord for he has heard me and listens to my prayer … I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 116)
‘So every faithful heart shall pray to thee in the hour of anxiety, when great floods threaten. Thou are a refuge for me from distress so that it cannot touch me; thou dost guard me and enfold me in salvation beyond all reach of harm’ (Psalm 32)
The psalmists knew about the courage to be…
Paul Tillich does look specifically at neurotic anxiety which he sees as avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being. So if one is totally wrapped up in the symptoms of anxiety one is not fully confronting life with courage. He writes that courage ‘is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives…for the sake of a fuller positivity. Biological self-affirmation implies the acceptance of want, toil, insecurity, pain, possible destruction…. The more vital strength a being has the more it is able to affirm itself in spite of the dangers announced by fear and anxiety’. This courage is not just individual but to accept that one is a part able to participate with others and so able to love. Tillich is saying that being courageous doesn’t work as a theoretical position or as taking a detached view of the world and life. Courage happens when one takes part and is involved – here I think ‘only connect’ comes to mind.
On the website Tillich Resources Tillich’s support of existentialism as a philosophy of life and self-affirmation is described, but his approach to religion as a way to counter meaninglessness remains in many ways ambiguous. He thinks the courage to be can be accessed particularly in mysticism where ‘the individual self strives for a participation in the ground of being which approaches identification…it is self-surrender in a higher, more complete, and more radical form…the perfect form of self-affirmation’. The mystic conquers the anxiety of fate and death by elevating the soul above the finite to the infinite. The other kind of religious encounter with the power of being is the personal encounter or communion with God and the ‘courage of confidence in the personal reality which is manifest in the religious experience’.
If we believe that we are forgiven by God then this facilitates ‘the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable’ – this helps with the guilt. This is the idea that it is the courage to accept acceptance – despite everything we are acceptable – to use the Winnicott expression relief can arrive with the acceptance that one is ‘good-enough’ – not perfect (which is impossible). In accessing the accepting love of the self that comes from beyond our self, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation is conquered. And holding firmly still to the balance of the opposites Tillich sees that faith can exist alongside doubt and despair – indeed that is the only way possible; and here he defines faith as ‘ the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself.’
Paul Tillich understood the need to balance the opposites – so that to have ‘being’ there has to be ‘non-being’ too but he sees this as the negation of everything; it has to be there as destruction has to be balanced as the opposite of creation. Non-being links to anxiety – for if we know that we are alive then we will also know that we can also not be alive. If we are fearful and afraid then that is usually about something in particular – in other words there is an object to focus on whereas anxiety is generalised and has no object. Fear can be faced and overcome but with anxiety ‘participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible’. If we are left without a focus or a tactic to use as with fear then anxiety leaves us feeling overwhelmed and impotent often turning into depression. For Tillich it is the power of being that then stirs beneath anxiety so as he writes nonbeing strives toward being when ‘anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage’.
Tillich distinguishes three types of anxiety: that of fate and death (ontological); that of emptiness and loss of meaning (spiritual); and that of guilt and condemnation (moral). Each of the three can be applied to the personal as realities in an individual’s life and to the social/ collective. Ontological anxiety the fear of fate and death applies to everyone and we cannot get away from it: ‘everybody is aware of the complete loss of self which biological extinction implies.’ Here he uses the word ‘fate’ to refer to ‘mini-death’ where we are open to any change at any time which leaves us aware of our weakness and vulnerability through disease and accidents. Nonbeing is not only felt through death and fate but also spiritually in the encounter with meaninglessness, the result of which is the second kind of anxiety; the antidote is spiritual self-affirmation, which ‘occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning’. Yet the second anxiety is spiritual anxiety which threatens our entire sense of self – here the antidote is to accept the possibility of the despair of emptiness and lack of meaning the danger is to deny this and so embrace fanaticism and deny all doubt. Anxiety linked to guilt (the third one) is when we fall short of what we know we could be and become and end up rejecting our self.
Interestingly Tillich sees the age in which he was writing (post-war 1950s) as visibly spiritual anxious – surely we are even more so in the 21s century with our emphasis on materialism and denial of the spirituality of nature.
The Courage to Be
Over thirty years ago I went into psychotherapy with an analytical psychologist, a Jungian who had trained at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London. About a year into the work she lent me her copy of The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich first published in 1952. Eventually I bought my own copy which I carried around for years almost like a transitional object but also because the very title was an impetus to take a leap into daring to become the person that I was meant to be.
It was D.W. Winnicott who said that the main problem for children brought up in the 1950s and 1960s was being crushed – that’s another way of saying compliant. In other words you behave the way that the parent(s) wants you to behave but this is managed in such a way – by some parents at least so that the very energy of the life force is subdued. From this comes the false self, a persona that is presented to the world and where sometimes the true/essential self remains hidden. I couldn’t understand the book very well at that stage but I knew it was a message.
Paul Tillich was a German Protestant philosopher and theologian and he writes about the concept of what he calls ‘courage’ and how this can be mobilised to confront anxiety. The great thing is that Tillich has knowledge of depth psychology as well as the ideas of existentialism. Tillich was writing less about a particular individual’s reasons for being anxious and rather looking at it as a modern psychological epidemic leading to a loss of meaning. For him courage is the treatment or the antidote to anxiety in the sense of affirming one’s own life even in the face of the certainty of death and given that our life may seem to have no apparent purpose. At the heart of his exploration is the idea of the guilt that we carry for not being ‘acceptable’ in our own eyes – one might see here the endless striving to prove oneself and the disappointment of not being ‘perfect’.
Looking again at my rather tattered copy I can see how male dominated the language is but there’s some good things to take from his explorations. Tillich defines courage as ‘the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being’; it’s an ethical act because we are affirming our being alive despite all the elements of existence which conflict with this essential self-affirmation. In Tillich’s look at the philosophical background to the idea of courage he includes the writing of Thomas Aquinas who sees courage united with ideas of faith, hope and love and how it can be a gift of the Divine Spirit.
Generally Tillich is writing about the courage for the true self to be – he uses the term ‘one’s essential being’.