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.