The Courage to Be // Paul Tillich.

Selected as one of the Books of the Century by New York Public Library, there’s something profound and particularly piercing about The Courage to Be that sized thousands. Paul Tillich touched a nerve by diagnosing modern humanity’s central problem as anxiety, particularly the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness.

Apparently spin-off titles are more popular than the original. Or maybe this says something about my search algorithm…

Paul Tillich stands as one of the theological giants of the 20th century (a contentious list). Like many of his contemporaries, the ravages of WWI marred Tillich, forcing him to reconstruct his theology and philosophy from the rubble. After serving as military chaplain, he found clarity and solace from Heidegger and adopted 20th century existentialism. Eventually, the rise of Hitler forced him jobless, but he joined Union Theological Seminary in New York upon Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation. Tillich’s American years were his most productive years, publishing his magnus opus three-volume Systematic Theology.

The Courage to Be is an ambitious work. But I feel most lecture series, like this one from the Terry Lectures at Yale, are ambitious in scope (think of any Gifford Lectures). But ambition does not always indicate foolishness. The only ambitious projects that fail to provide any deliverables prove foolish. In The Courage to Be, Tillich narrows down humanity’s vexing problem as anxiety and offers a systematic account of courage as the solution. Tillich is accurate enough that his vision stimulates hope needed today: there is light at the end of the anxiety tunnel. “Courage is,” Tillich claims, “the key to being-itself,” or the key to life (181).

The chapters divide neatly. In the first chapter Tillich provides a genealogy of courage starting from Plato to Nietzsche, from bravery to do what one thinks is right to the will to live. Tillich seems to follow Spinoza and Nietzsche and say that courage is self-affirmation in spite of what prevents self-affirmation, which are anxiety and nonbeing (32). In the second chapter, Tillich unpacks anxiety by unpacking nonbeing. Nonbeing is a nonexistent thing that parasites on being—it sucks life to reduce to nonexistence. Nonbeing is a constant threat to being because nonbeing resides eternally inside being until it is conquered by divine life (34). This constant threat pumps anxiety’s paralyzing power. Nonbeing manifests in the anxiety of fate and death, of guilt and condemnation, and of emptiness and meaninglessness, where the latter pair is modernity’s most prevalent form (42-54). Surprisingly, courage does not ignore anxiety or its sister fear; instead, the courage to be is self-affirmation in spite of nonbeing. To be in spite of something means to hold that thing in view, spite it, but not be reduced to spiting it.

In chapters four and five Tillich elaborates how the courage to be has two sides: the courage to be as a part (participation) and as oneself (individualization). They are distinct but not wholly separate: “the self is self only because it has a world” (87). The self unwittingly participates in the world she inhabits and is therefore never completely isolated. The self and the world are interdependent. Tillich denies that the courage to be a part is a weakness: there’s great power and significance from being part of some larger whole, say, family, nation, movement, and religious circles. The courage to be as oneself is, however, tightly bound to existentialism in all its form. Both kinds of courage need to be in balance. Extremes of each can eradicate something essential to the individual: extreme courage to be as a part can lead to loss of oneself in the collective; extreme courage to be as oneself can lead to loss of the world in Radical Existentialism.

There is still a greater kind of courage: the courage to accept transcendent acceptance. The courage to face anxiety always includes a risk of being overwhelmed by it and thereby fall into despair (55). Therefore, courage needs insurance: a power “greater than the power of oneself and the power of one’s world” (155)—the power of being-itself. Such confidence, such courage does not, indeed cannot, come from either oneself or the world: it comes from a transcendent being who eternally affirms the individual. In Christian terms, Jesus accepts sinners in spite of their sin. Faith is the means by which the individual experiences such acceptance and self-affirmation: “Faith accepts ‘in spite of’; and out of the ‘in spite of’ of faith the ‘in spite of’ of courage is born” (172). Thus the courage to accept transcendent acceptance is formed.

Chapter three is a sliver that speaks on the pastor’s and therapist’s place in dealing with anxiety and neurotic or chronic anxiety. It’s more for clarification and a call to help one another by not overstepping one’s profession or field of expertise. In short, the pastor should not play the therapist, and vice versa.


This is my first work by Paul Tillich. I’ve read about him in primers and surveys, but never straight from the horse’s mouth. My theological upbringing (since Wheaton College) was pretty evangelical. Therefore, Tillich was scrutinized as an existentialist with a theologian’s garb—a very thin one. Instead of “God” he uses “Ground of Being”—a title I never understood until I read some more existentialism and The Courage to Be. His Method of Correlation was criticized for reducing theology as attempted answers to philosophy’s questions: man asks why, and theology answers. In such method or system, theology is merely the cupbearer to Pharaoh Philosophy. So, according to some it’s possible to be Tillichian and not Christian, and Christians who are Tillichian are just Tillichian. It’s an odd set-up, really.

I, for one, like Tillich, though he’s a mess of a human being (his multiple affairs and unreserved defense of them are quite revolting) and the ending of The Courage to Be felt amiss. Nevertheless, he has some important things to say, and he says it with grit. This line, for instance, is goldmine:

“The human mind is not only, as Calvin has said, a permanent factory of idols, it is also a permanent factory of fears—the first in order to escape God, the second in order to escape anxiety; and there is a relation between the two. For facing the God who is really God means facing also the absolute threat of nonbeing” (39).

Tillich draws from tradition (Calvin) and expands it to address today’s needs (factory of fears). This is good theology, I’d say.

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