Bob Nichols's Reviews > The Courage to Be

The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich
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Mar 21, 11

Read in March, 2011

This book has two overarching themes that Tillich ties together. First, the modern age is plagued with anxiety, which is an awareness of our potential for "non-being." The three threats to "being" are death, emptiness and loss of meaning, and self-condemnation about not fulfilling our destiny. The result, despair, can be addressed only by an affirmation of our essence, our true self, which is our reason that allows us to participate in universal reason and the cosmic logos. Taking that affirmative step is one component of "the courage to be." Second, this is the realm not of the gods, but of Being itself that transcends space and time. It is the realm of "God above God," and our mystic union with it enables us to "participate in the self-affirmation of being-itself". In this "personal encounter with God," we can negate "non-being" through "divine forgiveness" and "grace," and leave our non-transcendent fears and desires behind. But this also requires us to accept our "entrance" into this transcendent realm. "It is the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts," he says. This act of accepting requires affirmation on our part. It is a "spiritual or intellectual love". It too constitutes the courage to be.

Tillich's theology is not the stuff of biological self-affirmation dedicated to survival. That is too earth-bound, with no way to transcend our fear of death, and our boundedness to the realm of desire, including the desire to live beyond death. Humanism rejects the idea of salvation, but it does not address our existential problem because it also rejects the renunciation of this world of desire. While the affirmation of the essential self "is identical with the power of Brahman," Indian mysticism's focus on other worldly union leaves the problem of meaninglessness in this world behind. In Tillich's theology, our existential condition in this world results in neurosis where we avoid "non-being by avoiding being." Its correction means "being in this world" and requires our participation in a world beyond the self and a generosity toward others.

The reference to generosity towards others seems incidental to Tillich's theology. His focus is on a personal encounter with the divine to deal with one's despair and this seems strikingly self-oriented. While the reference to "God above God" is clear enough, a question nevertheless is why there is this reference to "God" at all? In reading Tillich, there is a sense that he has acknowledged that a theistic God in this day is not tenable so he raises the bar by creating a God above God and, for now, he has inoculated his ultimate reality from the acids of modernity. A problem here is that his theology keeps hope alive in the sense that, while there's no place in heaven for humankind, we can participate in an eternal order nevertheless. If God as personal deity no longer works, maybe God as eternal order will. On these matters of faith and grace, of course, we each find our own way. For those who are less certain than Tillich, it could be that real courage is to accept our utter finitude straight up and take our rightful place in the order of the universe that way. Rather than fighting this life, it could be that we can then experience its pleasures, including those derived from a generosity for others, as well as its pain. Is Tillich's God necessary for that?

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message 1: by Jon (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jon Stout I'm impressed as hell that you read this. Now, if you disagree with me, at least I know you've done the work to understand what we're talking about, so I'd better make a stronger case. Now, at least, we're speaking the same language.

A lot boils down to the use of the word "God." It's sort of like the "N" word. You can say what you want to say, but don't use the "N" word, or in this case the "G" word. I understand why we don't use the "N" word, but I don't understand why we shouldn't use the "G" word.

The reason is, I suppose, that it invokes a magical conception of God as a cosmic meddler that science has taught us to reject, I as much as anybody. But if I want to center myself in my life situation and put myself in touch with the good will and purposefulness of the world around me, what word should I prefer?


message 2: by Bob (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bob Nichols After our exchange last week off line, I decided I needed to read Tillich and Armstrong, and am glad I did as your viewpoint became much clearer to me. I was struck by your comment that sometimes you were baffled by my understanding of your perspective. Hopefully, my review clarifies my views as well.


message 3: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Mallory I imagine Tillich would categorize you as a skeptic.


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