The Courage to Be: An Antidote to Meaninglessness

Paul Tillich was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher born in 1886 and is considered as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

He is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952), Dynamics of Faith (1957), and the three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63).

At the age of 8, Tillich would lie in his bed before sleeping and think about the problem of the infinite. This tremendous power grasped him and sparked his interest in philosophical problems. Theology played an important role in his upbringing as well.

Tillich served in the German army as a chaplain during the First World War, participating in the Battle of Verdun, and buried numerous soldiers, including his closest friend. In his free time, he would read Nietzsche in the forests near the battlefields thus contributing to a statement often attributed to him that he became an existentialist on the Western Front.

Tillich was hospitalised three times for combat trauma, and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire. He sustained two nervous collapses during his time of military service for what would have then been called battle fatigue or shell shock, and now might be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He recovered enough both times to return to the front.

Throughout his life, he suffered from night terrors from which he would awaken screaming. Years later, Tillich would recall his time spent in service:

“When the German soldiers went into the First World War most of them shared the popular belief in a nice God who would make everything work out for the best. Actually, everything worked out for the worst, for the nation and almost everyone else. In the trenches of the war, the popular belief in personal providence was broken and by the fifth year of war there was nothing left of it.”

Paul Tillich, The New Being

In reflecting upon this and other similar questions over the years, Tillich sought to respond to the question:

“What shall we do with that which is given in our lives?”

Paul Tillich, On The Boundary

Tillich believed that to live on the boundary was the best place to acquire knowledge. He writes:

“I have had to stand between alternative possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither and to take no definite stand against either… this position proved fruitful for thought; but it is difficult and dangerous in life, which again and again demands decisions and thus the exclusion of alternatives.”

Paul Tillich, On The Boundary

He served as a professor of theology in Germany and began to develop his systematic theology. Tillich developed a friendship with fellow German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

The aftereffects of the two World Wars had left the world in a state of disorientation, estrangement, anxiety and meaninglessness. Tillich had been one of the earliest resistors of Hitler in Germany and his radical views and defiance of the authority made him the first non-Jewish professor dismissed from a German university after Hitler came to power.

He fled with his family to the United States after being invited to join the faculty at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for over two decades.

Method of Correlation

The most important aspect about Tillich’s theology is what he calls the “method of correlation”. As a Protestant theologian, Tillich rejects fundamentalism as it fails to make contact with the present situation. He sees religion as moving between the eternal truths of its foundation and our historical situation.

The human questions of anxiety, meaninglessness, estrangement, etc., are correlated with religious answers. There is a mutual interdependence between theology and existential, philosophical and psychological issues.

The interplay between the human and the divine is crucial for Tillich, it is what allows us to get into the depths of reality.

The Courage to Be: Introduction

While lecturing on anxiety, Tillich noticed that there was an enormous response in the post-war era, especially in the younger people, and he sought to give an answer to the growing anxiety which had developed.

In 1952, he published The Courage to Be, in which he presents his antidote to humanity’s loss of meaning through the concept of courage.

Tillich is not just theorising, he is trying to give us guidance on how to live, and his idea of courage resonates deeply with his personal life. He starts by looking at the history of Western thought. For the Ancient Greeks, one is courageous for the sake of what is noble, for that is the aim of virtue.

“The greatest test of courage is the readiness to make the greatest sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life, and since the solider is required by his profession to be always ready for this sacrifice, the soldier’s courage was and somehow remained the outstanding example of courage.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

However, the death of Socrates brought a whole new idea of courage, the soldierly fortitude was transcended by the courage of wisdom. It became a symbol for the whole ancient world, showing the interdependence of the courage to die and the courage to live. For Tillich, courage is not just the ability to endure, it is also wisdom towards that which concerns us ultimately.

He draws on thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas (who describes courage as being capable of conquering whatever threatens the attainment of the highest good), the Stoics (for whom courage is a virtue), Spinoza (who believes that courage is individual self-affirmation) and Nietzsche (for whom courage is life-affirmation).

The Courage to Be: Anxiety

For Tillich, courage is self-affirmation in spite of anxiety over the threat of nonbeing.

Man is not only anxiously aware of his finitude, he also knows it as what it is. He anticipates his future nonbeing, and he knows that once upon a time he was not. The awareness of finitude creates anxiety. This anxiety cannot be eliminated as it belongs to existence itself. One can, however, find the best way to deal with anxiety. This is what Tillich wants to attain.

Anxiety is different from fear in that fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object and one feels impotent and disempowered, it results from facing the threat of nonbeing (a true nothingness).

Tillich tells us that there are three types of anxiety: anxiety of fate and death (which is ontic, that is to say, factual to our existence as particular beings), anxiety of guilt and condemnation (moral), and anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness (spiritual). He compares them, respectively, with the ancient civilisation, the Middle ages and the modern period. But in spite of the predominance of one type, the others are also present and effective.

The anxiety of death is tied with the unpredictability of fate, which is subject to chance. He observes how the Stoic courage (of the type of Marcus Aurelius), possessed a real danger and alternative to Christian courage.

In Christianity, this anxiety is reduced by man’s participation in the divine being who had taken fate and death upon himself. The Stoics, however, believe that every day a little of our life is taken from us since we are dying every day. Therefore, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death; it merely completes the death process. The horrors connected with it are a matter of imagination. They vanish when the mask is taken from the image of death.

Stoic courage presupposes the surrender to the Logos, which is the faculty of reason in individuals and the rational principle that organises the cosmos. Clear-mindedness allows one to live in harmony with the Logos, this is how anxiety is dealt with.

While Stoicism espouses cosmic resignation, Christianity proposes cosmic salvation.

In the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, every individual, whether one is religious or not, has the necessity to make of himself what he is supposed to become, to realise his potential. We all have an ideal project and we are faced with guilt and condemnation when we fail to live up to our ideal. This is because we have the power to act against our ideal, to contradict our essential being, a profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything we do, and it can drive oneself toward complete self-rejection.

The last form of anxiety, that of emptiness and meaninglessness, happens when what one had found most meaningful in his life is transformed into indifference or aversion. The individual then “escapes from his freedom”, as Eric Fromm put it.

To avoid the risk of asking and doubting, the individual surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life and escape the anxiety of meaninglessness. This, however, leads to fanaticism, by attacking those who disagree with him. He must suppress in others what he had to suppress in himself.

Pathological anxiety results in a total inability to face one’s life. The neurotic must eschew the reality of illness or danger by hiding in a “castle of defence”, in order to function properly. This is what Ernest Becker argues most people do in his book The Denial of Death, influencing what is now known as the Terror Management Theory.

Although Becker also talks about the existential hero’s way, who sees his impotence and vulnerability instead of hiding within the illusions and disguising his struggle by piling up figures in the bank to privately reflect his sense of heroic worth.

Tillich writes:

“The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Courage is the strength to affirm one’s own life in the face of inevitable annihilation, even if it may seem to have no purpose, and even if we are destined to carry great burdens of guilt for not being perfect or “acceptable” in our own eyes. It is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives for the sake of a fuller positivity. Encouragement is literally embodying courage.

“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Even if we feel that life is meaningless, if we take the question of meaning seriously, then in the very seriousness of our question, the ultimate meaning is still present.

Why do we take all this so seriously? Because that is what we are here for. That is the question of to be or not be. The question of life and death. Even if we do not know any answer whatsoever, the seriousness of our questioning is the manifestation that we still have an ultimate concern over the meaning of life.

The Courage to Be: Participation and Individualisation

Tillich believes that few concepts are as useful for the analysis of the human condition as the concept of courage. It is an ethical reality, but is also rooted in the whole of human existence and in the structure of being itself, as an ontological reality.

He distinguishes courage by participation and by individualisation. One feels courage by participating in the part of a larger whole that helps sustain one’s existence, and one can be courageous by being oneself (individualisation).

Tillich draws on the existentialists, who he believes offer the most radical form of the courage to be as oneself, because it demands involvement and participation over a theoretical or detached approach to life. This gives a solution to crippling despair and pathological anxiety, by considering the whole of existence from the point of view of the single individual.

However, while both participation and individualisation provide important resources for overcoming anxiety, fear and despair, Tillich believes that neither pole is able to fully reconcile with its counterpart, one risks falling into complete collectivism or individualism.

One cannot look to either the self or the world, the state of existence is a state of estrangement. A truly transcendent power is needed to unite the two so that courage can be fully asserted in the face of anxiety and the threat of nonbeing. The human situation of estrangement is overcome by the appearance of a new being, that allows a courageous affirmation of our life.

The Ground of Being

Tillich’s concept of God transcends the theistic notion, it is not a being, but the ground of being. He cannot be referred to as an individual being among beings. He is personal and suprapersonal at the same time.

“The question of the existence of God can neither be asked nor answered… It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being itself, not a being… As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings –  the world… Being itself infinitely transcends every finite being.”

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1

Tillich calls this power the “God above God” because it enjoys that position historically attributed to God, but does not abide by theistic conventions.

God is the ground and depth of existence from which the individual unites both ontological poles of courage and is therefore able to instantiate both self-affirmation (the courage to be as oneself) and self-participation (the courage to be as a part).


Tillich stresses the importance of symbols, which participate in the meaning and power of  reality, to which they point (the ground of being), they are the bridge between the infinite and the finite.

Symbols can be born, they can live and they can die, and Tillich worries that many of the symbols in Christianity are dying.

“Without the whole of religious experience and religious symbolism, the problem of the symbols of the eternal life, lose their basis and their meaning. They become a caricature of faith – they become superstition.”

Paul Tillich, Lecture “Symbols of Eternal Life”

Tillich warns us against demythologisation, the literalistic distortion of symbols and myths, or restating religious expressions in terms of scientific or rational ones. Symbols lose their meaning if taken literally. They must be criticised on the basis of their power to express what they are supposed to express, such as the meaning of life and the experience of the holy.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Therefore there is no faith without risk. The risk of faith is that it could affirm a wrong symbol of ultimate concern. It is wrong, therefore, to consider the risk concerning uncertain historical facts as part of the risk of faith.

The risk of faith is existential; it concerns the totality of our being. A wrong faith can destroy the meaning of one’s life, while a wrong historical judgment cannot, as it is theoretical. These are two different dimensions which should not be confused according to Tillich.

Tillich’s theology is not propositional, it is not about logical statements, which only “absents” us from ourselves and “brackets” the existential concerns of our totality of being. There is rather a participatory engagement with the symbols in which one undergoes a profound transformation.

The Ultimate Concern

We have many daily concerns in our life. However, every human being has something which he finds sacred, even if it is the cynical desire to have nothing sacred, than this desire is sacred to him. Tillich writes:

“Even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God.”

 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

The ultimate concern is what one’s life as a whole means. Tillich defined faith as the state of being ultimately concerned.

This ultimate concern can also take a demonic form, when one’s character is destructive, when one wants to draw the whole world into himself. It is the temptation to be like God.

The perception of the ultimate concern is so overwhelming and valuable that all else seems insignificant, it therefore requires total surrender. This ecstasy transcends both the nonrational unconscious and rational consciousness. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself, without ceasing to be oneself.

Nothing is more difficult than to be reconciled with ourselves. Everyone has a hidden hostility against his own being, we are hostile against human beings even if we believe we love them.

The notion of reconciliation is important for Tillich. Faith is the courage to accept acceptance, self-surrender in a higher, more complete, and more radical form, the perfect form of self-affirmation.

“One could say that the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Tillich calls this absolute faith, which is the best way to deal with the three forms of anxiety that we mentioned earlier, it elevates the soul above the finite to the infinite.

It is important to note that this is not the existentialist courage to be as oneself, it is the paradoxical act in which one is accepted by that which infinitely transcends one’s individual self.

The courageous acceptances of the negative, and meaningful attempts to reveal the meaninglessness of our situation are often misunderstood by the collectivist affirmers, who avoid the reality of life’s challenges in favour of temporary security. But the courage to face things as they are is a radical and creative negativity that points to 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 meaninglessness is itself a meaningful act.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

When we stop trying to push away the nothingness, but have a relationship with it and move through it, then we overcome meaninglessness.

On the last day of his life, after suffering from complications related to a heart attack, Tillich told his wife “Today is dying day”, touched his bible and asked for forgiveness for the sins he had committed during his life. He died shortly after.

“We have a right to… ultimate hope, even in view of all other hopes, even in the face of death. For we experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love… We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments when we feel this is a holy place, a holy time; it transcends the ordinary experience: It gives more, it demands more, it points to the mystery… of all existence… Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal.”

Paul Tillich, Sermon “The Right to Hope”

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The Courage to Be: An Antidote to Meaninglessness

In The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich presents his antidote to meaninglessness through the concept of courage.

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