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Faith as courage to be

This leads us to the second main realm of Tillich’s notion of faith, his ‘existentialism’, which he explains in detail in Systematic Theology.5 Existentialism was originally a reaction to Hegel’s total philosophy and so it emphasized the concretely existing [1] [2]

human individual as opposed to overarching ideal and historical structures. Existentialism sought to expose being to fundamental questions but renounced giving definitive answers. Christian theology also needs existentialism because it seeks to understand human persons and their questions so that a renewed formulation of the Christian message - that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ - may be offered.[3]

Existentialism in Tillich’s view is about the grasping of being in the form in which human personhood discloses it, in human misery as well as in human grandeur. A person is always a synthesis of both, and the proportion of misery and greatness changes from time to time and from one person to another. Still, we are able to realize the one in the other: grandeur in misery and misery in greatness. A human person is both a believer and an unbeliever, having faith as ultimate concern and forgetting the ultimate call of being. This ambiguity is the expression of the haziness of being, of being exposed to the threat of the dark nothingness of non-being.

Faith as ‘the courage to be’ is the attitude a human person is called to assume in face of such nothingness. In The Courage to Be, Tillich describes the history of the notion of courage from Plato through Thomas Aquinas to Nietzsche so that he can show the development of this notion until it reaches an ultimately personal meaning. The second important notion is that of anxiety. Tillich identifies anxiety as the effect of non-being in the realm of being. Fear and anxiety emerge from the conflict of being and non-being, and since human existence is openness to being, it entails openness to non-being as well.[4] Thus, anxiety is not only a formal output of an ontological tension but also the lived experience of human persons facing physical, moral and intellectual collapse. Through the experience of persons, anxiety becomes the fundamental feature of culture, and a feature of modernity in particular, when the ontological conflict becomes more violent than ever. The cultural, political, moral and intellectual crises of our age, Tillich says, are only symptoms of an unfathomable divergence in being, a divergence unfurling gradually in the course of Christian history. It is the essence of human vocation to overcome divergence in the act of faith as the courage to be.[5]

What actually happens in faith? Human persons are apparently defenceless beings: they are born naked and helpless, live in societies which are often unjust and exploitive and are surrounded by a nature which is always apt to unleash destruction. Yet human persons do not give up and so organize themselves into societies, develop science and technology, take care of the weak and the sick, defend themselves against the extremities of nature and sometimes even revolt against repressive regimes. More importantly, they pray and build churches. They realize the courage to be on the cultural and political level. In faith properly so-called, human beings bring about the courage to be on the existential level of being. Facing the abysmal darkness of non-being, human persons turn to being and give themselves to the renewing power of life. Faith is the courage to be on the transcendental level, by which we accept our being accepted into the productive source of being, which is God. Ultimately, faith originates in this source of being, and if humans become capable of having faith, being courageous in view of non-being, it is only because the gracious power of being encourages them to turn against death and choose life.[6]

Faith is a Christian phenomenon, but in latent forms it is present in other religious structures as well, such as in Daoism, and also in various forms of non-theistic humanism. Tillich’s broad ontology of courage makes him able to speak of faith in cases where no obvious religious connotation can be discovered, such as in atheistic humanism. Tillich can be generous because he was generously supplied with so many fruitful insights. Such an insight, originating in the thought of Schelling, concerns the end of theism and the notion of ‘God above God’. Tillich realizes that traditional forms of theism are linked to a terminology hardly capable of describing the ontological and existential situation of humankind during the second half of the twentieth century. Thus he thinks that a superficial theism must be transcended and a new kind of awareness is to be acquired. In the total movement of faith, in ‘absolute faith’ as Tillich names it, shallow forms of theism are overcome so that we may discover ‘God above God’: ‘The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.’[7]

In spite of his unusual terminology, Tillich remains faithful to Christian faith: he labours to abandon idolatrous notions of God and trusts himself to the God whose faith he was given after all his struggles against the demons of non-being, anxiety and self-annulment. Indeed, as Tillich’s thought proves, the demons remain the same, but God is forever new.

Study questions

  • 1. What are Tillich’s approaches to the notion of faith?
  • 2. What is the meaning of ‘ultimate concern’ for Tillich?
  • 3. What is ‘the courage to be’ in Tillich’s thought?
  • 4. Can an atheist have faith according to Tillich?
  • 5. Is the notion of ‘God above God’ identical with atheism?

Further reading

Dulles, Avery, The Assurance of Things Hoped For (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), ch. 6.

MacIntyre, Alasdair, ‘God and the Theologians’, Encounter 21:3 (September 1963), pp. 3-10.

Re Manning, Russell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Wright, Eliott, Paul Tillich as Hero: An Interview with Rollo May. See: http://www.religion- Accessed 15 March 2014.

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  • [1] Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper, 1957), p. 1.
  • [2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 19-28.
  • [3] Tillich, Systematic Theology II, pp. 118-137.
  • [4] independently of Tillich, we find this notion in the important mystical writings of the Hungarianphilosopher Laszlo Gondos-Grunhut written in the 1930s: Die Liebe und das Sein (Bonn: Bouvier, 1990).
  • [5] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952).
  • [6] Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 160.
  • [7] Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 190.
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