"The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt."
So concludes Paul Tillich at the end of his 1952 book, The Courage to Be
. But what exactly does that mean?
In this book, Tillich has identified three forms of anxiety - that is, three forms of "nonbeing" that threaten the foundations on which we base our lives. They are the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. Tillich has also identified two poles for the courage we can summon to overcome those anxieties - the courage to be as a part, and the courage to be as oneself. We all express our courage in some combination of these two. But neither of them is enough to overcome the anxiety of nonbeing completely, because we all have human limitations. Something more is needed, something that can transcend our boundaries.
In his final chapter, Tillich writes about "the power of being-itself," or "the God above the God of theism." And this is where things get a bit tricky, because anything that transcends our human limitations is by definition beyond our human concepts. Any description in words is inadequate, and in fact some of our best words have been weakened over the ages by our inadequate uses of them. We say "God," but we don't mean an old guy with a beard sitting on a throne in the sky or any other image you may have. We say "faith," but we don't mean "belief in something unbelievable." Ultimately, any words we use to describe what it is that strengthens and encourages us will fail. God disappears in the anxiety of doubt - and yet God remains."We have defined courage as the self-affirmation of being in spite of nonbeing. The power of this self-affirmation is the power of being which is effective in every act of courage. Faith is the experience of this power.
"But it is an experience which has a paradoxical character, the character of accepting acceptance. Being-itself transcends every finite being infinitely; God in the divine-human encounter transcends man unconditionally. Faith bridges this infinite gap by accepting the fact that in spite of it the power of being is present, that he who is separated is accepted. ... Faith is not a theoretical affirmation of something uncertain, it is the existential acceptance of something transcending ordinary experience. Faith is not an opinion but a state. It is the state of being grasped by the power of being which transcends everything that is and in which everything that is participates."
One reason our words and concepts for God always fail us is because they always put God into a subject-object relationship. Either we are the subjects relating to God as an object (which He is not), or God is the subject and we become objects. This notion reminded me of something Thomas Merton once wrote, taking apart the "cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am") of Descartes - "For the contemplative there is no cogito
and no ergo
but only SUM
." And in fact, this entire last chapter reminds me of Merton's book, The Ascent to Truth
, which became impenetrable to me at one point when I read it two years ago. I think I can grasp it a little better now.
Reading this chapter, I was also reminded of the movement, "Behold, God the Lord passeth by
" from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah
, which I sang many years ago, where God comes to Elijah not as a mighty wind nor an earthquake nor a fire, but as a "still, small voice.""Absolute faith, or the state of being grasped by the God beyond God, is not a state which appears beside other states of the mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which could be isolated and described. It is always a movement in, which, and under other states of the mind. It is the situation on the boundary of man's possibilities. It is this boundary. Therefore it is both the courage of despair and the the courage in and above every courage. It is not a place where one can live, it is without the safety of words and concepts, it is without a name, a church, a cult, a theology. But it is moving in the depth of all of them. It is the power of being, in which they participate and of which they are fragmentary expressions."
And so concludes this summer's reading. I should mention that there's another Tillich book called Dynamics of Faith
. I'll have to put that on my list of books for the future.