“There are no valid arguments for the ‘existence’ of God, but there are acts of courage in which we affirm the power of being, whether we know it or not. If we know it, we accept acceptance consciously. If we do not know it, we nevertheless accept it and participate in it.”
– Paul Tillich
“Though Thou slay me, yet will I praise Thee”
– Job 13:15
Despair and Joy¶
I experience deep joy. I experience utter despair. Why?
Why does a dharma talk about joy contain a story about a Zen monk leading a home-made ceremony to help bereft parents wash the body of their boy who has just died of cancer?
Why does a kirtan singer stop chanting to tell stories about the guru whose passing broke his heart?
Why does honesty require courage? What is the nature of this courage?
Paul Tillich writes that, “courage can show us what being is, and being can show us what courage is.” So, let us be together for a moment and see what we experience.
“Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one’s own true being. This combination of courage and joy shows the ontological character of courage most clearly. If courage is interpreted in ethical terms alone, its relation to the joy of self-fulfillment remains hidden. In the ontological act of the self-affirmation of one’s essential being, courage and joy coincide.”
Before we’ve even begun, Tillich tells us that courage is not only about ethics–that is, honesty and how to be–it is about ‘ontology’: that is, being-itself. The courage to stand up for the truth (or live honestly) is interdependent with the courage to be true (or truly be). The courage to be true–to say Yes to life in a fundamental way–is expressed in daily life as joy. As Tillich says, “the affirmation of one’s essential being in spite of desires and anxieties creates joy.”
Perhaps we experience joy because each one of us is born capable of affirming our true being, and we experience despair because none of us can share fully what or who is being affirmed?
“Our only hope is the hope that appears when the situation is beyond hope.”
– Peter J Gomes
Affirming our true being–what Tillich calls self-affirmation–is the paradox of “participation in something which transcends the self”. This is possible because the neat split we often assume between subject and object has no inherent existence. We are participants in the mystery, just as we are each a unique expression of the mystery. Tillich is carving out space enough to allow for the full expression of both these truths. He begins by emphasising the participative element, along with the paradoxical nature of the self being affirmed:
“Perfect self-affirmation is not an isolated act which originates in the individual being but is participation in the universal or divine act of self-affirmation, which is the originating power in every individual act. In this idea the ontology of courage has reached its fundamental expression [...] an expression of the participation of the soul in divine self-love. The courage to be is possible because it is participation in the self-affirmation of being-itself.”
What we affirm when we say Yes to life is not the small self who seems to experience it, but the entire being in which we find ourselves enfolded.
“In every encounter with reality the structures of self and world are interdependently present. The most fundamental expression of this fact is the language which gives man the power to abstract and, after having abstracted, to return, to interpret and transform.”
The total situation is the question to which your limited perception is called to respond. The language with which you choose to interpret this may transform the totality into something which can be shared. However, being limited, I cannot hope to respond with consequence unless I simultaneously participate in that which is greater than me while realising who I truly am.
“In doing all this the courageous self is united with life itself and its secret.”
How can I describe this notion of participating with that which is greater than myself, while simultaneously realising who I truly am? For a brief moment, Tillich arrives at the African concept of ubuntu, writing, “only in the continuous encounter with other persons does the person become and remain a person.” There is a deep and revealing truth in this which goes to the heart of participation and individuation. However, we will explore a slightly different perspective here by together considering the term vitality:
“Vitality is the power of creating beyond oneself without losing oneself.”
“A life process which shows this balance and–with it–power of being has, in biological terms, vitality, i.e. life power. The right courage therefore must, like the right fear, be understood as the expression of perfect vitality. The courage to be is a function of vitality.”
The power of being is fundamentally balanced. This is why the ethical aspect of courage is equally important–interdependent with–the question of true being. It is not just courage: it is a specific kind of courage we seek, just as we recognise that there is healthy fear. In fact, this humbling recognition is precisely what grounds the courage required to face the terminal doubt of God and take meaninglessness fully into itself.
To embody the courage that takes meaninglessness into itself, we need to first understand the dialectical nature of participation and begin thinking in terms of power instead of in terms of things. By ‘power’, I don’t mean the concept which corrupts, but the force and presence of life, of work done across time, energy exerted in relation to one another. Taken in this sense, we can approach Tillich’s increasingly loopy sentences:
“Vitality, power of life, is correlated to the kind of life to which it gives power. “
That is, you can choose to live a revitalising life or not. The power by, with, and within which you live can be amplified or drained by how you live. This occurs by virtue of your intention, which just means your ‘relationship to meanings’ (what you intend to do is what you mean to happen). Vitality, considered as the power of creating beyond oneself without losing oneself, allows us to realise the abiding bridge between matter and spirit:
“Nothing is ‘merely biological’ as nothing is ‘merely spiritual.’ Every cell of our body participates in our freedom and spirituality, and every act of our spiritual creativity is nourished by our vital dynamics.”
“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
In order to give a full description of courage, Tillich recognises that he must describe its polarity: anxiety. Courage, in his terms, is always “in spite of” and we have to know in spite of what if we are to understand both the ethical and ontological implications of his insights.
Ultimately, Tillich is talking about the courage to be in spite of nonbeing. It is the constant and inescapable threat of nonbeing which makes being courageous. In Tillich's framework, nonbeing can take either relative or absolute form in three different (but interdependent) ways: ontological, spiritual, and moral.
- Our ontological anxieties are fate (relative) and death (absolute)
- Our spiritual anxieties are doubt (relative) and meaninglessness (absolute)
- Our moral anxieties are guilt (relative) and condemnation (absolute)
These are not pathologies: they are present in each of us. Every age experiences and expresses these anxieties, though with a different emphasis. The expression of anxiety is especially prevalent at the end of each age. The end of antiquity is dominated by anxiety about fate and death. The end of the Middle Ages is dominated by anxiety about guilt and condemnation. And our own age is dominated by anxiety about doubt and meaninglessness.
Tillich makes a long survey of the many different responses philosophy, art, culture, and politics have given to these interrelated anxieties. He arrives at the realisation that neither participation nor individuation is enough to handle the triple burden of these anxieties which are part and parcel of being:
“Courage needs the power of being, a power transcending the nonbeing which is experienced in the anxiety of fate and death, which is present in the anxiety of [doubt] and meaninglessness, which is effective in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. The courage which takes this threefold anxiety into itself must be rooted in a power of being that is greater than the power of oneself and the power of one’s world. Neither self-affirmation as a part nor self-affirmation as oneself is beyond the manifold threat of nonbeing.”
Essentially, we are looking for one kind of courage, expressed in multiple ways:
“Self-affirmation as a part requires as much courage as does self-affirmation as oneself. It is one courage which takes a double threat of nonbeing into itself. The courage to be is essentially always the courage to be as a part and the courage to be as oneself, in interdependence.”
Knowing this, Tillich turns to two kinds of courage which epitomise either participation or individuation. These are (i) mystical participation in God, or (ii) personal encounter with God.
“As long as the absence of the power of being is felt as despair, it is the power of being which makes itself felt through despair. To experience this and to endure it is the courage to be of the mystic in the state of emptiness.”
However encouraging it may be to know that this courage of despair can be embodied (and indeed has been embodied over and over again throughout the ages), Tillich points out that:
“Mysticism does not take seriously the concrete and the doubt concerning the concrete. It plunges directly into the ground of being and meaning, and leaves the concrete, the world of finite values and meanings, behind. Therefore it does not solve the problem of meaninglessness. In terms of the present religious situation this means that Eastern mysticism is not the solution of the problems of Western Existentialism, although many people attempt this solution.”
So, perhaps it is in the individual’s personal encounter with the divine that salvation lies?
“The courage to affirm oneself in spite of the anxiety of condemnation is the courage which we have called the courage of confidence. It is rooted in the personal, total, and immediate certainty of divine forgiveness.”
Yet this personal encounter is also insufficient. Its emphasis in culture led not only to fascism and Nazism, but also to a destructive Existentialism in our time. Tillich doesn’t demean the existential perspective–often illustrating its roots in various aspects of theology–but he uses it to illustrate the shortcomings of elevating personal encounter above all else.
Ultimately, having analysed both the courage to be as a part and the courage to be as oneself, Tillich comes to a uniquely integrative insight:
“If participation is dominant, the relation to being-itself has a mystical character, if individualization prevails the relation to being-itself has a personal character, if both poles are accepted and transcended the relation to being-itself has the character of faith.”
“Without a consciousness of truth itself, doubt of truth would be impossible.”
What is this faith which integrates participation and individuation? We have explored its elements above, so let us simply gather them together now.
This singular faith consists of dual aspects Tillich variously calls:
- The courage to be as a part, the courage of despair, or the courage of wisdom.
“Socrates is certain that the self which the executioners will destroy is not the self which affirms itself in his courage to be.”
“The courage to die is the test of the courage to be. A self-affirmation which omits taking the affirmation of one’s death into itself tries to escape the test of courage, the facing of nonbeing in the most radical way.”
- The courage to be as oneself, the courage of confidence, or the courage to accept forgiveness.
“One could say that the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”
“The encounter with God in Luther [...] means encountering transcendent security and transcendent eternity. Who [encounters] God participates in eternity [but you] must be accepted by God and you must have accepted God’s acceptance of you.”
These two aspects of courage are united when you stop trying to grasp them, and instead let yourself be grasped by them.
“To be grasped by this power is to be able to affirm yourself because you know that you are affirmed by the power of being-itself. In this point mystical experience and personal encounter are identical.”
They are identical, because both mystical participation in and personal encounter with God are what is meant by ‘grace’. Importantly, “courage as grace is a result and a question”: the result being union and the question being if we can continuously accept what seems unacceptable. Result and question together encourage us to respond whole-heartedly in each moment, just like those who have walked these ways before us:
“Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to—of being responsible toward—life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us any more, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us.” – Viktor Frankl
Such response-ability takes us into the ongoing, integrative, living experience which Tillich is pointing to between all this symbolic language:
“The courage to be which is rooted in the experience of the God above God unites and transcends the courage to be as a part and the courage to be as oneself. It avoids both the loss of oneself by participation and the loss of one’s world by individualization.”
Lost and Found¶
“The courage to be in its radical form is a key to an idea of God which transcends both mysticism and the person-to-person encounter.”
Having described how the courage to be can manifest, and how we can allow ourselves to be grasped by it such that we participate fully as unique beings in the power of being-itself, Tillich finally turns to the question relevant to our particular neighbourhood of space-time:
“Can faith resist meaninglessness? Is there a kind of faith which can exist together with doubt and meaninglessness?”
In this, we are asking–along with Tillich–about the
“ultimate foundation of what we have called the ‘courage of despair.’ There is only one possible answer, if one does not try to escape the question: namely that the acceptance of despair is in itself faith and on the boundary line of the courage to be.”
“The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing. Even in the despair about meaning being affirms itself through us.”
“The act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act [...] The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning.”
In these profoundly circular statements, we who have the courage to look into the abyss of our own anxiety and be grasped by it, may just glimpse the empty form which has always represented creation for those courageous enough to ask, “What is here? Why now?”
“This faith transcends both the mystical experience and the divine-human encounter. The mystical experience seems to be nearer to absolute faith but it is not. Absolute faith includes an element of skepticism which one cannot find in the mystical experience.”
“The content of absolute faith is the ‘God above God.’ Absolute faith and its consequence, the courage that takes the radical doubt, the doubt about God, into itself, transcends the idea of God.”
“Absolute faith is the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts.”
“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, with, 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 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.”
Such a courageous faith is embodied by the “Crucified who cried to God who remained God after the God of confidence had left them in the darkness of doubt and meaninglessness”.