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Paul Tillich's Thoughts on God and Being in Courage to Be

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Paul Tillich was a man who some may regard as one of the most prominent philosophers and theologians of the twentieth century. His ideas primarily focus on Christian theology, and one of his most popular works, Courage to Be, talks about how God, nothingness, and humanity fit into categories of “Being” and “Non-being” (2. Paul). Tillich’s work also focuses on the feelings of anxiety that threaten ones real, spiritual, and moral self. Tillich’s ideas seem to reflect that each anxiety is supposed to each effect a person, but in today’s time period his thoughts on being devoid of purpose, and finding meaninglessness in life, which effects a person’s spiritual self may be viewed by some as the anxiety that effects the modern generation in the most prominent way(Tillich).

In order to understand Tillich’s thoughts, it is important to know his background, and his life leading up to the publication of Courage to Be. Tillich was born in the late 20th century in a German town called Starzeddel(History). He was born into a very conservative Christian family- his father being a Lutheran pastor. Tillich was well studied, and eventually became a Lutheran pastor as his father was. In 1914 Tillich joined the military during WWI, which many view as the key factor playing a strong role in the changing of his originally conservative views (1. Paul). From the outside- a person can believe that the atrocities of war led him to becoming a much more liberal person in thought after feeling that the church and theology could not adequately answer questions of the the existence of a benevolent God existing while the horrors he saw that became a reality of people’s lives during the early twentieth century took place(History). The “benevolent God” that he formerly regarded was something that many people during Tillich’s time period could not put their hope in. Tillich sought a way of thinking that could deal with the actual fear, or what should be labeled as “anxieties” that people faced, and the questions that haunted most during this era of war (2. Paul). Thus Tillich’s work, The Courage to Be, would reflect his changed perspective. Tillich’s writing would address how we as humans manage to exist in a state of “Being” which includes everything we understand about living our lives. Along with this state of “Being”, Tillich writes about how we overcome the inevitable anxieties that the reciprocal to our “Being” (the “Nonbeing”) brings. Of these anxieties are fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and, what may be the anxiety with the largest impact on people living today, emptiness and meaninglessness. Tillich writes about the threats that each these anxieties brings, and how they are overcome. Tillich also addresses the way God fits into a higher category of “Being”, and encompasses the lower levels of “Being” and “Non-being” in order to create an abstract idea of God that cannot relate to people(Tillich).

Chapter 6 of Courage to Be is where Tillich talks about the many anxieties that come from the “Non-being”. While the meaninglessness is the anxiety that Tillich seems to label as the greatest in affecting people’s lives during his time, it is also interesting to briefly see how the other anxieties affect people. Death and fate are the anxieties that are said to affect our real selves, because we as people are afraid of not existing. We live knowing continuation, and to not have this can be scary for some. The the other anxieties the pair together are guilt and condemnation. People fear how they will be judged and the impact their actions will have, because despite having good intentions- one’s actions cannot always come out positively(Tillich).

In order to analyze Tillich’s, quote it is important to be able to dissect and understand the concepts which he addresses. We can dive deeper into the understanding the first line where Tillich talks about the anxiety of meaninglessness.

“The courage to take the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself is the boundary line up to which the courage to be can go”. –Tillich 1952

Tillich’s quote about meaningless is a difficult concept to grasp, but can be simplified when one breaks down Tillich’s ideas piece by piece. To start, the phrase “the anxiety of meaninglessness” can be first tackled. Anxiety has a close relationship to fear(Tillich). Where the two differ however, stands in the object that each possesses. Fear posses an object, where as anxiety does not. One can fear a scary clown, but one has anxiety about how a situation may turn because of a lack of fore-knowledge, such as what happens after we die. A fear can be overcome, where as an anxiety cannot (3. Paul). This “anxiety of meaninglessness” can be described as the anxiety that begins with feeling of emptiness, and how a person can feel unfulfilled by a passion. Eventually this will lead to feelings of meaninglessness which is described by Tillich as the threat which effects our spiritual being. The threat of having no purpose in life and having all of one’s labor be pointless is an anxiety and question that may affect most people very heavily. Meaninglessness starts with feelings of emptiness when one feels that their life passions are unsatisfying. After feeling emptiness time after time a person falls into the depression of meaninglessness. While Tillich addresses the anxieties of death and condemnation that people may have it can be argued that meaningless is the anxiety with the greatest affect on people today and during Tillich’s time(Tillich). Courage to Be was written during the start of the Cold War. At this time the world was seeing great advancements in science, literature, and economic growth. In America, the Great Depression was over, and people were realizing how great their achievements in science, technology, and many other fields were. Will all of these great accomplishments, however, there was still the underlying threat of a war that could have doomed the world. The governments of Capitalist and Communist nations were competing to see who could be the best, and the underlying threat of nuclear warfare was a fear that many went to bed with every night(History). I believe that the anxiety of meaninglessness was the greatest anxiety to be overcome during this time period where people could see a future where all of the great advancements and achievements of the human race could simply be demolished in an instant, having all been worth nothing. All the work that people had spent to advance humanity in the 20th century would have been meaningless, and I believe that this feeling could have been something many people of the time would have had a hard time coming to terms with, and this could have been the most prominent anxiety that Tillich’s Courage to Be could have addressed.

In order to understand how Tillich suggests people overcome this meaninglessness we should first try to understand where meaninglessness lies in the realm of “Being” and “Non-being”. Tillich continues the quote to say

“Beyond it is mere non-being-”-Tillich 1952

Tillich’s work The Courage to Be talks a lot about “Being” vs “Non-Being” and addresses these concepts on different levels. The first level of “Being” can be summed up as all that entails life as we know it. Breathing, moving, and just living. The first level of “Non-Being” addresses things that we as humans feel anxiety towards as they include either meaninglessness, despair, condemnation, guilt, etc. as I have addressed earlier. As Tillich’s model goes on there is a second level of “Being” which includes the first level of “Being” and “Non-Being”. However, the second level of “Being” involves the Divine. The second level of “Non-Being” is all of the state of nothingness, and things that we as humans are not capable of physically understanding. The Divine understands both second levels of “Being” and “Non-Being” and can overcome the first level of “Non-being” that we face. At the top of all levels of “Being” and “Nonbeing” lies the third level of “Being”, or what Tillich talks about as he goes on in his quote.

“Within it all forms of courage are re-established in the power of the God above the God of theism.”-Tillich 1952

Tillich would argue that the second level of “Being” would also face nothingness and a level of uncertainty. Therefore, he brings another level, of God into the picture. This God exists on a third level of “Being”.

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”-Tillich 1952

I would consider the third “Being” or “God who appears when God had disappeared” to be the God that Tillich would suggest as the God a person needs to be grabbed by into in order to overcome the second level of “Non-Being” and the anxiety of nothingness. The idea of having faith in this “Being” isn’t so much what Tillich argues for, but rather being encompassed by the idea. This is needed because the second level of “Being” would still have the second level of “Non-being” as an anxiety and would also have a level of nothingness to overcome. This third level of God or “Being” would include all of the second level of “Being” and “Nonbeing” and be able to overcome the second level of “Non-Being”. Tillich calls this level of being “the ground of being”. It is reasonable to consider Tillich saying this in order to overcome the uncertainty of the second level of “Nonbeing” of which the second level of “Being” cannot overcome. It may be understood that we must put our hope in the third level of “Being” where the Divine has the threat of a level of doubt that the third level of “Being” can overcome(Tillich).

Tillich’s ideas caused a lot of problems for some people. Specifically, by his statement of the “God above the God of Theism”. Essentially many felt that Tillich was declaring a false god, and denying the God of Christianity. In addition to this Tillich talks about the Divine as “the being of God is being itself” (Tillich). Tillich goes on to create an image of a very pantheistic God that would be a more of a transcendental essence than that includes all of life and existence rather than a personal God(3.Paul). While Tillich’s quote did not please many religious Christian’s, it did have appeal to other groups of people. Tillich’s idea’s deny the need for a personal God with whom the tradition of many religions lies in. To an atheist or Pantheist Tillich’s idea may have been appealing as Tillich lays out the description for a God that helps us to understand how we as humans can live our lives in the best possible way with the knowledge of a God that exists that can help us face the anxiety we have about the meaninglessness and who can overcome the unknown aspect of the “Non-Being” that we can never comprehend (1. Paul). With all this being said, I do not believe Tillich is trying to please any specific group of people with his ideology. I think that the great point he was trying to make was that whatever idea of “God” find our courage in must be able to overcome the anxieties of “Non-being” that we face. This third level of being that Tillich creates does just that. This level of God is the “ground of being” and underlies all aspects of everything. This God is able to overcome all anxieties, and understands all that is unknown to us (Tillich).

I would say that I agree and disagree with different points in Tillich’s argument. If I could broadly summarize Tillich’s ideas about the God- I would say that Tillich argues for a transcendental God and a God who is not an actual being but the essence of life and everything we know. I agree with the idea of God being transcendental or over all things and understanding all things. I think that he makes very good points about understanding who God is and what he does for the anxieties that we face by stating that if God is above all of the nothingness and things that we are uncertain about we can put our hope in Him(Tillich). I do personally agree with this part of Tillich’s God as I believe that this can be also understood that God is omnipotent and goes above our human understanding. However, I would disagree with the latter part of his ideology and say that the higher level of being that helps us to overcome nothingness is indeed a personal God. Tillich has said that “God is being itself, not a being”. I personally believe that we need a God that transcends our understanding in order to have Tillich’s “Courage to Be”, but I also think that it is important to have a personal God to overcome meaninglessness and the anxieties of “Non-Being”. I think that simply believing that there is a higher abstract God that can overcome meaninglessness doesn’t really help us overcome our anxieties. Personally, the idea of an un-relatable level of God does just as much for me as not having a God. I think that believing in a personal God helps us to better understand ourselves, and the role we play we play as humans on earth.

Overall I think that Tillich’s quote can apply to many aspects of today’s life, but in a different way than what he presents it to be. If I could summarize Tillich’s quote in my own words I would do it as so: “We as people are struck with the reality that all that we do and achieve is meaningless. The way to overcome this is by putting our courage in a being that transcends this meaninglessness, and that can understand what we cannot about what it means to no longer exist.” My personal understanding of Tillich’s quote is that any person Christian, atheist, Pantheist, etc. can have the power to live life to the fullest every day because there is a being that understands and contains everything (that is all things “Being” and all things “Non-being”). I think that while this can give people the courage to try to live full lives, it misguides people into perhaps living their lives in a non-meaningful way. I believe that people today are overly obsessed with social media, being famous, and gaining material wealth. I think that people in today’s society ask a lot of the same questions that the people of Tillich’s time asked. Tragic events occur on the news everyday, and specifically in recent years the threat of war has become a harsh reality. I think the many people get caught up in the idea of needing to be popular and adhere to the latest trends, but in the end people do realize that getting a ton of “likes” on Instagram, or being on television isn’t all that great. They look on the news and see that life is short and they may question their purpose. Many social media famous people have come out recently talking about how they are actually truly unhappy with themselves, and how all of this “fame” covers up how unfulfilled they are. I think that this is where Tillich’s ideas about how people come to overcome this meaninglessness fail. I believe that putting one’s courage in the abstract God Tillich talks about doesn’t really provide a person with hope to overcome the anxiety of having all of one’s life accomplishments come up short. If a person tells themselves that they should be able to live their life without fearing the unknown and having depression about meaninglessness because there is some “Being” existing that understands and overcomes this, well I don’t really feel like that accomplishes anything. I feel like Tillich is saying is that there is some non-personal entity that knows about all the things we can’t overcome that gives us strength to live a full life. But I think that if this is all people believe then people will fall into a vicious cycle of still trying to make their lives meaningful, to no avail. This higher level of “Being” gives no direction for how to get the most out of life and be truly happy which is what I personally believe is the true meaning of overcoming the anxiety of meaninglessness. For example, a person might temporally “overcome” meaninglessness by putting their courage in a transcendental being, and might try to find their own fulfillment by having a popular social media page, and post about their everyday life in hoping that the popularity will bring them happiness. This may work for a short time, but the feeling of happiness is not lasting. I think that when a person can truly overcome meaninglessness is when they can put their courage in a personal God that can provide a way to being eternally happy, not just temporarily content. I personally believe that trusting and believing in a deity that manages to understand and overcome the things we cannot, can bring this everlasting feeling of fulfillment, and can deliver a person from the anxiety of meaninglessness. A book of the Bible that dwells on the topic of meaningless heavily is Ecclesiastes. The author of this book talks about how meaningless life really is. They say, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” (NIV)

The author’s words are perhaps how we can understand the meaninglessness that Tillich talks about. The author talks about how we work hard, but at the end of the day we will die, and it all doesn’t really matter. The author then goes on to say

“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.”(NIV)

I think that the author manages to describe a God that is personal, and also is is very complex that we cannot fully understand everything about Him, such as his beginning and end. I believe that this is the God who a person needs to believe in in order to overcome the anxiety of meaningless. I think that through this personal God a person can make decisions in life that will lead to finding joy in things that will give them eternal happiness, such as helping others and living non-superficial lives. If a person so believes, happiness and rewards that they can take with them into the afterlife will come from putting one’s faith into this divine God.

During the era after the first and second great wars Paul Tillich came up with ideas about God that seemed fitting for the time. He created a way for people to not have faith in a personal God, but rather to have people be encompassed by the idea of the power of a higher being that can overcome their doubts and anxieties. Tillich’s ideas weren’t so much about having faith or believing in an actual God, but merely being held by the idea that a “Being”, knows and can overcome all that we don’t know and can’t overcome.

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