The Courage to Be: Against Death

Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be” is arguably one of the most important theological books to be published in the 20th Century, particularly in the field of non-classical theology. It’s also quite hard to read. Yet, in this blog – and two other upcoming posts – I will try and explain what Tillich was going on about, why it should be important to us, and how we can apply it to our current political, social and spiritual situation.

In his book, Tillich outlines the three fundamental “anxieties” of our existence. Sounds cheery, right? These anxieties are as follows: the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. In this post, I am particularly looking at the anxiety of fate and death, and Tillich’s suggested response to this anxiety. You’ll be able to read about the other two anxieties and responses to them in the other two blogs I’ve written. Also, I promise it gets more positive from here on in! It’s simply necessary to outline what Tillich sees as the problems of existence in order to see what the responses should be.

The anxiety of fate and death is…well, what it says on the tin. Concerning this first type of anxiety, Tillich writes that it is “basic…universal, and inescapable”. In short, death is inevitable for us all. Yikes. So, how do you solve a problem like the indisputable mortality of each and every one of us? I’m glad you asked. Tillich’s answer to the anxiety of fate and death is the catchily-titled “courage of confidence”. Snappy, but what does it mean? It is not the promise of immortality but the notion of existing “in spite of”; recognising the reality of death and not being afraid of it.

We, as humans, cannot overcome death – and I don’t want to get into debates about the resurrection here – but we can strip it of its power. We can seek liberation in this life without worrying about salvation in the next. We can participate and act, knowing that we are doing God’s work. We can have faith that God is the Unconditional. As Tillich writes, “they who participate in God participates in eternity…but in order to participate in him you must be accepted by him and you must have accepted his acceptance of you”.

In theory, this is all well and good. But how can we apply Tillich’s “courage of confidence” and his attitude of “in spite of” to our current crisis? The climate emergency we face is a perfect example of our anxiety concerning fate and death. Global warming is, to some extent, basic, universal and inescapable. How do we say “in spite of” to rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, horrific weather conditions and all the rest? Surely we cannot just “accept” this state of affairs. No, what we do is participate in God. We participate in the stewardship of our planet. We participate in massive, systemic change. We see God as the reason to protect our planet rather than as an excuse to stay inside and pray for our salvation in the next life.

I am not saying that prayer or worship are ineffective or wrong. They are core tenets of faith and provide us with the guidance and energy to participate in God. Yet, we need to be involved in political action, with groups like Christian Climate Action and charities such as Operation Noah, to fully participate in God. The Book of James (ch 2, v 14, 17) says it best: “what good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?…faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead”. To exist in spite of death, we must ensure that our faith is well and truly alive.

Written by SCM Member Nathan Olsen. Nathan is a former member of SCM Leeds, and he graduated this summer with a BA in Politics. He is currently doing a Masters at the University of Sheffield.