The Courage to Be: Against Meaninglessness

My first post in this series was about acting “in spite of” the anxiety of fate and death. If you haven’t had a look at it, I would recommend doing so (this piece will make a lot more sense if you do!). Moving on from that particular anxiety, this blog will look at a second type of anxiety Tillich outlines, the “anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness”, the relevance of this anxiety to our own age and how we can overcome it.

In 'The Courage to Be', Paul Tillich describes the anxiety of meaninglessness as “the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings”. For Christians, this almost automatically can be interpreted as “what happens when we don’t believe in God anymore?”. Do you replace God with a political ideology? Do you give up and embrace nihilism?

Even back in 1952, when his book was originally published, Tillich saw the anxiety of meaninglessness as “the anxiety which determines our period”. We struggle to give our lives meaning and have done so for at least the last century or so. But what is the answer? Do we retreat into the arms of the classical theistic God? For some of you, that may be the answer. I’m certainly not going to tell you what to believe in! Yet, Tillich has doubts about this classical God. Wasn’t the God of classical theism killed by Nietzsche, after all?

The answer lies in “absolute faith” in “the God above God”.

Simple! Or maybe not...

I was confused by this notion too. So, let’s break it down. Tillich defines “faith” as “the existential acceptance of something transcending ordinary experience”. So far, so good. “Absolute faith”, Tillich writes, is “a faith which has been deprived by doubt of any concrete content, which nevertheless is faith”. At this point, your mind should either be blown or confused. Basically, absolute faith is believing in something whilst recognising the doubt you have about that something. It is saying “I can’t, but I will”, “I shouldn’t, but I have to”.

That’s the first half of that sentence decoded, then. But what, who and how is “the God above God”? Tillich’s argument here is that the God of classical theism is too human, too constructed, too symbolised; that we are bringing God down to our level rather than looking up to God. Simply put, we are limiting God. Tillich writes that we are too caught up in “traditional symbols” and “the safety of words and concepts”. Instead, we should be focusing on our experience of the Unconditional, the God who is there when we are full of doubt, when we are perplexed by suffering – “the God who appears when God has disappeared”.

I understand that, to some people, it might seem that Tillich is indulging in existentialist wordplay*. How is this God different from our regular God? Well, the God above God forces us to accept moments of meaninglessness, embrace emptiness and nevertheless, believe. By allowing room for doubt, the God above God does not tell us we cannot feel meaningless, but rather that there is meaning out there if we are willing to accept overwhelming doubt along the way.

*trying to interpret Tillich for our time is both really easy and very difficult - his work is vital to understanding our situation, yet his language is not always very helpful!

Written by Nathan Olsen. Check out part one here, and part three here