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Book Review: The Courage To Be by Paul Tillich

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Paul Tillich was a Protestant German-American philosopher-theologian whose thought exemplifies Christian existentialism. In his book, Tillich discusses the origin of anxiety as coming from the loss of meaning in life. Here he is referring to the underlying but nagging realization most of us suffer briefly, or for a lifetime, that existence has no purpose. We come into being at birth then learn through daily life experience that death, nothingness, non-being awaits us.

Arguments for the immortality of the soul are futile when we visit a funeral home. In spite of all logic, biological extinction causes anxiety. The corpse reminds us that it is our fate too, to be thrown out of existence at any moment. Is it any wonder then that it takes courage to accept this unacceptable fact?

Most people push aside this anxiety of non-being by adopting a religion and following its precepts sometimes to the point of fanaticism. They find comfort in accepting what their church insists is the true meaning of life and an afterlife. But there are also the religious fanatics who insist their beliefs must be imposed on others. Mankind is well aware of the horrors these extremists cause today and have caused in the righteous past.

Then there are those who push the anxiety of non-being into an unconscious mental recess and lose themselves in a work ethic. They identify with their job, their position, their status in life. Quite often, they fail to examine their own existence until faced with loss of it through disease or a life threatening illness.

Sadly, there are those so overwhelmed by the anxiety of non-being that in despair they turn to alcohol, drugs, or suicide.

What does Tillich mean by courage? In The Courage To Be he states that courage is the strength to continue to live on in a meaningful way in spite of the fact that our existence appears to have no purpose. We do not wallow in doubt, self-derision or despair. We have come into being in this time, in this place, in spite of the ever-present threat of non-being.

This courage comes from a fundamental person-to-person acceptance of God, a belief in a being that infinitely transcends one’s self. We do not believe because religious dogma demands it. We believe because as limited human beings we simply accept a loving, intelligent, understanding and forgiving God.

Theologian Tillich readily admits there are no valid arguments for God’s existence. What does exist is the courage to believe in spite of all doubt. Our life’s purpose lies within a personal encounter with God.

The book as a whole cannot be read without much reflection. But it is worth the effort. I would highly recommend The Courage To Be to all practicing psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and any person interested in a more meaningful existence.

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About Regis Schilken

  • Bruce Joyner

    This is a subject all people think about but few discuss..This book is a must read for people who do have an inner dialog concerning existence. “The Courage To Be” is…i believe..to help Christians accept their religion without actually knowing if their god exists…and to have hope of an afterlife.. but i think if you take and read this book no matter what your religion…you can get insights into your core meanings of life.

  • Regis Schilken

    If you get the chance, Bruce, to read THE GOD THEORY, I think you’ll find it an interesting read.

  • hariette

    that was a really helpful and well-written summary—glad i found it via google and thank you bruce.

  • Louis Cone

    Tillich is saying much more. There is a greater purpose and it is found by have the Courage to be your true self. Death can be accepted as part of life by have few regrets. This can not be accomplished unless you embrace the vertical asspects of life. In other words presue the deeps of your being (soul)