Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in

Recognizing that traditional religious beliefs were no longer an option for many people, Paul Tillich maintained that the courage to overcome modern anxiety could be based on an affirmation of the meaningfulness of the individual self and on faith in the power of the ground of one’s being.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1950, Paul Tillich delivered a series of lectures at Yale University supported by the Terry Foundation. The Terry Lectures Terry Lectures were established in 1905 by a gift from Dwight Harrington Terry Terry, Dwight Harrington to endow a series of lectures on religion and its application to human welfare in the light of scientific knowledge and philosophical insights. Courage to Be, The (Tillich)
Theology;and modernity[modernity]
[kw]Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be (1952)
[kw]Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be, Tillich Examines (1952)
[kw]Anxiety in The Courage to Be, Tillich Examines Modern (1952)
[kw]Courage to Be, Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The (1952)
Courage to Be, The (Tillich)
Theology;and modernity[modernity]
[g]North America;1952: Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be[03710]
[g]United States;1952: Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be[03710]
[c]Philosophy;1952: Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be[03710]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1952: Tillich Examines Modern Anxiety in The Courage to Be[03710]
Tillich, Paul
Coffin, Henry Sloane
Heidegger, Martin
May, Rollo
Niebuhr, Reinhold

Tillich had emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1933 because his opposition to the Nazis cost him his professorship at the University of Frankfurt. Learning of Tillich’s situation, Henry Sloane Coffin, then president of Union Theological Seminary Union Theological Seminary in New York, offered him a position at Union. The challenge of writing and lecturing in a language he was still learning made the first years at Union difficult for Tillich, but with the support of colleagues and friends like Reinhold Niebuhr and Rollo May, he flourished. His growing reputation led to the invitation to give the prestigious Terry Lectures. Tillich chose as his topic anxiety and the courage to overcome anxiety. In 1952, he published a revised and expanded version of the lectures: The Courage to Be.

The book begins with a historical survey of the various conceptions of courage in the Western philosophical tradition from the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and the Stoics to the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The thread that ties all of these conceptions together is the essential connection of courage with human finitude. For Tillich, the fact of human finitude means that humans must “participate in nonbeing.” Following the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, Tillich thus makes nonbeing one of the basic features of human existence. Anxiety is caused by this awareness of finitude and the threat of nonbeing, and courage is a response to this anxiety. Tillich believed that courage is not only an ethical concept having to do primarily with the evaluation of human actions but also an ontological concept that reveals the fundamental nature of human beings. Courage, in the ontological sense, is the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s being.

Since courage involves the affirmation of being in spite of finitude, an adequate analysis of courage requires an understanding of the various forms of finitude that produce anxiety. Tillich identifies three main types of anxiety. First, there is the anxiety of fate and death, in which a person realizes that much of life is shaped by contingent factors that are out of one’s control. Second, there is the anxiety of guilt, which comes from moral failings and from a failure to realize one’s potential. Third, the anxiety of meaninglessness ranges from vague feelings of emptiness to an overwhelming conviction that life is utterly pointless and that nothing matters. While all historical periods have shown the existence of each of these forms of anxiety, the anxiety of fate and death was especially prevalent during the ancient period, the medieval period was marked especially by the moral anxiety of guilt, and the modern period is an age of the spiritual anxiety of meaninglessness.

The Courage to Be attempts to confront modern anxiety and investigates three basic ways that people respond to this anxiety. The first response is to have the courage to be part of a political group or social movement. Identifying with a group diminishes the anxiety of death (the group continues after the individual dies), of guilt (allegiance to the values of the group validates one’s own moral standing), and of meaninglessness (the meaningfulness of the goals of the movement is transferred to the individual’s own life). With this way of responding to anxiety, however, there is the danger that the value of the individual will fail to be recognized.

The second type of response to anxiety is to affirm the individual self; it is the courage to be oneself. Tillich mentions romanticism, naturalism, and existentialism as movements that emphasize individualism. Of these, Tillich finds existentialism to be the most philosophically developed and extreme form of individualism. Existentialism asks how an individual can live in a world without objective values or meanings. For existentialists, the only way of living authentically and avoiding bad faith and self-deception is to resolutely decide, without external guidance or justification, how one will act, what one will value, how one will face death, and how one can take full responsibility for his or her actions and decisions. The main problem with this extreme form of individualism is that it threatens to collapse into something indistinguishable from nihilistic subjectivism.

The third response to anxiety, and in Tillich’s view the most adequate way of confronting anxiety, involves the courage of transcendence: The problem of nonbeing is so profound it requires a transcendent, or religious, response. Mysticism is one religious response. In mysticism nonbeing is overcome through a mystical encounter or identification with the ground of being. The personal God of theism is another form of the religious response. Anxiety is overcome by a personal relation with a loving God. Tillich’s own version of the religious response involves what he calls “absolute faith,” the courage to affirm oneself in spite of the anxiety of nonbeing. The experience of nonbeing reveals that everything—even nonbeing itself—depends on something ultimate and unconditionally real, a something that Tillich calls “the ground of being.” Thus, death, guilt, and meaninglessness are not finalities. Instead, death, guilt, and meaninglessness reveal “the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” The “courage to be,” then, is the affirmation of the meaningfulness of one’s existence in spite of its nonbeing.


The Courage to Be struck a chord with the American public and became one of Tillich’s most popular works. There are several reasons for the book’s popularity and significance. Although by no means an easy book to read, it does avoid the ponderous opacity of some of Tillich’s writings. It also offers something different from the abstractness and density of academic philosophy and the shallow optimism of books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which was also topping the best-seller lists in 1952. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Tillich offered a basically religious response to these existential problems, a response that could be embraced by educated people who accepted the modern scientific worldview but who were also looking for something more. Tillich’s form of religious faith did not require belief in supernatural agents and was fully consistent with the findings of science.

The success of the book had a major impact on Tillich’s career. He was offered a prestigious position at Harvard University, became a professor there in 1954, and was soon known as one of the intellectual superstars of his day, appearing on the cover of magazines, including Time in 1959. Along with the novels of Albert Camus and the plays, novels, and lectures of Jean-Paul Sartre, The Courage to Be played a significant role in introducing existentialism to the American public. Courage to Be, The (Tillich)
Theology;and modernity[modernity]

Further Reading

  • Adams, James Luther, Wilhelm Pauck, and Roger Lincoln Shinn, eds. The Thought of Paul Tillich. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. A wide-ranging collection of essays examining Tillich’s thought on theology, religion, culture, politics, psychology, art, and literature.
  • Coburn, Robert C. “God, Revelation, and Religious Truth: Some Themes and Problems in the Theology of Paul Tillich.” Faith and Philosophy 13, no. 1 (January, 1996): 3-33. A sympathetic discussion of Tillich’s theology by a philosopher from the analytic tradition. Clear and insightful.
  • Edwards, Paul. “Professor Tillich’s Confusions.” Mind 74 (1965): 192-214. An assessment from the perspective of analytic philosophy. Valuable despite being highly critical of Tillich’s method and doctrines.
  • Jeong, Sung Min. Nothingness in the Theology of Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003. Explores Tillich’s scholarship on the question of nonbeing and modern anxiety. A brief text.
  • Kegley, Charles W. The Theology of Paul Tillich. 2d ed. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982. A collection of essays focusing on Tillich’s theology; includes his replies to the interpretations and criticisms.
  • Martin, Bernard. The Existentialist Theology of Paul Tillich. New York: Bookman, 1963. A study emphasizing Tillich’s existentialism. Includes extensive discussion of The Courage to Be, Tillich’s most “existential” work.
  • May, Rollo. Paulus: Reminiscences of a Friendship. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Personal reminiscences by one of Tillich’s former students and closest friends.
  • Pauck, Wilhelm, and Marion Pauck. Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. A comprehensive biography written by two of Tillich’s closest colleagues.
  • Thomas, John Heywood. Tillich. London: Continuum, 2000. Part of the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, this biography of Tillich looks at his life and career, with special emphasis on his theology.
  • Towne, Edgar A. Two Types of New Theism: Knowledge of God in the Thought of Paul Tillich and Charles Hartshorne. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. The three chapters dealing with Tillich focus on his ideas of the ontological and theological dimensions of God.

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