Paul Tillich – Anxiety and Courage...

Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, writes about three different types of anxiety centered around the threat of nonbeing. These three anxieties are connected to: (1) fate and death, (2) emptiness and meaninglessness, and (3) guilt and condemnation. [1] Many churches in the West are struggling with at least one of these three anxieties in their congregations. The serious realities that come with each of these anxieties are toxic to the systemic health of the church. We will explore how leaders can help to defuse these congregational anxieties in the application section of this paper, but first here, I will bring to light the implications and sources of these anxieties in persons and organizations.

-Anxiety and Nonbeing-

Anxiety is crippling; it puts people and organizations in a paralytic stupor of myopic tunnel vision. Anxiety is poisonous to the organism of the Church. Regardless of size or styling – anxiety kills. Maybe the worst thing about it is that it kills slowly. It does not cause a rapid decay, but rather a slow depletion of vitality, keeping those involved in this anxious state of confused terror for a painfully long period of time.

If anxiety is a fear about something that is to come, it should not be a surprise that one of its most common sources is the most absolute of future events: nonbeing. “Anxiety is the painful feeling of not being able to deal with the threat of a special situation.[2]” The human situation brings this about in our own finitude: we know that we can not last, and yet we fear the time in which we no longer exist. Calvin called the

human mind a factory of idols, but Tillich suggests that it is also a factory of fears.[3] The anxiety we will be exploring is existential, in that it deals with existence and the loss thereof.

Forms of Anxiety:

-The Anxiety of Fate and Death-

The anxiety over death is a common and fairly obvious form of anxiety that most self-aware persons experience at some point in their lives. In the same way, institutions (like the Church) experience this anxiety at the end of their constitution and influence. “The anxiety of fate and death is the most basic, most universal, and inescapable. All attempts to argue it away are futile.[4]” The fear of death is powered and informed by the nervousness that persons experience in the anxiety of fate. The way I am using the term fate in this section is as a perceived force of contingency. The reason a sense of fate can so easily bring about anxiety is that fate is perceived as inescapable.[5] The forward motion of fate is made dangerous because the subject is ultimately, uncontrollably propelled towards nonbeing. Even concepts like the eternality of God and the immortality of the soul often fail to relieve such anxieties.

-The Anxiety of Emptiness and Meaninglessness-

If fate and death threaten persons and organizations ontologically, emptiness and meaninglessness threaten them spiritually.[6] We each live inside of a world of constructed meaning. We use these to frame our world and to govern the way we act ethically within it. Theses systems of meaning, whether self-created or imported from others, inform our spiritual identities.

“The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings.[7]” Facing the possibility that our innermost beliefs may be wrong can be a traumatic experience. The anxiety of meaninglessness is brought on by this type of mythic loss. The anxiety of emptiness is connected to this loss. With loss of meaning, the loss of purpose is quick to follow. The loss of purpose yields a loss of motivation, and as meaning vanishes, creativity and vitality wane as well. Creative energy transitions over time into repulsion and aversion.[8]

-The Anxiety of Guilt and Condemnation-

Guilt and condemnation aid in nonbeing’s attack on individuals and on institutions by damaging their moral self-identity. Both ontological and spiritual aspects of the individual’s or the organization’s self-identity are threatened by guilt and condemnation. The ontological and spiritual aspects of being require meaning and purpose. These work themselves out in our moral identity. When we lose the centering element of out being, it devalues the all our other aspects. John Calvin said that “The torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.[9]” Living in meaninglessness and emptiness of purpose leads to guilt in response to having lost one’s way. Tillich does not leave his readers hopeless in the explanation of the anxieties faced by people and institutions. Rather, he explains that anxiety has the ability to paralyze, but it also offers an opportunity for courage to catapult us to new places.

[1] Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952, vii.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, London: James Clarke, 1953, 108.

[4] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 42.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 48.

[9] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 3, London: James Clarke, 1953, 288.


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