Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Courage to Be

One issue that concerns most people is anxiety about the meaning of life. This is especially prevalent for those of us leaving fundamentalist churches or cults. For all of one's life, we are told what to believe, but finally we realize that it is empty. There are several ways of dealing with this.

Many Christians revisit the Bible and take on a new way of understanding crucial problematic texts. Some may simply focus on other parts of the text. For example, tracing the commandment to "love the one who is next to you as yourself," has reduced the cognitive dissonance on my part. Others realize that there are different ways of interacting with the text, either becoming more aware that we do not follow it implicitly, or entering into dialogue with the text.

But, I sincerely believe that most of us enter into a new experience of questioning the meaning of life. If the novels of Orhan Pamuk speak to me of a secular existentialism, Paul Tillich speaks to me of a Christian existentialism. Here are some excerpts from The Courage to Be.

. . . Sociological analysis of the present period have pointed to the importance of anxiety as a group phenomenon. Literature and art have made anxiety a main theme of their creations, in content as well as in style. The effect of this has been the awakening of at least the educated groups to an awareness of their own anxiety, and a permeation of the public consciousness by ideas and symbols of anxiety. Today it has become almost a truism to call our time an "age of anxiety." This holds equally for America and Europe. . . .

I suggest that we distinguish three types of anxiety according to the three directions in which nonbeing threatens being. Nonbeing threatens man’s ontic self-affirmation, relatively in terms of fate, absolutely in terms of death. It threatens man’s spiritual self-affirmation, relatively in terms of emptiness, absolutely in terms of meaninglessness. It threatens man’s moral self-affirmation, relatively in terms of guilt, absolutely in terms of condemnation. The awareness of this threefold threat is anxiety appearing in three forms, that of fate and death (briefly, the anxiety of death), that of emptiness and loss of meaning (briefly, the anxiety of meaninglessness), that of guilt and condemnation (briefly, the anxiety of condemnation). In all three forms anxiety is existential in the sense that it belongs to existence as such and not to an abnormal state of mind as in neurotic (and psychotic) anxiety.

The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence. . . .

The distinction of the three types of anxiety is supported by the history of Western civilization. We find that at the end of ancient civilization ontic anxiety is predominant, at the end of the Middle Ages moral anxiety, and at the end of the modern period spiritual anxiety. But in spite of the predominance of one type the others are also present and effective.

The breakdown of absolutism, the development of liberalism and democracy, the rise of a technical civilization with its victory over all enemies and its own beginning disintegration -- these are the sociological presupposition for the third main period of anxiety. In this the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dominant. We are under the threat of spiritual nonbeing.

It is significant that the three main periods of anxiety appear at the end of an era. The anxiety which, in its different forms, is potentially present in every individual becomes general if the accustomed structures of meaning, power, belief, and order disintegrated. These structures, as long as they are in force, keep anxiety bound within a protective system of courage by participation. The individual who participates in the institutions and ways of life of such a system is not liberated from his personal anxieties but he has means of overcoming them with well-known methods.

In periods of great changes these methods no longer work. Conflicts between the old, which tries to maintain itself, often with new means, and the new, which deprives the old of its intrinsic power, produce anxiety in all directions. Nonbeing, in such a situation, has a double face, resembling two types of nightmare (which are perhaps, expressions of an awareness of these two faces). The one type is the anxiety of annihilating narrowness, of the impossibility of escape and the horror of being trapped. The other is the anxiety of annihilating openness, of infinite formless space into which one falls without a place to fall upon. Social situations like those described have the character of both a trap without exit and of an empty, dark, and unknown void. Both faces of the same reality arouse the latent anxiety of every individual who looks at them. Today most of us do look at them.

[Source: Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 35, 41, 47, 57, 61-63.]

But Tillich is clear that it is pathological to mire oneself in traditional certitudes in order to avoid anxiety. I believe that the fundamentalist and conservative churches are resisting anxiety by entrenching themselves in outdated authority systems, instead of accepting anxiety as a part of the human condition.

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