The Courage to Be

by Paul Tillich

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Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The primary theme of Paul Tillich’s book is the importance of faith in the modern world. Closely related to this is the need for inter-religious dialogue or ecumenical liberalism. Tillich argues that faith is central to helping human beings reject evil and participate fully in the positive aspects of society. While Tillich refers to religious belief, his understanding of faith goes beyond identification with any specific religion. Tillich grapples with questions of belief in human goodness and holding an optimistic view of the universe—a point of view that has become increasingly crucial, he maintains, since World War II. In exile in the United States from Nazi Germany, where he had been a theologian, Tillich extended his philosophical analysis into existential questions raised by the atrocities inflicted during Hitler’s regime.

The “courage” of the title includes the continuation of religious belief. In the face of tremendous evidence of the presence of evil, he argues, it takes true courage to believe in the wisdom and goodness of God. He draws not only on Christian theology, but traces the idea of courage back to classical philosophers and explores the existential dilemmas presented by Friedrich Nietzsche. Confronting mortality requires courage, but is necessary to deal with the anxiety of the human condition, which has been exacerbated in modern times. For a Christian, placing one’s specific faith in the humanity and deity of Jesus within the larger conceptual understanding of God, or the overarching concept of divinity—the “God above God”—is one important component of developing this existential courage.

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