Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Tillich on Certitude

Doubt is based on man's separation from the ' whole of, on his lack of universal participation on the isolation of his individual self. So he tries to break out of this situation, to identify himself with something trans-individual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively. In order to avoid the risk of asking and doubting he surrenders the right to ask and to doubt. He surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life. He "escapes from his freedom" (Fromm.) in order to escape the anxiety of meaninglessness. Now he is no longer lonely, not in existential doubt, not in despair. He "participates" and affirms by participation the contents of his spiritual life. Meaning is saved, but the self is sacrificed. And since the conquest of doubt was a matter of sacrifice, the sacrifice of the freedom of the self, it leaves a mark on the regained certitude: a fanatical self-assertiveness. Fanaticism is the correlate to spiritual self-surrender: it shows the anxiety which it was supposed to conquer, by attacking with disproportionate violence those who disagree and who demonstrate by their disagreement elements in the spiritual life of the fanatic which he must suppress in himself. Because he must suppress them in himself he must suppress them in others. His anxiety forces him to persecute dissenters. The weakness of the fanatic is that those whom he fights have a secret hold upon him; and to this weakness he and his group finally succumb.
pp56-7 The Courage To Be (Fontana 1965)


I was reminded of this passage of Tillich's in a recent conversation, and posted it to a mailing list where two people were having a conversation going nowhere. Finally one of them we shall call Sean said,

"Alex (the other writer) has hardened his heart and rejects the New Testament teachings, and the salvation of Jesus. Jesus words are full of discussion of the issue of those whose hearts are hardened towards the Lord. No point going into it all as Alex seems to be well read on the subject, but he is unable to "become as a child" and accept Jesus. Even at bible college his heart remained hardened.

I was offended and posted Tillich's words without comment. I wondered on reflection if I was overstating the case. Was the correspondent really left with a mark on his "regained certitude: a fanatical self-assertiveness"? I think he has been. This is an interesting point to see. Although most people who are in the fundamentalist world view are neither nasty nor fanatical, when their position is challenged they become fanatical. The writer can do no other than write Alex off. And when confronted with the disagreement of a number of people on the list, he left.

The final sentence of Tillich here says

The weakness of the fanatic is that those whom he fights have a secret hold upon him; and to this weakness he and his group finally succumb.

A little earlier he has said

...if it is impossible to remove the doubt (about one's spiritual life [Jan]), one courageously accepts it without surrendering one's convictions. One takes the risk of going astray and the anxiety of this risk upon oneself.

This is what the fundamentalist cannot do, I think. The danger of doubt and going astray and having to bear the anxiety of risk is too great. So they sacrifice their self. However, the writer Alex has borne this risk, and discovered the freedom that comes with doing so. This is the secret hold he has upon people like Sean. Although people use words like heresy, and apostasy, and hardening of hearts... all the flash phrases of the conservative church, what I observe in practice is fear. Fear of the freedom, and even jealousy of the freedom of the person they are attacking. They know the Alex's of this world have something over them. Alex is a danger to their whole world.

 Posted July 13 2003

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