Our Anxious Time

Ours is an anxious time, a fearful time, an insecure time. We feel it in our bellies.

This morning we’re moved to consider anxiety, fear, and insecurity. For that purpose we turn to philosophical theologian Paul Tillich* (scroll down) and philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg** for whom the questions were passionate and all-consuming over their lifetimes. Even so, they were not the best of friends.

Zuurdeeg was a severe critic of Tillich’s attempts to create a theological system. He saw every system as a flight from finitude and ambiguity into what he called “Ordered World Homes” that make sense of, and defend against, the anxiety intrinsic to finitude. For Zuurdeeg, to be human is to be thrown into chaos and every philosophy from Plato to Hegel to Tillich is “born of a cry” – the cry for help, for sense, for protection, for a security that lies beyond one’s powers.

Reading Tillich’s Systematic Theology again after reading the news this morning leads to the conclusion that Zuurdeeg and Tillich were very close, as is often the case between critics of one another. One thinks, for example, of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in a similar manner.

For all their differences, Zuurdeeg and Tillich were joined at the hip by their shared experience with madness in society and the demise of once-trusted foundations of western civilization. The rise of the German Third Reich led them to a lifelong search not only for answers but for the questions that might lead to insight into the existential situation into which Hitler’s madness threw the world headlong into chaos and destruction.

Anxiety, said Tillich, is distinct from fear. Fear has an object. We fear an enemy. We fear Iran; Iran fears us. Israel fears the Palestinians; The Palestinians fear the Israelis. “Objects are feared,” said Tillich.

A danger, a pain, an enemy, may be feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent. Therefore, it can become manifest at any moment, even in situations where nothing is to be feared….. Anxiety is ontological; fear, psychological… Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite. [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1,  p. 191-192, University of Chicago Press, 1951]

Anxiety is the self-awareness that we are mortal. We are excluded from an infinite future. We were born and we will die and we know it. Despite every flight into denial, we know it in our bones. We have no secure space and no secure time. “To be finite is to be insecure” (Tillich, p. 195). In the face of this insecurity, said Zuurdeeg, the individual and the human species itself seek “to establish their existence” in time and space, though we know we can not secure it. The threat we experience in 2015 is the threat of nothingness. Politicians pander to it. Preachers pander to it. Advertisers prey on it. They eat anxiety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Again, Tillich, writing as if for our time:

The desire for security becomes dominant in special periods and in special social and psychological situations. Men create systems of security in order to protect their space. But they can only repress their anxiety; they cannot banish it, for this anxiety anticipates the final “spacelessness” which is implied in finitude. [Tillich, p. 195]

So this morning I sip my coffee aware of and thankful for this moment of finitude, and determined that I will not turn over my anxiety into the hands of those who promise security from every fear. Willem Zuurdeeg and Paul Tillich looked directly into the heart of human darkness and saw a light greater than the darkness. I want to live in the light of their courage and wisdom.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

*Born and raised in Germany, Paul Johannes Tillich was the first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position in 1933 following the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany for his outspoken criticism of the Nazi movement. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he and his family moved to New York where Tillich joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. He went on to become one of the best-known philosopher-theologians of the 20th century, publishing widely from teaching from chairs at Union, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. His best know works are The Courage to Be, The Shaking of the Foundations (a collection of sermons),and his three-volume Systematic Theology.

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

**Born and raised in the Netherlands in a family that served as part of the underground resistance to Hitler’s pogrom, Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg spent his life asking how western civilization’s most sophisticated culture (Germany), could fall so easily into the hands of a madman. His Analytical Philosophy of Religion became a major text for undergraduate and graduate philosophy of religion classes. When Professor Zuurdeeg died of cancer as Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, he left behind an unfinished manuscript later completed by his friend and colleague Esther Cornelius Swenson, the title of which is Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry. Click HERE for photographs of Willem Zuurdeeg and the family that gave Jews sanctuary in the Netherlands.

4 thoughts on “Our Anxious Time

  1. Gordon, thank you for showing that over the years we still do not grasp the reason for our unrest and misdirection in life. We try to conquer our fears when it is the emptiness, or meaninglessness, which we are striving to conquer. Perhaps I should say trying to replace with worth and reason. That Old Testament preacher identified our quest. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”


    • Isn’t it interesting that Ecclesiastes was included in the canon? It’s hardly Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller’s “the Power of Positive Thinking”! I’ve always love Tillich because he saw our age as the age of the search for meaning, and he understood the human condition not only intellectually but viscerally. One of the things he said was “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.

      Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/p/paul_tillich.html#5PpSTcTcQkstSJXw.99.

      I’ve been thinking about the crashing of the Germanwings Airbus today – the horror of it, the questions about why that may never be answered, the relation between terror and tragedy, and the increasingly insane world we wake up to every morning. It’s not pretty. But the trees are still outside my door. The air is still free to breath, and I have much for which to give thanks, even if everything is vanity. -:) Be well, and take good care of precious soul.


  2. I have been mired in anxiety, fear, and insecurity, because of personal issues and because of our national issues. Your article was very timely for me. It is always helpful to know that I am not alone in strugling with all of this. I just read that if I receive Medicaid to pay for extended care in a nursing home, my children will be billed for it after I die. I hadn’t known that, and it added to my fears.
    Your sipping of your coffee and your thankfulness are a good reminder of one of the things that I know works–staying in the now.


    • Cynthia, Now I know who Anonymous is! -:) Sorry to hear of your personal issues. If you’d like to discuss more – I hope it’s not are return of the cancer – shoot me an email. I suspect the Medicaid billing of one’s children would only happen if the Senior turned over his/her money to the children in order to qualify for Medicaid, in which case they might have grounds for claiming re-payment. At least that’s what Kay thinks. Anyway, there are objective reasons for fear, and, even if there were no national or international issue – fat chance – anxiety is closer than our next drawn breath. So are grace and peace, if we breath them in. I hope that for you today.


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