A dramatisation of the story surrounding the death by hanging of the Quaker Mary Dyer in 1660

Courage and Being

“Courage is the universal self-affirmation of one’s
Being in the presence of the threat of non-Being”

“Absolute faith, grounded in transcendence,
provides one definition of the Courage to Be”


Asking questions of Mary Dyer’s courage, in confronting unflinchingly what she saw as the Colony’s unjust Laws, leads to many possible answers in The Courage To Be.

This website Essay offers viewpoints drawn from Paul Tillich’s 1952 book, some excellent interpretations printed later, and indeed today’s Web (thanks particularly to the Richard Schwartz site).

On her return to Boston, after years away with the early Quakers of Old England, could her determined stand have been based firstly on any one “positive decision” which led to her “unshakeable action”?

Far from being dissuaded by the hanging of Robinson and Stephenson and what others saw as her narrow escape by reprieve and banishment, she stayed away from Massachusetts’ “unjust Laws” just seven months. Then returned still convinced of her course.

Within the Tillich teaching and interpretations, we might find the above as

  1. the ethical reality (morally keeping to the highest standards, in the presence of Truth) and
  2. the ontological concept (remembrance of Being, the inward Self) defining courage as “the universal and essential self-affirmation of one’s Being, in the presence of the threat of non-Being”.

It could be argued: we must have both. It does bring to mind the major question that the story of Mary Dyer is about:: was she deep in unshakeable faith, source of her courage, or was she experiencing courage delusional? How can one judge or analyse one of her last sentences, while awaiting hanging: “In obedience to the will of the Lord I came, and in His will I abide faithful to death.”

It often comes back, as expressed elsewhere on this Mary Dyer site, to underlying and fundamental questions we might all ask, in the face of living’s many pressures even threats. ‘How can I understand (stand under) with certainty?’ ‘What is ego and what are its dangers?’ and ‘How can I be certain that I am standing under Truth and not deluded by ego’s determined desires and unbalanced passions’ ?

Tillich was born in Germany in 1886 and died in Chicago 1965. He was a remarkable writer and theologian and he believed in the power of the Spiritual Presence. He wrote “philosophically, psychoanalytically and theologically.”

He reminds us that we find serious references in exploring “What is Courage” in Western philosophy from Stoicism to Plato, Socrates and Aristotle; Thomas Aquinas and the Christian tradition; and in Spinoza and Nietzsche.

One writer on Tillich today says “The teaching of our source Being, that is the ground of Being and non-duality, can be found in modern teachers and ancient mystics, in those of universalist belief and absolute faith” ... from Plotinus to Meister Eckhart, from Sufi Kahlil Gibran to Hindu Sri Ramana Maharshi.

From Stoics to Tillich the conundrum, riddle, puzzle has remained open to answers. Tillich sees eternal questions about:

  • ‘unrealistic certitude’
  • ‘the citadel of certainty’
  • ‘refusal to accept doubt, rejecting all questions from outside’ and
  • ‘absolutized authority (which may be personal revelation or religious institution?)

His remit broadens, in this search for the 'Courage To Be', by taking in the crucial roles of the (illusory?) threat of non-being, of fear and of anxiety (arising, in the understanding found in Eastern philosophy from the darkening desires and passions and selfish concerns of Ego/Aham-kara).

Tillich said “The power of Being displaces and transcends fear but does not remove it. Only absorption in the loving and knowing of the Divine Ground can bring the self-affirmation in spite of fear.”

He also saw the courage to be with absolute faith as transcending both the mystical experience and the divine-human encounter. In fact, he said, faith IS the combination of both the mystical union with the ground of Being AND that of the courage derived from the personal encounter with God.

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