What Stands Alone

Theism in all its forms is transcended in the experience we have called absolute faith. It is the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts. 

Those lines come from 20th century theologian Paul Tillich's 1952 book The Courage to Be. In that book, Tillich eventually argues that the ultimate form of what he calls the courage to be, the highest stage thereof, is "the courage to accept acceptance." By that phrase he means the courage--literally, the "heart": French coeur, Latin cor—to let oneself be accepted absolutely.  It is in the context of articulating what is involved in that ultimate, highest form of “the courage to be,” that Tillich writes the lines above. 

The point he is making is that fully unconditional acceptance of acceptance does not even demand or expect that there is any thing or person--any "somebody" or "something"--that is extending the acceptance that is being unconditionally accepted. The unconditional acceptance of acceptance Tillich is addressing is, after all, just that: "un-conditional," which is to say "without condition," including specifically, by Tillich’s remark, the condition that the acceptance being accepted be an acceptance that is itself offered by anything or anyone whatsoever. Unconditional acceptance of acceptance is the full acceptance of this, that one is accepted, period--without any need that one be accepted by someone or something   

Thus, a truly unconditional acceptance is one that does not stipulate, either explicitly or implicitly, any conditions that must be satisfied before the acceptance is given. Unconditional acceptance is acceptance pure and simple, and nothing more than acceptance.  Such acceptance that stands alone by itself, altogether ab-solved( Latin ab-, “off, away from,” plus solvere, “to loosen, untie, release, remove”) and set apart in itself. It is therefore an acceptance that is itself “absolute faith,” as Tillich notes. Such acceptance, such faith, is therefore holy. So is the acceptance being accepted. 

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich

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To recapitulate: The acceptance that absolute faith accepts is no less absolute, no less holy, than such faith itself. The acceptance absolute faith accepts is absolute acceptance itself, without any conditions. As Tillich observes, that means that the acceptance faith accepts is even free of any condition that it be attributed, or at least attributable, to anyone or anything supposedly “doing” the accepting. And if by God one means someone or something that proffers such absolute acceptance, then the acceptance pure faith accepts is no less free of any connection to God.*

The holiness of accepting unconditionally or absolutely, and the holiness of being accepted unconditionally or absolutely, go inseparably together. They stand alone together.

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The English word holy derives from the Old English halig, meaning “consecrated, sacred,” an adjective derived from hal, “healthy, sound, safe; entire; uninjured; genuine; straightforward.” Hal is also the Scottish and northern English version of whole.  From the same source we also get hale, as in “hale and hearty.” Hal derives in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *kailo, “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” 

What is holy is what is whole, uninjured, set apart safe, sound, and entire unto itself. What is holy is absolute, needing nothing else in order to be whole, entire, free of injury, hurt, or harm. In translations of the Hebrew Bible, holy is the standard English translation of Hebrew qadosh, which literally means “to be set apart for a special purpose.” 

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As 1 John 14:19 says, it is the experience of being loved that lets us love in turn. No less is it the experience of being accepted unconditionally that allows us to accept unconditionally in turn. Accordingly, a point at which I part company with Tillich, at least as he expresses himself in The Courage to Be, is when he speaks of “absolute faith” as having “the courage to accept acceptance.” To my mind, accepting acceptance—most especially when the acceptance proffered, and therefore the acceptance of that acceptance in turn, are both unconditional and holy—is not a matter of “courage.” It is, instead, a pure, unconditional, and holy gift, no less than is the acceptance one is proffered for accepting. Thus, rather than speaking of “the courage to accept acceptance” I would speak of “the gift of accepting acceptance.”

Courage or fortitude is one of the four “moral virtues” in what became the standard tradition of the Catholic Church during the high middle ages--along with prudencejustice, and temperance (that is, moderation). All four are called “moral” because they are virtues that can be developed by the efforts of the individuals who come to have them. In contrast, the standard list of the “seven cardinal virtues”—to correspond to the “seven deadly [that is, death-dealing] vices” (pride, anger, greed, envy, glutton, lust, and sloth, in the most common listings)—there are also three “theological virtues”, namely, faith, hope, and love (or charity, to use the Latin based word), that are said to be “infused.” That is, they cannot be developed by us on our own, but have to be given to us, “infused” into us, by God—which is to say, I would argue, are not conditional upon being given by anyone or anything, but are simply and purely just given, absolutely and unconditionally.

All of my own experience of the matter, as well as all the thought I have given to it over more than half a century, convinces me that the capacity to accept acceptance is not something we can cultivate on our own. It is, thus, no “moral virtue.” Rather, it must be “infused.” It is God-given, which is to say given absolutely and unconditionally, dependent on nothing beyond itself—most especially on any idol mistaken for God. 

We accept because we are first accepted. That is the truth of the matter, a truth that stands whole and alone.  

*One can thank God, however, that one does not need to accept that as the meaning of God.