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  • The Courage to Be
  • Cynthia Coffel (bio)

I was raised in the kind of family in which just about everyone owned his or her own private copy of The Courage to Be.

Do you remember The Courage to Be from your freshman year of college and that class in contemporary religious thought? Thebook explores ways in which people might find courage to affirm themselves, their existence, their "Being," in spite of their anxiety about death, their worry about the meaninglessness of their lives and their guilt about their moral failings. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Yale University in 1952, the book, now considered a classic, was written by Paul Tillich, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, a professor at Union Seminary and at Harvard, and one of the greatest Protestant theologians of our time.

My father bought his copy of The Courage to Be after he graduated from the Yale Divinity School, that brick building with the white spires where he studied as a young man and then, ten years later, taught; my sister bought her copy when she took high school philosophy at the Day Prospect Hill School for Girls, the tony place my parents sent her when they despaired of convincing her to read in her spare time. I bought my copy from the young seminarian who taught the confirmation course at Yale's Battell Chapel when I was in ninth grade, a religious little girl explaining Bonhoeffer to my classmates, finally confirmed—the only one in that '60s class—up near the eagle lectern, in front of the Tiffany windows, by the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., himself. My mother didn't own a copy of The Courage to Be, so she stole mine during the divorce, when she was trying to convince herself to keep on going, just around the time that my father packed up all of his books—The Confessionsof Saint Augustine, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, The Cost of Discipleship—and left us all behind among the cornfields, where none of us belonged, not least my mother, ravaged, crazy, smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table at four in the morning, dreaming of revenge. At that time, of course, she needed TheCourage to Be. It was my copy she read and scribbled in, in pen, all over the margins. Bill, she'd write on one page or, by the words "neurotic anxiety is the inability to take one's existential anxiety upon oneself," the comment, just like me—a wimp. Or, lack of an ontological analysis of anxiety—Bill. She needed courage to affirm her being against the possibility of nonbeing, needed wisdom to forgive herself and to forgive [End Page 107] God for what had happened to her. Underlined three times, the ink so dark she must have hurt her hand: "in this situation the meaning of life is reduced to despair about the meaning of life."

But long before the divorce, on Livingston Street, in that green Victorian house with the ivy-covered stone porch and the pigeons cooing in the eaves, I grew up thinking of myself very self-consciously as Protestant—Presbyterian. It seemed as if everyone around me was Catholic in the New Haven of the 1960s: Pat O'Connor, whom my father knew from local politics, Mrs. Garogiola, whom my mother talked to at the PTA, my schoolmates—Terry Cermola, Francie Riggio, Claudia Manzi. Even our next-door neighbors, the McGuires, were Catholic: they were different from us. They had plastic slipcovers on their large comfy chairs; they had an aquarium in the living room; they had color TV. My parents didn't believe in any of those things—fish, TV, comfort. My parents were Protestants: they had walls full of books, reproductions of paintings by Roualt and a couch no one sat on, not because it was special or needed to be covered in plastic, but because sitting on it hurt your spine.

Despite The Courage to Be, despite knowing about Tillich and Bon-hoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr, I grew up thinking that Protestantism—maybe even Presbyterianism—was a second-class religion, watered down, not really real, as Catholicism was. I...


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pp. 107-118
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