The Courage to Be

By David Parry


As a fully consecrated Valentinian (Gnostic) Bishop, I remain aware that battle takes place on a cultural and spiritual level, as well as the field of honour. Perhaps this partly explains why, at University, I was obsessed by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard (1813 –1855). Especially when he opposed courage to angst and discussed the necessity of living as a “Knight of Faith”.  A belief, I suspect, additionally inspiring the theologist Paul Tillich (1886 –1965), when he contrasted an existential courage “to be” against the grim threat of non-being.  A stance, of course, fundamentally equating courage with genuine religious practice. After all, courage is not simply an affirmation of individual self-worth in spite of obstacles thrown at a warrior during his lifetime, but rather an open assertion that neither guilt, nor condemnation, should enfeeble a cavalier in his fight to defend spiritual consciousness within himself. For religion, in actual fact, is the state-of-being which is grasped by the Power-of-Being.

Interestingly, J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 –1973), examined similar notions of courage in his 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" wherein he describes a specifically "Northern 'theory of courage'". As Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, Tolkien narrates a clearly “heroic” (or "virtuously pagan") insistence on doing the right thing ….. even in the face of unavoidable defeat. In Itself, a chivalrous attitude adopted by the Vikings without any promise of celestial salvation above, or for that matter an earthly reward below. Indeed, Tolkien argued one of the characteristic strengths of our fiery mythological imagination is to confront every phenomenon head-on. Moreover, unlike many other cultures, we Northmen placed our antagonists at the very centre of our struggles. Refusing to shrink away from their presence: either in our minds, or bodies. Hence, our war cries upheld the vital importance of victory as something much more than a mere win. Undoubtedly, for our ancestors - along with the valiant operatives of Norskk - an empty triumph offers little apart from temporary “solutions” to any conflict. So, unsurprisingly, indigenous Skalds would endlessly remind both friend and foe alike that a victory bereft of honour lacks satisfaction. Let alone those virtues discovered in naked will and ethical consistency. All meaning, in this extraordinary sense, martial heroism is still to be seen as meaningful: not to mention something the angels truly delight in observing.

Clearly, in some traditions, fortitude holds approximately the same connotation as courage. Examples easily being found in Chinese sacred texts like the Tao Te Ching. However, with hindsight, it seems only in our crisp and fragile Northern lands is courage understood as a religious duty. A fact cleverly reflected in the Sôlar lioð (17), when we read of Vêbogi and Râdey â sik þau trûðu –“in themselves they trusted". Thus, as people willing to resist danger, pain, intimidation and continual uncertainty, they embraced beyond all argument the gnostic teachings of Hell as a descent into what we become at our lowest, while Heaven is attaining the godlike promise of becoming what we are at our best.