Is Despair Contrary to or Necessary for Faith?

T. R. Baylor
Tuesday 28 June 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Christian Theology has often noted the complex role that emotional states play in the life of faith, and particularly in beliefs about the order of God’s providence within the world. Despair offers an interesting case study in this relation because it bears immediately on the question of truth, and faith’s apprehension of the truth. However, Christian theologians have different intuitions about the ethical and moral significance of despair and its relation to faith. Indeed, this tends to be a topic on which modern theologians tend to vary fairly substantially from older ones.

The relationship between beliefs and emotional states has also been the object of some interest in recent cognitive science, particularly with a view to developing behavioural therapies for those suffering with long-term anxiety or despair. This raises questions about whether despair is strictly a pathology of human psychology, and whether practices might be appropriated to serve as a kind of spiritual therapy of despair. In what follows, I will outline two theological approaches to this question: those of Paul Tillich and Thomas Aquinas. I will then survey some recent cognitive science on the relation of belief to despair and assess which of the two outlined views might offer the more expansive application of this research.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Moral Theology

Modern moral theologies, especially those in the existentialist tradition, have tended to naturalise despair, turning it into a condition of faith. Perhaps one of the better examples of this is Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be (2014). Tillich takes despair and anxiety to be a natural reaction to the “transitoriness of everything created” (2014, 32). It is an existential state in which a person is “aware of its possible nonbeing” (Tillich 2014, 34).

According to Tillich, this experience is universal, concerning each of us in our inescapable sense of finitude, uncertainty, and guilt. Such anxieties are inseparable from our condition as creatures. Though we may be aware of them from time to time, they more commonly take concrete form in our fixations on particular objects of fear, which we either confront with courage or evade through some kind of neuroses (Tillich 2014, 60).

In a certain respect, Tillich thinks both courage and fear have a psycho-somatic character and are adapted to “biological self-affirmation”, where this is understood as inclusive of human spiritual and moral ambition (2014, 72). Achieving a balance between courage and fear is thus vital to human flourishing. Neuroticism misdirects our commitment to this self-affirmation, ultimately weakening our vitality, since it entails a fearful retreat from reality into psychoses. But the confrontation of our fears with courage assumes the knowledge of what to avoid and what to dare, and so our agency as intentional creatures (Tillich 2014, 74).

Tillich finds an authentic contemporary expression of courage in the late modern acceptance of existential despair as the unalterable condition of our existence: “the courage of despair” (2014, 129). The willing acceptance of despair in our time is an unmasking of the neuroses that divert us into endless technological distraction and prevent us from coming to grips with the truth of our situation — our alienation from God. This, he thinks, is an ally to faith because it exists “on the boundary line of the courage to be” but lacks only the “experience of the power of being” — the will to affirm the goodness of our existence, in spite of our exposure to the meaninglessness of the world (Tillich 2014, 162).

This affirmation can only take place in an act of what Tillich describes as “absolute faith”. It is not, in Kierkegaard’s terms, a “leap of faith”; for it is not a subject’s attempt to overcome the doubt and despair of the world’s apparent meaninglessness. On the contrary, it seeks “an answer which is valid within and not outside the situation of his despair” (Tillich 2014, 161).

Absolute faith thus has no specific cognitive content at all. It is not capable of rational demonstration, either by means of reason or by appeal to authority. It wholly transcends all appeals to mystical experience or even a divine-human encounter, which would otherwise presuppose some experience or knowledge as the immediate ground of faith. This is a kind of believing rooted not in the agency of the individual, but only in the divine gift. As such, it is, like God, “undirected, absolute” and “undefinable”.

For Tillich, then, faith is an immediate reception of divine power that grants the courage to affirm the goodness of our existence “in spite of” our despair (2014, 159). Providence is therefore not a “theory about some activities of God”, but a symbol of the perseverance of faith through sorrow and doubt (Tillich 2014, 154). Because Tillich in this way naturalises despair as an existential feature of human nature, he can understand it as the necessary condition of the operation of faith.

Such an approach differs markedly from the medieval tradition, which is much more concerned with the moral limits of sorrow, particularly in light of its power to overcome faith with despair. Aquinas, for example, claims that despair is a mortal sin and a capital sin — a sin which causes other sins — because it implies aversion to God “directly and principally”. Indeed, he says that “nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the everyday toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith” (ST, II-II, q. 20, a. 3).

The reason for this is that Aquinas sees the moral life as fundamentally about the pursuit of pleasure. Sorrow, as one of the passions of the soul, plays a critical and analytical role in assisting any agent in this dispute. Passions are repulsive movements of the soul away from sources of pain. Just as a person’s hand recoils from the surface of something hot, so in sorrow, the sensitive appetites of the soul recoil from the source of perceived pain (ST I-II, q. 22, a. 2).

This function of the soul is natural and God-given. It assists us in fleeing what is evil and pursuing what is good. But because these passions of soul are dependent upon right perception for their proper function, they are liable to disorder. A number of factors might conspire, causing us ultimately to misapprehend our situation. In such instances, passions that might otherwise serve our flourishing can seriously inhibit it, sometimes in ways that are spiritually injurious.

Despair is one example of this. For, according to Aquinas, despair (desperatio) is a state of mind that has its cause in acedia, “sloth”. Acedia weakens or immobilises the movements of our natural appetites, even to the point of leaving us without any attraction to the good or aversion to evil. It weighs a person down, saps their strength, and sometimes even removes the most basic of human powers — the will to communicate. It is, in short, a kind of apathy that convinces us that we will “never be able to rise to any good” (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 4).

One of the things that Aquinas thinks is so dangerous about acedia is its power not only to arrest our natural appetites, but to trouble the mind. The enjoyment of God is an arduous good — that is, it is one that requires tremendous perseverance to obtain. The life of faith demands discipline, fortitude, and hope. And this hope is nurtured by the joyful contemplation of divine truths such as the incarnation, which remind us of God’s condescension to the lowly.  But “a man who is full of sorrow does not easily think of great and joyful things, but only of sad things, unless by a great effort he turn his thoughts away from sadness” (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 4).

Despair can occupy the mind with untrue beliefs, either about oneself, or one’s relation to God. Aquinas denies the implication that the despondent lack faith in God as such. After all, a person might possess a right knowledge of God, and yet fail to act on that knowledge in an appropriate way, because they misjudge themselves or their own condition: “The path is too difficult. I’ll never make it. I am beyond hope.” In this way, a deficiency in courage or hope can give the appearance of reason to despair (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 2).

Like Tillich then, Aquinas thinks faith can co-exist with despair, but he does not see despair as a necessary condition of faith, but as an eventual threat to it. For by proposing a thousand impossibilities, despair enervates those appetites which are natural supports to faith. When such despair occupies the mind, it has the power even to take even very joyful thoughts about God and reduce them into occasions for grief. This is morally disastrous; where despair is permitted to destroy the theological virtue of hope, men and women will inevitably judge themselves beyond help and “ceas[e] to hope for a share of God’s goodness” (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 3). With little confidence they can endure the arduous path of virtue, they may rather choose to rush headlong into vice.

For Aquinas, therefore, despair is neither a natural nor a morally indifferent condition — it is indicative of the deep disorder of a soul that has come to abandon any hope of enjoying God’s goodness. This is ruinous both because it is false, and also because the passions become means of projecting this falsehood. In that sense, emotion is not merely an ambient feature of one’s moral agency. It is regulative and constitutive of the moral life. There is reason in emotion. And though it might be done only with great difficulty and effort, if one can learn to regulate their affective life, then emotions can become a powerful ally in support of virtue.

2.2 Cognitive Science of Emotion

The cognitive sciences offer some support for this regulative view of emotion. Defenders of a “functionalist” account of emotion like Frijda, Campos, Friston, Barrett and others have argued that emotional states, and the physiological behaviours that attend them, should be understood as phenomena that are inseparable from the networks of relations that are occupied by their subjects. From this perspective, emotional states are understood as adaptations of an agent within a highly specific field of action.

Because the agent is both a constituent and a cause in any field of action, functionalist theories argue that the emotional state and its subject are mutually dependent. In other words, emotions are not events in which their subjects are entirely passive — they do not just “happen to” the subject — because the subject brings her desires, experiences, intentions, and beliefs into this field of action. In that sense, her agency partially determines the context in which her emotional states are formed.

Emotions must therefore be seen as highly articulated phenomena, events heavily valenced by and explainable only in reference to the culture, formation, and objectives that orient their subject in a particular time and space. Since subjects are not entirely passive in their emotional states, they can and often do employ strategies to regulate their own emotions, whether consciously or unconsciously. This kind of “emotional regulation” intends the promotion of desirable emotions and the prevention or alteration of undesirable ones.

Because functionalist accounts provide a means for understanding the history and intention of subjects as itself a part of the enriched context, they offer a highly nuanced framework for thinking about the formation of moral agency over time. For while our emotions may be spontaneous, the conditions in which they are formed are partially determined by our own agency. This raises a number of interesting and important questions about the limits of our agency and the extent to which a subject might reasonably be held responsible for their own emotions.

For example, a good deal of cognitive science today thinks of the mind as a “statistical organ” that calculates probabilities through active inference based on its sensory experiences and “beliefs about their causes” (Friston et al. 2018, 29). Emotion here functions to register confidence in the probability of one’s judgments with the aim of optimising their reliability. But, of course, our ability to make predictions is only as good as our understanding of reality. And where failure increases in predictive judgments, we can often become hesitant to make further judgments.

Adam Chekroud has recently applied this psychological model to clinical depression. While not excluding other contributing causes, Chekroud considers whether clinical forms of depression might be understood as including processes by which the subject comes to accept “depressive beliefs” about their own inability to escape some undesirable circumstance (2015). He argues that depressive beliefs can be formed and confirmed through a series of errant judgments in active inference. “When an incorrect belief gains strength, it can result in one ignoring potentially informative experiences, or a range of other misattributions” (Chekroud 2015). We might be primed for errant beliefs by any number of factors, such as our experiences, perceptions, emotions, or neuro-biological changes (Checkroud 2015).

Consider here the example of a person who, following a failed marriage, becomes convinced that their spouse cheated because they are incapable of making another person happy. In this instance, an inference is drawn from a recent experience — “I am incapable of making another person happy”. Over time, this belief might be strengthened, say, if subsequent partners cheat or relationships fail. Not only might such a belief make it more difficult to establish or maintain a relationship, it might also become a reason to avoid other attempts at sociality or even self-improvement. In this way, a belief drawn from a very particular set of circumstances and life experiences can play a significant role in shaping an individual’s habits and moods. It is not hard to see how such beliefs may have a depressive effect, ultimately weakening a person’s hope and resilience.

3. Discussion

Thinking of the inter-play between despair and belief in this way, as a synchronic development which shapes the character of the agent and the context in which the agent operates, raises a number of interesting theological questions which help us complicate the visions advanced by Tillich and Aquinas. Minimally, Chekroud’s model suggests that despair is inseparable from (at least some) bad-belief, and that therapies might be developed (e.g. behavioural therapies, etc.) which could, over-time, amend bad-belief and so alleviate despair. Are there reasons to think the same might be true in relation to those who despair of God’s help?

Certainly Aquinas seems to think so. As we have seen, because Aquinas holds that our natural appetites are supports of faith, and thus ought to follow reason, he holds that religious despair — despairing of God’s mercy — involves at least an improper and untrue self-assessment. Tillich leaves room for this too, at the level of neuroses. These develop as mechanisms to divert us from the courage necessary to confront our fears, occupying us instead with a kind of ‘irreality’.

Crucially, the nature of that ‘irreality’ is essentially different on the two accounts. Aquinas thinks despair can coexist alongside of faith, provided that it remains within certain boundaries. So, he acknowledges that despair may be compatible with faith, where the object of despair is our ability to attain divine goodness. But since faith is a kind of knowledge of God, where despair leads us to deny God is infinitely good or merciful, then faith itself has been corrupted, as God himself has become the object of aversion. Tillich’s account, on the other hand, holds that faith need not have any concrete conceptual content. For that reason, it is the kind of thing that might be thought to survive a very radical sort of skepticism, one which lays claim even to the whole order of the universe.

Both Aquinas and Tillich leave a place for the kind of behavioural therapies that Chekroud has in mind. As noted above, Aquinas suggests that, though difficult, the contemplation of divine truths, such as the incarnation, might “turn his thoughts away from sadness”, unwinding the accretions of despair and cultivating hope in God’s mercy (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 4). In another part of the Summa, he argues that the pursuit of pleasure in general is crucial for the resisting of acedia and despair. He thus suggests that one mired in sorrow take a nap or a bath, because the rehabilitation of our natural appetites in the care of the body is also a support to the soul (ST I-II, q. 38, a. 5).

Tillich too thinks that ministry and therapy may resemble one another, and have genuinely overlapping interests. In their own ways, both seek to address and alleviate the pathological effects of anxiety. A sermon, for example, might assist in addressing some long-entrenched neuroses, just as an hour of therapy might prove the means by which we acquire the “courage to be”. However, he thinks a firm distinction must be drawn here between the objects of the two disciplines — a distinction, I think, which Aquinas would also be eager to insist upon. For Tillich, therapy directs itself toward specifically pathological forms of anxiety, and so to the distinction between the health and illness of the embodied soul.

But the distinction between health and illness is ultimately a metaphysical one (Tillich 2014, 66). And while essential to good psychology and cognitive science, this is not a judgment they are equipped to make on their own, because pathologising is dependent on norms not statistical means. As such, it requires a much wider range of philosophical and theological considerations. This, Tillich thinks, is the real danger with modern spirituality being so dominated by a therapeutic idiom — it inevitably fails to distinguish between pathological forms of anxiety, and those which are, in fact, essential to human flourishing. In the name of personal wellness, we drive ourselves deeper into neuroses, and further from the courage we need to live.

What is needed here, Tillich insists, is a firm distinction between pathological and existential anxiety — between the misplaced fears with which we are constantly occupied in a thousand different ways, and the ultimate fears which we cannot bear to confront (2014, 69). For it is only in distinguishing between these fears that we can confront the finite nature of our existence and find the courage to be. Because Tillich understands this existential dread as natural to us, it can never be overcome — faith affirms the goodness of our existence “in spite” of it. This is in fact the whole reason why Tillich presents despair as a natural condition: to affirm the necessity of faith. Tillich casts the whole matter in moral terms. Faith is an act of courage rather than an act of knowledge, because against all reason, faith stands in defiant contradiction of the world and its annihilating forces. The dialectical relationship between faith and despair thus raises a question of broader metaphysical relevance — to what extent is God’s mercy, as the intentional end of our faith, a rational hope?

In that respect, our ethics of despair appears to turn on the old scholastic question of whether our emotional states are rational and regulative of the moral life. Chekroud does argue they are rational and regulative, at least within the “immanent frame”, as they clearly orient the agent within a given context to those intentional goods which are the object of their agency. Considered in that practical, instrumental way, emotion does regulate our agency in relation to some intentional end. This seems to comport reasonably well with both Tillich and Aquinas in different respects.

But the wider assumption of Chekroud’s research suggests that “depressive beliefs” are depressive because they are false, which suggests a kind of inner finality between truth and flourishing — as though our emotional states are adapted already to goods that facilitate flourishing. Tillich could follow this to a point, but because faith stands as a contradiction of the world’s rationality, any inner finality is out of the question. Aquinas would seem to be able to take Chekroud’s insight further. For in treating emotions as sites of reason which, as it were, anticipate and adapt the subject for the end of human flourishing, he is inclined to see despair as rooted in some false belief. To live in despair is “to fall into hell” (ST II-II, q. 20, a. 3); but conformity with the truth requires hope.

4. Conclusion

In the above sections, we have explored two ways of conceiving the relationship between faith and despair — one which naturalises despair, treating it as a background condition necessary for the exercise of faith; the other which naturalises faith, treating despair as a particular deformity of hope. Though both can offer limited appropriation of recent cognitive science looking at the role of beliefs in the formation of depressive states, the second type, represented here by Aquinas, offers a more promising application of this literature, as it suggests that some sort of bad belief lies at the root of despair.


Aquinas, Thomas. 1947. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Benziger Bros. Edition.

Campos, Joseph J et al. 1994. “A Functionalist Perspective on the Nature of Emotion”. Monographs for Research in Child Development 59 no. 2/3: 284-303.

Chekroud, Adam. 2015. “Unifying treatments for depression: an application of the Free Energy Principle”. Frontiers in Psychology.

Frijda, Nico H. et al. 2000. Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friston, et al. 2018. “Active Inference and Emotion”. In The Nature of Emotion, edited by Andrew S. Fox et. al., 28-33. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gotlib, Anna. 2018. The Moral Psychology of Sadness. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Tillich, Paul. 2014. The Courage to Be. Third Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cite this article

Baylor, T.R. 2022. “Is Despair Contrary to or Necessary for Faith?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 10).

Contact the author

T. R. Baylor
Email: [email protected]