The Leap to Faith
by Danny Dowell
In this paper I will sketch out Kierkegaard’s basic understanding of the leap from unbelief to belief. This paper will be divided into three major sections. In the first section, I will outline why Kierkegaard thinks a leap is necessary at all. Second, I will describe what the leap is like and what an actual leap looks like. Finally, I will briefly talk about the significance of the leap and how the leap changes a person.
Section one: The need for the leap
The leap, for Kierkegaard, is necessary ultimately because reason and faith are incommensurable due to human sin (Faith, 13). The sinful nature looks at Christianity and finds it absurd, paradoxical, and offensive. Objective reason – the way the sinful mind goes about thinking everything – especially despises the paradox of the incarnation. (Rae, 169) Kierkegaard describes the leap as a ‘letting go’ of attempts to try to prove the premises of Christianity and instead taking Christianity’s premises as the starting point of faith (Ferreira, 210).
The leap is necessary because human reason, due to the fall, cannot understand the paradox that the divine presents to it and even finds the paradox offensive. Human pride prevents a person from accepting what he cannot understand. The person living the aesthetic life is gripped by the prideful belief that, “what I cannot understand (in principle) must be nonsense” (Faith, 97).
Since, Christianity is essentially paradox, especially in revelation about Jesus Christ; objective reason cannot understand it, nor come to grips with it. Objective reason cannot know the eternal because objective reason can only think about the eternal abstractly. Objective reason is incapable of thinking subjectively – where all thought begins to relate to what I should do in real life and what the implications of everything is for my life. That is to say that, objective reason is not infused with a passion to apply eternal truth toward practical life. This passion infused life, or subjectivity, is the essence of being a Christian, according to Kierkegaard.
The problem is that objective reason can only achieve this passion if it can accept Christianity. Since objective reason never will be able to accept Christianity objective reason, due to objective its pride, is in a sense stuck. Somehow, reason must learn to ‘let go’ of its need for certainty instead of clinging to its own ability. If objective reason does not ‘let go’ the offense and the paradox of Christianity will remain and the transition into faith cannot be made. This ‘letting go’ is the essence of the leap in which a person learns to understand eternal paradox in a subjective way.
We have seen that objective reason’s problem, first and foremost, is that it demands certainty. Lessing was one of the first to demand that Christianity must be to be knowable by proof. Lessing demands, for example, that he must have a proof for the historicity of Christianity or for the logical necessity of Christianity (Michalson, 325). Lessing found that there was no way that history could with absolute certainty bridge the between the gap between the historical events of Christianity and today. This gap Lessing saw as a massive ugly ditch that he himself couldn’t jump. The difficulty is that Christianity demands that its truth is based on historical events such as the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. The problem with these key elements of Christianity is that they lay on the other side of the big ugly ditch. Thus, to get them one must figure out some way to leap this big ugly ditch.
Kierkegaard agrees with Lessing on this point. Kierkegaard feels that all historical knowledge is uncertain and that historical knowledge is not sufficient grounds for faith. To Kierkegaard, all historical knowledge is approximation the second after it happens because there is no possible way to guarantee complete accuracy in describing or reconstructing past evens (Michalson, 330). As Kierkegaard notes even, “If all the angels united [to seek historical evidence], they would still be able to produce only an approximation, because in historical knowledge an approximation is the only certainty – but also too little on which to build an eternal happiness” (Faith, 11). Kierkegaard claims that the evidence would be too little because only absolute certainty would suffice for infinite interest and true faith must include infinite interest.
In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript Climacus claims that religious faith requires “infinite interest.” Religious faith requires infinite interest because it deals with an individual’s eternal happiness. The problem with “infinite interest” is that it demands absolute certainty. Infinite interest demands absolute certainty, because any amount of of uncertainty would make infinite interest uneasy. Infinite interest and objective reason can never truly coexist because infinite interest finds any degree of certainty unbearable. Objective reason, thus, demands that an absolutely sure foundation of evidence be constructed on which to base its need for infinite interest. The objective reason’s quest for absolute certainty is always frustrated, because all it can grasp is uncertainty. Nothing less than absolute certainty will do as a foundation for faith’s infinite interest. It makes matters worse that faith by definition contains some uncertainty or else it would not be faith. Thus, what is necessary is that reason somehow ‘let go’ of its need for absolute certainty and leap into faith.
Another difficulty with objective reason is that no matter how much evidence reason has the reason can always postpone judgment because objective reason can always stall awaiting more evidence (Faith, 12). You might have a massive amount of evidence for Christianity, but who knows if some new bit of evidence might pop up negating the rest. Thus, objective reason can’t even be comfortable settling for a preponderance of evidence, because there might be some reversal of the evidence for Christianity. In this way, the pursuit of truth by objective reason always stalls, because objective reason can never get the certainty it needs to establish a basis for faith. Not only can objective reason not establish the base it needs, but as noted before objective reason is likely to find Christianity absurd, paradoxical, and offensive.
The problem is further complicated by the nature of faith itself. Faith that does not involve uncertainty is no longer faith. Thus, by definition objective reason cannot stand faith. As C. Stephen Evens notes, “Faith is faith in the absurd,” because paradox is above reason and thus cannot be supported by reason (Faith, 89). What the aesthete needs is a total inversion of their starting points. They start with the need for an objective proof of Christianity and demand that this proof be absolutely certain. What the aesthete needs is to leap and thus by ‘letting go’ assume the premises of Christianity as starting points (Ferreira, 210). This, leap, or total turnaround will leave the believer affirming paradox as their central source of truth. The believer will, thus, stop objecting to paradox and instead accept by faith paradox as paradox.
Section two: What is the leap?
The first thing to note about the leap is that the primary expounder of it, Climacus, is not himself a Christian. This bares keeping in mind since Climacus’ view of the leap may differ in some extent from Kierkegaard’s own views. One major difference Murray Rae notes is who is responsible for the leap. The agnostic Climacus notes that only the ‘the god’ can make the leap to faith possible. In the end Climacus’ musings do not end his lead in the Judeo-Christian God, although Climacus’ recognizes the need for divine intervention for a leap to happen. Kierkegaard himself, however, notes that it is by, “the human person achieves absolutely nothing; it is God who gives everything; it is he who brings forth a person’s faith ect” (Rae, 169-170). Kierkegaard in For Self Examination identifies this even more specifically as it is the Holy Spirit that gives life (Rae, 169). This is the major difference between Climacus’ and Kierkegaard and a key element to keep in mind.
Whatever the leap is we should think of it as primarily an act of God upon us. Climacas, however, notes that to leap, “the individual needs divine assistance” (Rae, 167) So, we get a sense that in one way the God is responsible entirely and in another he needs the humans help. This in many ways sounds like a compatiblist understanding of causation. Jamie Ferreira thinks that it is just that and that Kierkegaard sees human freedom as being compatible with divine governance (Ferreira 219). Thus, to say the leap is primarily God’s work does not exclude that idea that I am actively involved in it as well. As Jamie Ferreira notes the leap is something active and yet passive (Ferreira 210). There is a sense that I do leap, but there is an even greater sense that in some way the leap is ultimately something that happens to me.
The next important thing to note about the leap is that it occurs in an instant. As Jamie Ferreira notes, Climacus’ takes pains to make sure that we do not mistake the leap for an act of willpower (Ferreira, 215). The leap is not, as he notes, the collective act of gathering enough power on one side of the ditch and then willing oneself to the other side. This does not mean that there are not preparations necessary before the leap. There may well be a large number of changes that need to be made to enable the leap. But, the leap itself is a threshold moment, there is no storing up of power for it, and it is an all or nothing moment and cannot be grounded in what precedes it (Ferreira, 217-8).
Kierkegaard’s whole use of indirect communication was to draw out from people an understanding of themselves. Kierkegaard wanted to draw out from people realizations such as that they were sinners or how they lived their lives. This could pave the way to make it possible for them to leap or to let go of their pride, such as was the case in Augustine’s life. Kierkegaard could not provide his aesthete readers with the momentum for the leap, but he could provide them with the occasion for it.
Another key element of the leap is that the leap itself is not done by objective reason. It is interesting to note that Kierkegaard never himself uses the Danish equivalent of “the leap of faith” (Ferreira, 207). This is because that the “leap of faith” would be a circular expression. More accurately the leap to Kierkegaard is a leap from unbelief to belief. Before the leap one may struggle to try to prove God exists. However, Kierkegaard holds that all such attempts at proofs hold a speculative and therefore objective starting point. (Subjectivity, 84)
In this way these proofs do not relate the given realities to person making the proof and, thus, can not be the ground for faith. In this way, Kierkegaard follows the traditional Lutheran confession when it says, “It is one thing to believe history, another to believe what it means for me” (Henriksen, 93). To believe theism by proof is totally qualitatively different than believing what history means for me as a subjectively and thus infinitely interested person. Or as Kierkegaard puts it, “Existing, if this is to be understood as just any sort of existing, cannot be done without passion” (Faith, 98).
We have thus seen so far that the leap is first primarily God’s work, second the leap is not the cumulative work of willpower, and third the leap is not accomplishable by proof or disinterested thought. The final element I will introduce before describing the moment of the leap is that the leap is a qualitative change.
When one leaps from non-faith to faith – from non-being to being (Ferreira, 216). And once one has made the leap there is no longer the need for total certainty. In fact faith would not be faith if there were total certainty. As C. Stephen Evens put it, “Faith requires that a man be out over the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms. The attempt to take away this uncertainty is an attempt to do away with faith” (Subjectivity, 83). We cannot do away with uncertainty with faith because paradox is at the center of reality. Thus, faith is qualitatively different because it deals with paradox in a totally different way than objective reason does. If we did away with the paradox we would either have distorted Christianity or become on the level with God. Since we cannot do the latter and should not do the former we are left to live as Evens puts it “out over the deep.” This qualitatively is something objective reason could not stand for.
The moment of leap, ironically, does not sound like a leap at all. The leap in its essence is a just a letting go. Murray Rae describes the human contribution like this, “the contribution which the individual makes, far from being a sufficient cause of conversion, is more aptly defined as the removal of an obstacle to conversion. That obstacle is human pretense” (Rae Pg 166). The human contribution as such is to let go of the classic Christian sin of pride. Pride as C. Stephen Evens puts is the attitude that, “what (in principle) I cannot understand must be nonsense”(Faith, 97) Ironically, all one does to leap is to simply let go. It seems all we add to the leap is to abandon our selfish-know-it-all pretense and God does all the rest of the work.
We can not even add anything to our leap beyond letting go. We can try to add more than a simple ‘letting go’ to our leap, but we will then not be able to successfully leap. We can see this when Climacus affirms Jacobi’s claim in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “If you will just step on the elastic spot that catapults me, it will come by itself,” as Ferreira notes, however, the hard part is to “just step” (Ferreira, 215). In some sense is seems the human contribution to the leap is simply to stop resisting God. In that moment we stop resisting God catapults us – from non-being into being, from unbelief to belief, from objectivity to subjectivity, and from evil to good. If we try to add a jump onto God’s catapulting work we will have added our prideful self dependence to the act and the leap will fail. We, thus, must simply ‘let go.’ Once the objective reason gives up its pretensions or lets go of its pretentious airs, by ‘letting go’, then God, through his Holy Spirit, can transform us into a new creation. The human contribution in a sense is to simply do nothing and that nothing is to not be pretensions against divine reason.
It is not clear, at least to me, weather Kierkegaard thinks that the human contribution is part of his own will or not. We have noted that, Kierkegaard does not mind calling actions caused by God to be free for humans as long as they are not compulsive. I tend to think that Kierkegaard might take the traditional Lutheran understanding of rebirth from places things he writes such as, “the human person achieves absolutely nothing; it is God who gives everything; it is he who brings forth a person’s faith ect” (Rae, 169-170). I would suspect that Kierkegaard would affirm that it is wholly God who enables and causes the leap, but as a compatiblist he would also affirm that our co-operation was compatible with this divine work, but that in essence God gets all the credit, because he is the primary cause.
To me, it seems that Kierkegaard has lead us through dark and narrow alleyways and through confusing turns and in the end he has simply stated something akin to the traditional Lutheran doctrine. Kierkegaard’s advantage though is that he has forced us to fight and to think long and hard about the nature of faith – he has thus through indirect communication acted as a midwife to draw knowledge out of us. I think that Kierkegaard’s leap, in the end, is not meant to be really so radical, but that it is a fairly traditional view stated in radical language due to indirect communication.
It is interesting to compare this leap in some respects to the rebirth Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of. As Kent Hughes writes, “Nicodemus knew exactly what was going on when Jesus said he needed to be ‘born again.’ The rabbis had a saying: ‘A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child.’ All things were thought to be completely new, and the old connections destroyed” (John, 75). In some sense, Kierkegaard’s view echoes this notion that all old connections are destroyed and all things are completely new.
Of course Kierkegaard sees the old being preserved in the new but the contrasts of non-being into being, unbelief to belief, objectivity to subjectivity, and evil to good are strikingly similar to spiritual rebirth viewed in a certain way. I wonder if Kierkegaard may not have been drawing heavily to some degree on the concept of spiritual rebirth as he though about the leap. It strikes me strongly that Kierkegaard must have had in mind Jesus’ command to be childlike – to depend totally on him like a child depends on his parent. The leap is, in a sense, just an admission that I cannot, by the power of my own willing, come to faith on my own and looking to God and realizing that he is the only source of help.
How is a person changed by the leap?
Although I have mentioned some of the changes of the leap already I think it is worthwhile to probe the changes in more depth. As stated before Kierkegaard says that the leap moves us from non-being into being, from unbelief to belief, from objectivity to subjectivity, and from evil to good. On top of this Kierkegaard adds, “In order to become a human being in the fullest sense, one must become a Christian.” (Subjectivity, 90) In a way when we leap we find ourselves as humans.
C. S. Lewis in his writing describes Christianity as salt. Christianity like salt draws out the true flavor of the human character. Thus, the more one becomes like Christ the more one becomes distinctively ones-self. I think, Kierkegaard is making a similar point. When we are in the aesthetic stage we are driven by a constant fear of boredom that defines everything we are by its exerted influence over our lives. When we leap we give up our flight from boredom and can really for the first time start to become true people. Once we enter the ethical we enter the world of ‘becoming’. We are becoming our true unique selves as we become more like Christ.
Before the leap our objective reason demands certainty on all issues. The reason is unable to believe because the claims of faith are absurd, paradoxical, and offensive. After we come to faith we realize as Evens nicely puts it that we are, “over the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms” (Subjectivity, 83). The new Christian mind is no longer revolted by paradox, but is now understood by the Christian as paradox. As Henriksen notes, “As paradox, the mediated content (truth) cannot be understood as deriving from human reason. I means the end of the autonomous, Socratic reason” (Henriksen, 94).
Through faith we must recognize as Evens points out that, “Faith is indeed above reason, but a reason that recognizes its own limitations will not necessarily reject the possibility of faith” (Faith, 97). When we come to faith we leave behind our prideful and seemingly nearly complete understanding of the world and enter into a humble admission that we cannot and possibly never will understand ultimate reality beyond paradox. Once the leap is made we can no longer lift our intellect above revelation, rather, we must exalt revelation above our feeble reason.
In conclusion, Kierkegaard fought hard against the systematic philosophy prominent in his day. But, he what he fought against was not rational thought, but, rather, as C. Stephen Evens, “What he fought so passionately was the idolatrous identification of objective thought with man’s highest end” (Subjectivity 75). Kierkegaard saw that objective reason is always doomed to fail on its own power, because it is incapable of understanding the paradox of Christianity. Kierkegaard, thus, set out writing by indirect communication to de-bunk the ‘objectivity’ of objective reason and to expose its non-neural starting points. As Jan-Olav Henriksen notes Kierkegaard tried to reconstruct religion using pre-modern – orthodox doctrine (Henriksen, 92). What is striking about Kierkegaard is how radically different this orthodox doctrine looks when it is written using indirect communication by pseudonymous authors.
Evens, C. Stephen. Faith Beyond Reason. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.
Evens, C. Stephen. Subjectivity & Religious Belief. Grand Rapids: Christian University Press and William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,
Hughes, Kent. John: That You May Believe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999.
G. E. Michalson, Jr. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 59, No. 3. (Jul.,
1979), pp. 324-334.
Jamie Ferreira. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. USA: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 207-234.
Henriksen, Jan-Olav. The Reconstruction of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
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