By Andy Crosbie
The notion of faith is something that receives heavy fire in the modern world. To claim to have faith is often taken to be sign of foolishness, an inability to face up to reality. I think this is an error, one which reveals a misunderstanding of what faith actually is. There are two idioms in which we commonly use the word ‘faith’: blind faith and a leap of faith. People commonly conceive faith as the former. The latter is a far more robust, more interesting notion and it is to this concept that we should direct our attention.
Blind faith is “believing in the absence of sufficient reason”. It is a stop-gap en route to knowledge – a primitive rational achievement that we can move beyond if we gain the right evidence. Before a belief has been proven, we may still think that it is true because it helps us to understand the world or because it seems to fit with other confirmed beliefs. As this type of belief, blind faith is only needed to cover the gaps of our ignorance as we move towards a more complete understanding of the world. The more we learn, the lesser the role of faith. From this conception, it’s obvious why many people sneer at faith.
The faith in ‘a leap of faith’ is not a belief; in fact, it is the opposite of rational knowledge. It does not aim at understanding the world but instead is a way of living in it. Belief aims at capturing the objectively observable – facts about the way the world is. Even the most detailed description of what it is like to be me will always be incomplete (as long as I’m alive) because I am more than the conjunction of my objectively observable attributes. What it is like to be me is always changing. My existence – what I am like – is something that resists objective expression. Not all of reality can be captured and explained within an objective, rational system.
‘Subjective truth’ lies outside a rational system. It is “a passionate personal concern about one’s existence and not about [an] objective truth claim.” (Marino, Kierkegaard in the Present Age.) Subjective truths possess an existential importance that objective truths simply cannot. If you fall into a body of water, you have no theoretical interest in whether or not you will drown – it’s life or death. (Remember what Chris wrote about why marriage was not a matter of logic?)
A leap of faith is a matter of subjective truth. This faith is an act of will, clinging to an “objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness.” (Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.) A leap of faith is a matter of venturing against understanding, risking everything, including one’s trust in the rational mind. The transition from reason to faith is discontinuous, involving a break with reason, and thus becomes a ‘leap’.
This faith is belief-like in that it plays a role in action. Just as the belief that I have hands partially causes me to act in a certain way – clapping, scratching my ear – so faith affects how I act. But faith involves acting against reason; thus, the person aiming at faith must risk all of their beliefs and not merely add faith to their belief system.
Whereas blind faith is no great achievement, a leap of faith is “a task for a whole lifetime…dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks.” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.) Remaining in a position of faith is a constant balance between losing one’s faith and losing one’s mind. It is, above all things, a matter of risk. Faith pulls one way, reason pulls the other and it requires a continual force of will to avoid being ripped apart and cast into madness.
“I cannot get an immediate certainty about whether I have faith, for to have faith is this very dialectical suspension which is continually in fear and trembling and yet never despairs; faith is precisely this infinite worry about oneself.” (Kierkegaard again.)
So if we want to challenge faith, let us at least make this second notion the target and not assume that anyone bold enough to talk about faith is automatically a fool and worthy of our derision.