What is a leap of faith?
We hear the phrase “leap of faith” all the time. It refers to a momentous decision we must make that lies outside reason, or one that forces us to grapple with a difficult belief or moral position.
Surprisingly, the phrase isn’t very old.
The idea first appears in Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio.
Let’s take a closer look at the phrase “leap of faith,” and see what Kierkegaard meant by it.
Abraham as an example of a person who took a leap of faith
Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author, tells his readers he is not a man who has faith.
Nonetheless, he sets out to explore what he thinks faith might be. He does this through a series of extended reflections on the person of Abraham and the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.
While Fear and Trembling treats the Genesis story seriously, but this is not a work of biblical exposition. Instead, Johannes attempts to get inside the head of this “father of faith,” retelling the story from multiple perspectives and comparing Abraham’s predicament to other tragic stories drawn from classical myth.
It is significant Johannes often admits defeat, thus living up to his name. De Silentio is translated as “the Silent One.” He writes:
“Every time [he considered the story] he sank down wearily, folded his hands and said, ‘No one was as great as Abraham. Who is able to understand him?’”
What Kierkegaard learns about faith from Abraham: morality vs. religion
In service of understanding the faith of Abraham, the book introduces some key ideas.
One is the idea that “the ethical” can be a temptation away from “the religious.” Abraham’s religious stance results in his willingness to commit an offence against that which is universally considered to be ethical.
It is always true that fathers should not kill their sons. Yet Abraham’s right position towards God entails willingness to do just this; hence, faith is something higher than ethics.
Here he introduces the idea of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Teleological means “purposeful,” and suspension implies a temporary pause.
Thus faith entails an openness to the possibility that the demands of common morality may be temporally suspended for a higher purpose.
De Silentio is quick to point out that faith does not always imply killing—it occurs whenever someone resigns that which is right and good while at the same time believing this will be restored to them.
Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac while at the very same time believing that God’s promise to bless Abraham through Isaac would still be fulfilled.
De Silentio likens this double posture of “resigning” and “receiving” to a dancer’s leap. (Although the phrase never appears in the original Danish, this is the source of the English idiom “Leap of Faith.”)
De Silentio calls people who move through life resigning “the ethical” while retaining hope it will be restored “Knights of Faith.” The Knights do not call attention to themselves. Indeed, like Abraham, they must remain silent. To justify “faith” by making reference to what is common-sensically and universally considered “ethical” is to succumb to a temptation.
What does Kierkegaard mean by “faith”?
The Knight of Faith and his silent, anonymous faith does not show up again, and de Silentio’s vision is subject to criticism by Kierkegaard’s later pseudonyms.
Although he talks about “faith,” it is not actually Christianity with which de Silentio is concerned—he resolutely focuses on characters from pagan antiquity and pre-Hebrew history, and the figure of Jesus Christ is mentioned only once in passing and never named.
The lasting influence of the idea of taking a leap of faith
The thinly veiled personal nature of the book and the lyrical genius Kierkegaard employs to develop his ideas has made Fear and Trembling one of the most compelling and influential books, not only of Kierkegaard’s career, but in the history of Western thought.
Kierkegaard himself was aware of this book’s potential to overshadow the rest. He later wrote:
“O, once I am dead, Fear and Trembling alone will be enough for an imperishable name as an author. Then it will be read, translated into foreign languages as well. The reader will almost shrink from the frightful pathos in the book.” (JP 6491)
What you’ll learn:
- First, you’ll learn the story of Kierkegaard’s life—from his childhood and upbringing, to his family and relationships, to his public life and his death.
- Next, using his biography as a starting point, you’ll discover the development of his thought.
- Finally, you’ll get a straightforward overview of Kierkegaard’s works, and you’ll learn how to think about Kierkegaard today.
Take a look at the FREE introductory video: