Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher, is often considered the father of existentialism. Although he himself did not use the term, many of his ideas laid the groundwork for existentialist thought. Among these ideas, the concept of the “leap of faith” stands out as a seminal contribution, particularly in the sphere of religious existentialism.
Context and Background
Kierkegaard wrote at a time when the Danish state church and rationalist theology had reduced Christian belief to a system of ethics and cultural norms rather than a deeply personal existential commitment. He was critical of the established church for its empty rituals and dogma, which he saw as having little to do with genuine Christian faith. In response, Kierkegaard emphasized the individual’s subjective relationship with God and the irrational dimensions of faith.
The “leap of faith” is a metaphor used by Kierkegaard to describe the act of believing in something without—or even in spite of—empirical evidence. It is the choice to embrace something as true in the absence of complete knowledge. In the context of Kierkegaard’s thought, this is most often applied to religious faith. He suggests that if one waits for enough evidence to justify faith, one will never get there. At some point, a “leap” is necessary.
Absurdity and Paradox
Central to Kierkegaard’s concept of the leap of faith is the embrace of the “absurd.” The term refers to something that defies logical understanding or rational comprehension. For Kierkegaard, Christian doctrines like the Incarnation (God becoming man in the form of Jesus Christ) were absurd in the sense that they could not be fully grasped by human reason. According to Kierkegaard, the absurdity of such doctrines isn’t a mark against them; rather, it makes them the perfect candidates for a leap of faith. Accepting the absurd means embracing the paradox of faith, which often transcends rationality.
The Role of the Individual
In Kierkegaard’s existentialist framework, the individual’s subjective experience is paramount. Faith is not a matter of conforming to church doctrine or societal norms; it is a deeply personal, existential commitment. This emphasis on individuality means that each person’s leap of faith is unique, not to be prescribed or predetermined by any external authority.
Fear and Trembling
One of Kierkegaard’s most famous works, “Fear and Trembling,” delves deeply into the concept of the leap of faith through an examination of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In the story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham prepares to carry out this command without question, thus exemplifying the leap of faith. Kierkegaard uses this story to explore the tension between ethical norms and religious faith, and he posits that sometimes a “teleological suspension of the ethical” is required in the religious sphere. For Kierkegaard, Abraham is a “knight of faith,” someone willing to make that existential leap, defying all ethical and rational understanding.
Criticisms and Influence
Kierkegaard’s concept of the leap of faith has been both highly influential and widely critiqued. It has been praised for capturing the existential dimension of religious belief, yet criticized for potentially justifying irrationalism or blind faith. Some critics argue that by elevating subjectivity and individual choice to such a high status, Kierkegaard opens the door to a form of relativism, where any belief can be justified as a “leap of faith.”
However, Kierkegaard’s work continues to be studied and valued for its deep insight into the complexities of faith and the human condition. His concept of the leap of faith has permeated not just religious thought but also literature, psychology, and even political theory, making it one of his most enduring and controversial contributions to philosophy.