Maybe you’ve seen videos of wedding couples celebrating their vows by bungee cording off high bridges together. I suppose the imagery suggests that getting married is like leaping into the abyss, terrified, screaming for dear life. For the record, my marriage has never felt like that. But let’s not dismiss the metaphor too quickly, because Christians, after all, talk about something called the leap of faith, which also evokes an image of a free fall. There is in fact much that is right about the picture of faith as a plunge for better or worse, but in the end I think the image is at odds with the cognitive character of faith, or what the Church teaches about the lumen fidei as something that gives us certainty.
Two Cheers for the Leap of Faith
Readers of Søren Kierkegaard — of whom I am a great admirer — know that he originated the phrase “leap of faith” in his classic book Fear and Trembling. This work is a philosophical meditation on Abraham, our father in faith, who was directed by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac – a son that God himself had promised so that his descendants would number “more than the sands on the shore.” Abraham was spared from the act at the last moment, but only after he had raised the knife (Genesis 22:1-19). The lesson, if I understand Kierkegaard correctly, is that Abraham is our father in faith in part because he held the most radical faith of all, one that transcended reason, or at least one that went beyond the realm of mere ethical reason. His was the exemplary faith that emanates from giving oneself totally to God.
It was a much-needed warning to the 19th century. Kierkegaard wanted to awaken a sleepy Christendom, lulled into rationalism by the intellectual fashions of the day, to the passion that the Christian life requires, to the imperative to have faith not only in theory, but in every concrete act. Meritorious faith no doubt requires strength in the face of uncertainty. We have no guarantee that this or that particular act is what God wants for us, or that it will have the effect we expect. Kierkegaard wanted us to remember Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:12 to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” A man of mere synthetic reason finds it exceedingly difficult to attain this kind of faith because he needs to calculate the pros and cons, the risks and benefits, before giving his heart.
We need a little fear, and a little sweat. G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy would echo Kierkegaard’s belief that insanity is exemplified most accurately not by the emotional wreck, but by the rationalist crackpot who expects more from logic than it has to give, who is obsessed with the latest scientific facts and fads, claiming that they alone are sufficient to dictate what should be done to save the world. Such craving for unattainable certainty, according to Kierkegaard, is a sure way to despair, a way to avoid encountering and coming to terms with the ultimate concerns in life.
The Light of Faith
The Holy Father’s recent encyclical Lumen Fidei made mention of the leap of faith. But the Holy Father spoke very cautiously, noting that the leap of faith is an illusory light. Notably, he doesn’t blame Mr. Kierkegaard, who always felt that faith and reason ought to be harmonized. Rather, the blame seems to be placed at the feet of philosophers who followed Kierkegaard, but who developed his thought in the context of atheism. This gave rise to the modern intellectual fashions of nihilism and relativism. It is this tradition that the Holy Father spoke most directly against when he said:
There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way [Lumen Fidei, paragraph 3, italics added].
I agree. The temptation to confound the total act of faith with the leap in the dark will always contain an apologetic tendency, as if to say, “I know this faith isn’t totally reasonable but I am willing to take a chance.” A more confident and evocative image for the New Evangelization in my opinion would focus resolutely on the lumen fidei, the light of faith.
What exactly is this light, and how does it help us? As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, the lumen fidei is one of the intellectual lights that illuminate cognition. The lumen naturale (natural light of reason) and the lumen fidei (supernatural light of reason) come to us unexpectedly and can no doubt sweep us away in a subjective experience of wonder, but they preserve the objective truth of what they show us.
The lumen naturale and lumen fidei are aids to human reason, not substitutes for it. Just as physical light allows us to see colors and shapes with our eyes, these intellectual lights confer our capacity to grasp the form or the inner logic of things. The lumen naturale, for example, might be experienced as seeing the form of a valid syllogism as a form that guarantees the truth of the conclusion. Analogously, the lumen fidei is a supernatural light that allows us to see the form of a helpless little baby, born in a manger to a beautiful girl and her faithful husband; the form draws us in and is articulated as a sign of “God with us,” or Emmanuel. The beauty of the form moves the human heart and the human will to the act of faith, in which we recognize the truth of what is going on. Is this an irrational light? No, the light of faith is not a leap into uncertainty, it is a personal encounter with the truth at the level of our deepest, most human impulses, and it thus grants the greatest possible certainty attainable in life.
When we think of the act of faith, Abraham is surely the prototype, but an apt and comforting image of the confident certainty I have in mind can be found in the image of Simeon. I would invite you to meditate on the joyful tears in the elderly Simeon’s eyes as he holds Jesus in the Temple, seeing the baby boy, witnessing the fulfillment of a promise his people had anticipated for centuries (Luke 2:25-35). Now he can rest in peace. This image dissolves the anxiety, the fear, and the trembling of life. It does not leave us in a free fall, abandoned, unsure if we will make it. Simeon knows that Christ has come, as do we, which is why we can pray with him each evening the nunc dimittis.
This is the light of faith. This is what we should project. People are tired and losing hope, they are tired of being scared out of their wits. There are too many false leaders in this world who manipulate us and betray us. People have had enough of the vertigo. Let’s help one another get our bearings and come to rest in the certainty of faith.