Until you have made the leap of faith, you can have no idea what it means. So you can have no very good way to make it, no? How does one know which way to jump, with no idea where the edge of the precipice might lie?
Such was the difficulty that perplexed me for many years, as I struggled to understand how to step through the membrane that separates belief from unbelief. You can’t step through it if you don’t even know where it is!
Excursus: Almost all Christian evangelism fails to explain what the Church proposes to unbelievers. “Believe in Jesus Christ!” Sure, but – to one who has not yet thus believed (or, even, scandalously, to many who have) – what the Hell does that mean? [NB: the mention of Hell in the foregoing was not merely rhetorical; to believe wrongly is to believe in Hell, and to intend it.]
Evangelism that does not propose a specific Creed does not propose anything at all definite. It is then vague, and so is bootless. It is as good as promoting belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Indeed, it is less. It proposes nothing.
To one who has not taken that step, and leapt, there just isn’t anything out there to leap into, from where one now stands. You can’t leap into an absolute void – into a state of absolute vacuity of character and form. Think of hurling yourself into the Grand Canyon. You can think of it, right? But that’s because you have a pretty good idea what the Canyon is like. Now try to think of hurling yourself into … nothing at all. It can’t be conceived, can it? There is, after all, nothing there in which to hurl oneself.
You can’t leap into faith in nothing. To leap at all, you must leap into something of which you have already some notion.
What then is the leap of faith, exactly? Well, I’ll try to describe it, so far as I can. But, that might not be too helpful. For, again, until you’ve actually made the leap, you can’t have any notion of it. It simply can’t make sense to you until it is something you have experienced. We can deliberate only over what we have somehow experienced. And the leap of faith is, precisely, from all that we have experienced over to what we have not, yet.
So, it’s a mystery. Not that it’s perfectly impenetrable, for we can see through the glass; but, from here, where we mostly find that we live our mundane lives, only darkly.
The allure of faith lies in this: to see through the glass even darkly, and to discern even a bit of what lies the other side of it, is almost inevitably to find that one has already begun to take the leap of faith. For, as anyone can see who has even noticed the glass to begin with, what lies beyond it is surpassing beautiful – is, indeed, perfectly, maximally beautiful.
Once you take the leap of faith – this being the reason this present post falls under the category of Philosophical Skeleton Keys – why, then you find all sorts of philosophical perplexities are by it wonderfully and simply resolved, settled cleanly and without remainder of worry: transparent, happily clear, indeed rather obvious in retrospect. It’s a terrific relaxation of what must be to us otherwise a terrible and incorrigible ontological anxiety, tension, and unhappiness.
E.g., once you have realized that the constraints imposed upon our world by its own regular and lawful constitution – by its lógos – are nowise constraints upon exogenous actors thereupon, why then all the reports of miracles in scriptures of all religions seem no longer absurd. They seem then rather simply rare, and – insofar as they be good – to be manifestations of divine influx to our causal system.
Or, and by the same token, insofar as they be bad, wicked, evil, as manifestations of demonic causal influx to our world from some other dark region of the real.
Either way, the limits on the possible that seemed so ironclad and impenetrable before the leap of faith that punctured them seem afterward rather membranous, and permeable. Beforehand, those limits looked absolute, dire, impassable. Afterward, they seem rather to be a diaphanous veil, that passes light in both directions. The firmament that separates our cosmos from its environing worlds then becomes more like a negotiable border between nations than an insuperable ontological wall.
OK, then: so, what is there to be said about the leap of faith? How does one take it?
First, let me refer you to the famous figure/ground phenomenon. Consider this image:
What do you see? Do you see two faces, facing each other? Or, do you see a chalice? It depends upon what it is in the figure that you take conscious care to notice, no? What you see, what you experience as most real and most important, depends upon your own willed attendance.
Excursus: This is a general rule. In scripture our attendance to what is important to us is called the heart. The reason all traditional and magisterial traditions enjoin us to regular communal worship – howsoever exoteric, or indeed even silly, their formulae might seem to the uninitiated – is that so doing repeatedly focuses our attention on worship per se; which has the effect of training us to a worshipful state of mind; which in turn redounds to the general welfare and benefit of the soul, and of her living spirit; of the life of her heart, and so to the life of the world. It is a rule of life – of GNON – that a life of worship, and informed throughout by worship, is better, and more successful, than the alternative.
To fail or fall short in worship is to err in giving conscious credit where it is due. It is in general then to cheat Reality of his proper due, and to give credit instead to oneself, inaptly, that is due really to others; to the Most High, to his Son and his Spirit, and to his angels, his saints and servants. And that sort of pride is likely to lead even the most percipient astray, to their eventual detriment.
Once you’ve seen the chalice, you can’t unsee it. Same with the faces, if it was the chalice you first noticed. Once you’ve seen the alternate visual interpretation, you can switch back and forth between the two interpretations with little effort. Until you have, only one of the interpretations is even visible.
My suggestion here is that taking the leap of faith is like effecting that phenomenal reversal of visual figure and ground.
Our normal first response to such a figure is to see what is more normal to our experience: the faces. Not surprising, for we are a social species. We are attuned to notice the presence of faces more than of almost any other sort of thing. But then once we have noticed the chalice, it leaps out at us forcefully, and we cannot afterwards avoid seeing it, even when we are attending to the faces.
The figure ground reversion accomplished by the leap of faith is the passage from being able to see only the actual world around us as real and concrete, to seeing that the worlds that surround our own – which are her field and ground, her subvenient context and crucible, Plato’s Receptacle – are also quite real and concrete, and are in fact more real, more concrete, more actual than she. The leap of faith is the passage from seeing contingent life such as we experience at every moment, and that we cannot at all gainsay, as basic, and seeing necessary existence (as, e.g., the eternal necessary truths of mathematics) as abstract and unreal, to seeing eternal, necessary existence as basic, and mundane life as supervenient thereto.
Before you take the leap of faith, the realm of the eternal and the necessary looks merely fantastic. Once you’ve taken it, your quotidian mundane life looks relatively fantastic.
Neither realm is to your sight rendered thereby fantastic essentially, and thus totally. So, nothing is lost. On the contrary. Take the leap of faith, and you see at once just exactly how your humble, messy little quotidian mundane life is in the first place even more concretely real and important, and indeed beautiful, than you had ever supposed it might be, and in the second that it is completely suffused with and taken up in – and cared for by – the supramundane lives of superordinate worlds.
The leap of faith may take many years to prepare. Once it is taken, so that God is discovered and then understood – and for the lucky few, seen, known, felt, suffered, enjoyed – as real, as the most real thing, the ens realisissimum, the Supreme Being, then two things (at least) happen. In the first place, as when having noticed the chalice for the first time, one cannot go back to unnoticing it, so one cannot go back to feeling that God is irreal once one has properly understood that, by definition, he cannot but be real. God becomes thenceforth a permanent fixture of the believer’s world (even should he feel himself to be still an ardent atheist), and indeed a scandal to him, everywhere stumbled upon. In the second, the apprehension of the infinite actuality of God, and of the infinite power and might that are the felt effects of his simple divine act, immediately and completely settle all qualms about the extraordinary events related in religious history. By contrast with the extraordinarity of the Eternal One, miracles and visions come to seem rather unremarkable. Rare, to be sure; but as pearls are rare, and not as unicorns are rare.
Rare: rare, as pearls are rare, and so precious.
Most Christians, to be sure, do in fact take the leap of faith without working out all this metaphysical stuff beforehand. They leap into the void that, for reasons good enough deriving from their actual experience, they had already dimly intuited is actually a plenum, crammed with all sorts of good stuff they cannot yet comprehend; so that there is (they feel confident) someone there within that black void to catch them. It is not an unwarranted step; for, it is the same sort of step we take all, at every moment: in just that way, e.g., we all step out of bed every morning relying on the good old floor. So they turn toward the gigantic Real whom they apprehend darkly, through the glass. It is as simple as that. And nothing other than that is needful, to effect their eventual success at maintaining their phenomenal reversal between the figure of this world and her divine ground.
It is the apprehensive encounter with the Real – with the Ground – concretely entered into, that turns the heart, and then the soul, toward faith, and so toward righteousness and toward blessedness: toward sanctity, and sempiternity. That encounter may begin with intellection, or with affection, or with introspection, or with effection, or with any other sort of our activity. It can begin with any occasion of life; for, all events are occasions of divine flux into the created order, so that all of them signal to those who have ears that God their creator is present, and active, and aware, and, most of all, willing.
It can begin at any moment, and then overtake us completely. E.g., it could break in upon us irresistibly on a road trip, say from Jerusalem to Damascus.
The strictly metaphysical prolegomena then, qua merely abstract intellectual apprehensions, are not necessary preliminaries to the leap of faith. They prepare certain sorts of souls to take it – certain more timorous, tentative souls, such as I, that should like to be a bit more sure before they leap (mea culpa). Our patron saint is Thomas. Other, more hardy souls can take the leap without quite knowing what they are doing. Indeed, even the most rigorous and thorough philosophical and theological preparation for the leap leaves the leaper still phenomenally ignorant of what it is exactly that he is getting himself into. In the final analysis, the metaphysical prolegomena inform the leaper only about his present footing, as he readies his leap therefrom.
Once you take the leap, then are all your former metaphysical categories transcended, and rendered somewhat silly, somewhat puerile, somewhat parochial – albeit, not at all false, but rather merely partial, like the feeling of a five year old girl that her big brother in 8th grade is a grownup.
When at the end of his career Aquinas utterly transcended all his philosophical preparations, and from the sempiternal perspective effected in him by his celebration of a Mass saw that his theological work was but straw, that was not to repudiate a jot of what he had done as philosopher, theologian, and doctor of the Church. On the contrary.
For, after all, the manger was full of straw.