Leap of Faith

In Woody Allen’s 1991 film Shadows and Fog, his character is asked why he doesn’t take a leap of faith to believe in God. “I want to believe in God,” he laments, “but I can’t. I can’t even make a leap of faith to believe in my own existence.” Allen’s penchant for existential angst is well known. Yet, as the filmmaker himself has noted somewhat ruefully, he has the instincts of a tragedian but his talent is for one-liners.

The term “leap of faith” is attributed to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, although he never actually used the phrase. The concept, however, is his. The idea is that religious belief requires you to leap before you look. How so? Kierkegaard himself was a believer, but he recognized that his position could never be justified by reason alone. As a Christian, he was obliged to lay hold of a fundamental contradiction: that Jesus was both man and God, an affront to reason. Even St. Paul had acknowledged long before that Christ was a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks – Greeks being the exemplars of reason. Yet Kierkegaard maintained that the highest truth could only be attained by leaving the certainty of reason behind and embracing the uncertainty of faith.

It was a leap that Woody Allen was unable to make; moreover, as he had wisecracked, he couldn’t even make a leap of faith to believe in his own existence. We might well laugh this off without realizing he may have been saying something profound. We are not accustomed to thinking of our own existence as a matter of faith. What could be more certain? Except that mystics in both Eastern and Western traditions have long asserted that the self we regard as the bedrock of our existence is essentially an illusion. This belief is most explicit among Hindus and Buddhists but is by no means limited to them. “To die but not to perish is to be eternally present,” the Taoist Lao-Tzu said. “When a man is awakened he melts and perishes,” wrote the Sufi poet Rumi. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger expressed it this way: “To live authentically is to live in the full awareness of the nothingness of one's self.” Or as St. Paul put it: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.”

Illusory it may be, but the self is not conjured up out of thin air. Our thoughts and feelings are real. If we stub our toe, the pain in real; so is the toe. When mystics talk about the self being an illusion, they are referring to the fixed entity within who supposedly generates the thoughts and feelings and makes all the important decisions about what to have for breakfast and what to watch on TV. The trouble is, when you look closely, you can’t actually point to anything other than the thoughts and feelings themselves. The self is forever leaving his or her calling card but never actually puts in an appearance.

Woody Allen may have been onto something, whether he realized it or not. Instead of agonizing over God’s existence, perhaps we should pay closer attention to that elusive character we fondly think of as me. If it turns out “I” don’t exist, what remains? It could be that the only thing remaining is God.

© Copyright 2004-2011 by Eric Rennie
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