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For a long time I have been wrestling with the epistemological quandary of Kierkegaard’s ‘Leap of Faith.’  Kierkegaard points out the real miracle that is faith, or, in another word, perspective.  One cannot force oneself or be forced into faith—either one has it, one does not.  If one’s current faith (or perspective) or lack thereof is very strong, no amount of evidence will be sufficient to alter it.  All data will inevitably be understood in the light that the faith or perspective gives, rather than seen as negating evidence.  This is not merely a matter of esoteric or spiritual matters, either; all viewing and perspective require, inherently, a position from which to view.  How does one acquire a position to start with, and how does one alter it and reach a new one?  I believe both Augustine and CS Lewis have commented that faith allows one to understand what one sees, rather than understanding causing faith.  This situation appears to create a ‘deep, unbridgeable chasm’ between one position and another.  Kierkegaard recognizes the profound ‘paradigm shift’ required to arrive at a position of faith (in the Gospel), and he calls it ‘the leap’ into the absurd.

This idea of a leap beyond reason is disturbing and has far-reaching implications for theology.  But, after much thought, it appears to me that the same kind of epistemological leap is necessary or implicit in much, if not all, self-pedagogical or intellectual pursuits.  What I mean is the ‘post modern’ recognition that in some ways the answer is predetermined by the question asked.  In other words, how much does any rational inquiry or evidence affect one’s ideas or how much does one’s ideas effect what one views as evidence?  Can one actually change one’s mind based on evidence?

Let us say that a scholar, Professor Lulu, has adduced what she sees as evidence for a novel theory.  Scholar A finds the evidence ‘compelling;’ Scholar B finds the evidence completely unconvincing.  What is it that allows Scholar A to adjust their viewpoint based on Lulu’s evidence but is unable to sway Scholar B’s?  Is it the conviction of previously held opinions?  A predisposition to the new theory?  A lack of openness of mind?  The scholarly imperative of offering something new?  Or is it simply a matter of credulity?  (Think Thomas—he needed scars, the others only word of mouth).  How much additional evidence would Lulu need to adduce to convince B, or is B beyond convincing?

If a bright light careens across the open sky, Person A will see a UFO, person B a comet or an Air Force jet, and the author of 1 Enoch a rebellious angel.  What mediates these three interpretations is not the evidence at hand but the underlying assumptions.  I doubt if any of the three would be able to convince the other two of the validity of their interpretation.

It seems to me that often the problem is not the logic of the argument or the validity of the evidence per se (although, of course, those are factors), but rather the underlying paradigm/perspective/worldview in which the scholars are operating.  If that is the case, then it is quite possible that ‘the Leap’ applies to all epistemological constructs, ‘religious’ or not.  Then question remains—how or why does one alter one’s construct?  I don’t think it is evidence per se—it seems that evidence can only alter details within the parameters of the paradigm of which they are already a component—they don’t create a new paradigm.  I wonder how Kuhn’s observations on ‘paradigm shifts’ would apply here.  Do the same mechanisms which work in scholarly communities apply to the individual?

To bring this esoteric discussion home—I am investigating/arguing for the importance of Persian theology on Judaism of the Second Temple Period for the understanding of the emergence of apocalyptic literature in the same context.  Obviously, this implies that I believe that religions can be influenced by other religions.  It also implies a somewhat more ‘empirical’ approach to the phenomenon of human religion—i.e., that certain Jews held certain ideas because they derived them from Iranians with similar ideas.  At least on a surface level this contradicts the authors’ claims to supernatural revelation.  What evidence would I need to accept the apocalypticist’s claims of revelation and abandon the sociological perspective?  I have read their records of their visions and am not convinced.  Maybe the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; but what would be needed for me to even modify my position that far?  How far does my ‘empirical’ approach hamper my understanding of the material?  Perhaps on a more crass level, what do I need to do to convince someone that my perspective is valid?  One can construct a beautifully coherent synthesis of evidence—but if one does not accept the underlying premises—the synthesis will not convince.

So, an impasse.

 Jason M. Silverman
11 March 2008