I know that I know nothing

On taking a leap of faith.

Francesco P. Rahe

April 13, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2024 proposition, “We should tell children the truth.”

Dear editors,

I was never raised to believe in Santa Claus as a child. My parents were suspicious of what they saw of childish superstition but also hesitant generally to teach me what they knew was a falsehood. I was, however, raised to believe in God—and still do. Each Sunday, I go to my local Catholic church and imbibe what I believe is the body and blood of Christ. To large portions of the American populace, however, believing in transubstantiation is arguably as much of a superstition as believing in a portly reindeer-loving senior citizen with a penchant for trespassing. 

The distinction between the two—between Santa Claus and the sacrament of the Eucharist—is one of faith. Only small children believe in Santa Claus and of those children, I hope, none would be willing to stake their life on that claim. Catholics, however, believe in God knowing the dearth of external evidence. Put differently, very few Catholics have ever seen a miracle happen. For most of us, the wafer we place in our mouths each Sunday seems just that: a wafer. However, we take a leap of faith in believing that this wafer is something more. That is, we believe it is Christ’s body without knowing for certain that this is true.

This might, at first glance, seem weirdly cultish. However, leaps of faith are not unique to what we would typically label as religions. Perhaps the most universal leap of faith in existence exists within interpersonal relationships. Within a close relationship, romantic or platonic, we have to believe that the other person involved genuinely cares about us. The survival of our relationships depends on this belief existing even when external support for it is lacking. A girlfriend may grow briefly irritated, a friend not respond to texts for a day… and in these situations, we have to take the leap of faith that they still care about us. Maybe she is exhausted, not falling out of love; he is busy, not angry. Making these small, daily leaps of faith is what we call trust. Without it, a relationship crumples.

Perhaps the best example of someone who refused to trust would be Shakespeare’s Othello. Plagued by doubts about the fidelity of his new wife Desdemona, doubts that the play leaves open till the end, Othello lets himself be consumed by jealousy instead of taking a leap of faith. His unquenchable desire to seek the truth goads him so far that he ends up killing Desdemona when her protests do not satisfy him. Upon learning of her innocence, Othello commits suicide. His fatal flaw is an inability to accept the reality that we often do not know the truth.

In a world where “the truth” lies so often out of reach, what should parents teach their children? I would argue a healthy respect for their own limitations. It is unfortunately all too common for people to believe that a cursory Google search can give them the answers to topics which PhD candidates are still sorting out the nuances of. The world would be better off with human beings who are willing to accept that not only do they not have all the answers, but they never will. Only by acknowledging our ignorance, after all, can we at last begin to decide what things are worth putting our faith in.

Faithfully.

Francesco P. Rahe

Francesco P. Rahe is a contributing editor at The Harper Review and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying religion and the Near East.