"Safety Not Guaranteed": A Kierkegaardian Faith

The movement of faith must ever be made by virtue of the absurd.

-Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable. 

- GK Chesterton

Although "leap of faith" is a common misquote - Kierkegaard never actually wrote the phrase - the idea behind it plays a central role in Kierkegaard's thought. And it's just such a concept of faith that we see on display in Colin Trevorrow's indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, a heartwarming story about a young intern journalist falling for a man who is convinced he can time travel.

The story begins when a brash young journalist decides to look into a strange ad that reads: "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

One of the interns assigned to help him hunt down the mysterious (and probably deluded) time traveler is Darius (played by Aubrey Plaza), a shy young girl who is generally alienated and haunted by the loss of her mother. When Darius first meets and cozies up to the man behind the message - a clerk in a local grocery store with a mullet and a killer jean jacket named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) - she is naturally cautious, even terrified. He rants about his time traveling project, stores a shotgun in his trunk, and is convinced he's being followed. Kenneth, it seems, is either a liar or insane - and in either case, he might be dangerous. Still, he is passionately committed to his mission, and invites Darius into it.

The stakes get higher when Aubrey (naturally) begins to fall in love with him, despite his apparent delusions of grandeur.

In one turning-point scene, Kenneth plays a song for Darius about the human heart in its striving against a "big machine." This could be interpreted in a lot of ways, but the basic thrust of the little song is that of a passionate individual standing over and against the plain, dull, orderliness of the world - a milieu of empty "talk," sleepwalking, and mechanized habit - for an ideal. "Maybe I'm wrong and all that you get is what you see," he sings. "Maybe I'm right and there's something out there to believe."

Although a spirit of trust is growing between them, it gets put to the test when Darius discovers some things that contradict Kenneth's story. But an exasperated Kenneth still pleads with her to come and meet him at a secluded location to take that "leap" and time travel with him.

At this point most audience members are probably quietly urging Aubrey to take her leave of this lunatic and go home - but in that same spirit of trust, imbued with an unconquerable faith, she meets him.

The perfect lens to see this story is the similar "leap" of faith described by Kierkegaard.

As part of Kierkegaard's critical reaction to Hegelianism in the 19th century, the "gloomy Dane" tried to show that passionate commitment trumped rational reflection; that the ultimate aim of every person is to "leap" beyond reason and reflection, and out into the apparent absurdities of religious faith - or else die in despair, the "sickness unto death."

Why is faith absurd? Because at its heart is the paradox of the God-man. "Faith is not a form of knowledge," Kierkegaard writes. "No knowledge can have for its object the absurdity that the eternal is the historical." In other words, there is an apparent paradox at the heart of Christianity - the notion that the God of Abraham could become a human being. To Kierkegaard, the idea is luring (and saving) because it is paradoxical, not in spite of it. Credo quia absurdum est, an existentialist motto derived from Tertullian, summarizes this idea best: "I believe it because it is absurd."

To illustrate the knight of faith, Kierkegaard uses the example of a man who knows he will never be with a princess he loves, but still strives for her with unending desire:

He absolutely resigns the love which is the contents of his life, he is reconciled to the pain; but then the miraculous happens, he makes one more movement, strange beyond comparison, saying: 'And still I believe that I shall marry her—marry her by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the act that to God nothing is impossible.' Now the absurd is not one of the categories which belong to the understanding proper. It is not identical with the improbable, the unforeseen, the unexpected. The very moment our knight resigned himself he made sure of the absolute impossibility, in any human sense, of his love...the only thing which can save him is recourse to the absurd, and this recourse he has through his faith.

We see all of these elements in play in Safety Not Guaranteed. What flummoxes so many people when they start thinking about time travel is the apparent paradox (the "grandfather paradox") at the heart of it: the idea that the present "I" could go exist in the past, effecting changes that could render my present self different or maybe even nonexistent. Thus, when Kenneth tells Darius he has time traveled and wants to take her with him, he is inviting her into an absurdity.

And Darius accepts Kenneth's offer; despite all of the evidence stacked against him, she vows to follow Kenneth in a passionate "leap," like Kierkegaard's knight of faith, into his "mission." In this way, Kenneth is a kind of model for her, showing her what true faith looks like. He exemplifies a passionate, serious commitment to a paradoxical ideal. (In an interview about the film, Mark Duplass says that "the key element to Kenneth for me is that he's a believer. There's not a cynical bone in his body. There's no sarcasm.")

But is Kierkegaard totally correct in his assessment of "faith"?

I would argue no. In his essay "Message in the Bottle," Walker Percy contrasted Kierkegaard's view on faith with Aquinas', who wrote about faith as a kind of knowledge.

Walker Percy
"Kierkegaard [is] making a clear statement that faith is not a form of knowledge, it is a leap onto the absurd," Percy said in one interview. "St. Thomas Aquinas [is] saying in his classical thirteenth-century way that faith is a form of knowledge. It is different from scientific knowing, but it is a form of knowledge. I tend to agree with Aquinas there, even though I am more sympathetic with Kierkegaard. I am on his wavelength, I understand his phenomenology, his analysis of the existential predicament of modern man."

Percy is right that Aquinas' definition of faith as compatible with and even dependent on reason is a better one; but Kierkegaard's "mood" is still wise, and more timely. Our age is hyper-informational and cynical - and the perfect antidote to this situation just might be a more Kierekgaardian understanding of faith. What we are missing seems to be the "purity of heart" to totally commit to any one thing, let alone a paradoxical thing.

Percy's Kierkegaardian sensibilities are on full display when he lays out the apparent "preposterousness" of the Judeo-Christian faith - especially of the Catholic religion - in Lost in the Cosmos:

Judeo-Christianity is indeed a preposterous religion...

Judaism proposes as a serious claim to truth and for our belief that a a God exists as a spirit separate from us, that he made the Cosmos from nothing, that he made man, a creature of body and spirit, that man suffered a fall or catastrophe, and that as a consequence God entered into a unique covenant with one of the most insignificant tribes on one of the most insignificant planets of one of the most insignificant of the 100 billion stars of one of the billions and billions of galaxies in the Cosmos.

Protestant Christianity is even more preposterous than Judaism. It proposes not only all of the above but further, that God himself, the God of the entire Cosmos, appeared as a man, one man and no other...that he came to save us from our sins, that he was killed, lay in a tomb for three days, and was raised form the dead, and that the salvation of man depends on his hearing the news of this event and believing it!

Catholic Christianity is the most preposterous of the three. It proposes, not only all of the above, but also that the man-god founded a church, appointed as its first head a likable but pusillanimous person, like himself a Jew, the most fallible of his friends, gave him and his successors the power to loose and to bind, required of his followers that they eat his body and drink his blood in order to have life in them, empowered his priests to change bread and wine into his body and blood, and vowed to protect this institution until the end of time. At which time he promised to return.

At first look, this quote looks like something out of Dawkins' The God Delusion - right after his excoriation of the Old Testament God as a "filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." No wonder that, when I posted this Percy quote a few months ago on the atheist sub-reddit in a spirit of experimentation, it received dozens of up-votes.

But when we learn that Percy himself was a believing Catholic, we see have to see the Kierkegaardian element at work in what he says to understand it. To Percy, this apparently "preposterous" news is unlike any other piece of news in the world on art, culture, politics, science, history, philosophy, journalism, psychology, or technology. It's a piece of news of a different category - news for "castaways" from "across the sea." And if this news is offered by someone with clarity, authority, and intelligence, and addresses the hearer's bedrock predicament, it just might be openly received because it is so unbelievable, not in spite of it, and take on the concretion and clarity of knowledge without being scientifically verifiable.

It's the same with Safety Not Guaranteed; Kenneth is an apparently sober, intelligent, and kind man whose news is extremely relevant to Darius' predicament. Even though her friends see his "news" to be a silly, implausible fantasy, she sees it to be a potentially true impossibility, and just the thing she has been looking for - and so follows him when he says, in good faith, "come on, follow me."

So is time travel possible? Do Kenneth and Darius take the correct leap into an absurd truth, or an absurd falsity? If I haven't already ruined it for you, you'll have to check out Safety Not Guaranteed to find out.


  1. I know what movie I will be watching this weekend! Thanks very much for this insightful post on the philosophy of one of my heroes, Soren Kierkegaard.

    1. David - hope you enjoy it! Let us know what you thought.

  2. I understood Time Travel in this film not so much as a Leap of Faith but as a metaphor for the Sacrament of Marriage. That's how it makes sense. Darius may not be able to go back to 2001 and save her mother, but through marriage she can, as it were, repeat the period of time to which she wants to return but as the mother and not, of course, as the daughter.

  3. If you like your science-fiction lo-fi, and your coming of age parables with a handy technological metaphor at their core, Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed is the movie you've been waiting for.

    Grace Crawford (Mike Addiego Bristol Bay Fishing Lodge Information)

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