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Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase.

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., Social activist

I'm not sure how to understand the sentence correctly. As I understand, "faith" here refers to those persons who have faith, so the whole sentence is saying that those who have faith are taking the first step already, even when the whole staircase is still unclear.

But I don't have any confidence about it. What is the sentence actually saying?

  • Actually I think the quote is, "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step." – Andrew Oct 22 '18 at 7:04
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The first definition of faith in the Cambridge dictionary is

great trust or confidence in something or someone

The sentence in your question is simply a definition of faith as an abstract concept, using the simile of the first step on the staircase.

Faith [as an abstract concept is like] taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase

The actual quote is rather different:

Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step - Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. advises us to start the journey toward our goal even if we cannot see the complete path toward it. "in faith" means that even if we believe, rather than know, that we will reach your goal, we should still start the journey.

  • How would you understand it then? – dan Oct 22 '18 at 7:26
  • @dan, I have updated my answer – JavaLatte Oct 22 '18 at 8:08
  • So, MLK is trying to define what the "faith" is in a different way. Faith: you would be taking your first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. Am I getting it right? – dan Oct 22 '18 at 8:41
  • I have updated my answer again. – JavaLatte Oct 22 '18 at 8:47
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A lot of people say "faith" is some kind of blind belief in something without any proof. Actually, the primary definition in many dictionaries is "confidence or trust in a person or thing". You only usually place trust or confidence in something or someone if they have a solid reputation, or they have proved trustworthy in the past, so really faith by definition does have a basis in something.

In this staircase illustration, the implication is that an entire staircase exists but you can only see as far as the first step. If your vision had limited distance and you could see the first part of a staircase, that would probably give you reason to believe that the rest of the staircase was there, you just couldn't see it.

So with this illustration Martin Luther King was encouraging people to take the first figurative step towards something, even if they didn't know what the rest of the steps might be or what they would look like, and to have faith or confidence that the rest of the steps would come.

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OP writes:

I understand, "faith" here refers to those persons who have faith ...

MLK is offering a variation on Kierkegaard's "leap of faith".

Faith is an attitude here, a state of mind, not a synonym for a religion itself or its adherents taken as a group.

is could be paraphrased as has as its essential characteristic.

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