Motivations September 8, 2012

In religion as well as in politics (and probably in innumerable other realms of human endeavor as well), any seeker after truth and meaning can be bombarded with an incomprehensibly vast heap of supposed facts and truths. It is very easy to encounter a multiplicity of voices which appear to assert, with the utmost confidence, something to the effect of, “I have the truth, the real truth. Anyone who disagrees with me is completely misguided and mistaken.” Certainly political discourse in the United States doesn’t appear to invite much exploration of nuances and complexities. It’s not that difficult for religious exploration to meander down a similar path.

Why do we make the commitments we make, whether it’s about politics, religion, or anything else? What motivates us toward one thing and away from another? We are often driven less by facts and more by feelings. We can ask the same question about relationships. My wife and I will soon be celebrating our twelfth wedding anniversary. I could easily provide a long list of very sound reasons why I love her so much and why being with her all these years has been a source of immense happiness for me. Yet my decision join my life with hers, and to renew that commitment again and again, day by day, is not based on empirical, double-blind, peer-reviewed evidence. I did not engage in elaborate scientific investigations in order to determine that she would make a good spouse for me. I just felt it, and still feel it. There isn’t anything wrong with this — indeed, the prospect of a scientific study in order to determine the suitability of a particular person to be a life-partner would be absurd to most of us. What’s important is that we acknowledge the role of passions and deep fears, preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions in all the decisions we make. It’s also wise to consider when those deep feelings may not be the best motivators. Many more people than most of us would care to think about (and that very often includes ourselves) make political decisions not based on carefully considered data, but on how they feel. A political candidate’s personal likability is a very significant factor in most elections. If pressed to consider it honestly, most of us would admit that the qualities we would seek in an ideal dinner companion are not necessarily the same as those characteristics we’d want in an effective civic leader. Yet frequently we make decisions on criteria we neither consciously recognize nor would really be altogether comfortable with if we did.

In religious life also, there is this dichotomy of the cerebral and the visceral. Many of us could give very cogent, persuasive reasons why we have made the religious commitments and embraced the faith convictions that we have. Yet there is also the element of the non-rational in these things. This is not inherently good or bad; where we must be careful is in acknowledging this truth of our humanity.

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