Hope for the mixed-motived

What do you want? You get what you want, often. Proponents of positive thinking would claim that you get what you want always, although unrequited loves and unwon lottery tickets teach us otherwise. But that we need to want something in order to get it seems to be a general truth of life. Usually, at least.

And what do we want when it comes to life questions? What are our motives? This is a really important question, more important than it seems, because – usually, at least – we get what we want. Take this confession from atheist thinker Thomas Nagel, for instance.

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. [1]

When it comes to faith or lack of faith, we want to believe that our positions are the result of our reasoning, of our diligent research, of our objective brains functioning free from predispositions. We claim that we believe or don’t believe because of the data and the evidence. But that is not how we approach life, is it? Instead of ethereal brains, we are a complex mixture of motives, fears, hopes, intuitions, desires. We are not neutral to the outcome of our spiritual journeys. As objective as we try to be, we want to arrive at some outcome, be it belief or disbelief.

And that’s ok. Our motives are important, are constitutive of who we are, and are a key trace to the meaning of existence (for more on that, check this post on Encountering Beauty). It is ok to have motives.

What I think is not ok, however, is to deny that we are biased and predisposed – especially when it comes to faith in God. To deny our inner agenda is to misrepresent who we are to our very selves. It is to hide a key component of our identity from view, as if we could fool ourselves. When we do this, our life journeys become distorted, fearful, resentful. We develop a deep anger at vague something, and cannot discern what.

If this is our case, what shall we do? Is there hope for the mixed-motived? I believe so, and it is expressed in a beautiful poem by another atheist thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. This poem is actually a prayer, and is worth quoting in full.

Once more, before I wander on
And turn my glance forward,
I lift up my hands to you in loneliness —
You, from whom I flee,
To whom in the deepest depths of my heart
I have solemnly consecrated altars
So that
Your voice might summon me again.

On them glows, deeply inscribed, the words:
To the unknown god.
I am his, although until this hour
I’ve remained in the wicked horde:
I am his—and I feel the bonds
That pull me down in my struggle
And, would I flee,
Force me into his service.

I want to know you, Unknown One,
You who have reached deep into my soul,
Into my life like the gust of a storm,
You incomprehensible yet related one!
I want to know you, even serve you. [2]

Nietzsche’s is a deep, honest, nuanced prayer. It acknowledges the deepest of his motives, and the inner conflict of someone who wanted to surrender to God but who still fought him with existential rage. It is the prayer of a large soul,  the prayer of a longing skeptic, and a great starting point for mixed-motived folks like you and me.

René Breuel


[1] Thomas Nagel, as quoted in Alvin Platinga, “Why Darwinist Materialism is Wrong,” The New Republic, November 15th, 2012. http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/110189/why-darwinist-materialism-wrong

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, To the Unknown God. http://tapestrycommunities.org/2012/03/07/to-the-unknown-god-friedrich-nietzsche/

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