Science and Theology 5 – Motivated Belief

Is religious belief merely a faith claim – a personal preference like that for peanut butter?

Last Friday I put up a short post pointing to a column in the Huffington Post by Paul Pardi based on an interview with Professor Peter Boghossian of Portland State University. Dr. Boghossian takes the position that faith claims have no place in the classroom or in the public square. To an extent I agree with him. Students, and all Christians, should be challenged to understand and motivate their beliefs. “Mere” faith claims have no place and do not contribute productively to the classroom or the public square. But religious belief is not merely a faith claim. The Christian faith is a motivated belief that can be explained and defended. I doubt the motivation and defense will satisfy Professor Boghossian. Whether the defense satisfies most or not, it is reasonable for him, or anyone else, to expect a motivated defense of anything that appears to be a faith claim. It is equally reasonable to expect a reasoned defense motivating the faith claim that scientific materialism is more rational than any form of theism.

This brings us to the subject of the last post on the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book, Theology in the Context of Science. Science trades in motivated belief, there are reasons for the positions taken and the theories accepted. Theology also trades in motivated belief. In chapter six Dr. Polkinghorne presents a short summary of his motivation for Christian belief. But he begins with a short discussion of why such a motivation is important.

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. … Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority …  (p. 124)

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to acknowledge that he too would have trouble with faith if it required uncritical fideism.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs. … This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they ‘know’ already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation. (p. 124-125).

What is the motivation for your belief?

How could you explain it to your friends or colleagues?

There are some distinct differences between scientific investigation and religious faith – Religious belief is not amenable to experimental confirmation. In this sense it is more like the judgement of the quality of a painting, the beauty of a piece of music, or the character of a friend, all examples used by Dr. Polkinghorne.  He also notes that “no form of human truth-seeking enquiry can attain absolute certainty about its conclusions.”

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories). (p. 126)

Dr. Polkinghorne gives two prongs to his discussion of the factors motivating his Christian faith. The first is natural theology, and the second is personal experience including that recorded in scripture. What follows is a sparse sketch of his reasoning found in this book and in many of his other writings.

Natural Theology. Dr. Polkinghorne has discussed several aspects of his view of natural theology in earlier chapters of this book and in several of his other books. Among the factors that play a role in his thinking:

(1) The deep and wonderful order of the world suggestive of a divine Mind.

(2) The anthropogenic fine-tuning of the universe suggesting divine Purpose in cosmic history.

(3) The existence of value, both moral and aesthetic, as human participation in the Creator’s joy in creation.

Natural theology though, can only lead to an impersonal and deist view of God. It cannot distinguish between a multitude of different possibilities, and we should not expect it to.

Personal  Experience. Motivated belief for a personal God is not found in such impersonal considerations as the fine-tuning of the universe or the beauty of the equations of physics. Belief in a personal God is motivated “by reference to particular events and persons.” There is a specificity of divine action and communication that makes personal language such as father, king, or lord appropriate. This brings us unavoidably to scripture – not as a divine dictation to be believed but as a record of God’s relationship with his people.

These considerations underline how essential it is to have a right understanding of the nature of revelation. … Christian theology accords a normative status to the Bible precisely because it contains an irreplaceable account of God’s dealing with God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and the uniquely significant history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (p. 130)

The most significant piece of this revelation is found in the facts and interpretation surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All of the NT writers are interpreting Jesus.

(1) All the writers believe that the story of Jesus continued because God raised him from the dead on the third day after the crucifixion.

(2) They were driven to speak of Jesus in an extraordinary manner.

(3) They give testimony to the transforming power that the risen Christ had brought into their lives.

The resurrection is central. This is the event that provides the hinge for Dr. Polkinghorne’s discussion of motivated belief. Without resurrection the Christian story loses its power, its coherence, and its motivation for transcendent belief.

The pivot on which the claim of unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn is clearly the resurrection. (p. 135)

Resurrection is permanent victory over mortality. (p. 136)

[Christ’s resurrection] occurred within history as the unique seed event from which a resurrected destiny for all people will come about beyond history. (p. 138)

The evidence for resurrection can be sketched in two directions.  (1) The encounters with the risen Lord recorded in scripture and the impact this had on the early church. (2) The empty tomb. Here Dr. Polkinghorne points out that in controversies between Jews and Christians beginning in the first century, the debates do not deny the empty tomb but provide alternative explanations for the empty tomb.  There is good reason to believe that Jesus was laid in a tomb and that the tomb was later found empty.

Detailed discussions of the evidence for resurrection are available in books such as NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God or Surprised by Hope, and, although not referenced by Dr. Polkinghorne, in Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus may fit here as well.  A nice lecture by NT Wright from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion can be found here: Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection?

There is coherence. The story of God’s work in the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is coherent. This is not some magical story, but a story of incarnation, God becoming man for the good of man, for the salvation of man. The Christian myth fuses the power of symbolic story with historically true story  “The Christian myth is claimed to be an enacted myth and there is evidence to motivate that claim.” (p. 142)

Given the victory of God in the resurrection, the story of crucifixion yields two profound insights.

The Christian God is the crucified God. In this profound insight, Christian faith meets the challenge of theodicy at the deep level it demands. (p. 142)

A second Christian insight … ‘he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). (p. 142)

The elephant in the room for Dr. Polkinghorne is the breadth of religions practiced across human cultures over thousands of years. This is the question for which he has found no completely satisfactory answer, although there are hints of a way forward. Among other things, Dr. Polkinghorne is not a strict exclusivist. He believes that other peoples and traditions preserve accounts of genuine encounters with the sacred reality. It seems unlikely that God simply ignored the vast majority of people for the majority of human history. Yet he is, in another sense, an exclusivist. He concludes the chapter:

I do not doubt that I have many things I need to learn from my brothers and sisters in the other faiths, but when we meet it would be disingenuous of me to try to disguise my motivated belief in the unique saving significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. (p. 148)

We all have motivations for our beliefs, and factors that still cause concern and questions.

What motivates your belief?

What questions or concerns remain?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Science and Theology 5 – Motivated Belief at Jesus Creed.

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