Having reached the final chapters of my life, I think back on all I have absorbed within the context of my professional career as lawyer, judge, and, in retirement, as an arbitrator, mediator, and occasional columnist.
Unfortunately, I am not as confident as I once was. My faith in a benevolent, all-knowing deity, a creator that oversees the universe and guides a flawed humanity to truth, love, understanding, justice, compassion, and mercy, is diminished, due in part to my work, which is largely based on analyzing evidence upon which a sound, coherent judgment could be based.
The standard of proof in a criminal case is: “Beyond a reasonable doubt” (i.e., virtually certain). In a civil case the standard is: “By a fair preponderance of the evidence.” (i.e., more probable than not). It’s a sensible distinction considering the respective consequences of the former as compared to the latter. After analyzing the evidence – scripture, religion, history, science, evolution, evil, destruction, and death – I cannot find belief in a benevolent God proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence is inconclusive.
One could, however, reasonably conclude the existence of God under the less rigorous “fair preponderance of the evidence standard.” The agnostic cannot say one way or the other. There is evidence pointing in both directions. Some make “a leap of faith” in choosing to believe because there is a fundamental need for order and purpose in life and because they fear the consequences of denial.
I, too, want and need to believe in a purposeful life. But, when I consider the millions who have died in wars, the crusades, inquisitions, and other abuses promoted by my church, the cruelty and evil that are so much a part of human existence, and the natural disasters that have caused so much death and destruction, I wonder. How could an all-knowing, compassionate, loving, merciful deity, the God of the Sermon on the Mount, tolerate such suffering.
Some say it’s original sin, the inevitable abuse of free will as first described in the Garden of Eden. But why would a God of love give humanity free will, knowing the harmful effects of its abuse and the evil it would cause, then send his son to suffer and die on a cross to redeem us from the consequences of mankind’s inherent sinfulness. Why make us earn salvation? Why not provide it as a gift? But who am I to try to understand and explain such complex mysteries?
Is God the uncaused cause or is God a creation of scientific phenomena, a chemical or nuclear chain reaction that gave rise to a cascading, evolutionary phenomenon that over the ensuing millennia produced this planet, life in its primitive form, and the countless galaxies beyond. Even primitive man sought explanations for existence and appealed to gods for protection, food, comfort, and meaning in an acknowledgement of a power to which they owed their very existence.
Those primitive beliefs slowly evolved into a faith based on the arrival of a savior, a messiah who would guide humanity to a “promised land” along a path which, if followed, would assure ultimate salvation and eternal life. I define faith as the affirmation of hope. Hope is not a thing, it is a yearning for something. In this case, a need to believe in something beyond our normal comprehension, the acceptance of an unprovable truth.
Faith is a choice. If it turns out you are wrong, what is there to lose? Death is the end. But what if it’s not the end and there are consequences to how we live? Blaise Pascal, a wise and practical 17th-century Catholic philosopher/scientist, observed that faith in God was the only sensible choice. The consequences of what is known as “Pascal’s wager” are clear. If wrong, there is only oblivion. If right, you can look forward to eternity in heaven.
I’ll take that bet. There is just enough love, honor, and decency in the world for me to believe that creation was not just a chemical reaction, an accident with no underlying purpose or design. For me, love is the fountainhead of all virtue, that from which all the others flow. The only way to balance the inequities and suffering so apparent in human history is for an all-knowing, all-powerful, merciful God to offer salvation to mankind, particularly to those who have suffered.
Wishful thinking, perhaps. But then trying to understand and explain God is well beyond both my pay grade and capacity.
When your life is finally over,
You expect to wind up ’neath the clover.
Eternal life seems much too long,
Maybe someone got it wrong.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.