My brother and I have a friendly dispute on the existence of an afterlife. He poetically defines the soul as “a power borrowed from the wheel of fire that animates the cosmos.” He compares it to an “ember of that cosmic fire” that one rides until death “when the ember is consumed again in the fire.” He describes life as participation “in a sacred, cosmic, evolutionary process striving toward wholeness,” which “may be called God.”
He goes on to suggest two possible outcomes: Since the ember/soul is the “essence of me” it may go on to a “personal afterlife” where one is reunited with loved ones and “received into the bosom of a benevolent cosmos.” A heaven where “there is nothing lacking…no discord only sweet communion.” The alternative is “that ember which has animated my life is stripped of all individual attributes and re-enters the wheel of fire purified.” He concludes: “Either way, life goes on - with you if the idea suits you, or without you.”
His inspiring description, although beautiful, is difficult to reconcile with my own experience. I can accept existence as the “upward striving” toward wholeness/God, but what does the striving consist of? What is expected of us? For me, God is more than an impersonal force. While manifest in the cosmos and evolution, his connection to humankind is more direct. He is revealed in what he demands of us as we aspire toward union. The way is laid out; we are not simply left to our own devices.
There are rules, standards, guidelines built around objective virtues such as truth, love, compassion, mercy, understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. These are all framed within the context of free will against a backdrop of conscience and capacity. Free will provides a choice, a conscience, a guide, and capacity, a sliding scale to measure culpability. There are circumstances beyond our control that affect judgment and behavior, like intelligence, health, and upbringing. That disparity is best illustrated by the phrase: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
My disagreement with my brother’s vision is the absence of any accountability for how we live, no balancing or reckoning. We all share the same fate no matter how we live. There is no right or wrong, no absolutes. Everything is negotiable. Hitler and Gandhi share the same destiny – oblivion. Virtues are how we choose to define them and what we choose to make of them. In today’s culture, virtue is too often determined only by what is good for me.
Without an afterlife, there is no meaningful justice, no distinction between the righteous and corrupt. The present is all there is. Get it while you can. There is nothing beyond in which the suffering of the poor, crippled, and displaced can be balanced against wealth, privilege, and greed. Morality is just another means for the powerful to control the weak.
Without a supreme being, all is arbitrary, social justice but a whimsical ideal. We are all accidents churning in an ocean of coincidence without a course or direction. That, I find hard to accept. As beautiful as my brother’s vision of mankind’s presence in an evolving cosmos is, it is somehow incomplete. The power, symmetry, immensity, and grandeur he associates with that incredible phenomenon fails to adequately account for creatures. Are those of us born in this tiny corner of the universe just the flotsam and jetsam of some impersonal creative process? Or do we have a central role in a drama far beyond our capacity to understand?
I believe that out of an act of pure love, an all-powerful and all-knowing God, who certainly didn’t need us, chose to create humankind with a free will and then provide guidance for us to strive for “wholeness” (salvation) with him. It is in the striving we succeed. Aware of our weaknesses, a just and loving God provides many ways to reach him and bountiful mercy to “forgive us our trespasses” when we do.
When you come down to it, my brother and I are not that far apart. While he graphically portrays the cycle of life, I need a deeper meaning, a design or purpose, something that accounts not only for life’s beauty and goodness but also for its evil and seemingly arbitrary unfairness. Without a reckoning, there is no compelling incentive to conform our behavior to objective virtues, the most important of which is love. It is that which draws us however imperfectly toward the “wholeness” my brother and I see as God.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.