Off the Bench: In the winter of my life, I think of what I believe

By James W. Dolan
Special to the Reporter

Well, I made it! Days are shorter, clocks are louder, and everyone’s younger. I’m eighty. I have loved and been loved, laughed and cried and observed the immense goodness and profound evil of which mankind is capable. I will die with few regrets after a long and fortunate life. Will it be quick or slow and debilitating? I pray for an expedited passage. To where, I’m not sure.

I can’t quite accept the idea of oblivion although non-existence is not so frightening. After all, it’s where I came from. I was quite content to be a non-being before my birth in 1939. Having had no choice in the matter, I accepted my fate and enjoyed a good life, often for reasons having nothing to do with merit. My advantages were no more deserved than the disadvantages that others, less fortunate, experienced. Life is just too complicated for me to believe it’s all arbitrary, without purpose or design? Are poverty, pain, and suffering just accidents of birth?

Born and bred a Roman Catholic, I will die in the faith despite misgivings when the church so often fails to live up to the virtues it professes. Like a failed parent, it disappoints but I cannot abandon it. Human weakness is reflected, even magnified within institutions, secular and religious. I believe in evolution and reject the notion that an Original Sin was passed down through generations. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden are characters in a parable. It is the capacity to sin (an essential component of free will) that we refer to as “original sin.”

Prominent among the reasons for my faith are how I was raised and educated and my career as a judge. Man-made law is a necessary but inadequate vehicle to assure justice, individual or social. I believe in transcendent values, virtues necessary to order human behavior, and in ultimate justice, a reckoning in which we answer to a merciful God for how we lived. Christianity is not the only path to salvation. There are many ways to achieve union with God.

Without free will, we would be robots, incapable of choosing good or evil. Not responsible for our actions, we could not be blamed or rewarded for our behavior. Knowing that in the exercise of free will, mankind would make bad choices (sin), Christ died to atone for our failings, past and present. I view love as the fundamental virtue from which all others flow. Love, truth, justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness are not malleable human artifacts but transcendent absolutes.

Temporal justice is limited; it measures a person’s compliance with the law. Absolute justice is far broader; it measures a person’s capacity to do good or evil against his or her life. It takes into account a host of mitigating factors such as mental health, intelligence, education, genes, environment, opportunity, poverty, and deprivation. It is a judgment based upon knowledge only a deity could possess. Under such an all-encompassing and merciful standard, many who broke man-made laws would be found innocent while others who never saw the inside of a courtroom would be found wanting. Hopefully, there is a reckoning when the unfairness of life is somehow balanced and those who suffered through no fault of their own are rewarded.

To be virtuous, one need only comply with two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. For something more specific, the Beatitudes will do. Salvation is not exclusive to any religion or even a belief in God so long as you strive to lead a virtuous life. If you love God, you must love your neighbor (everyone), and if you truly love your neighbor, in so doing you are loving God even if you question his existence. I happen to believe in a loving and merciful God who condemns very few to what we think of as hell, which is more likely the denial of union with God than fire and brimstone.

To doubt is human. If faith is the affirmation of hope, one must confront and struggle to overcome doubt. Those who never doubt have not considered the contradictions so evident in philosophy, theology, and religion. I remain unsure but committed nonetheless. As winter’s chill becomes more pronounced, I trust in the Lord. What have I got to lose? If I’m wrong, I will never know. If I’m right, what a relief! Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, first identified what became known as “Pascal’s Wager.” Since it is impossible to conclusively prove the existence of God, he concluded, the wiser course was to believe.

Lightning tears the night sky.
Thunder trembles in the distance.
A cool breeze from the north,
The leaves begin to fall.

The mornings, cool and crisp;
Formations of birds wing south.
Bright colors dance in the trees
And the leaves fall.

Dawns are bright but cold;
Walkers in sweaters and gloves.
Muted now, the colors fade
And the leaves fall.

The day is cold and gray,
Sweet holidays have passed.
Bare branches pray for sunlight
And the leaves are gone.

The storm envelops me
As snowflakes sting my face.
Looking down to gauge the depth.
I cannot see my footprints.

Like leaves, there is no trace
As we flash and drift away.
The fate we share in winter,
When footprints are erased.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.