Systematic thinking about what lies ahead for humanity, equivalent to that about the origins of life; both are fertile ground for scientific and religious exploration. In terms of physics and chemistry, humanity is part of an evolutionary universe in which the energy flow of earth in relation to the sun will likely run down – one of a multiplicity of universes that exist for finite periods of time and indeterminate reasons. In terms of religious belief there is purpose and direction in this process, which adds moral meaning to human being. Non-religious beliefs by contrast are more usually agnostic or indifferent about any connection between morality and the biochemistry of life.

‘Understanding of the end of life’ includes both meanings of the word end – in the sense of time (‘chronos’) and of purpose (‘telos’) feature. In chronological terms, direction is thought of either as leading somewhere different (eg black hole dissolution or final fireworks in culmination of an ever more glorious series of universes), or more cyclically as ever repeating itself. Religious perspectives show an equivalence to both these versions. Either they assert a direction towards an historical conclusion - as believed by Jews, Christians, Marxists and Muslims or they think in terms of a cycle of rebirths and renewals - as more typically believed by Hindus and Buddhists. In the other sense of end, ie in teleological terms, religions and some other world views make strong affirmation that life has purposive meaning.

Hope in and for the future certainly makes life more worth living than would the absence of hope. That said, moral resolve in the face of hopelessness shows remarkable courage. For this reason alone, moral education is both a painful and pleasurable experience.

Illustrative scenarios

Moral purpose in life?

Whatever life threw at her, Sheena was quietly confident. She had a sense of being able to rely on her family and friends, and that they in turn could rely on her. Behind that trust lay her experience of being held safe throughout her childhood by all who cared for her. And behind that an even deeper sense that she, like everyone else in the world, is secure in the loving source of all being, of everything that is. We come from God - the creative source and originating energy. We are journeying with God - the animating resource and inspiration in the midst of daily living and dying. We are heading towards God - the prospect of transformation and completeness within and beyond the whole universe.

From time to time this trust was called in question, on no occasion more so than now. Her mother had died two years ago of cancer and her father was now aggressive with alzheimer’s. Her children were now grown and both working abroad. Her job was becoming more demanding in its paperwork and more difficult to experience as rewarding. There were the horrors of Aids and starvation especially in Africa. Tsunamis, forest fires and arctic meltings, elsewhere. There was the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and across the world terrible acts of wilful slaughter in the name of religion. There was even murderous abuse of children in her own home town. Could it really be that the deep sense of purpose and direction in life is as reliable as she had always believed?

Might it not be that she was deceiving herself? If so, perhaps after all morality has no more point than a private day dream.

question: do we have to have some belief in long term purpose and meaning in life to provide justification for being good? If not, why bother?

‘Reward in heaven’ as ulterior motive for morality

Deep down Mohan was irked. His workmates knew him as someone unusual in that, unlike the rest of them, he goes to a mosque. He’d become used to the occasional joke about this, but just now two of them had set upon him in quite a ferocious way, or that’s how it felt. One of them had accused him of selfishness, and the other of allowing his life to be motivated by fear.

How did they justify these accusations? The charge of fear motivation was based on claiming that he was scared of some kind of hellish punishment after death, if he did anything wrong, or against the teaching of Islam. This was naive and cowardly; he should just face up to the fact that when we die we die, and that’s the end of it. The charge of being deep-down selfish arose from their impression that Muslims expect to be rewarded for doing good. He is seen as investing in a lottery jackpot, that pays out after death, but actually dressed up as a lifestyle of helping others. What a pathetic creep!

Mohan’s irk was that he’d already been over this ground with himself before, and he knew it just wasn’t true. There may be some individual Muslims for whom fear does play a part, but in his own experience goodness is the real motivation. That’s true both before death and afterwards. That’s what takes him into the future; it’s what Muhammad’s teachings are all about. Fear has no place in the justice equation. And as for selfishness, he knows that bargaining and bribery are dud currency where justice is concerned. True, he can’t really visualise what might be there after death. But he’s very clear that it will be God’s affection at the heart of everything that will be there for him and for everyone, just as it is now. Whatever he does between now and whenever he dies won’t earn him a lucky ticket into God’s future! The gift is already there.

question: Was Mohan right to feel irked? What place does the ’stick and carrot’ of Day of Judgement have in any ethical world view?

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