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Growing old as a calling

The personal and cultural significance of recovering a Christian perspective on aging

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Growing old as a calling
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Americans are conflicted about aging. On the one hand there’s an aspiration to longevity. “Age-friendly” regions known as “Blue Zones” around the globe, where living to age 100 is not uncommon, have captured the imagination of many. On the other hand there’s a fixation with youthfulness. Messages about products and plans to fight aging bombard us daily. Billionaire Bryan Johnson’s $2 million per year reverse-aging experiment is only the most extreme such venture to date. The average person may avoid that kind of eccentric project, but we still have our coping mechanisms. Typically, coping involves ignoring life’s inexorable limit as long as possible to stave off dread and despair.

Is there a constructive Christian outlook on aging that can help? Is it possible to navigate purposefully and not just drift anxiously toward the looming reality of life’s end? The answer is yes, and none of us is too young to contemplate a Biblical outlook on growing old. Our perspective on aging will shape our own life paths, our relationships with our elders, and our outlook on public policy questions about the value of human life.

The book of Hebrews refers to a “Sabbath rest” that goes beyond the concept of a weekly reverential respite from work. This Sabbath rest is the object of all our living, whether in Sunday worship or weekday work, and the fulfillment of all our striving. It is eternal life in communion with God. The early church father Augustine reflected on growing old as preparation for eternal Sabbath rest. More recently, theologian Autumn Alcott Ridenour expands on that idea to address our contemporary context in her book Sabbath Rest as Vocation: Aging Toward Death.

Aging is a vocation, suggests Ridenour. She invites us to consider this vocation, or calling, as a preparation for Sabbath rest, which is the ultimate calling of those in Christ. As with all our callings throughout life, growing old presents us with opportunities for action as well as realities we must accept. In other words, aging bids us to grow in both active and passive virtues, says Ridenour. Elders have a treasury of wisdom that youth lack and a sense of perspective on life’s chapters that the middle-aged have not yet gained. Likewise, age brings changes for which the older need others to come alongside. Young or old, we need to accompany one another through these phases of life.

Each of us also must learn to number our own days. The limits of aging and death teach us to recognize the reality of our finite identity in relation to a transcendent God. That perspective is one that we cannot learn too early. Accepting finitude makes us depend on God. Acknowledging limits makes us value the days at hand differently. It encourages us to prioritize and make commitments to people and projects in light of an eternal perspective, Ridenour points out.

We exist in physical bodies that inevitably go through times of weakness. This makes human beings vulnerable at various stages—always at the beginning of life, often at the end of life, and sometimes also in between.

We are “time-bound creatures made for transcendence,” observes Ridenour. With this in mind, we can approach “the experience of aging and death as one of interdependence, giving, receiving, and vocation before God and one another.”

That interdependence is crucial because we exist in physical bodies that inevitably go through times of weakness. This makes human beings vulnerable at various stages—always at the beginning of life, often at the end of life, and sometimes also in between. Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead reflects on these realities in his book What It Means to Be Human. To sustain us between seasons of frailty and seasons of strength, Snead emphasizes that we need relationships based on “uncalculated giving and graceful receiving.”

Depending on each other throughout the life cycle is an unavoidable reality. But that reality is tragically overlooked in bioethics today, says Snead. Instead, the prevailing perspective of current public policy emphasizes autonomy and individualism, too often ignoring our vulnerabilities and need for others. That prevailing view is seen in the case of abortion at the beginning of life and in assisted suicide at the end of life.

Changing laws and changing culture go hand in hand. To respect life from beginning to end in culture and law will require cultivating relationships characterized by grace in giving and gratitude in receiving, says Snead. As we alternately lean on and support one another, these relationships shape in us the active virtues of compassion and care and the passive virtues of humility and patience.

We live with inescapable limits and yet long for something more. From a Christian perspective, accepting the givenness of our human, embodied existence allows us to make the most of our time now on earth even as we keep our sights set on transcendence. That offers a much different outlook than the dominant attitude toward aging today. It’s a perspective we must learn, even from our earliest days.

Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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