The purpose of this thoughtful, challenging, and ultimately very reassuring book is to reflect theologically on what it means to grow old in a society disturbingly devoted to the limitless pursuit of youth, health, and independence. Written by a diverse group of scholars, most of whom are prominent Christian theologians, Growing Old in Christ explores what difference being Christian ought to make for how one understands aging and diminishment. More precisely, the authors ask how one's perception of aging changes when it is viewed not as something to fear, but as an essential ingredient to a life of faithful discipleship. The book is divided into three parts. The first section examines biblical, patristic, and medieval views on growing old. The second part investigates how our political, economic, and social systems impact our treatment of the elderly. The final section offers an account of how Christian convictions and practices provide a more hopeful understanding of aging and an indispensable role for the elderly within the Christian community.
In the opening essay Richard and Judith Hays note that in the Bible the elderly often "become both the instruments of God's purposes and the first interpreters of God's saving acts." They have a wisdom which enables them to recognize the redemptive activity of God in ways those younger frequently miss. Too, even though the scriptures portray the elderly as particularly worthy of honor and respect, age does not excuse them from the Christian vocation of service; indeed, the elderly are summoned to serve the community especially through the witness of their sufferings.
A consistent characteristic of the Christian perspective on aging is its unflinching realism. Christianity may not fear growing old, but neither does it romanticize it. As Rowan Greer notes, in the early church there was unabashed honesty about the loss, diminishment, and suffering that accompany aging; however, there was equal emphasis on the special gifts that can come with growing old, particularly the wisdom and virtue that should distinguish a life well-lived. A bleaker view of aging marks the middle ages where, as David Aers writes, "Old age is treated as the culmination of the repulsive miseries that characterize our condition. Death is a relief from a life that has actually been no more than a long process of dying." In much medieval literature the elderly are presented not as prized wisdom figures, but as "prickly, unforgiving, grasping, avaricious, quarrelsome, depressed, garrulous, bad listeners, nostalgic, and overwhelmed with anxiety." Nonetheless, the purpose of such literature was to detach the reader from the transient things of the world so that one's focus could be on the things of God, and to see old age as a time to mourn one's sins, to do penance, and to pray for God's mercy.
The essays in the middle part of the book (Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith Meador and Shaun Henson, Patricia Beattie Jung, D. Stephen Long, Joel James Shuman) focus on how growing old is viewed in contemporary American society. Some key themes emerge. First, instead of seeing growing old as the final stage of a spiritual journey, our technological mindset views aging and death as problems to overcome. More seriously, the very presence of the elderly is threatening because they challenge our idolatrous devotion to youthfulness, productivity, consumption, independence, and health. Age and decline are increasingly viewed not as an inevitable part of life, but as moral failure. Because we fear death, we demand that the elderly remain "healthy, sexually active, engaged, productive, and self-reliant—in other words, young." This not only increases the elderly's sense of loneliness and abandonment, but fosters resentment among those on whom they depend. In such a culture the church should be the community that not only welcomes the elderly, but witnesses a more hopeful and truthful message about growing old.
This is the focus of the concluding essays of the volume (Stanley Hauerwas and Laura Yordy, Susan and L. Gregory Jones, Charles Pinches, David Matzko McCarthy, David Cloutier, and M. Therese Lysaught). For instance, Christian worship should foster an understanding of human identity that teaches us to cherish, welcome, and care for the aged. Instead of seeing ourselves as rational free choosers or as productive consumers, the Eucharist teaches that every person from infancy to death is "made in the image and likeness of God, destined for communion with God, and worthy of participation in the praise of God." This is important to remember in light of the debate on physician-assisted suicide. As David Cloutier argues, if human identity is defined in terms of individual autonomy and self-determination, not one's baptism into the body of Christ, the arguments against physician-assisted suicide are weak. Similarly, Christian practices give one a different way of dealing with the terrors of dementia. As M. Therese Lysaught writes, in the scriptures the focus is not on human beings' capacity to remember, but on God's remembering of us. It is because God remembers that we have identity and life. Witnessing this, Christians remember for one another, especially for those no longer able to remember for themselves.
Growing Old in Christ is an eloquent and provocative work that reminds Christians that the story of God that comes to us in Christ gives a much more hopeful and promising way to embrace aging, diminishment and death. Well written and insightful, this book needs to be read not only by the elderly, but by all who are called to care for them and learn from them.