In a little under two months, I will have my 53rd birthday. By twenty-first century standards, especially in Europe or North America, this is not remarkable. But undoubtedly, given general life expectancies and my family history, I am firmly into the Second Half of Life. And I am not sure if Christianity is the best resource for second-half-of-life issues.
For thirty years–even prior to my adult-onset churchiness–I have occasionally mused that this might be the case. And I know it is thirty years, because that was when I was introduced to my first taste of the Canadian author Robertson Davies, who would become my favorite novelist. In Fifth Business, the first book of his famous Deptford Trilogy, the protagonist Dunstan Ramsey becomes acquainted with an aged Jesuit called Padre Blazon. On a train journey they take together, Padre Blazon contemplates what the Second Coming of Christ might look like:
My own idea is that when He comes again it will be to continue his ministry as an old man. I am an old man and my life has been spent as a soldier of Christ, and I tell you that the older I grow the less Christ’s teaching says to me. I am sometimes very conscious that I am following the path of a leader who died when He was less than half as old as I am now. I see and feel things He never saw or felt. I know things He seems never to have known. Everybody wants a Christ for himself and those who think like him. Very well, am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man? All Christ’s teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years! I think after forty we should recognize Christ politely, but turn for our comfort and guidance to God the Father, who knows the good and evil of life, and to the Holy Ghost, who possesses a wisdom beyond that of the incarnated Christ. (Fifth Business, pp. 176-177)
And I wonder, too, if the focus on the person of Jesus Christ in Christianity is not a way of keeping people from progressing past a religion of youth–both in terms of spiritual maturity, and in terms of facing the challenges of the Second Half of Life. To some extent, although ministry to the sick, lonely, and dying (mostly happening to Second Half of Lifers) is acknowledged as important, you almost never hear church leaders talking publicly about how to increase the number of people in their congregations who are over 50 years of age.
When I notice this, I experience a range of emotional responses. I can be angry–we seem to be invisible, even though we are most often the greatest supporters of the institutional churches. I am bewildered at the stupidity: people are living longer, and living healthy, active retirements longer than ever. It seems foolish to ignore a growing section of the population whose needs for continued growth and fellowship–especially as the demands of childrearing and career building recede into the past.
But I’ve recently added one: pity. I pity an institution that is so worried about what it might try to attract that it risks losing what it already has, or what it doesn’t have but still has a greater chance of reaching. My generation of around-50s (the tail end of the Baby Boomers) are possibly the last to remember a time when religious participation was a cultural norm with positive associations.
Yet, it is entirely understandable. The churches, in their focus on the incarnate Christ, do not even know how to guide people into their later years, with maturity, wisdom, and grace. And yet, as Padre Blazon says, we do worship a Trinity–although the ecclesiastical focus is far too much on one of its Persons.
The truth is, the Bible doesn’t help us age and die well. Jesus was, as is pointed out, quite young when he died (only a year older than I was when I began seminary). The New Testament, especially centered on the life of Jesus, is helpful if we could anticipate a life cut short, ending in a dramatic flame-out and violent death. Nowhere in the New Testament does anyone suffer the decline that comes with age, and disappointment that comes with experience. People experience the trauma of losing friends to political executions that we have since labeled martyrdom, but nobody important dies of old age and sickness. Nobody watches their friends and loved ones pass away, one by one, and experiencing bereavement and loneliness.
The Old Testament is slightly more helpful, but only slightly. Important leaders die after long periods of service (Abraham, Moses), but in most cases, decline is not recorded. The one exception is the death of King David (an ambiguous character, if there ever was one), recorded in 1 Kings 1-2. Even so, David’s decline is recorded almost as a joke about erectile dysfunction, with his inability or lack of inclination to ‘know (the beautiful virgin Abishag) sexually’ being code for the loss of physical, mental, spiritual and political strengths he had possessed in his earlier years.
My fictional friend Padre Blazon is right. We need a Christ who will help us grow old, we need a God with some wisdom and experience that the incarnate Jesus could not have acquired during his earthly ministry. If this is to happen, it is imperative that the Bible be read through the lens of middle-to-advancing age, by people who are considerably older than Jesus was at the time of the crucifixion–and it must be read to those who are younger than he was at that ‘crucial’ event.
We need a church that really embraces and welcomes the Second Half of Life. And we do not have it.
We always look to the incarnate Christ as our model (part of the reason we are called Christians to begin with), but with tomorrow being Trinity Sunday, it might be a good idea for people to round out the way they think of the whole Father, Son, and Holy Spirit thing. We need all of them.