“How are we to live?” and “How are we to live with faith?” as we age, asks R Paul Stevens. I saw the advert for Aging Matters: finding your calling for the rest of your life* and thought I’d better read it quick. It looked like somebody had written my book!
Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately given I’ll have to keep working at it – Aging Matters has a different perspective from mine. Like me, Stevens wants to reframe the experience of aging and provide hope, guidance and practical guidelines to enable spiritual and personal growth in later life. But while he aims at a wider readership, his focus on the theology of ageing means this is largely a book for mainstream Christians.
For example, stories of biblical characters who are called to adventure, new revelations and life-changing fruitfulness in old age challenge us to rethink our attitudes. But it’s off-putting to those outside the Christian tradition to have the story of Sarah conceiving at age 90 presented as literal truth. Or again, biblical answers to the question “does anything of me survive after my death?” lack persuasiveness. Non-believers – and many Christians too – want to know what the science says.
For the Christian audience, however, Aging Matters has a lot to offer. It chimes with a lot of what I said myself when running weekends for ordinands on the theology of work. Good work, Stevens says, is anything which lets us participate in God’s life-giving, ongoing work of designing, communicating, creating and sustaining. He has no time for Christians who retire from secular jobs and want to go into ministry, as if that’s the better calling. Instead he stresses that “What makes work holy is not the religious character of the work but the fact that it is done with faith, hope, and love.”
Aging well, for Stevens, means continuing to have life goals and constantly refreshing our sense of calling. Older people should get involved in practical expressions of loving their neighbour, working purposefully rather than going on endless cruises and “playing their way to the grave”. Rather than having a bucket list of things to do before we die, we should ask:
- What values do I want to develop?
- What relationships do I want to develop?
- What service do I want to develop?
- What do I want to learn?
Older people should be role models, mentoring the younger generation. Cue rolled eyes from a younger generation which feels the older generation has sold them out. Yet Stevens is right to encourage interaction between the generations, such as a project he describes which got younger people to ask older ones about their faith. Except I’d want it the other way round as well – the old listening to the young and learning from them – as with this excellent scheme here in Oxford.
So, Aging Matters is an interesting read within the Christian context. Especially as Stevens provides discussion and bible study notes which make this a good choice for a church group. If you want to buy a book on the subject, though, I’d recommend James Woodward’s Valuing Age above this, especially for UK readers.
As for my own writing: there’s still work to be done on how women and men differ when it comes to ageing, retirement and calling. I’d better keep at it.