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Age and ageism

23 May 2014

James Woodward on the costs of trying to avoid the inevitable

Should We Live Forever? The ethical ambiguities of aging
Gilbert Meilaender
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT193 )

HUMAN beings generally desire life. Most of us are grateful for the good gift that is our life. Like other animals, we pass through a life-cycle from birth to maturity and then towards death. Every human society is organised to manage the changing desires associated with this life-cycle, which passes through distinct stages such as infancy, juvenility, adolescence, adulthood, and oldage.

The subject for this short, engaging, and wise book is the specific dimension of the stage of old age, and how we need to think about the particular shape and point of growing old. In six chapters, we are taken on a journey of exploration into a deeper and more reflective meaning of ageing.

The organising question that Meilaender asks us to consider is the nature of the desire to live and stay healthy and active longer. It is perhaps natural to want to postpone death and extend life. After all, life is a pretty good gift, and we do not want it to end. He affirms the desire for life, but he also points out serious concerns with our desire to live for ever.

We are asked to consider the nature of human life, the relationship between generations, and how the life-extension project may have arisen out of the old understanding of the soul as good and the body as evil.

Meilaender does not reject the rewards of medicine in the extending of life, but reminds us that there are costs; and that is the crux of the dilemma. By seeking more life, we change what a human life is, and inevitably lose aspects that make it desirable.

The book engages in theological wisdom and applies it. While it sympathises with our love of life, the ultimate hope is not for life extension but life divine. This is why the qualitatively different life for which Christian believers have hoped has not been thought to be in any sense simply an extension of this life - or the product of human ingenuity. We understand life (and age) as the gift of God, a new creation. It means being drawn into the life shared by Father, Son, and Spirit.

It follows that the key to our understanding of old age lies in a grasp of human life, in all its limits and vulnerability, which can remain open to the divine life, and within which we can begin to see the power and meaning of the virtue of hope. This is a core task of our narration of old age, with its extraordinary power for transformation and wisdom.

The Churches have yet to seriously face their own fear of age and the consequent (and sometimes shocking) ageism. This is a book that readers will find a thoughtful, careful and creatively theological study of the ethical issues that surrounds ageing and our desire to postpone death.

The Revd Dr James Woodward is a Canon of Windsor and author of Valuing Age (SPCK, 2008).

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