Loving Later Life: An ethics of aging
Frits de Lange
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT990)
Seasons of My Soul: Conversations in the second half of life
The Methodist Church and the Church of England
Methodist Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT990)
PROFESSOR Frits de Lange sets himself the formidable task of developing a system of ethics which revolves around the process of ageing. The result is a book that is scholarly and well researched. It comes as a welcome contribution to literature that attempts to confront the unprecedented population ageing of our time. The writer draws on the work of numerous philosophers and theologians, and this makes Loving Later Life a useful handbook for ethicists and those interested in gerontology.
The author outlines the traditional theories of ethics, such as utilitarianism, eudaimonism, and Kant’s moral law within, and dismisses them on the grounds that they incorrectly assume that the elderly are autonomous. He presses for an ethical system that incorporates an acceptance of human dependency and vulnerability. This can be found in theological ethics, which concentrates on pastoral and spiritual tending, and in the ethics of caring and its by-product compassion.
De Lange maintains that compassion does not involve radical altruism for this demotes the self. The ideal is a triadic love ethic involving God, our neighbour, and the self. This trinity lies at the heart of his ethical system.
He urges us to love ourselves and the ageing process in our own bodies; for only then can we come to love the elderly. Love is expressed in different forms. It can be attachment, as with parent or child, or erotic love between two partners. It may be compassion-based, or it can spring from Christ’s demanding words “Love those who hate you.” This, he says, might be the mode in which to approach the unlovable elderly.
Parts of the book are dense and overloaded with quotations, which give the whole a strangely arid feel. He over-emphasises the aversion with which society confronts ageing, and this bleak depiction is only partly relieved by his ethics of compassion.
This is not a book that left me feeling reassured. It could well be added to the theological-college reading list, but I doubt whether it will greatly help those who have the daily care of the elderly and infirm.
Seasons of My Soul is a valuable resource book for those who wish to discuss and reflect on themes pertinent to the second half of life. Produced by a group of Methodists and Anglicans, it encourages people to think deeply about topics which are rarely faced honestly, such as forgiveness, wisdom, self-identity, and mortality. It has been meticulously planned, and its varied content will give it a wide appeal to people of differing outlook and church background.
The writers envisage its being used by parish groups, in Bible-study sessions or as input for quiet days and retreats. They view the material as background to a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, and the importance of prayer is emphasised throughout.
Eight themes are covered: personal identity, memories, transition times in our lives, our understanding of wisdom, daily roles and relationships, forgiveness and re- conciliation, and death and dying, and, in a final chapter, life as a celebration.
Each session follows a pattern of opening prayer, followed by a presentation of the topic. Then comes a time for silent reflection, followed by an imaginative choice of activities. These range from discussing a poem on grief to expressing one’s feelings through drawing. Taking part in a prayer walk and looking at ways of involving church and community are also suggested. Watching a film with a religious content and following it with discussion is another idea.
Difficult subjects are dealt with sensitively. Questions raised are often challenging. How often do we fail to forgive ourselves? Have I been stifled by fear and weakness? Can I accept the reality of my death and dying? There is a feeling of gentleness and holiness about this book. The authors hope that the participants will return home with a feeling of peace and release.
Plenty of information is given to help the group leader, and these discussions could be of great value to people who have hidden worries, uncertainties, or unfinished business in life. This is a brave and encouraging inter-denominational approach to Christian living. It would make an excellent Lent course or preparation for Advent. Parish priests, take note.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.