From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

In June I attended a conference at the University of Bern, Switzerland. As people were introduced, I realized two things: I was the only American in the group – not the first time that this has happened – and I was the oldest person in the group – the first time that this has happened. As I reflected on the group through the eyes of my young European colleagues, the aging demographic of the baby boomer generation was no longer just a national trend, but a personal realization.

   How do we think of the aging process or the final decades of our lives? Do we view aging much like those who read Qoheleth 12:3-5 allegorically to describe the increasing limitations of age? 

“ … In the day when those who watch the house tremble (limbs quiver), powerful men are bent (the legs), the women who grind stop because they are too few (the molar teeth), those who look through the windows grow dim (the eyes), when the double-doors into the street are shut (the ears no longer hear), the sound of the mill becomes dim (the voice weakens), one rises at the sound of a bird (sleep is difficult), all the daughters of the song become low (the joy of music is diminished); when one fears heights and terrors are in the road (mobility is a challenge); the almond tree blossoms (hair turns white), the locust droops (erectile dysfunction), and the caper fails (stimulants fail).”

   While the specifics of the translation and allegory are debatable, the basic image of aging was negative much as it was in other Ancient Near Eastern literature. 

   Or do we celebrate the aged, in the spirit of other biblical texts? “Gray hair is a crown of splendor, acquired through the path of righteousness” (Prov 16:31; see also 20:29; Sir 25:3-6).

   One of the first steps in developing a positive image of aging and of the aged is to understand the issues and challenges that face older people and their position within our 21st-century world. This fall issue of Reflections provides an occasion to ponder a wide range of ethical and pragmatic questions about the aging society through the voices of those who either face them personally or have devoted careers to reflecting on them. Whether you read Stanley Hauerwas’ very personal thoughts about his retirement or Leo Cooney’s summary of insights after 40 years as a leading geriatrics specialist at Yale, you will hear the voices of sensitive thinkers who have grappled with the questions in personal ways. 

   All of us will have to do so: life forces this upon us; we have no choice. It begins with the deaths of our grandparents and the generation of people whom we considered old when we were children. It intensifies when we watch our parents retire, deal with aging, and finally die. Following the deaths of first my mother and then my father, as the first child I felt that I was standing on the upper floor of a building with no one above me. The deaths of parents force us to stare at our own mortality. If we didn’t know before, we now realize that – if we are fortunate – we will face these issues ourselves when our almond tree fully blossoms. 

   Churches have something vital and clarifying to offer to this intensifying demographic drama. The Christian faith shapes the way that we view the meaning of life, the journey of life, and the end of life. Most importantly, it gives significance and hope to every stage of life – including the final stages. Congregations are gathering places for discerning the shape and meaning of all aspects of life, a spiritual venue that facilitates shared experience and offers resilient hope. May their voices be heard.

   Thanks to our contributing writers for exploring this theme in its many dimensions. A special thanks goes to Leo Cooney for his guidance and consultation in outlining various important dynamics of aging.