Wagnerian Opera and “Geron-theology”

Brenda Stiers

In August, marking the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth, I reflected on what I have learned about aging from the four operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung

I have always been impressed by how Wagner’s Ring portrays real families as well as the family of the gods. Wotan is the aging father and ruler of the gods who realizes in the first two operas that he as an individual has done many things he now regrets. As he wanders the world he questions whether the conflicts of the gods – fueled by power lust, greed, and oppression – must continue. One theme central to Wagner’s Ring is the need to come to terms with the burdens of the past and find hope for the future. Indeed in the final opera in the cycle Wotan agrees to the end of the rule of the gods if a mortal is found worthy. Heroes Siegfried and Brunnhilde convince Wotan that the age of human decision-making should begin.

Wotan becomes an archetype of the aging process. The task of aging, both for individuals and societies, is to make peace with the burdens of our past and impart hope to the next generation. 

Even in 1971, when the first White House Conference on Aging was held, it was clear that the aging of baby boomers would have a major impact by the turn of the 21st century. Yale stirred with innovation to meet this demographic drama. In cooperation with the New Haven Housing Authority, the Divinity School began providing chaplains in every low-income housing unit for the elderly in New Haven and at the Masonic Home in Wallingford. Undergraduate volunteers started a successful jobs program for seniors called WHEE (We Help Elders Establish Employment). The University endorsed a VISTA program that put older VISTA workers in every neighborhood center to work with elders. 

During those years (1971-74 and 1979-83), I taught two courses a semester at YDS on “Elders and Community Change” and “Spirituality and Aging.” Research by several students doing the coursework found that many low-income seniors in New Haven had no doctor, and regional HMOs began to admit senior individuals. 

An important element of the Spirituality and Aging course was to stress to ministers-in-training the value of inviting older churchgoers in the parish to write their spiritual autobiographies. Such writing exercises by 80-year-olds and other elders allow them to confront the past, find the power to let go, and receive spiritual guidance and hope for the future. The operatic journey of Wotan lives on in the spiritual journaling of elders who grapple with the dramas of their own pasts and identities. I began to think of these seniors as geron-theologians.

As I reflect on the last 30 years of our aging society, particular emerging themes strike me as urgent.

  • Pastors who are clear about the power of geron-theology unlock tremendous leadership potential in their congregations. Older parishioners are a major source of mentoring in public schools. They give leadership to gun-control groups and anti-racist efforts in hundreds of communities. They become leaders in Area Agencies on Aging, advocating for housing and services for older Americans. Like Wotan, they point to excesses of greed that threaten our culture and the need to bring down gods of materialism, violence, and ecological devastation.
  • The need for community research and innovation has never been greater. Churches and their aging leaders can seek partnership with foundations and government grant agencies to forge new models of housing and care. Aging in Place communities and new forms of nursing care at home instead of institutional settings are current models being tested.
  • Divinity school students today face the largest demographic shift in the history of the world. The future envisioned in 1971 is upon us. Lower birth rates and longer life expectancy threaten our national budget and the survival of many of our social programs. We are called to create communities of discernment that envision new futures. YDS graduates must defy prejudice against age and embrace the elders in their churches as colleagues in discernment. There is no better way to do that than to sit down with parishioners and listen to the joys and struggles of their past and together focus on new futures that call us beyond ourselves.

In Wagner’s Ring cycle, the protagonists signal to us to turn back the gods of destruction and conflict and devise better visions for the sustainability of earth and society. We should enlist elders in our churches as wise ones who will help us in this task. 

Brenda Stiers ’83 M.Div. was founding director of Sage Advocate Program in New Haven (1970-74) and executive minister of The Riverside Church in New York City from 1994-2000.