We Must Believe in Age (RJS)

Photo by Mike QuinnAmong other things lately, I have been reading from Christian letters to a post-Christian world, a selection of essays by Dorothy Sayers, unfortunately out of print now. C. S. Lewis has a broad readership among Christians – and well deserved. But Sayers deserves a far broader readership than she receives. She was much more than just a writer of detective stories. Her insights (not to mention her incredible power with the pen) still speak today.

The opening section of this collection includes essays on what Sayers terms The Shattering Dogmas of the Christian Tradition. In an essay Strong Meat Sayers starts with a quote from Hebrews:

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5: 13-14)

Sayers goes on to talk about maturity, time, and the church. And she had a way with words:

There is a popular school of thought (or, more strictly, of feeling) which violently resents the operation of Time upon the human spirit. It looks upon age as something between a crime and an insult. Its prophets have banished from their savage vocabulary all such words as “adult,” mature,” ” experienced,” “venerable”; they know only snarling and sneering epithets like “middle-aged,” “elderly,” “stuffy,” “senile,” and “decrepit.” With these they flagellate that which they themselves are, or must shortly become, as though abuse were and incantation to exorcise the inexorable. Theirs is neither the thoughtless courage that “makes mouths at the invisible event,” nor the reasoned courage that forsees the event and endures it; still less is it the ecstatic courage that embraces and subdues the event. It is the vicious and desperate furry of a trapped beast; and it is not a pretty sight.

Such men, finding no value for the world as it is, proclaim very loudly  their faith in the future, “which is in the hands of the young.” With this flattery they bind their own burden on the shoulders of the next generation. For their own failures, Time alone is to blame – not Sin, which is expiable, but Time, which is irreparable. From the relentless reality of age they seek escape into a fantasy of youth – their own or other people’s.  … Their faith is not really in the future, but in the past. Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward, we must believe in age. (p. 18-19 emphasis added)

 Sayers’ point – developed somewhat more completely in the essay (although she is better at the description than the mundane follow through) – is that Christianity is a religion for adult minds, with a depth and power we need to develop, respect, embody, and preach. This is particularly, Sayers thought, important in an increasingly educated (and sneering) post-Christian world. She also thought that the Christian faith – with the beauty of the creeds and the depth of Christian dogma, and the power of scripture, is easily able to stand up to the challenge.  The church, however, fails at times.

Sayers concludes the essay:

The story of Passion-Tide and Easter is the story of the winning that freedom and of that victory over the evils of Time.  The burden of guilt is accepted (“He was made Sin”), the last agony of alienation from God is passed through (Eloi, lama sabachthani); the temporal Body is broken and remade; and Time and Eternity are reconciled in a Single Person. There is no retreat here to the Paradise of primal ignorance; the new Kingdom of God is built upon the foundations of spiritual experience. Time is not denied; it is fulfilled. “I am the food of the full-grown.” (p. 22)

This essay, along with the others in this section of the book, provide a great deal of food for thought. Rather than comment on the essay from my perspective (as a now “middle-aged” (darn that epithet) academic in a secular University) I would like to open this up for comment.

Is Sayers right? Must we believe in age to look forward?

If so, what does this mean?

Is the intellectual and aesthetic depth of Christian able to provide food for the full-grown?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • scotmcknight

    I stumbled upon an essay by Sayers a few years back, which led me to her classic little book asking if women were human, which led me to purchase the bio of her by Barbara Reynolds, which turned up some genuine oddities about Sayers, which led me to that editors collection of her letters, which I read along with all of her essays …. but I’ve yet to complete any of her detective mysteries, though I tried one or two.

    Her pen was a gift; her mind precise; her resolution always present.

  • nathan

    I love Sayers. That last quote is gorgeous.

  • http://wordshalfheard.blogspot.com Carol Kuniholm

    Your comments bring to mind the work of Wendell Berry – his poetry and fiction create a gracious portrait of maturity, fidelity, wisdom. I’ve been encouraged to see how many young adults are drawn to his vision of faith, ecology, economy, and how warmly they embrace his maturity, avuncular good humor, gentle courtesy. He seems a bright example of the kind of resilient, courageous faith Sayers described, demonstrating both “the reasoned courage that forsees the event and endures it”as well as “the ecstatic courage that embraces and subdues the event.”

    He has much to say about time as well: its beauty, its goodness, its healing power, its unfailing movement toward the full renewal of all our folly has ruined.

    So yes – we need to believe in time, and in age, and we need to know that wisdom is possible, that growing older can mean growing more gracious, more generous, more able to see and affirm God’s goodness.

    And yes, while they are few, we do have examples, as in Berry, of intellectual and aesthetic depth more than able to provide food for the full-grown.

  • RJS

    Carol,

    I think your last comment “few examples” is a profound illustration of the problem as I see it. We don’t have a few examples – we have thousands of examples, filling our churches – and we don’t see, value, learn, feed, or grow this resource. They are not as prominent as Berry (or Keller or McKnight or Peterson or …) but they are there. Instead we look to the young for the future. And as long as this is the recurring theme we will fail as a church.

  • Bev Mitchell

    “Is Sayers right? Must we believe in age to look forward? Is the intellectual and aesthetic depth of Christian able to provide food for the full-grown?” In a word, absolutely yes (well, two words).

    “What does this mean?” Everything.

    Thanks for this reference RJS. I must admit to not being a reader of Dorothy Sayers, which will be corrected shortly. The idea of future and maturity is interestingly captured in R.R. Reno’s new commentary on Genesis. He clearly develops the thesis that these early texts are, in fact, future oriented. We make mistakes when we read them only as information about the past. A mature reading sees a great future in creation. In the beginning was…. well, just the beginning.

  • Bev Mitchell

    P.S.
    Don’t worry overmuch about middle age. It gets better :)

  • Bob

    “Never grow old…”, as the old hymn goes, is not the same as “ever stay young”.

  • http://www.evanwickham.com Evan

    Of course there is no set age at which church leadership is to be respectfully dismissed from its post. There was for OT priests (age 50), but that’s another story.

    But if current church leadership is not perpetually and prayerfully searching out its own replacement, then such leadership is creating for its community a perfect environment in which to die.

    For leadership that is culturally relevant and heroically present, where else is the church to look but amongst the young? Of course, Builders, Boomers, Busters, and Millennials (Mosaics) will all have their own ideas of what “young” means.

    However beautiful her prose, I’m not sure some the polarizing language in Sayer’s quotes is entirely helpful. Yes, the church needs the presence of mature adult believers in order to be a balanced, Christ-reflecting community. However, the reality is, our culture tends to look to young visionaries for its shaping, direction, and influence. Why should the church operate behind the curve?

  • Bev Mitchell

    “our culture tends to look to young visionaries” Why put an age limit on visionaries? Some people, of all ages, are stuck in the mud, so to speak. Some people, of all ages, are visionaries. Visionaries, of all ages, are often ignored (sort of by definition). Discernment is needed to recognize them. Finally, not everyone with a ‘new’ idea, regardless of age, is correct, and may even be dead wrong. Wisdom, historical understanding, experience, and, above all, spiritual discernment are always needed in the Church. For these we should pray constantly.

  • Bob

    “However, the reality is, our culture tends to look to young visionaries for its shaping, direction, and influence…” I suppose the first question should be “why?”, but perhaps the Church should further consider the novel radical notion of introducing to the young the radical spirituality of maturity. Not, I would add, the so-called “maturity” that comes with mere seniority: we have too much of that already – it’s the so-called maturity of “wait your turn,” “we were here first,” and “you kids stay off my lawn.” Church leadership structures are already riddled with this. It’s the maturity that is essentially the too-long tolerated wail of the grade school line-up over status and priority; those who pursue it are essentially looking to the past in an effort to keep what is ultimately an immature but worn-out and self-referenced sense of control.

    Instead, what we should be alert for is the true maturity of always looking ahead based on the realization that, no matter how aged we may happen to be at any give time of life, we are still essentially the same person at age 80 as we were at age 8: the difference being the lessons we should have learned and the discernment we should have acquired. In the biggest possible scheme of things: we are meant to be timeless – as Christians, we are quite literally living in the “terrible twos” of our eternal lives. All the vain things that charm us most in this life are indistinguishable from the noisy rattles and squeaky toys we were determined to hang onto with the kind of grip that only parents of infants and toddlers are fully aware of. We look back on such days with the kind of sublime embarrassment that only loving parents can inflict – we can only hope that our Father thinks likewise – but we don’t wish to go back to being toddlers. We would prefer to dwell on those days of our youth during which we – well, how else to say – became fully aware of our sin and need for a Savior. In the largest sense of reality, we only fool ourselves if we think that we were anything but spiritual toddlers in this life.

    The old saying, “youth is wasted on the young,” only makes sense for those insisting on living their past. For the mature at any age – who, in faith and ultimately, become the mature in the ageless – true life is in the looking ahead where youth and maturity meet and are made complete.

  • RJS

    Evan,

    “We must believe in age” should not be taken as disrespectful of youthful visionaries. It is, I think, really a reflection of the ideal that we should all mature and grow. I’m not in the same place today as I was 20 years ago – and I won’t be in the same place 20 years from now. I rather expect that 20 years from now you will feel that you still have something important to contribute … and it won’t be exactly what you have to contribute today.

    I also don’t think our broader secular culture does look to young visionaries for its shaping, direction, and influence … although young visionaries certainly do contribute in substantial ways.

    In the Christian faith we should move from milk to meat … in oh so many ways. The last paragraph quoted from Sayers is really important. Our faith is the faith of the full-grown.

    This isn’t so much an idea that the youth must wait its turn, or a veneration of age, as it is an expectation of a continuing, valued, and respected process of maturation.

  • http://www.evanwickham.com Evan

    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the feedback. This is a conversation close to my heart. I’m a pastor and pastor’s kid within a movement that is primary run by ex-hippy baby boomers. Ed Stetzer over at Lifeway just released an interesting stat about boomers – they have proven far less likely than several of the past generations of church leadership to turn over the reigns of authority to the up-and-comers. I’m not sure why that is, but I certainly see it happening first hand.

    I’m absolutely aware of the reality that we are all in process. What a joy it is to be pilgrims-in-arms! Thank you everybody for reminding me of that so graciously. However, in my extensive itinerant ministry and travel, I have seen first-hand where tremendous recent church growth is occurring in urban areas. It appears to be amongst Jesus-following communities that are led by young (late 20s to late 40s) passionate pastoral teams and governed by mature teams of elders. Since sociologists are estimating that the urbanization of America will only push greater and greater numbers of people into cities, I think this is a conversation worth having.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Evan,

    Good points, and interesting observation about boomers. Being one myself I must say that I haven’t seen this. However, I have nowhere near your perspective over so many congregations. And speaking of young people, my wife and I live half-time in Oaxaca Mexico. This country is positively teeming with youth, many so well behaved and gracious that they are a real pleasure to be around – and this is just on the street, in restaurants/cafes, at concerts etc. In the heart of almost any city in Mexico, from the perspective of the age of the majority of people around you, it’s like being on a big university campus.

    Another thing we see here is an apparent lack of difficulty many young people have in talking to, sharing, or just being with older folk. We were at a youth band concert the other day where the musicians were between 7 and 16 years of age. Whenever they played a danceable number, those up dancing were probably 65 and up. No one thought this was strange. We need more of this kind of intergenerational ease in our cultures north of the border.

    Blessings,

    Bev

  • http://www.evanwickham.com Evan

    That’s beautiful, Bev. Super encouraging to me. Thanks for sharing your story and perspective.

    In Christ,
    Evan

  • http://www.thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com Christy Thomas

    As an older woman who has sought since I turned 20 to love God fully, and who has devoted myself to study as well as other spiritual disciplines, I am aware that I have over the years gained a great deal of wisdom. This wisdom is very much recognized in my worshipping community and by the many readers of my blog and my newspaper columns.

    What I find troubling, however, is how little such wisdom is recognized by the “young visionaries.” Personally, I am delighted to hand over my leadership role to the younger and more energetic. However, it would be helpful for all should those young visionaries recognize that they have such vision because they are standing on my shoulders and the shoulders of others who have gone before them.

    We all need to be at the table. Together, we have the mind of Christ.


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