We Must Believe in Age Redux (RJS)

Awhile ago I put up a post derived from a collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers published in  Christian letters to a post-Christian world and republished a decade or so later as The Whimsical Christian. Although both are now out of print, used copies remain available.  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.

I’ve been pondering the earlier post, and the reaction it recieved. It is worth a return visit and a closer look.

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 my, 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.

This essay, along with the others in this section of the book, provide a great deal of food for thought. The first time I put up this selection of quotes I think many reacted to her rhetorical flair, assumed that she was speaking against youth,  and didn’t really ponder the point she was making.

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

If so, what does this mean?

As I have reflected on this over the last many months a number of thoughts have occurred.

First – “We Must Believe in Age” does not mean devaluing youth should not be taken as disrespectful of youthful visionaries. It does not mean that the young(er) people have little to offer and should patiently sit back and wait their turn. In fact all people have much to offer and the perspectives of both youth and age make for a much more robust and lively church. Many great new ideas throughout history have come from people in their twenties and thirties, and even younger. In the Bible we have Jeremiah, Peter, Timothy, David, John all becoming leaders in one fashion or another at a relatively young age (and remaining leaders into old age). And, of course, Moses, who wasn’t ready to lead until he was an old man.

Second – “We Must Believe in Age” is 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 today’s twenty and thirty somethings will feel that they still have something important to contribute … and it won’t be exactly what they contribute today (after all, they’ll be middle aged). Thus the expression “We must believe in age” isn’t so much a veneration of age, as it is an expectation of a continuing, valued, and respected process of maturation. Because we expect people to grow, we should be willing to listen to those further on in the journey.

Third – “We must believe in age” is an indictment of the sentiment that “the future is in the hands of the young.” It is an indictment of the flattering sense of importance that this sentiment provides. And it is an indictment of the abdication of responsibility for the present it represents. It is an indictment of the sentiment that devalues the contributions of the middle-aged and the elderly. We live in the present, looking toward God’s future.

Finally – Sayers really makes the most important point as she 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)

The future does not rest in the hands of the young.  It rests with all of us in the ever moving present and in the age to come. The victory over death is also a victory over the evils of time – for the evil of time lies only in the finality of death.

If we believe the Christian message we are all part of the future and should be valued as such.

What does it mean to believe in age?

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

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  • scotmcknight

    This is one of the best foundations for seeing the importance of an inter-generational ministry in churches, but one rooted not in the control of the elderly but in the necessity of plugging along together into the future as we grow and change and mature and adapt and adopt. Sayers is one of my favorites.

  • Don Bryant

    Great observation of Dorothy Sayers. Thank you for posting this on the day of my 64th birthday. It reminds me that growing older and shifting full responsibility to the young to clean up the messes I have made (and pay my Social Security, to boot) is not a true looking forward but escapism. A true looking forward is to see my complicity in the world as it is and bringing to the table what only age can bring to the table – honest wisdom that discerns my part is feeding this present world order and the “power of facing,” per George Orwell’s great theme. This is part of the healing of the world, and by definition is something the young cannot do.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    I really appreciate Sayers’ sage words…and yours, RJS: “The future does not rest in the hands of the young. It rests with all of us in the ever moving present and in the age to come.” The church in our culture does “do” aging very well in most quarters. Thank you for prodding the conversation with these words.

  • NateW

    I think that “belief in age” must be understood as an awakening to the idea that the present is all that there will ever be. No soul has ever experienced anything other than the present and no soul ever will. The past is only memory and the future only imagination, always hoped for, never arriving. Youth tends to live for the future, old age tends to yearn for th past—all seek to escape rather than embrace the present.

    One of my favorite authors, Joseph Conrad, wrote about the task of the artist in his “Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus” and I think that what he said really nails the idea of embracing the present with fullness of sincerity while constantly choosing to step into the next present moment.

    It’s dense, but is one of the greatest pieces of writing I have ever read.

    “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see. That–and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm–all you demand–and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask

    To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth-disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or birth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.

    “And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim–the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult–obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.

    To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile–such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished And when it is accomplished–behold!–all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile–and the return to an eternal rest.”

  • Phil Miller

    Being part of a predominantly African American congregation for awhile gave me a glimpse of what this looks like in practice. The thing I loved about that church was that they really did go out of their way to honor the older members of the congregation, but they also understood that they needed to pass the reigns of leadership onto the next generation. There was much more inter-generational interaction in that congregation than I ever saw other Evangelical churches I’d been part of.

  • I know one thing for me personally: getting older is a terrifying perspective IF I’m not simultanously growing in my love.
    From a Christian perspective, the desire to become a more loving person should be extremerly stronger than the desire to keep a young body.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Susan_G1

    “…it is an indictment of the abdication of responsibility for the present it represents.” That is so very true. This is all to easy to do. Good post.

    Living in the moment is a very peaceful thing, I have found (as in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are.) It is about living in the full mindfulness of now, and I recommend his work highly. But it is about suffering and life. It’s not about bringing about change, which is necessary, and I think something we continue to owe the following generations as long as we are able. We need to work together intergenerationally for this, and we need to equip youth with the tools and the power to effect change. We can do this in the church, but we also need to apply it to shepherding God’s creation, something I think Evangelicals have been in woeful denial of.

  • Amanda B.

    I think this fits beautifully in with Ephesians 5:21, “…submitting to one another in the fear of God.” The body of Christ is large and diverse on purpose. We need each other. The older can be refreshed by the zeal and passion of the young, and the young can be trained up in wisdom and skill of the older.

    Any time we write off a demographic of the church as being inherently (or even mostly) “out of it”, we’ve seriously missed the boat.