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Aging Out of the Jesus Movement

  • rkurrasch 

It’s an odd question but still, does there come a time when we might age out of the Jesus Movement? The Christian life generally takes shape as discipleship, that is to say, the nature, extent and quality of one’s following in the Ways of the Master. At issue, though, is whether and how aging impacts discipleship … or at least that definition of discipleship.

In other words, what happens if one day we wake up and discover that we have aged out of the Jesus Movement, that we no longer care—or if that’s too unsettling, no longer have the drive or can muster the rationale—to follow him at all.

In his book, Fifth Business, Robertson Davies gives voice to this disquieting conundrum in the figure of a Jesuit priest near the end of his life. An old man now, he has spent his life as a soldier of Christ and he confesses that the older he gets, the less Christ’s teachings say to him. He notes that he follows a Leader who died when he was half the age of the old priest himself and so never knew or felt the issues and concerns and dilemmas that accompany the second half of life.

Had Jesus lived a full life (Psalm 90.10 speaks here of threescore years and ten or maybe even fourscore), the priest would have expected a more comprehensive body of teachings to supplement the profound, turn-the-world-upside-down ethics characteristic of the Gospels. How to age gracefully and live maturely (the respected elder in societies that respect their elders) would offer a nice complement to the Gospel’s all-consuming summons to advance the Reign of God. The Jesuit suggests that such a summons requires an inner reservoir of strength that we typically assign to young and perhaps middle-aged adults still brimming with a “passion for the possible” and the confidence that they can—and will—“believe the future into being.”

Why cap this change-the-world discipleship at mid-life? After all, it is not the case that as we age, we believe that summons any less, but certainly at some point as we age we begin to feel that its prospects (taking shape as progress) belong to an ever more distant future. The 20th century may have began optimistically (hopefully) as “the Christian century,” but by midcentury Dachau and Hiroshima confirmed that its time had not yet come. Twenty years later, a victorious civil rights movement had won key legislation heralding the dawn of a Great Society, only to run into the fierce opposition of the Southern Strategy and the tenacity of America’s Original Sin. Wars tragic (Vietnam) and forever (Middle East) would dot the landscape, and those who knew the dangers their product posed to the welfare of humanity, if not civilization itself, still championed the expanding dependence of modern societies on fossil fuels. The opening decades of the 21st century find the social contract torn and frayed, the prospects of amendment in the public square thwarted by obscene concentrations of wealth in a controlling corporatocracy, such that any future seems to hang in the balance.

Old age does not excuse the disciples of Christ from the duty to heed the Gospel’s call to continued and even more demanding action, and so act we do, but the Jesuit priest is on to something. It rings of heresy, but he wants a Christ that will show him how to be an old man, someone who will take into consideration “the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox, and the ambiguity that comes with years.” Barring that, and in his own words:

I think after forty we should recognize Christ politely but turn for our comfort and guidance to God the Father, who knows the good and evil of life, and to the Holy Ghost, who possess a wisdom beyond that of the incarnated Christ. After all, we worship a Trinity, of which Christ is but one Person.

Perhaps the issue is not so much that getting old lets us off the (Jesus) hook but that as we age, experience brings paradox and ambiguity increasingly to the foreground where not just the Gospels but wisdom is necessary as we struggle with the inescapable intransience of good and evil.