Soon after TIME magazine declared Stanley Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian,” he contributed to a book that may not be well known among his fans—but ReadTheSpirit strongly recommends as one of his most important works: “Growing Old in Christ.” Part 2 of our interview with Stanley focuses on this remarkable collection.
Unlike the thousands of books that treat aging as a dreaded disorder to be cured, Hauerwas and his co-authors explore the spiritual gifts and callings that blossom in the aging process. Hauerwas’ own chapter in this book includes his impassioned call for “the art of friendship between generations.” In this prophetic chapter, Hauerwas slaps readers hard with one of his classic, funny, acidic words of wisdom. When people age, he writes, “they cannot move to Florida and leave the church to survive on its own. For Christians, there is no ‘Florida’—even if they happen to live in Florida. That is, we must continue to be present to those who have made us what we are so that we can make future generations what they are called to be. Aging among Christians is not and cannot be a lost opportunity.”
Interview, Pt 3, Stanley Hauerwas on ‘Growing Old in Christ’
- Part 1: Meet Hauerwas; read some great quotes by Hauerwas.
- Part 2: “Hannah’s Child” and Christianity as “work that shapes the body.”
- Part 3: Hauerwas on “Growing Old in Christ”
- Part 4: Hanging onto hope in the face of evil.
DAVID: In preparing for our conversations, I read a half dozen of your books and selected three that I really want to recommend to readers. Now, I want to ask you about “Growing Old in Christ,” which a whole lot more people should read. I’ve got to tell you, this is a rare book! I can show you thousands of anti-aging books—but age as a spiritual gift? This is exceptional and prophetic.
You are a co-editor of this volume and you contributed one entire chapter. In your section, you write about something you call “profound friendships of character”—and you argue that we should work hard to make sure these friendships extend across generations. Most congregations intentionally segregate people by age. You say that’s wrong.
STANLEY: Our communities depend on memory to understand what makes us who we are. If you think life is fundamentally about consuming and not about such memories, then the elderly have no place in your world. But I believe that the older you get, the more obligations you have to those who are part of your life to remember your mistakes—and the mistakes of the community—so you can be part of the articulation necessary, hopefully to avoid some of those mistakes in the future.
So everything depends on the assumption that life is made up of wisdom that is derived from these many lives and many judgments over time. We can pass this on to the next generation. My emphasis on the importance of sharing stories is crucial in that regard because stories are contingent on the tellers. The elderly have to become good tellers of the stories that make the community who they are.
I remember when my son was confirmed at Broadway Christian in South Bend, which is a Methodist church, we heard that day from some of the founders of that church. Some of them remembered mule-driven plows that struggled to hue out the basement. Now, that’s very important to be remembered. You don’t want to forget those gifts. So the elderly have an important obligation to be people of memory.
DAVID: But you’re talking about something much more involved than just inviting old people to stand up and tell stories on special occasions. You’re talking about cross-generational friendships on a regular basis. Why is that so important?
STANLEY: Think about the kinds of friendships that occur around retirement and nursing homes. If the elderly are only friends with one another, the difficulty is that everyone’s dying on you. You almost become afraid of friendships because you don’t want your new friends to die on you. How often can you experience that?
The art of friendship is very much the art of learning how to claim one another as people who we recognize will die. That’s an important part of friendship. If we keep separating all the elderly and allow them only to have friendships with one another, then that’s exhausting for everyone involved and they quickly disengage.
DAVID: You propose some alternatives.
STANLEY: Yes, first, we need a strong liturgical context to sustain community. We need to know how to pray together. And in retirement and nursing homes, Eucharist is very important for structuring the common judgments to sustain friendships.
Then, we also need to build our friendships across generations so we can share stories. Something else happens, too, when we form these relationships between people of different ages: Younger people can watch people learn how to die. Younger people have no opportunity to do that these days.
In that book I talk about my own close friendship with an older friend. We were very different people but he gave me the great privilege of being with him in the years close to his death in a manner that I was able to see his vulnerabilities. We are all vulnerable before death. All life is a matter of imitation through exemplification and we need to be with people who are exemplifying the process of moving to die. To isolate people based on age—the way we’re now doing things—it’s a terrible problem!
DAVID: I love that line about Florida, when you get down to the bottom line with readers. You’re blunt. The line is like a slap in the face. So, how did you come up with such a line: “For Christians, there is no ‘Florida,’ even if they happen to live in Florida”?
STANLEY: (Laughs long and hard!) Well, I just don’t like Miami! It’s sheer prejudice! (Laughs.)
Seriously, though, I think it’s a disastrous idea that we just send the elderly to Arizona or Florida as a way to say, “Don’t bother me with your life!” Think about it from our own perspective: This is very deleterious strategy for us learning to live out our own lives well. And then think about this from the perspective of the elderly: The idea that I’m supposed to try to be young all the time? I’m 70. What a terrible burden to always act as though you’re always young!
We do even worse: We tell ourselves that if we don’t try to be young, other people won’t want to be with us. But the truth is: As you age, you’re filled with aches and pains. You don’t have to be a constant complainer, but to me Florida represents that push to race after eternal youthfulness and I say: What a terrible way to live! This has implications about the kinds of things I write about medicine, too. Too often we expect medicine to get us out of life—alive. That’s not possible. And, that’s just not right. We subject ourselves to some terrible tyrannies!
(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com)