Aging in Religious Perspective
This chapter provides an assessment of the importance of religious conceptions in our views on aging. Human growth and development – ultimately aging – is inevitably informed by our beliefs. Religious beliefs inform our understanding of birth, life, death, and time. The discussion focuses first on three Abrahamic traditions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These three traditions treat aging in stages or periods. After an analysis of the Abrahamic traditions and their treatment of aging based on religious texts, the authors turn to Eastern religious traditions. They consider the alternative views on aging inspired by Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. They conclude by suggesting that a true understanding of aging must consider the aging person’s religious convictions.
KeywordsFilial Piety World Religion Diverse Object Eightfold Path Intellectual Maturity
Our conception of the nature and value of aging is affected by our conception of nature, the divine or the sacred, time and eternity, and the meaning of life. Most, if not all, of the world religions believe that something is not right about the cosmos: it is either fallen from a better state, in sin, unenlightened or out of harmony with the Tao. As such, the religions of the world all contribute something believed to be saving, reparative or enlightening to us as we live, and thus as we age. And the religions of the world each beckon us to take our lives and deaths seriously; none of the world religions celebrate aesthetes who live with the aim of self-indulgence and neglect to consider the cosmic significance of their lives. In a final section of this chapter, we sum up the challenge that world religions pose for us in our thinking about aging.
We begin by looking at aging in the two world religions today with the greatest numbers in terms of world population, Christianity and Islam, and the older religious tradition still vibrant today from which they evolved, Judaism. We sometimes refer to these as Abrahamic faiths, given that Abraham is claimed by each tradition as their forebear.
Aging in Three Great Abrahamic Traditions
In this section, we engage classical forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By “classical” we mean each of these traditions in their core identity up until the beginning of the twentieth century. The year 1900 may seem arbitrary as a point for firming up religious identity, but over the last 100+ years there has been a great deal of diversification within these traditions (there are today self-identified Christians who are atheists, for example) so that to opt for any later date would make the coverage in this chapter even more arduous than it is. Common to these three great traditions is the belief that there is an all powerful, all knowing, supremely good, necessarily existing (i.e., God’s existence is not contingent or derived from some greater reality) omnipresent, eternal or everlasting God who created and sustains the cosmos in being. This God is recognized to be unsurpassable in excellence and worthy of worship. There are, of course, major distinctions between these traditions, and where these involve the philosophy of aging we will note them below. But common to each of them is the ideal of following wisdom which (very roughly) is the practice of living in light of the virtues of justice, courage, moderation, mercy, love of God and neighbor, and in devotion and worship of God.
Two views by Jews, Christians, and Muslims about God’s relationship to time have some implications for aging: on one view, aging involves changing and is thus an imperfect process, whereas the other view does not impugn change per se. In brief, those who recognize God as eternal in the sense that God is atemporal or outside of time have tended to believe that temporality itself is in conflict with supreme perfection. On this view, God’s having a past, present, and future constitutes a less than perfect unity; God’s perfection would not be (as it were) simultaneous. For theologians who adopt this view of time and value, our being temporal marks us off as (perhaps) images of God but not equal to God in terms of God’s unchanging excellence. The fact that we endure over time (whether or not this is accompanied by decay or atrophy of powers) makes us less perfect than the supremely excellent immutable nature of God. Theologians holding this view contend that the appearance in scripture of God as subject to change is a reflection of our temporal perspective. On this view, God timelessly acts so that changing, successive events occur (God first appears to Adam and then to Abraham), but God does not act successively (e.g., God does one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday). Theologians on the other side do not see temporality itself an imperfection or incompatible with perfection. On their view, God has always existed; there is no time when God is not. An advantage to this view is that temporality is understood as something shared between Creator and creatures. It allows for a more immanent understanding of God and creation. God’s existing necessarily (God cannot be subject to nonexistence) ensures God’s transcendence, but it also allows for God’s proximity with created persons as we age. That is, this second view of God and time allows for believers to see God as existentially present to them in their prayers and experiences as they age over time as opposed to believers addressing one who is changelessly unaffected by the passing of time.
One further, brief note of clarification: while seeing God as temporal leads to seeing God being existentially present when we age, it does not entail that God ages. This is partly due to the idea that, assuming God is in time and not atemporal, God has no temporal beginning. The concept of aging (for us) suggests that each day we are one day older (the number of days we are alive gets bigger), but if God has no temporal beginning, God has always been through infinite ages (given whatever unit of time you wish). There would be, as it were, an infinite number of years God has lived or is living and, as there is no greatest possible number, God would (paradoxically) not have lived any greater number of years now than last year.
Moving from this abstract question of God and time to a theology of creation, each of the Abrahamic traditions affirms that God’s creation is fundamentally good and that sin or evil entered into creation though human agency. In classical forms of Christianity and Islam, this is more pronounced than in Judaism insofar as both Christianity and Islam (in their classical forms) see death itself as an ill. In Judaism, there is less of a sense that death is always bad and, instead, some suggestion that when a person dies in old age leaving a good name and multiple generations of descendants, the ending of such a life may be blessed. Interestingly, though, in the Torah (or Hebrew Bible) at the death of Abraham and some other patriarchs, the one who dies is said to go to rest with his fathers. While there is no compelling philological reason to think this implies a potential life after death (after all, a person resting can, in principle, wake up), the language of resting is different from the language of ceasing to be. Judaism, at least by the sixth century BCE, did include those who professed belief in an afterlife. See, for example, Ezekiel 37 in which it is phrophesied that God will destroy (literally, swallow up) death, and the vision of a resurrection that will occur in the valley of dry bones (The new Oxford annotated 2010, Ezekiel 37:1–14).
For Jews, Christians, and Muslims who affirm life after death, the dying process is viewed very differently than in the case of those who believe that the dying process leads to the annihilation of the individual person. Those who believe that persons persist after death often believe in what might be called a modest dualism between persons and bodies. We qualify this as “modest” to avoid the caricature that all so-called dualists embrace a wildly fragmented view of a ghostly soul haunting their bodies. Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believe the soul (or mind or person) can survive the death of their bodies are perfectly happy to insist that in a healthy embodiment, human persons function as a unity. However, they also believe that when our bodies break down as we age and our bodies eventually can no longer support our embodiment, the soul (mind or person) has a value to God who preserves the soul in existence. We will leave the topics of heaven, purgatory, and hell for another occasion, but our treatment of reincarnation below will require us to take note of how beliefs about our prenatal or postmortem lives has relevance for the philosophy of aging.
Each of the Abrahamic traditions treats life as a matter of stages or periods in which different responsibilities or roles come into play, such that one’s responsibility as a girl differ from when one is a woman. However, much of what we learn about life’s stages in the Torah and Christian Bible is explained through stories of individuals who defy those stages. Consider, for example, the story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue. He is acting beyond his years in some respects; his parents would never expect him to be teaching at the age of 12, and “Everyone was amazed and astonished at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). Rather than teaching, children are expected to be submissive and learn so that they may grow into adults. Proverbs instructs parents to “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Childhood in the Bible is an impressionable stage, one in which parents have responsibilities to the children. Furthermore, we are expected to grow out of childhood. Paul explains to the Corinthians “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11). A state of ignorance and unknowing, childhood is ultimately to be avoided past the years numerically associated with childhood. Again in 1 Corinthians, Paul implores his listeners to “not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (14:20). Though children are ignorant and have fewer responsibilities than those around them, they are responsible for respecting their parents and elders in the Abrahamic traditions. By maintaining and complying with this responsibility, children may hope to mature.
Surpassing childhood is critical for development and success in the Abrahamic tradition. Maturity involves procreation and teaching of the new generation. Without this stage, beliefs or people could not be propagated. The Bible indicates there are at least two types of maturity: intellectual and physical. Intellectual maturity involves proper beliefs and knowledge, while physical maturity involves procreative and child-rearing capacities. In the Quran, age 40 is set as the age of maturity. Prior to this point, an individual is in a period of growth, though this period of growth may not be purely childhood. Only after reaching 40 is an individual intellectually mature – and thereby capable of being held responsible. A Muslim individual who dies prior to age 40 will automatically go to heaven; he or she could not have been responsible for his or her actions due to the limited intellectual maturity (The Qur’an 2010, 46:15).
Maturity in the Bible not only similarly emphasizes intellectual development but also suggests a need for education to reach this state. Intellectual maturity is not achieved merely through growth or the passing of the years but through education. The Letter to the Hebrews explains that maturity is gained through practice and teachings (5:11–14). In fact, those who are intellectually mature are instructed in Deuteronomy to teach the commandments to their children at all times (11:19). Consequently, one of the primary components of the mature stage of life is teaching children. In order to teach children, there must be children to be taught, and through this we may deduce that maturity also involves reproducing. Without reproducing, one may argue, the intellectual maturity cannot be put to proper use.
Just as childhood and maturity have their own responsibilities and characteristics, the final stage or period of life, old age, has a different set of rights and responsibilities. Old age is marked importantly by the usual inability to procreate. We see Abraham defy this elderly state in Genesis by impregnating Sarah “in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him” (21:2). Only God’s power allows an individual to escape the defined responsibilities of a given stage of life. In some ways, the move from maturity to old age is one of growth, while in others it is a regression. Growth in wisdom is central to proper, reverend aging. This wisdom can be shared and passed on in the form of practices and judgment; having wisdom ought to garner respect. However, there is a cost to having achieved a state of wisdom: old age is a second stage of weakness (the first stage being childhood). In the Quran, old age involves “weakness and white hair” (40:67). Interestingly, the rich wisdom that should come in old age, it seems, cannot be achieved without relinquishing some of the strength found in maturity.
The three great monotheistic traditions seem to agree in large part about what is entailed in the different stages of growth, if we take those stages to be childhood, maturity, and old age. However, the traditions tell us less about how exactly we age. They instead focus on what happens after we have aged a given amount. That is, we know that, in Judaism and Christianity, after we have lived 20 years we may be in a state of maturity and no longer in childhood. Or, if we begin teaching and are no longer being taught we are becoming intellectually mature. However, it remains ambiguous what exactly occurs in the process of aging other than that time has passed. But looking at aging as strictly passage of time in years, days, or seconds can be problematic. Passing the first 20 years of our lives is not equivalent to passing the second 20 years of life. So aging must be more than a numerical change from one point to the next as we approach death.
Aging in Eastern Religious Traditions
In some important respects, Eastern religious traditions treat aging in ways that are different from the major three Western, monotheistic traditions. Generally speaking, aging is considered detrimental to the individual, an instance of suffering, yet an individual has the potential to overcome this case of suffering (along with other forms of suffering such as illness or even, in a sense, death) through proper ways of living. These proper ways of living that ultimately lead to overcoming aging involves, for Hindus and Buddhists, breaking the cycle of rebirth; for Taoists, living in harmony with the Tao; and for Confucianists, finding harmony with the self and the heavens. We address the conceptions of aging in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in what follows.
Hinduism is highly diverse, but it is unified by a veneration of the Vedic scripture, a rich collection of narratives and teaching, some of which is highly philosophical, especially the Upanishads (written between 800 and 500 BCE). Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism does not look back to a single figure such as Abraham.
According to one strand of Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta (a strand that has received a great deal of attention from Western philosophers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries), the world of space and time is ultimately illusory. The world is Maya (literally, illusion). The world appears to us to consist of diverse objects and distinct selves with discrete identities, but this appearance is due (in part) to our ignorance. Behind the diverse objects and forms we observe in what may be called the phenomenal or apparent world, there is the formless, impersonal reality of Brahman. In the Bhagavad Gita (sixth century BCE) we learn that the coming to be and passing away of human selves is not the whole story; even the mass killings in war are not the true loss of persons. Rather, we may seek deliverance from this world of apparent loss and find ourselves at one with Brahman. Aging, then, marks our current embodiment, but it is not, finally, about our true, deepest identity. Indian Hindus, thus, are generally less concerned with the fact that they are aging physically than with the status of their souls (Mehta 1997, p. 106). The body is nothing more than the container of the soul, a container that will either be traded for a new one or one which will no longer be necessary. Aging suggests death is coming closer than it once was, and death is the passage to the next phase of life.
The mixed teaching in Hinduism about our attachment to our lives and individual goals alongside an appreciation for our ultimate destiny is borne out in Hindu conceptions of the stages of life. There are four major ashramas or stages in life for Hindus: the stage of being a student, being a householder, being a hermit, and being a wandering ascetic. Aging marks the different stages of life, identifying growth and decay in individual experiences (Tilak 1989, p. 159). The first stage of being a student can last until the age of 25 during which time an individual (a brahmachari) prepares for his or her profession and may receive religious instruction. The second stage or grihastha involves marriage, the raising of a family, the pursuit of wealth, participating in the life of one’s community. In practical terms, for many Hindus this second stage is lifelong. For those who aspire for further enlightenment there is vanaprastha or the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment as a hermit, one who takes leave of his household. This third stage is marked less by chronology and more by familial ties: individuals move on in their life stage upon becoming a grandparent (Atchley 2009, p. 8). Importantly, in becoming a grandparent, an individual typically no longer solely focuses on taking care of the child daily, but instead is able to focus on the relationship to the grandchild and to the spiritual. Finally, for a sannyasi, the spiritual journal takes on even greater austerity and renouncing of attachment to temporal ties. Suffering (or dukkha) is seen as pervading the world we live in, this cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Deliverance (moksha) from the repetition of endless birthing and aging should be our goal.
Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, tracing its origin to Gautama Sakyamuni, who lived in Northern India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE and came to be known as the Buddha (“Enlightened One”). His teaching centers on The Four Noble Truths: (1) life is full of suffering, pain, and misery (dukkha); (2) the origin of suffering is in desire (tanha); (3) the extinction of suffering can be brought about by the extinction of desire; and (4) the way to extinguish desire is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path consists of right understanding, right aspirations or attitudes, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, mindfulness, and contemplation or composure.
Early Buddhist teaching tended to be nontheistic, underscoring instead the absence of the self (anatta) and the impermanence of life. In its earliest forms, Buddhism did not have a developed metaphysics (i.e., a theory of the structure of reality, the nature of space, time, and so on), but did include belief in reincarnation, skepticism about the substantial nature of persons existing over time, and either a denial of the existence of Brahman or the treatment of Brahman as inconsequential. This is its clearest departure from Hinduism. The goal of the religious life is Nirvana, a transformation of human consciousness that involves the shedding of the illusion of selfhood.
Schools of Buddhism include Theravada Buddhism, the oldest and strictest in terms of promoting the importance of monastic life, Mahayana, which emerged later and displays less resistance to Hindu themes and does not place as stringent an emphasis on monastic vocation, Pure Land Buddhism, and Zen.
Aging therefore becomes something to avoid if possible. And for the mindful Buddhist, this is possible through accepting the four Noble Truths and following the Noble Path.
As if sent by a curse, it drops on us – aging. The body seems other, though it’s still the same one. I’m still here & have never been absent from it, but I remember myself as if somebody else’s. (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Thag 1.118)
Other texts explain the path to avoid aging and even death in some cases. In the Sutta Nipata, for example, only the individual who has contemplated the world widely and “for whom there is nothing perturbing in the world – his vices evaporated, undesiring, untroubled, at peace –.…has crossed over birth and aging” (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Sn 5.3). Jatukannin asks the Buddha about how he may avoid aging, and is informed that renunciation will lead him to escape the recurrence of birth and aging (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Sn 5.11). When Pingiya becomes alarmed with his state of physical deterioration, he asks the Buddha the same question and is instructed to “let go of craving for the sake of no further becoming” (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Sn 5.16). Aging is ultimately something to be avoided, but it can only be avoided in future lives by completely evading rebirth. It seems that once one is reborn, aging is inevitable. But in having the proper attitudes toward the suffering involved in aging and following the Noble Path, one may escape the undesirable decrepitude.
One striking difference between Buddhist and Abrahamic constructions of aging is the relationship of aging to truth and wisdom. Generally, we consider wisdom to involve truth and knowledge imbued with experience. As an individual ages in the Abrahamic tradition, she is thought to become wiser, her knowledge growing and her experiences continuing to shape that knowledge. This wisdom is a product of age and experiences; temporal beings gain experiences across time. However, in the Buddhist tradition aging does not have an intellectual component associated with the physical deterioration. Ambapali in the Therigatha describes the deterioration of her physical self, repeating “The truth of the Truth-speaker’s words doesn’t change” (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Thig 13.1). Truth does not change, nor can her capacity for understanding this truth be altered by her physical aging. The idea that an individual’s capacity for the truth cannot be altered with physical changes is highlighted in the poem of Sona, a mother of ten. Only after bearing 10 children and becoming weakened from age does she begin to learn and ultimately succeed in following the Noble Path, which allows her to “spit on old age” as “There is now no further becoming” (‘Tipitaka’ 2005, Thig 5.8). Here, the destructive nature of aging is diminished in asserting that any individual at any age can avoid future aging and degradation by escaping the cycle of rebirth.
Paradoxically, one path to enlightenment about aging is to realize the impermanence of the self that is aging.
Just as when the component parts such as axles, wheels, frame poles, etc., are arranged in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage “chariot,” yet in the ultimate sense when each part is examined there is no chariot—and just as when the component parts of a house such as wattles, etc., are placed so that they enclose a space in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage “house,” yet in the ultimate sense there is no house—and just as when the fingers, thumb, etc., are placed in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage  “fist,”— with body and strings, “lute”; with elephants, horses, etc., “army”; with surrounding walls, houses, states, etc., “city”–just as when trunk, branches, foliage, etc., are placed in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage “tree,” yet in the ultimate sense, when each component is examined, there is no tree—so too, when there are the five aggregates [as objects] of clinging, there comes to be the mere term of common usage “a being,” “a person,” yet in the ultimate sense, when each component is examined, there is no being as a basis for the assumption “I am” or “I”; in the ultimate sense there is only mentalitymateriality. The vision of one who sees in this way is called correct vision. (Visuddhimagga; Ñãnamoli 2011, p.617)
For the Buddhist, aging is a source of suffering, but one equivalent to other sources of suffering. It is not prioritized above other forms of suffering. The truly mindful recognize aging as a challenge for the physical body that can be overcome by proper adherence to the Noble Path, through evading future cycles of physical aging.
Taoism constructs aging still differently from the Buddhist, the Hindu, and the Abrahamic traditions. Unlike in the Western monotheistic traditions, infancy in Taoism is not the weakened state of vulnerability. Infants know perfect harmony, and the “harmony is at its height” (Tzu 1996, Ch. 55). As we age, the innocence is lost. Age is a process of degradation. Life in Taoism seeks to return to the place from whence it came. Te, or virtue, nurtures us through life, but the goal is to return to the state of the infant (Tzu 1996, Ch. 51). Death brings eternal unity with the Tao, allowing us to remove the stress caused by our physical existence (Tzu 1996, Ch. 33). In life, physicality induces fear and anxiety. However, an infant does not know this fear; he only comes to learn it as he is taught and ages. As we become more and more distanced from the initial state of near lack of distress and near unity with Tao, we become less and less in harmony with the Tao. Harmony is only regained after the destruction of the body. As the Tao Te Ching asks, “When I no longer have a body, what trouble have I?” (Tzu 1996, Ch. 13). Interestingly, the Tao takes us further from our infantile state until we are middle aged, and at that point aging and time bring us closer to death.
Aging, unless remedied, inclines one to be out of harmony with the Tao because one is further from the innocence of one’s youthful harmony. As we age, we need to intentionally seek the proper balance of yin and yang. Aging may be seen as an illness in this context (Minois 1989, p. 15). Consequently, aging requires a remedy.
Confucians do treat life in stages, but the values attached to these stages are different than those of the other traditions studied thus far. Growth and development can be at least partially reduced to an understanding of the ever-changing parent–child relationship. When a child is first born, he is fully dependent on his parents. As he ages, he gains independence and the relationship shifts until, in his parents’ old age, the once boy must care for the parents. Children have a duty to revere their parents, and parents have a perhaps even larger duty to raise their children according to virtue and to instill in them humanity, or ren. There is then an obligation to transmit the learned humanity to the next generation; while filial piety falls mostly to the child, the parents must initially teach the child the proper attitude toward the relationship (Lai 2006, p. 26).
The principle of filial piety explains the changes in the parent–child relationship. In the Analects, the Master describes filial piety in several ways. First, filiality requires obedience (Confucius 2015, 2.5). This obedience involves children, in particular sons, serving and respecting their parents during and after their parent’s lives. However, beyond that, the obedience is meant to show a level of reverence that prevents the parents from doing further work than their parenting already requires. The Master again tells his pupils to “Let your mother and father need be concerned only for your health” (Confucius 2015, 2.6). Filial piety invokes principles of support and reverence, and requires more than minimal providing for one’s parents. Children are expected to act with propriety toward their parents. The only fitting treatment of a parent who has raised a child with the proper humanity is reverence. So what does this have to do with aging? As a child ages, he is to show more respect and act with more reverence toward his parents. The child then, after being imbued with humanity by his parents, is prepared to raise his own children, all the while treating, supporting, and revering his parents. The cycle continues, and the filial piety ought not to end with death. Ultimately, aging in Confucianism is not viewed chronologically so much as generationally.
Why World Religions Matter when it Comes to Aging
There are at least three reasons why a philosophy of aging would be incomplete without considering how aging is perceived in world religions. First, the majority of people in the world self-identify as members of a religion. If one ignores the nature and role of religion in regard to aging, one risks missing out on how vast numbers of people on this planet approach it. Second, the religious traditions we have identified in this chapter have stood the test of time. Just as we see merits in works of art that endure over time with substantial, ongoing interest, the sheer endurance of these traditions is a reason for us to take them seriously. Third, we know of no compelling reason to conclude that any of the seven traditions treated in this chapter has been shown to be philosophically discredited. Each has able, philosophically astute defenders today. As such, we have reason to investigate these traditions themselves. The truth of any one of them would radically impact what happens when we age.
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