Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A theology of aging

Darkness and light by a tree in blossom
A B&B outside Billings on the Yellowstone river
futility? - no Qohelet - gift rather
One might imagine first the second law of thermodynamics or in the words of Yeats, Things Fall Apart (also the title of a book by Chinua Akebe). The simple statement of this second law is that in a closed system, entropy, a measure of disorder, increases.  This led Stafford Beer, the father of Operations Research, to pose the definition of God as a source of negative entropy, i.e. a source of order.

 The Bible says as much in both Genesis and John - that God brings order out of the formless void of creation and that the word, that is in the beginning, is a word of information.  So why then do we who believe (or not) fall apart?  As Paul notes somewhere, the inner person is renewed day by day. (Found it, 2 Corinthians 4:16 - It's been a long time since I have read Paul.)

As you might guess, I could develop a theology of aging from the Psalms. But it has a real note for me - Tim Bulkeley of Sansblogue and The Five-Minute-Bible asked here with regard to my recent experience with prostate cancer whether I would comment on intimations of mortality that arise from the experience.

It is a good question and I wonder if I can do it justice.
and the grinders cease for they are few
(Eccl 12 somewhere)

I recall my earliest reflection on mortality. I am sure it was in the dentist's chair and was a tense response to pain. I suspect this is a shared experience. Nothing falls apart more successfully than teeth - if they don't fall out - and yet it is the dental record that outlasts our dust. Will I be able to eat when I am old?

This morning I had an eye examination from a new ophthalmologist - and he said - take these pills twice a day to slow the macular degeneration.  I also have creeping cataracts and a risk of glaucoma.  Will I be able to see when I am old (if I get there)? (As of today some would deem me old already at 67).
and those who look in the windows are darkened
(Eccl 12 somewhere)

When I watch a poor feed on the French Open I cannot see the ball against the clay. When I watch an English and Australian mini-series on TV, I have to put on closed captions to hear some of the dialogue - and I do wish the actors would wear name-tags so I know who's who!

In all these things the Lord and I have a quiet and sometimes loud laugh as the bits and pieces of my wonderfully created golem fall apart (Psalm 139).
your eyes saw my embryo
and in your book all of them were written 
days were fashioned 
and its one was in them

Near the mid-point of the Psalter is a poem, Psalm 71, with a whole section framed by old age.  Here's the beginning of the section, verse 9.
do not cast me off in the time of old age
when my power is consumed do not forsake me 

So the poet in this psalm is aware of this problem - and in some senses recognizes both futility and hope in tension with one another. The final psalms embrace both these things: futility in Psalm 144

humanity is like futility
 its days as a shadow passing away

and yet in Psalm 148, a reality of praise from all generations
youths in their prime and even maidens
the aged with youngsters

and the grasshopper will drag itself along
and appetite will be frustrated
(Eccl 12 somewhere)
So how did the presence of cancer affect these thoughts? There is a certain definiteness to death, pace the Apostle's we shall not all sleep.  But equally I follow the advice of the preacher (Ecclesiastes 8:15, 9:7) that I should eat and drink, and I am merry, but not for the desperate reason given in Isaiah 22:13 or the boastful reason of Luke 12:19, nor for the resigned aspect in 1 Corinthians 15:32. One can eat and must drink but a dour heart that takes no delight in the joy of the Lord is hardly a sensible option, even or especially when senses are failing. I am going to enjoy our two weeks in Scotland prior to the International SBL.

But Bob - what was it like to be diagnosed with cancer? It was a drag. I got the diagnosis within weeks of my retirement two years ago. And practically on the day of my retirement, I got shingles out of the tension from waiting for the diagnosis. So there! (My Lord and I discussed the issues - but what can one say? Anti-viral treatment worked well for me.)

In any case I dragged myself onward and wrote that book on the Psalter, not out of duress, but of continuing joy in the delights of the written word in the Old Testament. And the treatment for cancer was less onerous than the biopsy - and always there were angels present - but they probably were not aware of themselves.

At the biopsy, when the urologist knew he must find cancer due to genetic markings that we had measured, he went deep and one by my side held my hand. Astonishing shared presence.  She was so bathed in glory such that I did not recognize her 10 minutes later in the hall.

During the radiation, I have already said concerning Photons; Seraphs; and the fire of God,
or the pitcher broken at the fountain
or the wheel crushed at the well
(Eccl 12 somewhere)
y'all know that when God saw the light, he said it was good. So now I have this fiery proton laser stream in me for 5 minutes a day destroying the wickedness of my cancer - and healing the whole body as part of the everlasting covenant. Primal light - destroying and healing - some deal eh? And I am daily in a Star Trek movie with wonder-working seraphic nursing staff considering every tender move and aiming the gun of God's life-giving light-fire at me. Oh my breathing adjectives - tov tov tov.
Madness, you say - yes, a holy madness, as David feigned when he was in the presence of the king Abimelech and he escaped as I have done.  And he said also in Psalm 34, verse 9 Hebrew: taste (the same word as madness) and see that the Lord is good.  God - tov - as at the beginning when the light was created. And Qohelet may tout the utter and total futility of it all, but such is what can be seen and there just may be the things that are unseen, the white fire that separates the black fire, and the ground that figures our being.

I wish I could spell it out more fully, but there is a dearth of explanation. As Eliot noted in his poem on the Magi - there was no information. There may be inner formation, a building up of the inner person, but some things are not subject to explanation, as any good post-modern should know.  There is a time to be born and a time to die - of course, but in the meanwhile...

Here's the end of the section of Psalm 71, verse 18.
and even to old age and grey-hair
O God do not forsake me 
till I have announced your arm to a generation 
to all who come, your valour 

This poet had work yet to do, and it could not be done in a forsaken state. I am retired, and not all of me works as well as it used to, but there is yet work for me to do and I have not been cast off.