Thursday, August 12, 2010

Aging and Faith

He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
Mark 6:5

With that cryptic description, the Gospel writer summarizes Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth.

There must have been people who turned to him for healing and were not made well. We don’t know what happened. There is not much in the Gospels that gives us any insight into those painful times. But there must have been some people who were not physically healed. And the verdict of the Gospel writers seems to be that if people were not healed, it was because they lacked faith. We should note in the passage above (and elsewhere) that the words are not attributed to Jesus. The judgment comes from Mark.

Modern biblical scholars and theologians focus on the healing and wholeness of the spirit, rather than on physical changes in the body. That perspective is evident in the many Christians who will testify, “I don’t know what will happen with the cancer, but I know that I am healed.” They may not be certain that they are cured, but they know that they are healed.

Unfortunately, for many people, the healing stories of the Bible leave us with a sense that physical healing and belief are connected. The popular belief in a causal connection between faith (or righteous living) and healing has devastatingly destructive consequences. Those who believe that they have been healed because of their faith are tempted toward a smug self-satisfaction, while those who have believe that their disease persists because they lack faith feel deep guilt on top of their physical illness.

The religious connection between healing and belief has many secular variations. One of these can be seen in our attitudes toward “aging successfully.” The phrase comes from Dr. Robert Butler, a psychiatrist, who died this July of Leukemia at age 83. Dr. Butler, according to his colleagues, did more to advance our attitudes toward aging than anyone. And he had a realistic and healthy attitude toward the aging process. For Dr. Butler, “aging successfully” was defined by each individual in his or her circumstances.

But others have taken the phrase and the concept in a different direction.

As more older people remain active into their 70’s and 80’s, there is an implicit judgment on those who are not able to be as active.

In a New York Times article on aging, Dr. Thomas R. Cole, from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston says, “We’re going to make it look like if you’re sick, it’s your own fault; if you’re not having orgasms or running marathons, there’s something wrong with you. We need to think carefully about how to take care of people who are frail. We need to allow people to not feel like failures when they can’t do the things they used to do.”

Dr. Cole, who has written a cultural history of aging, sees the origins of this “splitting apart” of the reality of old age into success and failure, good aging and bad aging, to the mid-1800’s, when people in the United States first began to think about what he calls “the legitimization of longevity.”

“People first began to say, ‘I’m here to live a long life, and if I work hard and am a good person and am middle class, I will die a good death,’ ” Dr. Cole said in the Times article, “ ‘and if I don’t do these things, I deserve a short life and a painful death.’ ”

And then Cole gets to the heart of the problem: “It assumes you can control these things through willpower.”

In the religious context, it is faith or righteousness rather than willpower, but the bottom line in both cases is control. We want to believe that through willpower or faith (or exercise and diet) we can control our lives. And we can’t. Not ultimately. That is a biblical lesson that we should not forget. As Jesus asked, “Can any of you . . . add even a single hour to your span of life?”

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