Sabbath Rest as Vocation

Aging Towards Death

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Autumn Alcott Ridenour
T&T Clark Enquiries in Theological Ethics
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567679208.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Our cultural attitudes toward aging fluctuate between unbridled anticipation, and captive fear. Many in our Western culture live with the aim of retiring comfortably, hoping to finally attain a life of leisure and pleasure long planned for. Those seen to be prudent and well organized have taken appropriate measures to consider well every aspect of the last season of their lives. However, aging naturally leads us to consider death and its final reality. This cultural confusion affects us all, no matter our current age or season of life. Thomas Lynch, in his award winning 1997 The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (W. W. Norton & Company), writes, “I had this theory. It was based loosely on the unremarkable observation that the old are always looking back with longing while the young, with the same longing, look ahead. One man remembers what the other imagines.” This looming fear often produces a particular kind of dread that can affect every element of the aging process, including how one considers their life and position before God.

In Sabbath Rest as Vocation: Aging Towards Death, Autumn Alcott Ridenour has written a compelling and important book that explores aging in the last stages of life as vocation and calling. With a particular focus on “those decades superseding sixty-five years of age and particularly those stages involving greater decline often associated with 80+” (10), Ridenour builds an argument centered on seeing aging as a sign of the Sabbath rest that is to come, rooted in our creaturely limits (9). To accomplish this, Ridenour reflects on the theological work of both St. Augustine and Karl Barth. Much of the book is spent in deep engagement with both theologians’ interaction with the subjects of aging and death, and in particular the work of Christ in his death (39, 40, 71, 101). Ridenour’s treatment of both Augustine and Barth is thorough. She emphasizes Augustine’s portrayal of the vulnerability of Christ’s death and the call of the aging to imitate his vulnerability (39). For Ridenour, Barth’s belief that “mortality is not merely an accidental property but constitutes our very essence, teaching us something important about being human” (72), can lead us to see aging and the movement toward death as a creaturely good, and a sign of Sabbath rest fast approaching. Here, Ridenour presents a different vision needed in a culture that resists proper reflection on aging and death. 

If aging is a sign pointing to our eternal Sabbath rest in Christ, then this sign acts as an invitation into a season of life focused on contemplation, reflection, and activity. These elements become markers of a life of discipleship participating in life with Christ now, and looking forward to our life in God for all eternity. Ridenour writes, “Whether following Christ through resistance to death or following Christ by accepting life’s ultimate limitation, believers enact discipleship through the rough terrains of our existence, its various plateaus, and life stages” (89). For the aging, discipleship offers new opportunities to contemplate and reflect upon God and unite oneself to the body of Christ in unique and dynamic ways. “The old need the young as an example given their openness to the given moment and sense of novelty. The nature of the Christian community is to integrate these intergenerational relations, as the young, old, and mature ultimately need one another in interdependent relations” (95). In a sense, the aging stage of life can potentially give the believer a foretaste of the integrated and blessed connection God’s people will experience in their eternal rest. 

Ridenour’s most intriguing theological exploration takes place in her chapter “Aging in the Middle Voice,” in which she traces Barth’s treatment of Christ’s being “handed over” to his enemies before his death. Here, it is not the strength of Christ or his achievement that invites us into participation with him, but his passivity (168). Ridenour writes, “Jesus himself legitimizes and dignifies passive agency in a way that brings meaning to those aging individuals who move into a period of suffering and decline. The power and grace for such ‘inactive’ agency comes from his prayer in the tumultuous garden experience” (168). The type of intense contemplation and reflection that Ridenour argues can be experienced by the aging follower of Jesus, runs as a counter-cultural juxtaposition to Western culture’s obsession with retirement and the aging season as one of leisure and ease. 

Aging towards death then becomes a calling, a season in which the believer can embrace a unique relationship to God and the world as part of their vocation as a disciple of Jesus. Barth describes vocation as living “one’s whole life before God” (195). For the aging Christian, this invites us to gain a new perspective on a season of life that can be uncomfortable both physically and spiritually. Towards the end of the book, Ridenour presents virtues that aging can produce in us which include humility, gratitude, wisdom, prudence, fortitude, hope, and respect. However, perhaps there is no greater way in which the aging person participates in the life of Christ than by embracing humility as their calling. William May writes, “The progressive loss of friends, job, bodily prowess, and energy, the passing look on the face of the young that tells us we are old, these experiences assault one’s dignity; they humiliate. All the care in the world will not overcome the sting of humiliation; only humility can” (211). 

Embracing this approach to aging will force oneself to cling to a hope only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, aging as a sign of Sabbath rest is a powerful theological category that invites followers of Jesus to find deep meaning and purpose while we age, sharing fully in the life of Christ as his disciples. While dense, Sabbath Rest as Vocation is an important and needed contribution with theological depth and powerful cultural awareness that can leads us to age towards death meaningfully.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Philip Letizia is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Autumn Alcott Ridenour is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Merrimack College.

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