Academic journal article Generations

Religious and Spiritual Supports for Late-Life Meaning

Academic journal article Generations

Religious and Spiritual Supports for Late-Life Meaning

Article excerpt

For many, religion and spirituality are important resources for coping with the challenges of aging. of God, talk of faith, makes people squirm. They'd rather gab about their new Hummer... or American Idol-anything but religion. If you're one of those who's started nibbling at eternity-like some lowly but holy mouse-there's no lack ofeducatedVfilks whoTl look atymasifyoifrecrossed-eyed and dangerous.... But religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for haw we choose to lead our lives, haw we choose to defy the empty cultural-whirlwind. Our lives begin in mystery... and end in mystery. In between we Pry to explain to ourselves, all 6.s billion of us who are wedged onto this improbable planet-6.s billion potential paths to the holy.

-Jennings, 2008

These words were written within a week after the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2008) reported that 60 percent of Americans say that religion is "very important" to them, and 84 percent of Americans affiliate with one of hundreds of religious denominations. At the same time, 44 percent of American adults are reported to have switched their religious affiliations at some point. However, this statistic does not necessarily confirm that people are becoming less religious or less "believing." Rather it indicates that they are still convinced that there is such a thing as religious truth: Instead of passively accepting the faith of their birth, they prefer to make the journey to seek out a religious truth that fits (as Jennings suggests).

Indeed, our lives begin and end in mystery. That mystery has spawned questions that the myriad religions, philosophies, and literatures down through human history have addressed:

* What does it mean to live?

* What does it mean to die?

* What meaning or purpose does existence have?

* Why do we suffer?

* Is death a finality, or can humans overcome their mortality?

To these questions, add the all-encompassing question, put forth succinctly by Hebrew Scripture: "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9).

For those of us raised in a predominantly Western cultural milieu, Genesis 3-explaining both human sentience and human mortalityis a formative narrative, telling how it is that human beings are both like and unlike God, and why it is that we are able (and feel the need) to "nibble at eternity" Each of us has a "potential path to the holy^; each of us (to paraphrase the ancient Talmudic sages) has a capacity to respond to "the Voice that beckons," according to our own individual makeup.

And while our individual "potential paths" may vary depending on factors such as gender, cultural background, and individual life experiences, they also vary with age. Growing older may decrease physical capacities, but it also offers the opportunity to increase-and reenergize-our spiritual capacities. Indeed, those of us who have any sort of regular contact with older adults are regularly amazed and inspired by how they respond to the Voice: how their "nibblings at eternity"-their appetite to connect with that which is transcendent-keeps them connected to their loved ones and their surroundings, while animating their lives with continued purpose and thus reaffirming them as creatures of beauty and worth.

To be sure, it should be noted that while all of these potential paths may be spiritual paths, they may not be affirmed as religious paths. Though the two are often equated, religion and spirituality are not necessarily synonymous; spiritual needs are not always the same as religious needs. While many may choose to identify with a particular religious faith as a way to address internal spiritual concerns and needs, others may strongly feel called by "an internal spirit" that directs their values and helps them authentically respond to how they hear "the Voice." Thus it is erroneous and unfair to assume that people automatically have no connection to, or interest in, spiritual matters, just because they do not assent to a set of religious beliefs or choose not to identify with a particular faith community. …

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