Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Baxter, Bunyan, and a Puritan Refraining of Ageing

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

Baxter, Bunyan, and a Puritan Refraining of Ageing

Article excerpt

Introduction

Ageing is a topic that, if we are lucky, eventually affects us all. In the following two essays we have asked whether Puritan authors like Richard Baxter and John Bunyan worked out of what we can retrospectively describe as a distinctive understanding of how to age well. We will argue that the seriousness of purpose about individual life marked by conversion and strenuous Christian living which informs the theological anthropology of seventeenth-century religious writers, especially those of Puritan nonconformity, produced an imaginative reconstruction of 'old age' as a category of human experience. Against a literary and broader cultural understanding that most often portrays old age as something of a sad accident, the cumulative effect of Adam's fall being felt in the failure of body and mind; or that casts the old in the comical role of the sexually eager but underperforming senex, Puritan writers of the seventeenth century seem to have portrayed old age in three distinctive ways.1 It was understood as a stage that may be marked by spiritual maturity and wisdom; as a providential gift to be received as a reward for a careful and temperate life - a special time during which one may pass on spiritual legacy to others and prepare for one's own death; and as a period of special challenges, temptations and tests that can be identified as a meaningful part of the 'exercising' of the heroic self.

As we face the ageing demographics of western society, we are faced with finding new models for understanding and conceptualizing a stage that may well comprise about one-third of many people's lives, but which is largely seen as afterthought, a view which is the result of an economic and materialistic valuing of human life wherein productivity is the major measure of human worth. Anthropological research into ageing suggests that how a culture understands age - how an individual sees his or her own prospects of ageing - will greatly affect the experience of growing older.2 As we will suggest in the following two essays, both Baxter and Bunyan depict a complex, life-giving understanding of age in their prose and fiction. Maxine Hancock's analysis of Baxter's selfconscious meditation on his own ageing identifies a triplex of distinctly Christian understandings of human life that form the foundation for his alternate view, a view that, as Arlette Zinck shows, is also modelled in Bunyan' s The Pilgrim 's Progress, Second Part and discussed to some limited degree in his other prose writings.

I

Consolation, Injunction and Self-reflection: Richard Baxter's Framing of Ageing in Three Major Works

Like John Bunyan, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) wrote prolifically as the pastor of a nonconformist congregation. However, while Bunyan died in his sixtieth year, scarcely reaching what we would regard as old age, Baxter continued to write up to his seventy-sixth year. As a young man, he had written The Saint's Everlasting Rest (1650). As a mature pastor, he had written instructions for the aged (and everyone else) in A Christian Directory (1673). As an old man, having been ill much of his life, he seems surprised - and even intrigued - by age; with his characteristic analytical acuity and prolixity, in a section of the sprawling Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696), he examines his own mind in an attempt to discern the mental and spiritual changes that come with age. In this paper, I will examine some of the ways in which, in these three seminal works, Baxter confronts the questions about the human condition pressed by age and mortality.

The question of establishing meaningfulness in the face of mortality, always of concern in human thought, was made more pressing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by challenges to longestablished patterns of religious ritual and belief mounted by both the Reformation and humanism.3 The then-emerging modern sense of 'self was of a person having, according to the analysis of Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self, the will and capacity to make choices and commitments in the direction of living 'the good life', and to experience dignity through the exercise of such agency. …

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