Mortality and Respect: Aging in the Abrahamic Traditions

By Sapp, Stephen | Generations, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Mortality and Respect: Aging in the Abrahamic Traditions


Sapp, Stephen, Generations


Implications for elders and families today.

Of the world's estimated six and threequarter billion people, about two billion are Christians, somewhere between one and one-anda-half billion are Muslims, and around 12 to 14 million are Jews. Thus almost one-half of people living today are followers of the three religions that together are called "the Abrahamic religions," after the man they all daim as their ancestor. As Feiler (2002, p. 9) puts it, "The great patriarch of the Hebrew Bible is also the spiritual forefather of the New Testament and the grand holy architect of the Qur'an.'' Feller's statement gives a clue to what may strike some as an anomaly in this article, namely, including a religion of fewer than 15 million on equal footing with two others that number in the multiples of billions. The influence of this particular religion, however, far exceeds its current size: Judaism is unquestionably the "mother" of the other two and the source of the basic beliefs and values that both underlie what has been called Western civilization and give it its distinctive character, even today when many people reject the theological claims underlying those beliefs and values.

Beyond sharing a common ancestor and appellation as Abrahamic religions, the followers of these three religions are also known collectively as "People of the Book," a primarily Islamic term that nonetheless identifies all three as having not only a common heritage but also a crucial reliance on sacred writings understood to contain revelations from the one true God. Thus it is common when examining the teachings of the three faiths to focus on those texts: the Tanak (or Hebrew Scriptures) for Judaism, the New Testament for Christians, and the Quran for Islam. This article will examine how the three Abrahamic faiths understand two topics closely associated with aging: mortality and respect.

MORTALTIY

The first requirement for dealing successfully with growing older is to acknowledge that it is inevitable and is in fact taking place every moment one is alive. And there is only one outcome of aging. Thus truly to accept one's own aging, and the aging of others, is of necessity to acknowledge one's mortality, which in a fundamental sense is also the cause of aging. All three Abrahamic faiths have at their hearts precisely this "hard teaching," which seems always to have been contrary to human desire and is especially so today (see, for example, the "antiaging" movement).

As the first of the three religions' sacred books, the Hebrew Bible provides the framework for the worldview of all three, and in its very first chapters, it sets the tone with regard to human mortality. One does not have to delve deeply into scriptural interpretation to be struck by the dear message contained in the second creation story found in Genesis 2-3: "then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (v. 7). Clearly life belongs only to God and is a divinely imparted gift to humankind. Lest any doubt remain, later in the story after the first couple disobey God, God lays upon them a series of punishments, concluding with a vivid reminder of the ceaseless suffering and toil that will thenceforth characterize human life "until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). This recognition of human mortality is reiterated throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Joshua 23:14; Job 9:10; Psalm 39:4-6; 90:3-6, 9-10,12; and Ecclesiastes 3:1-2; 12:7, among many others).

The Hebrew Bible is candid concerning the losses caused by the aging that mortality makes inevitable. For example, in Numbers 4, an upper age limit of 50 is set for Lévite priests allowed to perform service in the tent of meeting, suggesting that their ability to perform their duties was understood to decline with age. Elsewhere, we read of other losses with age-blindness, inability to conceive (women) and sexual impotence (men), and general waning of sensual acuity and the attendant pleasures of life. …

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