This is the eighth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the tentative reading/posting schedule here.
I don’t want to die. I’m not sure that’s the same as being afraid of death. But I definitely find myself avoiding things I think might kill me. And hoping that I get to have a long, healthy life: specifically, a healthy life with few of the elements of aging in it; healthy till the last minute. And that latter sentiment is what Beck addresses in this chapter.
Beck builds on his earlier claim that disgust is related to an existential reminder—that humans are in the in-between of the divine-animal divide. We feel pulled “downward” to the animal world through our bodily functions, while at the same time that we want to be more like God. We want the “upward” spiritual elements that we associate with the divine. Beck reminds us of the earlier arguments in the book—we feel purity which is required by God and makes us more like Him is achieved by pulling away from all the things that we associate with the bodily. We mourn death even as we experience disgust toward the aging and sick and dying.
Beck’s research for this association of disgust with the animal/lower elements of life came earlier in the book, and wasn’t wide or deep enough to be convincing to all his readers. All some of us need to do is think of the nurses and other care-givers in our lives to think that this disgust isn’t as widespread as Beck’s evidence claims. However, when I look into my own heart, the truth of his assessment is clear to me.
My desire to not die may be related to my wish to avoid things that remind me of death, and specifically the death that comes with aging. In this way, I am similar to many other modern people in this mechanized, sanitized and medical age. As someone who is not a professional medical worker, I am alienated in many ways from the sick and the dying/dead. I work hard to avoid the bodily signs of aging, and not only the signs, but all the effects. I get frustrated as my middle-aged self (an embodied self) requires more time, adaptation, and attentiveness. I want to plan my schedule, my adventures, my future, as if there will be no end and I will always be able to do what I do now.
What this translates into, for me, is often a disregard for the sick and elderly. I am in a hurry and they seem slow. I want informal worship services without microphones and they are hard of hearing. I want active community service and churches that focus on the kids, and they aren’t able to participate at that physical level. I privilege the physicality that comes with what we perceive as “youth,” which also means I end up being something like an “able-ist.” I am impatient and don’t want to accommodate those whose bodies are working less well than they have in the past or which work differently than I am used to mine functioning.
My childhood theological education included the reminder that the first temptation was the first lie: “Thou shalt not surely die.” I always understood that this was the way that humans started down the road of idolatry, to rejecting the path of love that God had planned for them. Beck’s argument in this chapter reminded me of this, and that when I resist aging, or neglect to make space for the sick or elderly, I am participating in this lie. Not that I will engage in unhealthy behavior or lack of concern for my body, but I will check myself when I make assumptions about the value of certain abilities or become negligent of people (myself included) who are not at the prime of physical functioning.
I wish Beck had completed his argument with the strongest theological truth of all, the one that should undermine all our desires to become divine: God became a human. And He died. The Resurrection, that truth that completes the value of the Incarnation for us, is part of our great hope and the Good News. If we desire to avoid the human element, the bodily functions, because they remind us of animals and death, then the knowledge that Jesus, God Himself, became human and gave value to our bodies and physical functions should change everything. We should not avoid our bodies and their weaknesses in our attempt to get close to the divine. God came near to us, embraced our weakness and gives us hope in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Do you find yourself worried about dying or aging? How do you respond to the aging process? How do you make space for the elderly or those whose bodies don’t work like yours? Do you find yourself thinking more about God on His throne in the New Heaven and New Earth than of God as a human who got hungry and had bodily malfunctions and died? What difference does it make to think of our God as embodied in human flesh?
Lisa Clark Diller is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University.
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