A Theological Analysis of Life Extension via Aging Attenuation with Particular Reference to Ascetic Practice in the Desert Fathers
Daly, Todd T
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In this thesis I offer a theological analysis of biomedical efforts to extend the healthy human lifespan by attenuating the aging process, situating this project within the Christian quest to holiness. The potential of even modestly extended life spans has profound social, familial, political, economic, religious, and environmental implications, and warrants considerable theological reflection, hitherto largely absent from contemporary ethical discussion. Hence, I critique the biomedical attempt to extend human life via aging retardation by considering the historical attitudes towards one’s aging body and longevity within the Christian tradition, paying particular attention to shifts in attitude regarding aging and decay, and by examining the Christian discipline of fasting as practiced by the Desert Fathers, who believed that an attenuated rate of aging was one physiological outcome (among others) subsumed under a larger moral project of character transformation. While the concept of a normative lifespan as derived from Scripture is highly tenuous, a relationship between finitude and a wisdom that recognizes one’s bodily limits does emerge. While key figures in the history of the Church have acknowledged both the difficulties of earthly life and the promise of bodily resurrection leading to a general ambivalence concerning the length of life and its extension, such attitudes were challenged by Francis Bacon and mirrored during the theological upheavals of the Great Awakenings in America. Drawing upon the work of Charles Taylor and Thomas R. Cole, I discuss the theological shifts whereby spiritual growth was segregated from physical aging via an increasingly instrumental stance towards aging and its mutability, increasing one’s fear of death. In the remainder of the thesis I examine St. Antony’s ascetic regime which enabled him to ‘remake’ his body as part of reordering and refining his soul to be the leader of his body, a regime which entailed an attenuated rate of aging. Drawing upon Karl Barth’s christological anthropology who locates the unity and order of soul and body in the person of Jesus Christ, I demonstrate how current attempts to retard aging exacerbate the ‘disorder’ and segregation of body and soul, described as ‘sloth’ and ‘care,’ negating the role of the body and its limitedness in the formation of one’s soul, and failing to mitigate the fear of death occasioned by such a disorder. Finally, I situate the Christian discipline of fasting as an alternative to life extension within the context of the practices of faith communities, understood minimally as baptism and the Lord’s Supper.