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Todd T. Daly on Christian Asceticism & the Misguided Quest for Longevity
Most of us won’t be as fortunate as Madame Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122. Somewhat of a local celebrity in her hometown of Arles, France, Ms. Calment was still bicycling in her early hundreds, consuming roughly two pounds of chocolate a week, and smoking two cigarettes per day (a habit she finally dropped at age 120). When asked about the secret of her long life, she attributed it to port wine and olive oil.
Ms. Calment’s life is one exceptional instance of a general trend of increasing life expectancies. Indeed, life expectancies in the twentieth century almost doubled, due primarily to the effective treatment of diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox, a reduction in infant mortality, and a general improvement in sanitary conditions.
The prospect of a greatly extended—if not -indefinite—healthy life has always been an alluring idea, conjuring up images of fountain-of-youth legends, alchemic concoctions, and quests for the elusive elixir vitae.
More recently, a growing movement of philosophers, scientists, and technophiles known as “transhumanists” have devoted themselves to the pursuit of eliminating death and all prevalent forms of bodily suffering. Transhumanists believe that human life is unnecessarily held captive to disease, death, and decay, and that emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering, pharmacology, and molecular nano-computing, will enable us to evolve beyond human limitations, becoming, in a manner of speaking, like gods.
While transhumanist visions may be the byproduct of hypertrophic imaginations, it should be noted that researchers have discovered a link between fasting and aging. “Starve” an animal and it lives longer—it ages more slowly. Moreover, biologist Cynthia Kenyon has discovered a way to extend the lifespan of the nematode worm by altering a single gene. The worms she altered lived six times longer.
“I wanted to be those worms,” exclaimed Kenyon, noting that even a moderate increase in lifespan would be analogous to having the body of a 45-year-old at the age of 90. She said, “If our company could make a pill, everyone would want it.” Her goal now is to produce a pharmaceutical that allows us to enjoy the longevity benefits of fasting without altering or curtailing our food intake. Such extensions in life are also to be marked by health and vitality, assuaging fears that we might simply be lengthening old age and its afflictions. This is an enormously attractive prospect in a culture obsessed with youth and morbidly fearful of death.
Perhaps it seems that Christians, presumably freed from the fear of death, have no vested interest in greatly extended healthy lives, following Paul—“to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). However, narratives of longevity are not entirely absent from the Christian faith. Indeed, the Church Father Athanasius (c. 298–373) observed that aging could be considerably attenuated through ascetic practices, through which one’s body and soul regain their proper order, which he describes as recapturing the life of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
In his work On the Incarnation Athanasius describes Adam’s original state in the Garden of Eden as one in which the body and soul were in perfect order: the soul was in submission to God, and the body in perfect submission to the soul. Though Adam’s body was always tending toward decay, his soul expressed some degree of regenerative power in renewing his aging body, so long as it remained in submission to God.
However, when Adam sinned by turning his attention away from God to the material order, his body and soul were effectively thrown into disorder and dissolution—his body began to rebel against the rule of his soul—thereby bringing on God’s pronouncement of death, and hastening the decaying process of his body. It is this condition, says Athanasius, which the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, came to rectify.
While Athanasius does occasionally speak of Christ’s death as a ransom or satisfaction of debt, his primary emphasis involves Christ’s Incarnation as restoring the divine image in us, a process sometimes referred to as theosis. Based in part on 2 Peter 1:4, which speaks of our participation in the divine nature, Athanasius asserts that Christ “was made man that we might be made God,” noting that part of this deification is bodily in nature. Thus, while Athanasius admittedly describes the Fall in somewhat Neo-Platonic terms insofar as his language occasionally betrays a suspicion of the material in favor of the spiritual, the way back to paradise nevertheless begins by attending to one’s body.
Athanasius’s paradigmatic figure for theosis is the desert ascetic St. Anthony (251–356), who displayed powers over disease, demons, and seemingly death itself. But Athanasius is most impressed by Anthony’s ability to restore the proper order of body and soul. For Anthony was able to re-order his body and soul through the disciplines of prayer and fasting, restoring the soul as rightful leader of the body, thereby recovering a bodily integrity and resistance to aging endemic to prelapsarian existence. Athanasius records that St. Anthony died at the age of 105, his mind still sharp, his teeth in place, still strong in hand and foot.
Yet, Athanasius also realized that any discussion of a return to paradise must be balanced by the promise of the future resurrection of the body, reminding us that only Christ can clothe us with immortality. Moreover, Athanasius makes it clear that the goal of fasting is not a longer life, but to bring the soul into submission to God, and the body into submission to the soul.
Among the Desert Fathers, fasting was recognized as a crucial first step in the re-ordering of one’s body and soul. Only after one had effectively “quieted” the impulses of his body could he most effectively begin to till up the hardened soil of his heart. While we might view such ascetic endeavors as unnecessarily harsh and restrictive, theologian Douglas Burton-Christie observes in The Word in the Desert that
the telos of the monks’ life in the desert was freedom: freedom from anxiety about the future; freedom from the tyranny of haunting memories of the past; freedom from an attachment to the ego which precluded intimacy with others and with God. They hoped also that this freedom would express itself in a positive sense: freedom to love others; freedom to enjoy the presence of God; freedom to live in the innocence of a new paradise.
Thus, while Athanasius recognized that slowing aging was possible, it was never to be the primary goal, but was rather to be subsumed under and integral to the moral project of transforming one’s soul. Bodily life did not simply collapse under the weight of the spirit or the autonomous will, nor was the body simply a means to a higher end. Just as the body is needed to sustain one’s spiritual life, so, too, can the body be renewed by it. For Athanasius, the Incarnation of Christ secured a way through which we might regain the heightened degree of bodily integrity enjoyed by Adam before the Fall.
The Real Man Jesus
Any explicitly Christian reflection on the search for longevity must take the Second Adam in account, for not only does Christ’s Incarnation give us the best picture of our own humanity, but his Resurrection and Ascension also remind us of the eschatological defeat of death, the undoing of the destruction unleashed in the Garden, which will one day culminate in the Holy City (Rev. 21:2). Thus, Athanasius’s account of the possibility of regaining a truly Adamic existence, of man becoming like God (theosis), must be balanced by the trajectory of the Incarnation, of God becoming man in Christ Jesus.
Here we will be aided by Karl Barth’s Christological anthropology, and by his reflections on the real man Jesus. Barth famously asserted that human nature is not discerned in advance from science, philosophy, or the social sciences. Rather, we learn what it means to be human in the history of Jesus Christ, in and through whom human nature—and nature itself—is vindicated, restored, and exalted.
Wary of the reductionist anthropology of scientific materialism on the one hand and of the uncritical appropriation of Greek dualism on the other, Barth put forward the notion of “dynamic anthropology.” In his Church Dogmatics he asserts that the man Jesus is the one whole man, “embodied soul and besouled body,” by whom we judge what it means to have a soul and a body.
Unlike fallen humanity, in Jesus there is no “war” between the body and the soul, as the Spirit of God resting on him renders asceticism “superfluous.” The body is neither conqueror nor enemy of the soul, nor does the soul masquerade as the enemy or conqueror of the body. To the contrary, says Barth, Jesus is the picture of peace between these two moments of human existence. Yet, like Athanasius, Barth maintains that Jesus’ action and Passion are first those of his embodied soul, inseparable as it is from his ensouled body.
Afraid of Death
Unlike Jesus, however, we allow the body and soul to go their separate ways, permitting the drives of the body to have undue influence on the soul, to the extent that we desire and will the things we should not, even as the body wills what it should not. In light of Jesus’ humanity, Barth calls this particular disorder the sin of sloth, or Trägheit, which paradoxically disguises itself as ceaseless activity.
Joseph Pieper observed in Leisure, the Basis of Culture that in the Middle Ages sloth was seen as a kind of idleness, a source of restlessness, an incapacity to enjoy the discipline of leisure. In sloth we refuse our own humanity as it confronts us in Jesus Christ, a refusal that affects our relationship with God, the relationship between body and soul, and our relationships with others.
Barth identifies one of the main characteristics of this body-soul disorder as dissatisfaction with our current lifespan. As it relates to body and soul, sloth takes the unique form of “care” or “anxiety” with respect to our limited lifespan. In our sloth, says Barth, “we fret at the inevitable realization that our existence is limited. We would rather things were different. We try to arrest the foot which brings us constantly nearer to this frontier.” Moreover, in this state of dissipation and disintegration, we cannot understand that our desires cannot be satisfied. Indeed,
there is no infinite to satisfy our infinite desires. But this is something which the dissipated man, who has broken loose from the unity and totality of soul and body in which God has created him for existence in the limit of his time, cannot grasp, but must endlessly repudiate in his own endless dissatisfaction. In what he takes to be his successful hunt, he is himself the one who is hunted with terrible success by anxiety.
Thus, Barth sees our concern over our limited existence as stemming from a fundamental disorder or disintegration between body and soul, as evidenced by both our frenetic activities to forestall death and our inability to reconcile ourselves to our own finitude.
For Christians, Athanasius’s reflections on the first Adam remind us positively that slowing aging is inextricably intertwined with the moral project of bringing one’s body under the control of one’s Word-guided soul. Furthermore, Barth’s reflections on the Second Adam, whose perfectly ordered soul and body led to a life of obedience to God marked by death on the Cross, remind us negatively that modifying the body to allay fears of death and aging can never effectively mitigate the fear that dwells in one’s soul.
They also suggest that Christians who choose to engage in regular fasting, and who thereby increase the chances for an extended life, will, somewhat paradoxically, become the kind of people who are not haunted by their finite span and are increasingly willing to lay down their lives for Christ.