Friday, January 22, 2016

Senescence Reprise

A mid-winter retreat from the cold winter climate of our permanent residence affords an opportunity to connect with relatives and friends. Some siblings have already become permanently ensconced in warm climates. Many personal friends and neighbors from frigid northern states have taken the opportunity to escape to Florida or Arizona, some for a week or two, some for several months. Friend and neighbor escapees are known as “snow birds,” mostly retired folks whose most productive, healthiest years are behind them. In their leisure time they often discuss their latest health crises as well as reminiscences of their healthier, more productive years.

Health crises of retirees are common signals of senescence, defined generally as “age-related changes in an organism that adversely affect vitality and function.” In the past few years I have proposed this term to friends with a request to define the condition. I have discovered the term is hardly known. Sometimes people discuss their ongoing ailments as a clinical badge of honor, but senescence is a term most people seem unable to define. Medical professionals focus on their specialty of treating and healing specific diseases. Patients are encouraged to embrace the hope that with treatment, improvement in their condition is in view. And indeed, modern medicine has produced increasingly wonderful results.

Senescence is not a disease. Rather, it is a tendency of the body to run down under a barrage of gradual organismal deterioration. Research is ongoing in relation to possible causation—intrinsic cell aging. As such, senescence is a topic of focus for scientists, health professionals, humorists, psychologists, philosophers, and even theologians. What are the theological implications of senescence? There are several scriptures which refer to the human tendency toward senescence. We do not offer them as proof texts, but as supporting biblical commentary. Psalm 90:10 (ESV) states: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” This is a poetic, allegorical commentary with a startling element of truth.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of Ecclesiastes 12 combines humor with the stark reality of old age. In a series of three posts from 2013 we considered the topic of senescence and closed one entry with a commentary from the Ecclesiastes passage:

Our universe has been created by God with the tendency to run down. In parallel, our physical existence is also prone to deterioration. Energy converts from a higher to a lower level of useful energy in many physical processes. A study of physical and chemical processes operating in our world of today demonstrates that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, sometimes called the Law of Decay, is actually a benefit to life as we know it. Some commentators may posit that this Law of Decay overlay is a weakness in the operation of our universe, and by extension, our planet. But the Law of Decay is not a weak link in the scheme of creation. God pronounced his creation good and very good as it unfolded according to the Genesis account of creation. God’s operating universe is purposeful, even when our acquaintances draw the opposite conclusion. The truth of this statement may be difficult to accept in times of difficulty, physical disaster, human senescence, senility, or death. It may be difficult to appreciate any outcome not in accordance with our frail ability to understand.

The subject of the benefit of the Law of Decay deserves thoughtful study beyond our ability to discuss it in one or several brief posts. During the New Creation spoken of in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation, more divine purpose will be revealed to the redeemed in Christ. The “weaknesses” of this creation will be revealed as strengths of God’s divine plan even though its apparent weaknesses appear incompatible with our human plans. We close with the term “senescence” on our mind. May God grant us wisdom to accept his mind.