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Archaeology & Anthropology: Open Access

Theology an Age of Alzheimer’s: Asking God’s First Question Today

Submission: July 07, 2020; Published: July 24, 2020

DOI: 10.31031/AAOA.2020.04.000593

ISSN: 2577-1949
Volume4 Issue1


Let me begin with a proposal concerning Christian theology: Christianity is a missional movement, and when rightly pursued its theology is missional theologizing. Now when I say that Christianity is a missional movement, I mean that it is an historical and socially embodied movement that- in accordance with its own normative narrative—has been called into being, taken into, and defined by the mission of God in the world as depicted in the testimony of Christian scripture. There the missio dei unfolds in the context of a story arc that moves from chaos to community, from the seven day event of the creation of the “heavens and the earth” “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1-2:3) to the appearance of “a new heaven and a new earth” at the end (Rev 21-22). That new creation is pictured as the descent of a “New Jerusalem” from heaven to a world in which all things are made new and God comes to inhabit what God has created. God comes to dwell thereby with and among and in the human community. Thus, of central importance to that story arc is the creation and new creation of the creature of the sixth day, the herald of the coming of the seventh, the human community made up of male and female that is taken into God’s creating and called to be God’s own “image and likeness” in that act (Gen 1:26ff). That creature whose “dominion” in and over creation is to reflect God’s own “dominion” as it appears in the center of that narrative in Christ Jesus on the cross and comes to final realization as that “Lamb of God” assumes the throne in the New Jerusalem to rule over all things, as pictured in Rev 22. God’s mission in the world, therefore, is the actualization of God’s call to the human community to act as the imago dei in God’s creating as God brings all things to God’s good ends. It is, for this reason, no accident that the first question asked in the biblical narrative occurs when God comes seeking the man and the woman who have inexplicably proven faithless and, in their shame, have tried to hide themselves from their Creator. “Where are you?” God calls (Gen 3:9). That is by no means a geographical question, and GPS co-ordinates do not by any means constitute its answer. It is, rather, the question of what has become of the creature that God has called to be God’s own “image and likeness” in God’s creating. It is this question, I suggest, that forms and informs God’s mission in the world, as depicted in the testimony of the remainder of the biblical narrative- a narrative that has at its center God’s declaration concerning Christ Jesus: “This is [the one] with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).
Christianity is a movement created in and by this missio dei. As an expression of God’s mission, Christianity enters into new cultural and social worlds and into the discourses of each age in which it finds itself, taking up the words and the works of those worlds and ages in order to transfigure them into a testimony concerning God’s promissory Word and Work in Jesus Christ. Christian theology is a servant of that on-going mission of God. It is a missional theologizing that speaks of God’s universal promise in the particularity of the moment, and thus addresses itself to the particular expressions of humanity’s universal faithlessness in a given age, faithlessness to God, to their fellow creatures, and to God’s creating. For the question that theology begins with is always When are we? And just as God’s first question cannot be answered by simply reporting GPS co-ordinates, so theology’s first question defies simply turning to a date on a calendar. For the answer to the question is not simply a day or a month or a year but rather an historical and social condition, a particular moment in the on-going conversation that is a culture.
My argument in the following is that we are living at the end of one age and at the beginning of another and thus it is time to learn to “act our age” once again. The future of missional theologizing will emerge as we enter into that time of transition and serve God’s mission anew today. In the twenty-first century we live in a time of profound cultural and social change. A modern age that once boasted of its knowledge and power is passing, while another, an age of forgetting, an age of consequent uncertainty and insecurity and paranoia, an age of the loss of a sense of self and the dissolution of the bonds of commonality with others that is rooted in the memory of a shared history that encompasses and defines us, is rapidly arising to take its place. We live, that is to say, in an “age of Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s disease was first diagnosed in 1906 by the German psychiatrist and neurologist Alois Alzheimer, when he noticed unusual characteristics in the brain of a fifty-year-old female patient who had died after having suffered for years from memory loss, disorientation, paranoia, and unpredictable behavior. From the first the disease was understood to be associated with aging. And since that time, as life expectancy has continued to lengthen through the twentieth and into the twentieth century, the number of those who suffer from the ailment has exploded. Studies suggest that it is a decidedly modern disease that is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. A chronic neurodegenerative illness that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die, it usually starts slowly and gradually worsens as the sufferer grows older. In the United States, it is now the cause of sixty to seventy per cent of the cases of dementia. Moreover, the National Council on Aging estimates that over five hundred thousand deaths were caused by Alzheimer’s in 2010 alone, more than thirteen hundred sixty-nine people a day. And another American develops the disease every sixty-five seconds. Indeed, more than three million new cases are diagnosed every year in America alone. A recent study ranks Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. But, unlike those other two—and this holds for the other eight most common causes of death—there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s. To this point, palliative care is our only recourse. This has led some in the medical and health care professions today to speak of Alzheimer’s as the crisis of our age, as a plague that is and will blight our time much as the bubonic plague blighted an earlier moment in western history. Alzheimer’s, therefore, is a disease that affects self-consciousness, attacking areas of the brain dedicated to memory, problem solving, abstract thinking, learning capabilities, personality, and awareness. Its sufferers experience a loss of identity; they literally “forget themselves,” lose themselves bit by bit in and to the disease. Even as they become aware that their defining self is slipping away, they are helpless to stem the tide, leading to angry desperation and despair. This, I suggest, is an apt metaphor for what is occurring in western society today. The consternation, uncertainty, and grief brought about by the loss of self that is caused by that kind of disease now defines the social world of the age in which we live, replacing our culture’s earlier boast with a whine of insecurity and the rise of a haunting fear of an imminent apocalypse that can be seen in everything from our philosophy to our economics to our politics to our elite and popular art. Once, western societies had strong and confident accounts of human identity, but collectively and individually, we have now forgotten who we are—and we are bedeviled by that forgetting. As Christianity learns to understand and take seriously that cultural illness, we will learn to act our age once again. Thus we will learn to serve God’s mission in the world anew, as we take up the words and works of this emergent age to speak of God’s Word and Work as we ask God’s first question to this and every age: Where are you? And as we learn to articulate that question in the words and works of this new age, we will learn how to properly proclaim in word and deed that the answer to that question ultimately is found in Jesus Christ.

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