Column
Character
Comment
Politics
5 min read

What the Joe Biden story tells us about growing older

Rather than mimicking the young, the elderly witness to a life well lived.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Joe Biden holds a fist to his chest as he stands and speaks.
Biden at the CNN presidential debate.

President Biden has had a few bad days at the office recently. Time and again, he seems to freeze in public, stumbles over his words, as his voice falters and his sentences tail off. At his first public debate with Donald Trump, he looked just like a man in his eighties, struggling to remember facts, his mind not as alert as it once was. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what many people in their eighties are. And Trump is no spring chicken either. Questions around age dominate the American Presidential election like never before. This is a story of not of two elderly gents in a bar arguing over their fading memories of the past, but between candidates wanting to be the most powerful man, in charge of the most forbidding military and economic powers on the planet. 

Old age creeps up on us slowly. To tell when it starts is hard to say. Yet we all know how it ends. Old age is a kind of preparation for death, a slowing down of faculties, a loss of control, a gradual diminishing of powers, preparing us for a new kind of life beyond this one. As a result, in our achievement-oriented age that doesn't believe in a life beyond death, we are tempted to ignore the elderly, shutting them away in residential homes, out of sight and out of mind.

Yet they were valued for what they were – signs of where we are all heading, their stories as object lessons for the young in how to live well (or badly). 

Old age, however, is not a slide into passivity. Even as powers diminish, elderly people still have significant agency – keeping the mind active through reading, walking to the shop to buy bread, keeping in touch with relatives, even getting out of a chair as the end draws near can take as much resolve and determination as the more complex tasks of our youth, and are every bit as heroic and human as the more impressive achievements of our sprightlier years.  

Former cultures respected the elderly for the experience gained, as members of the community to be looked up to, respected and valued. Teenagers were not considered as the moral arbiters of the future but as immature human beings who still have a lot to learn. The old were given pride of place as those who had gained the wisdom of years. Not that that wisdom was always apparent - the elderly can become cantankerous, repetitive and self-focused as powers diminish. Yet they were valued for what they were – signs of where we are all heading, their stories as object lessons for the young in how to live well (or badly).  

The one time when we do place elderly people front and centre, is when they are able to do the things that young people can. Adverts regularly depict old people jumping out of planes, playing rugby, strumming electric guitars - doing the things that young people typically do. Old people who can pretend that they are young are praised to the hilt. Elderly people who lose their memory, their train of thought, stumble and repeat themselves are looked on with pity, not respect. When they do both it confuses us – which is why everyone is worried about Joe.  

Part of the wisdom of old age is to recognise when it has come upon us, and what its distinct calling is. In a strange echo of our culture's attitude to the elderly, Joe Biden seems desperate to tell himself and others that he's perfectly capable of doing the job of President, a job that would come much more naturally to someone 20 years younger than him. Surely the wiser and more sensible course would have been to recognise the signs of time, and halfway through his presidency, to have announced that he was not standing again, triggering a leadership race among the Democratic Party so that a new candidate could be ready for the Presidential election without all the doubts about age and capacity in mind. 

So, caught between ignoring old age and yearning for lost youth, how then, are we to value the ageing process? After all, one day, it will come on all of us who manage to avoid a premature death.  

The main task as the years pass and the shadows lengthen, is to be there for the young,

If we remain active throughout our lives, that activity changes over time. As someone well into my sixties, approaching old age (or perhaps already in it – it is hard to tell?) I recognise my body creaks and does not adapt as it once did. I can't do all that I could in my 30s or 40s. Over time, callings change, and recognising that is part of the wisdom of life. The Christian ethicist Oliver O'Donovan suggests that the calling of old age is to "stand by the side of youth." Elderly people have the task "to show to the young how their generation, the only earlier generation to which the young have direct access, has conceived its tasks and tackled them. If the young are to form their world effectively, they will need models to inherit and to build on."  

The prime task of old age is not to withdraw into some retirement village, playing golf every day, going on endless holidays, living the life we wanted to live in our 40s but couldn't because we had to work. It is not to enjoy retirement as a kind of secular heaven, a reward for a lifetime of hard work, with pleasures abounding. There may be time for some of that, but the main task as the years pass and the shadows lengthen, is to be there for the young, not to tell them what to do but to be a witness of a life well lived - or sometimes an object lesson of a life lived badly – often both at the same time. It is to be a sign of how another generation managed to navigate the complications and complexities of life and how for those who have a faith, as a witness to how God has proved faithful over time, space and the shifting sands of culture. And that involves focus from both sides. The younger need to value, respect and prize the elderly for what they offer as a model of life lived and complexity negotiated, and the old need to recognise their changing role as it creeps upon them with the passing of years. 

The calling of the elderly is just as important as that of the young or even the middle-aged. Yet it is different. We need to value our older people, not because they can do the things younger people can, but because they are object lessons in how to navigate life, and how to prepare for the next one.  

Getting it muddled up helps no one. 

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.