Intersections

Chasing Methuselah: Theology, the Body, and Slowing Human Aging

by: 
Todd Daly, PhD

The quest to live much longer has moved from legend to the laboratory. Recent breakthroughs in genetics and pharmacology have put humanity on the precipice of slowing down human aging to extend the healthy life span. The promise of longer, healthier life is enormously attractive, and poses several challenging questions for Christians. Who wouldn’t want to live 120 years or longer while avoiding a slow decline? How do we make sense of human aging in light of Jesus’ invitation to daily take up our crosses with the promise of the resurrection to come? Is there anything wrong with manipulating our bodies technologically to live longer? If so, how long is too long? Should aging itself be treated as a disease?

In Chasing Methuselah, Todd Daly examines the modern biomedical anti-aging project from a Christian perspective, drawing on the ancient wisdom of the Desert Fathers, who believed that the Incarnation opened a way for human life to regain the longevity of Adam and the biblical patriarchs through prayer and fasting. Daly balances these insights with the christological anthropology of Karl Barth, discussing the implications for human finitude, fear of death, and the use of anti-aging technology, weaving a path between outright condemnation and uncritical enthusiasm. Below is an interview with Daly on his book.

Who is Methuselah?

Methuselah was the longest-lived patriarch recorded in Genesis 5. In a genealogy reporting lifespans extending over many centuries, Methuselah tops them all, having lived 969 years. While biblical scholars are divided on how to interpret these figures—numerically (or literally) or numerologically (i.e., symbolically)—Methuselah has served both as a placeholder for extreme old age and more recently as a symbol of hope for the longevity movement. The phrase “Old as Methuselah” dates back to at least the fifteenth century, but in a curious Platonic twist, the name now animates the scientific search for a longer, healthier life. The Methuselah Foundation, for instance, is an organization of scientists and researchers dedicated to making “90 the new 50” by 2030.

What is Chasing Methuselah about?

Chasing Methuselah examines attempts to extend the human lifespan by slowing down the aging process from a Christian perspective. In the last several years, scientists have been able to significantly extend the healthy lifespans of nematode worms, fruit flies, and mice through a variety of techniques ranging from genetic manipulation to caloric restriction mimetics. Within the last decade, for instance, researchers have been able to routinely extend the lifespan of the nematode worm C. elegans six and even ten-fold. Currently, drugs used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia and diabetes, dasatinib and metformin respectively, are being studied for their longevity effects in older individuals. Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of the lucrative opportunities for developing a pill that slows human aging. My book considers this quest for longer life from a theological perspective, specifically, a Christian anthropology informed by the two Adams—the first in the Garden of Eden, and the last as revealed by the Incarnation. But I also devote a fair amount of space to a more fundamental question, namely, “What is going on?”

What prompted the writing of this book?

The idea originally came from my doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, where I was exploring how the Bible and Christian doctrine are used to think about unique problems in bioethics. While there is a clear warrant for Christians to use technology (within limits) to treat diseases and disorders, treating aging itself as a disease has proved to be a more complicated issue. Is human finitude (which implies aging) solely a result of the fall (Gen. 3), or a reality of our createdness from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7)? Are these two perspectives mutually exclusive? Theologians disagree. Moreover, when I first started researching the quest to slow human aging several years ago, only a handful of Christians had given it scant attention, offering little more than a somewhat dismissive reference to the promise of eternal life in the form of bodily resurrection.

What were you most surprised to find in researching for your book?

Probably that part of our modern scientific quest for longevity began with Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a Christian thinker who criticized the scientific methodology of his day, which focused more on theoretical knowledge. Bacon argued that scientists should study the world for itself in order to develop practical knowledge to help humans overcome the effects of the fall, most importantly, knowledge of slowing aging that would enable lifespans like the biblical patriarchs. He envisioned a new, practical science oriented toward regaining control over fallen nature, as it were, in order to recapture the longevity enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the garden before the fall. The birth of the modern prolongevity movement was actually grounded in a Christian understanding of the world.

In your book you interact with the Church Fathers. Do they really have anything to say about our quests for technological control?

Insofar as the Fathers were able to articulate a theological anthropology faithful to Scripture, they do have something to tell us about slowing human aging; their teachings serve as a lens through which to interpret the aging body. Though Athanasius (293-373) affirmed both human finitude and the goodness of the human body in light of the Incarnation, he also believed that attenuated aging was a byproduct of the spiritual discipline of fasting, which he described as a lifelong journey back to prelapsarian Eden where Methuselah-like lifespans might be regained. The Desert Father St. Antony (251-356), who lived 105 years, provided evidence of a transformed soul and its preserving effects on the body. Interestingly, scientists have recently “discovered” the link between fasting and longevity, and, as mentioned above, are trying to design a pharmaceutical to mimic the effects of caloric restriction. I use Athanasius and other thinkers like Karl Barth (1886-1968) to critique scientific approaches to slowing aging.

So, should Christians try to slow human aging?

It’s not really a yes or no question. In my book I point out the potential dangers of using a pharmaceutical or “Methuselah Pill” to slow aging insofar as it tempts us to view ourselves as managers of our own biology, potentially foreclosing other embodied practices and disciplines that foster spiritual formation. In addition, Christians do not put their trust in technology, but in the resurrected and ascended Christ as the forerunner of our own bodily resurrection. The resurrection makes the question of living longer less urgent, while still giving us enough space to wrestle with the possibility of attenuating aging through technology. From a Christian ethical perspective however, a significant question concerns who we might become if we use such technology. Will we be more or less likely to trust in God? Will we be more or less likely to lay down our lives for another? Will we still be able, with Paul, to say “To live is Christ, and to die is gain?”