The Fear of Old Men

I first read T. S. Eliot’s words when I was not quite twenty years old. “Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, their fear.” This (from “East Coker”) is not necessarily Eliot’s own view—Eliot was a master of putting multiple voices in a single poem. But it is an arresting view. Convention has us venerate the elderly for their wisdom. What convention overlooks is the danger, as age creeps along, that fear will overtake wisdom and turn it to folly.

What do “old men” fear? Ultimately it is belonging, which Eliot puts in reference to three objects: the fear of belonging “to another, or to others, or to God.” What might these be, these three flavors of fear?

For me, the first two can be read in terms respectively of marriage and friendship. A person might fear to venture into a new marriage, a new belonging to a particular person, “to another.” Our culture’s acceptance of nonmarital cohabitation functions, of course, as an accommodation to this fear of belonging to another.

To fear belonging “to others,” in the plural, is different, and usually stronger. It is the fear of making new friends as one’s old friends pass away, fear that, being old, one is extraneous and unable to “connect.” It is also, often, simple physical fear: of slipping on the ice, of losing one’s grip on the handrail, of being lost and unable to navigate an unfamiliar situation. Stay isolated and alone, and one need not face the risks of belonging to others. Which is to say that aging has its own inertia that shuns exposure and risk and prefers staying at home, staying ultimately alone.

Why would “old men” fear most of all belonging “to God”? It is, I think, because God is the ultimate outsider. God is not us and he wants move us outside ourselves. You can map this in terms of the Trinity. God created us in such a way that it is not good to be alone. He rises in front of us on the awful cross to make us turn our attention outward. And he resides in the ultimate future as an ever-present lure for us to venture something new.
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I could be entirely wrong about Eliot, but these lines speak ever more strongly to me as I get close to taking a long pilgrimage on a road that I have never walked. The closer I get I realize how much it would be true to say of me, “He has a lot of fears.” I do not know the extent to which I will be entrusting myself to others, but it is certain to be more than I can imagine. Furthermore, I fear facing what it means fully to trust myself to God. What do you do with fears? You face them, drag them out of the shadows and give them their names. Then you start walking.
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Out & About. Thus Sunday, March 20, I will be with St. Philip’s Church in Frisco, Tex.; the services are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. I am preaching on friendship as a spiritual discipline, and also, between services, teaching a class on friendship.

That same day at 5 p.m., the “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will discuss The Children of Men by P. D. James. We meet at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas; entrance at the Visitor Center. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to join the conversation (others are welcome to come and listen).

On the Web. I was interviewed on the Ember Days, which were last week: https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/lent-ember-days-russia-ukraine-war . The reporter takes my final point, that one of the contemporary Ember Day themes is the ministry of reconciliation (a theme that is pressed upon us by the current war in Ukraine), and makes it the lede. But most of the article is a brief account of these days’ history and theology.

Believing and Believing In

An advantage of having two rites, one traditional and one contemporary, is that they can interpret each other; one can study the differences and thereby go deeper into the meaning. Let’s apply this to the Nicene Creed.

In traditional language it begins: “I believe in one God.” In the contemporary eucharistic rite it begins: “We believe in one God.” Neither of these is the singular, correct version, and each leads us to important truth.

“We believe” translates the Greek original, deriving ultimately from the ancient councils of bishops that met in Nicea in A.D. 325. The “we” are the bishops there assembled, representing the church throughout the world and giving words to what they all believed. This creed was not used liturgically, but over many centuries it gradually became part of the Eucharist in the West.

But the Apostles’ creed, or something like it, had been used liturgically for some time. This was in baptism. Those being baptized affirm the faith personally; their creed was always “I believe,” an individual affirmation of basic Christian faith. Thus when the Nicene Creed came into liturgical use in the West, it adopted the “I believe” (in Latin, credo).

The result, however, is more important than these historical origins of the different first lines. Clearly both “We believe” and “I believe” are right, because faith is at once an individual’s belief in God and also the fundamental orientation of the whole church. Christian faith is at once “mine” and “ours”—at once personal and communal—and to have the two versions of the Nicene Creed leads us into that truth.
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May I draw your attention to a second difference between the two versions of this creed? Note the use of the preposition “in.” As the creed progresses, in both versions, we proclaim we “believe in” the Father, and “in” Jesus Christ his only Son, and “in” the Holy Spirit (or Ghost). But then comes a difference. In contemporary language, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” That “in” is missing in the traditional language: “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

This reflects a difference between Greek and Latin. In Greek, to believe is always to believe in.

It’s different in Latin. The basic teaching is that the Latin language allows three kinds of statements concerning belief. First is the strongest. To “believe in” is to put your whole self into God’s hands. To “believe” is to trust, but it falls short of that personal commitment. I believe the church when she teaches me about God, for instance, but I do not give to the church the fullness of “believing in.” Third is to “believe that” something or other is the case. Although it doesn’t use the words “believe that,” the following line of the creed can be taken to say, “I believe that there is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

This little difference between the contemporary and traditional creed points us to a subtle distinction of various levels of belief, with the highest and most personal being given to God alone, without thereby losing the importance of any particular line in the creed.
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I offer these reflections as an example of what you can learn by holding the Prayer Book close—the printed Book, which allows you to flip back and forth between Rite One and Rite Two and see such small differences (without the danger of there being typographical errors, as can slip in when parts of the Book are printed for convenience).
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Out & About. Sunday, March 20, I will be with St. Philip’s Church in Frisco, Tex.; the services are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. I am preaching on friendship as a spiritual discipline.

That same day at 5 p.m., the “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will discuss Children of Men by P. D. James. The book is quite different from the movie, and more theological (which, in my book, means better). The seminar meets at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas; entrance at the Visitor Center. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to join the conversation (others are welcome to come and listen).

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."