The Quest for Longevity, Part 3: Fasting as a Return to Eden

By Dr. Todd Daly

Last week we discussed the link between longevity and obedience in the Old(er) Testament, noting that the resurrection suggests that the significance of one’s earthly life is somewhat relativized—to live is Christ, and to die is Gain (Phil. 1:21). Hence, while it is not wrong to desire a long life, Christians know that a better life awaits, and should live in light of the reality of the resurrection. These conclusions however leave the question of arresting aging unanswered. For while Christians might oppose attempts to indefinitely extend earthly life (however far-fetched this notion is), it is more difficult to formulate a response to the hopes of gaining fifty or sixty additional years of health before one dies.

While Christians commonly assert that God has irrevocably established the number of our days, this need not be interpreted as an indictment against the technological quest to slow aging. Indeed, the belief that the human lifespan was largely intractable—as sin and death are irrevocably linked in the Christian tradition—was not the only perspective on aging and longevity. Some of the Desert Fathers asserted that aging could be slowed down through the discipline of fasting.

Athanasius of Alexandria provides us with one example. He discussed the condition of Adam and Eve before the fall as one where the body was ruled by the soul, and the soul was in perfect submission to God. In this state, the body itself was preserved by this order, and capable of remaining healthy several hundred years. When Adam sinned however, this body-soul disorder was disrupted, bringing heightened corruption (aging) to the body, brining an early death. Christ’s Incarnation however set to undue this corruption, to a degree. When the Christian engages in the disciplines of prayer and fasting, she is able to slowly bring the body and soul back to their proper order—as it was before the fall—and hence slow down aging. Fasting was a way to ‘regain Eden’ before the fall. Athanasius saw this played out most fully in the desert ascetic St. Antony, who lived to 105 years old, dying in a state of relative health.

It is interesting to note then that Athanasius and other Desert Fathers were aware of a link between fasting and longevity well before this was ‘discovered’ by modern science. But this is not the main point. This early Christian construal of aging and sanctification does however give us a theological lens through which to examine contemporary attempts to slow aging by engineering a pill that mimics the effects of fasting. In short, we can critique the technological attempt to attenuate aging with the theological project of the Desert Fathers. First, it is important to note that the primary goal of fasting was not longevity, but to be transformed into Christ’s image—a healthier, more slowly aging body was a byproduct of a theological goal. Second, they recognized that the path to spiritual transformation began by first attending to the body. There could be no real spiritual formation unless one engaged in bodily disciplines. And this, once again, proved a way to re-order body and soul, to bring one’s desires in line with God’s.

From this perspective, attempts to produce longevity by taking a pill that mimics fasting can be seen as a practice which only further divides the body and soul by attempting to bypass any potential formative practices of the body altogether. For the modern biomedical project is fuelled by the notion that our bodies are at best morally neutral, subject to the whims of our wills and desires, profoundly shaped by the negative, liberal understanding of freedom as freedom from limitations. Thus, insofar as our aging bodies serve as a reminder of our finitude, they must be met with the quest for technological control.

While Christians may one day have to wrestle with taking such a pill, we should be wary of doing so, lest we come to view our bodies as subject only to our will, failing to see the significance of our bodies—most especially the discipline of fasting—in our character development. Indeed, it is very likely that while fasting may slow down our aging and grant us more healthy years on earth, it may also transform us into people who are more willing to live the kind of lives that are marked by suffering and even early death, all for the sake of Christ.

by Dr. Todd Daly, Assistant Professor of Ethics and Theology