Faith Works 6-20-09
Growing in Wisdom & Stature Before God & Man
When is a child an adult?
Religious rituals are often the benchmark for this moment. Most of us know of Judaism's "bar mitzvah" tradition for boys when they turn 13, "bat mitzvah" in some Jewish traditions for girls.
It's a cultural milestone with certain religious overtones marking when maturity and responsibility start to include responsibility for one's own faith.
Among Christian infant baptism traditions, the maturity milestone is often called Confirmation, a ceremony that's part of worship but, like a bar mitzvah, is usually preceded by a meaningful period of preparation. While First Communion may be at 7 or 8, Confirmation is usually offered at 12 to 14 years of age.
In a believer's baptism tradition, a preparation class or "pastor's class" is offered, to help a young person get ready for coming forward to make their own confession of faith. The usual age in such churches for baptism has been, in the past, traditionally around the age of Confirmation, but many congregations have tended younger in their encouragements over the last couple decades, often to 8 years old or so.
The Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, usually baptize at 8 calling that "the age of accountability," then young men are ordained deacons at 12, the beginning of their work in the priesthood of the LDS.
All of this helps to define how faith communities prepare children and youth for increased responsibility for their own practice and understanding of the beliefs they share, but you can see how the tendency is to lean towards the doctrinal and the structural.
What gets left out is the question: when is a child an adult?
Anthropologists would point out to us that 12 or 13 is the age of physical maturity, when sexual activity starts to have, um, rather dramatic consequences. (OK, it always does; you know what I mean.) Most religious traditions marking a maturity milestone echo or shadow that benchmark, which makes a certain kind of sense.
What we struggle with in today's society is that we have been steadily defining the horizon of mature and self-responsible behavior older and older. Abe Lincoln and Charles Dickens were sent out to work at 12 in the early 1800s, and no one thought it particularly odd. Now we place the major passage into adulthood at 16 for getting a driver's license, but only allow voting at 18, and consumption of alcoholic beverages at 21.
When I hear people say that Bristol Palin and Levi Johnson at 18 are too young to know what they want in life, part of me agrees, but I also wonder about how they would have been about right for most of the last few thousand years to be starting a family.
Carrie Prejean at 22 was said to be too young and inexperienced to know what she was getting herself into in the Miss USA pageant, and Britney Spears at 27 is still described as a near helpless "young woman": maybe she is. The Jonas Brothers range from16 to 21, and they're still the anchor act for a show called the "Kid's Choice Awards."
There's much anguish over "our kids are growing up too soon," but I'd ask if we could wonder if we try to keep them children too long, and make it almost impossible for them to see when they become men and women. Is it the first car? Leaving for college? Getting a job?
And I wonder about this as I read, on the verge of another Father's Day, that in 2007 we crossed the milestone of 4 out of 10 children born to single mothers, out of wedlock, choose your term. 1.7 million kids, in this county, nearly two years ago, out of 4.3 million born, effectively had no father . . . of course we know, whoever showed up in the delivery room, there was a father out there somewhere.
Is it that we have no clear, clean benchmark for moving out of childhood that so many young men – for they have certainly passed that biological horizon we discussed earlier – put themselves in the lifelong complication of "fathering" a child without setting up the standard and support system of marriage and being a husband, because it is a clear-cut, unmistakable way of saying to the world "this day, I am a man."
I wonder no less so for the young women involved, who are surely mothers and doubtless women, even if not a wife. When most of our faith oriented rites of passage are set so early in childhood, as most now are, how can churches help to offer a public way to celebrate maturity and responsibility?
Perhaps more awkwardly, to do that we'd have to discuss and agree on the question: at what age or by what measure should we declare them an adult?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your rite of passage at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow "Knapsack" @Twitter.com.