After participating in The White House Youth Round Table discussion last month I started thinking about more than just politics. It forced me to evaluate who we as a community consider juvenile or adult and how we transition from one stage to another. In the church we have very clear guidelines for who is considered a youth– anyone between the ages of 12-18 years old. Never before have I thought this was a truncated measure until I realized that in the greater US the term youth encapsulates a much broader demographic. On the one hand, our rigid demarcations of adulthood—beginning at 18 months and slowly graduating to new stages alongside your age mates until you are 18 years old—are a phenomenal example of the power that rituals have in helping people understand, transition through, and embody their role in society. They help children understand the privileges and responsibilities of aging in stable and predictable increments, without which girls tend to mature too fast and boys too slow.
On the other hand, our notions of youth, adulthood, and progression in the church are extremely rigid and based on roles that not everyone has access to. For example, getting married, becoming a parent, receiving leadership callings, etc. are all the life stages that move someone from a juvenile to an adult state; from someone being taught to someone doing the teaching. What then of the men and women who never move through these rituals of adulthood? Are they at different “developmental” stages in our church? Can they ever be considered fully equal?
As an anthropologist this is a difficult conundrum. One of my favorite things about the gospel is that it provides rituals otherwise unavailable in American society. Sure my kids can join a soccer league and find age mates, but a diverse array of kids that meet once or twice weekly for 18 years and learn incremental responsibilities and privileges along the way, never. From initiation to the group at baptism, to funeral rites at death our religion provides ample and helpful rituals of education, transition, and identity. While I detest the gender specific topics introduced in most activity days and scouting programs and think that we should either support boy/girl scouts equally or only focus on boy/girl activity days programs, I am nonetheless overjoyed that I belong to a religion that takes pre-youth seriously. Children between the ages of 8-12 are formulating core pieces of their identity. They need structure, instruction, and space to practice their independence from familial identity. I know of no other program (besides education) that gives pre-youth as much individual out-of-the home social learning opportunities.
Similarly, church youth programs are fantastic examples of didactic transition. Each new stage is accompanied by constant explanation and increased rights and responsibilities. While I take issue with much of the gender specific content, the Duty to God and Personal Progress programs are phenomenal examples of rituals of adulthood. They prevent against the Bratz® (hyper sexualization and expedited maturity of girls) and Peter Pan (co-dependence and prolonged immaturity of boys) behaviors in American youth culture. Missions are another example of an incredibly powerful and persuasive ritual available in the church and entire dissertations could be written on their ability to foster independence and change while inculcating the basic tenets of community, belief, and obedience.
The rituals of our temple are perfect examples of separation, liminality, and reintegration. They not only teach using symbolism, which allows for multiple meanings and individual application, but they provide an entirely unique and daily reminder of the “new” person that you have become. Include the rituals of sacrament, tithing, fasting, fast offering, blessings, temple recommend interviews, prayer, scripture study, family home evening, and church attendance and we have got one of the most ritual heavy communities in America today.
Interestingly, it could be argued that we likewise view not only the marriage ceremony but marriage itself as ritual of adulthood in our religion. Rather than focusing on the union of two specific individual people, LDS marriage is often taught as an end in and of itself; the people are largely interchangeable. It is a rite where the privilege of sex is balanced with the obligations of temple covenants. As this is usually the last public ritual that a woman experiences in our culture (births of children and higher callings, i.e. mission president, apostle, area authority, etc. are experienced with public displays of male recognition, priesthood ordinance, and transition) as such, it should come as no surprise that marriage is often the focal point of LDS women’s lives. This focus on a relatively early period of a woman’s development is the natural consequence of no (or arguably few) formalized rituals for women in the church after marriage.
For men, the rituals of priesthood ordination are steady indications of acceptance, transition, and progression. They begin at age twelve with the (albeit relatively small) potential to continue until receiving the keys of prophecy and revelation as an apostle and prophet. Because of the hierarchal nature of these privileges and responsibilities, men often tend to judge and be judged based on the status of each role; a natural consequence of an all male leadership organization with limited positions.
However, we often don’t think of the church in these terms. I once had a colleague from Tibet who was astounded by our home and visiting teaching programs and their simplicity and potential for good. I was surprised by his intensity of admiration. To me they were quite banal and, sadly, I am often more focused on how they have become monthly checklists for ones’ commitment to the gospel and institutionally sanctioned gossip than taking the time to acknowledge its structural integrity. A perfectly run home and visiting teaching program would meet the needs of and connect a community in webs of mutual empathy that would rival any social structure. It is a brilliant program and I needed someone else to point that out because I was too focused on the imperfections of the content. This post is about taking the time to recognize and discuss the structure of the church by highlighting one specific aspect—our use of rituals in teaching and applying gospel principles to lived experience.
I take great pride in all of the rituals of my people. I know the impact that they have on individuals and cultures. I know the difference they make in helping children transition into adolescence and through adulthood. I champion the abundant and consistent use of rituals in teaching principles and taking the fear and trepidation out of change by gradually increasing responsibility and privilege. I think this is a genius pattern that we should emulate in our families. Any period of transition is made easier with rituals. They help us accept and become the new identity (i.e. in theory graduations, marriage rites, and funerals don’t “do” anything, but in practice they make a considerable difference in one’s ability to leave behind the old self and commit to the new). I cannot say enough about the power of ritual in facilitating change and inculcating important principles.
As such, I have a three part discussion. First, how can we increase the use of rituals in our homes? What ways have you attempted to teach principles (such as work ethic, financial responsibility, independence, etc) or facilitate change (for example, moving) by introducing rituals (i.e. making an allowance chart, creating a tradition, or every birthday giving new privileges and responsibilities, etc)? What rituals have helped you transition into new life stages?
Second, what are the implications of each ritual being symbolic of a changed state and women participating in markedly fewer rituals in the church? For example, by power of position the voice of male leaders has more weight than the equivalently aged women (for example, wives of mission presidents, apostles, and area authorities do not go through the same rituals, are not given the same titles, and do not share the same privileges nor responsibilities as their husbands), thus, how can men and women be at the same stages of development or be seen as equal until we have similar numbers of women in positions of didactic leadership?
Finally, what about adults who never transition through our culture’s rituals of adulthood (marriage, kids, leadership positions, etc)? How does this emphasis on highly-ritualized stages of development harm their identity? And equality? What can we do to change that?