Faculty View | Grow Up, Will You?!
by Dr. Matthew Vos ’90, professor of sociology
I’ve long been fascinated by Chaim Potok’s books The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev—both required reading at the Christian high school I attended. Potok’s teenage Jewish protagonists—one an academic savant, the other a profoundly gifted young artist—struggle between the entrancing pull to the outside world and the stifling-yet-comforting traditions of the Hasidic communities which formed them. I think I was drawn to these stories because they felt familiar. As a young man, I too was in a sheltering religious community, and I too faced decisions about becoming an adult. If memory serves, I was more drawn to the tradition side of the equation, with its safety, familiarity, and clear boundaries. But the tension was there, and at the heart of Potok’s stories, at the heart of my story, was the always-looming question, “Who will I become when I grow up?” And growing up is hard, especially in an ever-changing world where being an adult is never quite what it was for the previous generation.
Now, nearly twenty-five years post-college and terribly mature (just ask around!), I remain interested in the elusive concept of adulthood. As a professor, I sometimes hear students whisper that they want to be “treated like adults.” But adulthood is an awfully ill-defined state of social existence. What does it even mean? At present, the primary way we define adult derives from the legal conventions of our secular society. Accordingly, adulthood becomes synonymous with little more than the legalized end of youthful restrictions—a kind of unshackling from a community. Adulthood, so conceived, is celebrated by drinking a twenty-one-year-old toast to the “oh-no-you-don’ts” of our childhoods and a farewell to rules. Sadly, what counts as adulthood is often initiated outside the community, disconnected from tradition and care.
But for people of faith, perhaps for all, adulthood should involve a kind of shackling, not a disengagement. French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), known for prioritizing the social, explains that the community forms the individual, not the other way around. For Durkheim, human freedom is inseparable from a bond with community. Accordingly, in pursuing adulthood we might examine our posture toward our communities, where adulthood is more than a chronological achievement. Rather, adults are those who have internalized the traditions of the community, engaged with its institutions, and positioned themselves to protect its marginal and vulnerable members.
Though I have far to go, I’m most adultlike when bound over to my family, my colleagues at work, and the church where I hold membership. And my enmeshment with these exhilarating, stifling-yet-comforting communities from which I draw breath—though at times more limiting than emancipating—provides me with the strength and vision to continue in those things to which God has called me. I’m an adult. Consider me bound.