“Initiation to Adulthood: An Ancient Rite of Passage in Contemporary Form” by William O. Roberts, Jr. is a 1982 book that ought to be reprinted. Written by a Christian minister to describe what his own church had been doing, this will naturally be of most interest to Christians, but to the open-minded, there is much useful material here for anyone. The United Church of Christ and its ecumenical printing arm, Pilgrim Press, published this book and a second one by Roberts, “Crossing the Soul's River: A Rite of Passage for Men.” I haven’t read it yet -- just ordered it.
These books come out of the same consciousness that produced the UUA Leadership Schools and I suppose, ultimately, they come out of the Sixties and Seventies experiments to understand humans in a newer liberated way. There’s another root in “organizational development” for businesses, NGO’s, and institutions of all kinds -- including churches as individual congregations and denominations. It’s the same impulse that resists lectures and endorses wilderness experiences. Even more than that these books and others document individual struggle in turbulent times -- hence, the reason for republishing. We ARE in those times.
Roberts had an excellent education in major schools (Wesleyan and Union) and at the time of writing this book was serving as the minister of First Church of Christ in Middleton, Connecticut, which collaborated with him to develop a strong and innovative ministry for their adolescents, based on the concept of initiating them into adulthood. In Part One he is careful to lay out “Higher Religions” (meaning bigger, more complex, and better known) examples from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian traditions. Then he goes to Biblical examples and a careful history of Christian initiation and the theological issues. Only the first chapter brings in the usual indispensable anthropological suspects: Norman O. Brown, Joseph Campbell, Eliade, Turner, Van Gennep.
Part Two contains the actual account of the “risky business” of dealing with the young people of the parish in all their confusion and drama. No move is made without justification and analysis. These people are not throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks. There is a “lesson plan” for everything. Adolescence is one stage in a stream of development that begins in childhood (Sunday School) and continues through adulthood. At every step Roberts shares leadership with adults and young people. They do not shy away from sexuality -- in fact, they use the Unitarian Universalist model which was pretty “out there” at that time. (By now the larger culture has caught up.)
Sometimes it sounds like Boy Scouts. I mean, it stays pretty much within the church “bubble” without confronting some of the global anguish we see now: nothing about drugs or child trafficking or species extinction. The book precedes AIDS and the African post-colonial descent into hell. But on the other hand there are some remarkable efforts to get at major issues. For instance, the lesson “packages” pick up some of the citizenship training that is now so neglected in the public schools. The youngsters learn the vocabulary of politics and economics, a list of issues of the times --Disarmament, Hostages, Unemployment, Inflation, Moral Majority, Gun Control, Balanced Budget -- is only a few of the topics. All of these issues are tied back to the New Testament injunctions to have a care for the poor and afflicted. NOT the Old Testament prescriptions for wrath and destruction.
The four best simulation games were “Plea Bargaining,” (La Jolla, CA: Simile II.1971) an introduction to the legal system; “Baldicer,” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1970) about world hunger, “Humanus” (LaJolla, CA: Simile II, 1976) about survival in a post-nuclear holocaust world; and “Starpower,” (La Jolla, CA: Simile II, 1970) about economics. You might have noticed that in a comment “Herb” mentioned what impact “Starpower” had on him at the PNWD Leadership School he attended decades ago. (Simille II appears to have disappeared, but googling “simulation games” brings up a wealth of materials. Of course, computer games like Sim City have been around a long time by now.)
There are also strategies that Roberts calls “Mystery Rites” in which a group may “become” an historical group in the Judeo-Christian past; the Children of Israel, the people of the exile; the early church; the catacomb years and then the medieval and later times. (It’s interesting to me that the honest history of religion is often more a description of alternatives than advocacy for the straight and narrow.)
Adolescents experience eight “mystery rites”: Separation, Urban Adventure, Encounter with Silence, Masking Ritual, Sexuality Rite, the Ash Wednesday Service, the Wilderness Experience, and the Final Act of Initiation. Parents are involved and “give up their children” so they may become adults. Younger kids are involved as witnesses of the final ceremony which is made as intimidating and dramatically mysterious as possible.
All is not sweetness and light. The usual kid probs with violence, the law, and unwanted pregnancy haunted them. It would be good to have a lawyer on call and a bail fund. Know where the hospital emergency room is. Still, sometimes all this seems nearly too ideal to be real.
When undertaking such projects, one of the biggest dangers is to adults, especially those who didn’t have a lot of support or were too confined in their own adolescence. Even traveling with these kids empathetically can activate old ghosts and yearnings. Evidently it happened to Roberts himself. As time went on, he left the ministry and his marriage, “wandering in the wilderness” for four years while his wife and children struggled on alone. This is what finally resulted in the book about rites of passage for men. He did return -- the paradigm is Job, but he claims Jung.
It appears to me that the advances of the Sixties and Seventies are coming back, that more people are making passages of major kinds -- not just maturation stages, but going from one country to another, one ecosystem to another (the climate seems to be proceeding somewhere without us anyway), one war to another. Riding with Tim Barrus has made me painfully aware of who is out there in the darkness. Some of them do not want to be brought close enough to the campfire for us to see who they are. Some are standing on the other side of the River Styx, inviting us to join them. Don’t tell the media -- they’ll spoil everything.
I found Roberts today, googling and consulting people who might know, until Wesleyan, his alma mater, helped me out. He says: “I like the book on Initiation. I like the book on Midlife even more. I’m contemplating creating an Elder Passage and have offered classes, retreats, kick-off presentations at college reunions, but I have not (yet) actually created the rituals that are necessary for any Rite of Passage. I will be in the village of Patzcuaro for the Mexican Days of the Dead celebration this year. I’m quite certain that ancient ritual will provide grist for the slow moving mill of my mind.” Bill Roberts can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org