The age of maturity has been permanently enshrined into law as age eighteen (except for the consumption of alcohol, when it is delayed to age twenty-one). I suppose there is no getting around a codified end to childhood and the announcement of maturity. The law is not equipped to judge each person individually (although in a criminal matter it is an act of judicial discretion to determine whether minors will be tried as adults or as children).
Adolescence is part biology, part maturity, and part culture. It is a mix of many factors and therefore no single factor can answer the question when does adolescence end. It seems to me we presume a great deal about the end of adolescence when there is no single mark that determines the transformation is over.
That said, I wonder if selflessness is not a mark that might be used to apply. In many ways, adolescence is a time of self-centeredness -- not always selfishness but always self-centeredness. As children we see the world through our own eyes alone. The adolescent views everything through the lens of me. Time and its length is long or short depending upon how I feel. Things are good or bad based on how they affect me. Happiness is a momentary mood to the adolescent and so is sadness. I am the lens through which life is viewed. When a child learns to look past the me in all of this in order to see the impact upon others, that is a sign of the maturity that will soon leave adolescence behind.
I am not labeling the adolescent when I suggest that adolescence is much like original sin. Sin has placed its mark on us by making "me" the lens through which I see everything. Our sinful world once seemed embarrassed by such self-centeredness but now we are much more open about it. In fact we glory in it. How we feel, what we want, what we think we need, our freedom to pursue these things, and our right to be whoever we want to be and do whatever we want to do -- these have become the hallmarks of our time.
We carry cell phones because we have to be in touch -- though the majority of cell phone conversations have little of substance or urgency to them. We have the internet, instant messaging, social networking sites, and twitter to convey the most trivial of our thoughts and feelings -- because we believe that others need to know them and it makes us feel better to share them. These technological toys appeal to our me centered lives and encourage those self-centered lives.
The antithesis of this "me" centered perspective of sin comes not from our own maturity or coming of age, it comes from Jesus releasing us from the prison of "me" to see God above all things and our neighbor before ourselves. The Law could not accomplish this release from captivity -- it could only surround us with the guilt of knowing what we felt was wrong and the helplessness of sinners made miserable because they cannot fix themselves or rid themselves of this guilt. Only the Gospel working through Word and Sacrament by the power of the Holy Spirit can reshape our perspective, literally replacing the lens of "me" with the lens of "Thee" (Jesus Christ).
The mark of our screwed up spirituality is that instead of addressing this self-centeredness, the modern spiritual gurus teach us to look at God and religion and spirituality all through the lens of me. Whether Oprah or Osteen, religion and spirituality have become tools to get in touch with who we are, what we want, and how to get what we want. Their great appeal is to our adolescence and the adolescent within us likes what we hear from them.
Even the secular culture still appreciates the mark of maturity when an adolescent finally begins to see things beyond self -- the way, for example, Mother Theresa was honored in life and in death for her saintly selfless life even though we do not rush to follow her example. When me is balanced with we, the world appreciates that maturity has come.
For the Christian, love for God and love for others -- impossible apart from Christ -- become the twin goals of our lives. Indeed, the mark of the Spirit in us is that we are freed from our captivity to "me" to see ourselves objectively in the mirror of the Law, to see with trust and gratitude what Christ has done to answer the power of sin and death, and to begin to live on the narrow path of eternal life where this love is lived out.
So much of contemporary Christianity is an adolescent religion that manifests itself in adolescent worship and raises up as the ultimate goal of life and faith -- the freedom to be me. Such is the inherent weakness of it all.
We will spend thousands of dollars to go on mission trips across the sea that allow us to feel a part of it all but we will not use those dollars to pay for the urgent needs of the mission field. We will pay whatever is required for a weekend with an expert to find out how to raise better children or have better marriages but we won't teach Sunday school or get to know the young couple experiencing the ups and downs of a new marriage and a new baby. We will rejoice in the unlimited grace of God but only until the gourmet coffee runs out and then this becomes more important than anything. We will spend hours doing what we want in worship or listening to music that makes us feel good but we grow itchy if we find ourselves in a liturgy in which God and His gifts are the center of it all.
I sometimes wonder if God does not think what I have thought as a parent... "Why don't you just grow up?" He has provided all the gifts and the resources to real maturity of faith and life in Christ but we have found it easier to manufacture a spirituality and religion which caters to the "me" instead of trying to transform it...