Experiencing God in Liminal Times [Part II]
Although “in between” the traditional social structure is considered dangerous by those in charge, liminality provides unlimited possibilities for renewal and change. Richard Rohr refers to “communitas” as the ideal church, the body of Christ that God intends. Having shared liminality, the church is forever changed but communitas is rarely seen in the celebrations, meals, and music of contemporary mainline churches. These events are important, but they do not transform.
“True communitas comes from having walked through liminality together—and coming out the other side—forever different. The baptismal drowning pool was supposed to have ritualized just such an experience. But something happened along the way. Baptism became a pretty blessing of children” (Rohr).
Like Rohr, I have often wondered why it is that communitas is more common in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and places like Ground Zero than in the church. He admits that much of his life as a priest has been less liminal, but more “liminoid” (liminal-like, but lacking true transformation). These practices are not bad, but often result in delusion.
“Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. It works real well. It creates false transcendence in just enough dosage to inoculate people from Real Encounter. It takes away one’s sense of aloneness and one’s sense of anxiety—and for most people this feels like “God” (Rohr).
Rohr explains that of the 183 questions asked of Jesus, he chose to answer only three. Jesus was less concerned with providing doctrinal pronouncement than leading people into liminal space where they could yearn for God and discover grace and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. Too often our churches are content with passive liminoid teaching, keeping people from the risky darkness or confusing exuberance where God is in control and radical change can occur.
There is much written about change: changing oneself, changing others with better communication, changing situations by prayer, but in the end, most people remain basically the same. “Disguise and denial get better,” says Rohr, but truly transformed people are rare. Paul describes radical change in his journey as a believer: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me . . .” (Gal. 2:20).
“Religion . . . acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self . . . it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, and promotes the self. But religion has also served—in a usually very, very small minority—the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it.” (Wilber)
Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Rohr observes that too many are nice, little observant grains of wheat, never to become the bread of Christ. There can be no rebirth without a death. The Gospel paradox is that if one wishes to keep one’s life, one must first lose it or give it away. Only then does the tenacious human ego lose control, essential for liminality.
God can only take control of one’s life when he/she has lost or given up control. One is no longer the same person, having let go of one’s sense of self without knowing what one will be like in the future. Such transformation is most often seen in the midst of some kind of transition or suffering. Suffering should not be sought or manufactured, but on the other hand, neither should it be feared or shunned.
Are you in a liminal place in your life right now? Is your church? Being “in-between” can be very uncomfortable. What is helping you to stay in the liminal space, not denying it, rushing it, covering it up or wishing it away?
This is part two in a three-part series exploring liminality. Read part one here.
- Rohr, Richard, “We Need Transformation, Not False Transcendence.” National Catholic Reporter (Feb. 15, 2002)
- Wilbur, Ken. “A Spirituality That Transforms.” Shambhala Publications, 1997. http://www.newciv.org/ISSS_Primer/seminar.html (accessed July, 2010).