Combat or Humility in Multifaith Liminality? John W. Morehead

John M. Morehead is the Director of Multifaith Matters and He is the co-editor and contributing author for A Charitable Orthopathy: Christian Perspectives on Emotions in Multifaith Engagement, and Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, and the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue.

In this liminal month I thought I would take the occasion to write about opportunities we have for reflection on how many Christians enter the space between their congregations and the sacred spaces of others. Unfortunately, some of the more insightful lessons come by way of questionable forms of liminal multifaith encounter. I will address two of them in the Christian encounter with Latter-day Saints and Pagans.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known popularly as the Mormons, is a faith where ethics, ritual, and performance are especially significant. Although Christians usually focus on their doctrine, and where they diverge from historic orthodoxy, this is not the heartbeat of their lived religion. One of the more important aspects has been pageantry. When I first arrived in Utah in 2005 a friend of mine took me to the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti. This annual event was held for two weeks and drew an average of 15,000 people each night. The pageant used drama, costumes, and spectacle to tell the story of the experiences of their founding prophet, Joseph Smith; the story of the Book of Mormon, one of their books of scripture; and the exodus of Mormon pioneers in their westward trek. This was a faith-promoting event, but just outside the temple grounds where the pageant was held, Christian apologists and would-be evangelists stood shouting Bible verses, holding up signs demeaning Joseph Smith, and calling Mormons to repentance from their “cult.” I was struck by the pageant, both in its artistry and what it meant to Mormons, as well as by the confrontational methods of the Christians. Many times, the feelings stirred up by the evangelists would lead to shouting and threats of violence, sometimes requiring police intervention.

Although the LDS Church no longer puts on such pageants, other religious groups pursue their own sacred expressions in public space. One such example is WitchsFest USA held in New York’s West Village during the summer. Pagans don’t meet in buildings and formal houses of worship, and instead gather outdoors in order to pursue their spirituality and build community. The Pagans weren’t alone. Some thirty “street preachers” were there, holding up signs and preaching “sermons” with heated rhetoric through bullhorns. This clash was picked up in an article in Religion New Service where the festival’s organizer, RavenHawk, is quoted as saying that the preachers “aren’t just protesting. They are collectively at war with us.”    

These examples aren’t the only ways Christians are entering liminal spaces and engaging religious others, but they are far too common. And in the American context of post-Trumpian, Christian nationalist polarization such militant engagement may happen even more frequently than in the past.

In this season of liminality, as we reflect on what it means to enter the liminal space with others, we have to ask whether the Christlike way of cruciform humility is best embodied through combative boundary maintenance and heresy hunting under the guise of gospel proclamation, or whether we and the other would be better served in liminality as a way of encounter, learning, and mutual transformation.

The Bones of Liminality – Lisa Withrow

Lisa Withrow

Lisa Withrow is a Gestalt and Positive Intelligence coach, leadership consultant, and researcher-writer in the area of liminality and conflict. She has published 5 books and contributed to 6 others.

Waiting. In-between space can be chaotic, serene, frenzied, calm, anxiety-producing, hope-filled, or perhaps all of the above. Underlying each of these characteristics is the foundational waiting, no matter how active the transitional times. What will be on the other side of this threshold? Who will I be when we get there? How long does this transition TAKE?

Liminal space is especially difficult during the decline of a loved one’s health. At this writing, my father is lying in a bed in a hospice house, angry to be dying too soon after 81 years of health and vitality and until very recently, being mistaken for a 60-year-old. Now at 82, he looks 150, a skeleton with skin stretched over his bones except for swollen belly and feet. Nothing wrong with his brain.

The nurse called today. Time to gather loved ones, it won’t be long now. Waiting for four months since the prognosis is about to end. Dad is still angry, but sleeping more as his limbs turn blue and his breath shallows.

Meanwhile, his liminality is mine. Tears dripping down my face, I rush to make sure financial and property affairs are in order, family members are informed, and house is cared for, all at a distance, pseudo-calmly reassuring Dad that he has nothing to worry about. Chaotic, frenzied, anxiety-producing behavior as I walk alongside Dad in the dying process keeps me less prone to lying in bed miserably myself.

And yet there are tiny moments of calm, and certainly anticipation of slowing down when the threshold time is over. What will be on the other side of this threshold?  Who will I be when we get there? I have some inklings about the emerging future feeling a bit empty and busy and final, with an accompanying sense that I did all that I could to make this liminal passage as smooth as possible for my cheated-out-of-years father.

Waiting through the dying days—the ultimate liminal space. Such a space provides deep perspective about what matters and what can be set aside. Movement through it gets right down into the bones and skin, into the belly and feet. With no reliable muscle to push through, the pace is dictated by the frame and spirit. Basic. No frills. Life and death dance with each other, one leading, then changing places with the other. Light in the eyes sparkles, dulls, sparkles, dulls. The inner spirit prepares for flight, practicing good-bye and hello, moving in the dance until the dance is over, in this space anyway. I don’t know what the other side of his threshold looks like – but his will be different, as will mine. Who will I be?  A woman with a mother and a brother, deep friendships, and another new acquaintance: Absence.

Waiting for Absence. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. I have a few friends named Absence. There will be more gathering in my lifetime.  Each one has her or his own character, and each one has acquired a familiar feel now. Welcome to my own dance: Absence and Presence. Some call it Circle of Life, I call it Liminal Dance. We’re in the dance together and alone, with its harsh beauty and its potent ugliness. We live the paradox.

Grateful for our Dance. Serenity. Calm. Hope.

Peace.

Addendum: Absence is now Present. My father suffers no more, but those in the aftermath do. The dance continues, with mystical presence instead of body. One day at a time.

Grateful for our Dance. Serenity. Calm. Hope.

Peace.

Almost but not Quite – Nita Gilger

Nita Gilger

Nita Gilger is the minister for congregational care at University Christian Church, Ft. Worth, Texas, and a frequent contributor to Open Horizons Magazine for Process Theology.

It was not finished but it floated. It was almost ready but not quite. I had offered to help sand and put on the last coat of epoxy on this treasured wood strip canoe that my husband was building in our garage. It was a nice day. The wind had died down a bit and was a good time to put the final touches on.  My boat buddy was so very close to finishing this masterpiece.  I mean really! A couple of coats, the outside gunnels, seats, and a few other things like brass guards on the bow and stern etc. and it would be complete. But to my great surprise, in came my master boat builder to announce he was taking the canoe down to the boat ramp in our neighborhood to test it out in the lake. Seriously? It was SOOO close to being done, completely protected, and ready for launch.  What of all the talk of a launch party and the building excitement of seeing that first moment when this work of art touched the water for the very first time? Why change the plan now?

When I was asked for my help to lift the canoe to the top of our ATV so it could be tied down for the move to the water, I was resistant.  I wanted to argue and advise but I knew that would not be a welcomed or accepted approach from me. So, I gutted it up and sealed my lips and helped secure the canoe to take to the lakeshore. Initially, I decided not to go to the water. I just knew this was a bad idea and I did not want to witness the impending possible difficulties.  I stayed home for a while but eventually decided I should go check.  When I got to the water’s edge, this is what I saw.  I witnessed my husband gently rowing the canoe around the slough and beaming happily at his great success.  It turns out he was testing to check the balance and maneuverability before installing the seats and other components.  There was a method to this madness and a scientific quest to make proper adjustments and decisions.  No harm was done to the canoe or the canoer.  Both were sea worthy and all was well. My angst was completely unnecessary and wasted effort.  There was merit and purpose in the testing time of the canoe’s in-between state. In short, I learned that I need to be more careful of assigning judgment to things I don’t understand.

Now, the canoe is back in the garage awaiting the final finishing touches.  We are almost there, but not quite.  The word quite has to do with degree.  It can mean to the greatest extent; a little; moderately but not very; or it can mean very, totally or completely.  For instance, I could say my husband was quite right to make this decision. Or I could say, it seemed to me the canoe was not quite ready.  English words are so confusing, aren’t they? 

Life is full of ‘not quite moments’– those ‘almost there’ kind of moments.  Such was the case for the canoe builder who was quite right to test out the canoe.  I thought it was too soon; too risky; and unwise but it turns out I was wrong and too hesitant. The master craftsman’s boldness and scientific, artisan’s mind was far more attuned to what was needed than my cautious mind.  I had “the plan” in my mind and now it was all topsy turvy which gave me great pause.

What we choose to do with the ‘almost but not quite moments’ can be somewhat critical in our decision-making and living.  If I push too soon and become impatient, I can make costly mistakes.  If I almost decide but hold back too long, I can miss the mark and certain opportunities.  I hope that I can have the wisdom to do just the right thing but sometimes those best, seemingly right decisions are elusive.  In such times, it behooves me to pray for wisdom, wait, suspend my judgments, and be open to what is possible. In those uncertain, ‘not quite’ times, I would do best to live in expectancy with fewer expectations.  Life can be most instructive during those times.  Much time and hard work has been given to this beautiful wood strip canoe. It is work of art to behold.  In the process of it all, I have seen perseverance, talent, frustration, and waiting periods that tried patience and delayed completion.  But it is worth all the effort. It is creativity and possibility in motion.  It is life.

Veils, Loops and Paradox: The Nature of the Liminal Domain

(This post was first published at TheLiminalityProject.org on June 17, 2020)

While some attempt has been made to describe the experience of liminality, we are often left with a list of what it is not: it is not familiar structure, it is not rational, it is not linear. The ambiguity and confusion we experience in this phase of the passage is often described by contrast, according to what it is not. That is understandable. It is much easier to describe the concrete than the abstract. And yet, a description of the liminal is very often what people desire most.

Before attempting to describe the subjective experience of liminal time and space, I want to have some conversations with a few physicists, mathematicians and philosophers.  If we are going to be talking about the disruption of our familiar order of life, the crossing of a threshold out of structure into antistructure, whether prescribed or imposed upon us, we need to explore the ground we supposedly stand upon.

When the late physicist Bernard d’Espagnat described reality, he spoke in terms of its veiling; ordinary observable reality – let’s call it the realm of Newtonian cause and effect – acts as a surface or veil for what is hidden beneath it.[1] If a theologian were saying the same thing the language might be “things visible and invisible,” a sacramental way of describing reality. Regardless, the reality we perceive is the surface of the pond, not the pond in all its depths.

We suppose this surface to be reliable and solid, something dependable and predictable. And to be sure, it often is. That’s how we can calculate that we are about out of milk, need to make a trip to the store, know a pathway there, remember transactions that will obtain the milk, and return home to drink it. Usually that is the case, but not always.

To make life easier our brains and social structures have created maps of predictability to keep this cause and effect surface easy to navigate. When people deviate from the pattern they are corrected. Mechanisms in our worldview keep the ball bouncing. Until it doesn’t anymore. Then, if we were a quantum physicist and not a Newtonian, we might say that it was only time until the house of cards fell, that we could only maintain this illusion for so long.

That, by the way, is exactly what most of the world religions have said for millennia, that what seems to be real is indeed illusion, that nothing is permanent save what buoys it up from beneath, that there is a difference between the essence of things and the form it takes in history. Or, returning to the physicists, that there is energy on one side of the equation and everything else on the other side.

So, there is only so much that can be known on a plane that is so unpredictable. For example, as every freshman physics major knows from Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle, one cannot know the velocity of a particle and its location as the same time. To know one is to not know the other.

All said differently, a mathematician-philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein would say that there is a difference between a mathematical proposition and reality as it actually is.[2] Propositions only resemble reality to a greater or lesser degree, and in every case, theory is not entirely equivalent to reality. The finitude of the human mind cannot exhaust the complexity and unpredictability of reality.

Though much is known, much more is unknown. And what is known is often the reflection of a surface which conceals more.

Douglas Hofstadter says nearly the same thing about those things which live beneath the surface, but with an intriguing analysis.[3] He says that the mind itself contains an amazing self-referential feedback loop – one that is paralleled by phenomena in the natural world and quantum realm. In his study of the mathematician Gödel, he found something reminiscent of Wittgenstein, namely, an Incompleteness Theorem in which all axioms include undecidable propositions. Neither a system nor absolute boundaries exist, except those which are humanly constructed in order to operate. Like the art of M.C. Escher with its paradoxical patterns, finitude and infinity are allowed to coexist, the known and unknown overlapping in intersecting planes. The loop is created by means of a pattern that has a beginning and an ending, yet no beginning and ending. It is at once finite and infinite.

All of this is to say that what we take for what seems to be obvious structure is but the appearance of the surface. When unveiled the undercroft contains deep patterns which unfold, replicate, and determine the shape of the visible by action of the invisible. What is revealed is an intertwining reality that holds the rational and irrational, finite and infinite, seen and unseen, structural and novel, conscious and unconscious.

Taken together, these insights shape our view of the Rites of Passage, and in particular our perception of the difference between structure and antistructure, the pre-liminal and the liminal.

Because the liminal domain is characterized by the lack of structural foundations we once experienced on the surface, our movement through that space does not follow a linear pathway. The passage is often irrational and populated by strange coordinates, exhibiting paradox, shifting identity, and the fluidity and looping of time itself. The conscious gives way to the unconscious.

By way of encounter with this strange reality beneath the surface a new reality is created. It is not the same as the previous reality, though it may share some of the same previous form. The post-liminal state is shaped by the shattering of illusion, through everything that has been discovered in the liminal dark interval. And so, societies and individuals may be transformed. The spiritual depths inform the material world. Through many veils, loops and paradoxes we have already come. And old worlds die even as new ones are born.

[1] D’Espagnat, Bernard. Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present- Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts

(CRC Press, 2019)

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

[3] Hofstadter, Douglas. I am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2008)