29 June 2008

Liminoid? Shared Liminality?

From We need transformation, not false transcendence

I am convinced that without experiences of liminal space (that place where all transformation happens), there is no truthful perspective on life. Without truthful perspective, there is neither gratitude nor any abiding confidence. It is precisely this deep gratitude and unfounded confidence that I see most lacking in our people today, even the people of the church. It makes me wonder whether we are doing our job. We are not being initiated into the mysteries.

Victor Turner, in his classic study of initiation, The Ritual Process, says that some kind of “shared liminality” is necessary to create what he calls communitas, or what I would call church. Communitas in a spiritual sense does not come from manufactured celebrations or events. Haven’t we all tried that? It is forgotten the next day or even the next hour. It depends on artificial stimulants of food, drink, music, shared common space and energy. It is really lovely and probably necessary, but it does not transform. It merely sustains, and it is often unfortunately diversionary from the deeper task.

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.

Why don’t we have much communitas on the other side of the pool?

Maybe because there is no drowning pool to sacralize our drowning experiences, and there hasn’t been for centuries. Why is it that we experience both liminality and communitas much more in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, in places like Ground Zero, in people like cancer survivors, than we do in most churches? Why is it that church people by and large mirror the larger population on almost all counts (and this can be statistically verified) except that they happen to self-identify as Christians?

With some grand exceptions, of course, I would have to say that we are not a genuine alternative to mass consciousness. On the whole, we tend to be just as materialistic, just as warlike, just as individualistic, just as protective of power, prestige and possessions as everyone else. We pray together on Sunday mornings, and most of us do have several moral stands through which we define ourselves. They are not necessarily the moral stands of Jesus, however. For example, Jesus never mentioned issues like abortion, birth control, or homosexuality, but he made an awful lot of simplicity of lifestyle, status reversal and open table fellowship. Really quite amazing.

Not bad, just dangerous
At the risk of being unfair and even making some enemies, I am going to say that much of the church I have experienced in my 58 years of life and 31 years as a priest is much more “liminoid” than liminal. 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.” And, of course, God is so humble and well practiced that God will use all of these things to bring us to Beloved Union. As I keep saying, these things are not bad, just dangerous and highly productive of delusion. In the world of the Spirit, the real sins are usually quite subtle. The devil is used to dressing in clothes that draw no attention to himself or herself, and if the clothes do, they usually impress us.

Join the conversation. Comment below.
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969).

link to illustration by Stephen Foster

1 comment:

Nige said...

Just found your blog.
I so relate to this one. I remember being in Bible College and appreciating the real discussions with classmates after class instead of attending the organized "chapel" time. After 8 years overseas in a more communal society I struggle with the falseness of "greeting times" at "church" and the lack of real community, despite many efforts to join a small group. I have been challenged by the statement "don't look 4 community: make community wherever you are". But sometimes it would be great to just join one.