loren Eric Swanson: Liminality

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Liminality...it's a word I had not heard of before. I read it last year in a book called Mission After Christendom by David Smith. Smith borrows the word from Alan Roxburgh's The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality. Its a word that social anthropologists use "to explain the process by means of which people in traditional societies make the transition from one stage of life to another...the experience of being between statuses, neither one thing nor the other, a kind of limbo which is prfoundly disorienting and troubling. People in a limina stage...feel as though the are being ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew" (Smith p. 33) To describe liminality, Smith cites the time of the Babylonian captivity as a liminal state for Israel. What used to work, no longer works but what will work has not yet been discovered. "We too face a point at which God appears to be terminating our known world and inviting us to a new world in which the true nature of the church and its mission can be recovered" (Smith p. 35). Smith says we are in such a liminal state--between the dominance of the christendom at the center during the modern era and the yet-to-be-discovered patterns of the faith in the post-modern world. "...it is not surprising that our present experience involves real mental and spiritual anguish, but the analogy also suggests that it is precisely in the acceptance oand embrace of such painful dislocations that we may discover a new world gifted to us by the one who miraculously turns endings into surprise beginnings." Don't you just love that quote?

This morning I was reading Psalm 89. It was written by Ethan the Ezrahite. I think this was his "one hit wonder" but he does express the confusion of liminality. The first 37 verses are all about God's character, covenant and promises. Ethan knows the Scriptures. But the rest of the passage is about his current experience that is so different from what used to work. Of course this leads to questioning God. How can it not? What worked so well in the past no longer works...but God is still at work. How many times have we felt the same way when our world is rocked and God who once seemed so close, now feels so far away? What used to work in the past no longer works. This is when we need hope.

Smith points out that the "pre-exilic prophets prepared the way for the ending of the known world, seeking ot enable people to accept the loss of what had become familiar and beloved as being within the divine purpose, while those who preached during and after the exile summoned their hearers to receive with thankfulness the new world which God was bringing into being. As a result, on the one side of this great hisotorical chasm the dominant note is a harsh one since the prophetic message deals primarily with judgement, destruction and loss. By contrast, on the other side of the cataclysm the prophetic tone is very different. With Zion a smoking fuin and a bewildered and lamenting remnant living as strangters in a land with a brilliant and powerful culture which owed nothing to their faith in Yahweh, the urgent and despaerate need was for a new word of comfort and renewed vision and hope"(Smith, p.35)

The benefit of living in liminality, when what works has not yet been revealed, is that we have the opportunity to help shape that future.


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