Some of you know that I have delved into liminal studies for many years. In fact, my doctoral work centered on this and a second edition of Liminal Reality and Transformational Power has just been published (Lutterworth Press, 2016). I’ve been invited to Leicester, England next May to present on liminality at a conference.
What is liminality? It is the state of being between what is known and the unknown that is yet to appear. When we cross the liminal threshold we leave the assumed structure of our lives and enter a territory that lacks all the familiar coordinates. We are “inbetween” and all the balls are in the air.
Liminality comes in many forms, some voluntary and some not. Various cultural “rites of passage” are voluntary and prescribed – the tribe escorts the individual or group through a transitional passage as they move from one state of being to another. Rites and rituals accompany these passages and the society is often involved in the process of transformation.
There are also involuntary times of liminality that crash upon us through calamity or dramatic unanticipated shifts in the world. The twin towers come crashing down, or my marriage, or my health. An unanticipated accident changes my life forever. I am plunged into a foggy “no man’s land” in which the past is gone and I can’t see a future. I become a liminal person in liminal space.
It is also the case that entire families, groups and even nations enter such times. We call this social liminality. A recent example is the shock and disbelief that many in the UK felt when the seemingly impossible BREXIT occurred. The people as a whole were escorted involuntarily into the domain of uncertainty.
As of November 8, 2016, the United States has been swimming in a new liminal domain. With a highly unanticipated election outcome our society has, by and large, entered into a whole new liminal space. People find themselves without anchor and are filled with uncertainty or dread. There are several factors that have created the dramatic liminal domain, conditions more dramatic than the typical transitions affiliated with an election.
Throughout history large systems have passed through times of transition in which the energy and form of those systems eventually give way. When that happens many of the old familiar structures dissolve and even disappear. At the least they are reformed and that change takes place in the midst of great uncertainty. It does not yet appear what we shall become.
This election – and developments several years preceding it – has led to the dismantling of assumed structures, like the dominance of existing parties and presumed leaders. Mavericks and outsiders often appear in liminal times and that adds to the consternation of the people. It is also a sign of the dramatic shift that has taken place.
The rapid ascendancy of President Elect Donald Trump fits this pattern to a tee. When the collapse begins it is often a very rapid one. Once it happens and all those balls are in the air many things shift. People become anxious and afraid
Liminality simultaneously contains great danger and vast opportunities for hope and transformation. It is dangerous because the old familiar structures are not present to reassure everyone that life is safe and predictable. A dramatic unbuckling may lead to a positive transformation or its opposite. Much is at stake when many of the structural rules have been suspended.
On the other hand, liminal reality allows for a new time of creativity and transformation. Depending on the “ritual leadership” – those who are able to lead through the wilderness – the trek may lead to new and unforeseen ways of being. That is exactly what the supporters of Donald Trump have been banking on. Whether that happens is yet to be seen but at a minimum this liminal moment will not resemble anything that has preceded it.
Quite apart from any of our personal takes on the character, policies or style of leadership of any elected leader, the liminal domain and passage is fraught with potential. However dangerous it is, there is a new opportunity to discover and create a new way forward. One does not dispose of principle, values or spiritual foundations to do so. Those become more important than ever. In fact, they are clarified in the liminal domain. Much is revealed in the struggle to transform. The essence of the Constitution, for instance, will become more important than ever before. But the ways that we evolve as a people will require experimentation, novelty and creativity. Old alliances will be reconsidered. New ways of accomplishing cherished values will be attempted. Some things will disappear.
This is the danger and promise of the liminality through which we are now passing. The initial disorientation will last for about six weeks or so – forty days, the Biblical symbol of liminal transformation. As a part of it we should expect disruption of the familiar. And we who rely on deep spiritual foundations will turn to those even more. We are needed now more than ever before. Our people need our calm, forthright and hopeful presence as we remain a light in the darkness, a city on a hill, a lamp on the lamp stand, and leaven in the lump.