What on earth is liminality?

My friend, Simon Jones, gave me a copy of Alan Roxburgh’s book Leadership and Liminality. My first task was to work out what on earth liminality is. I may blog some more on this excellent book – but here’s what I’ve discovered about the title!

Liminality is a state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different places. It can used about a rite of passage, which involves some change to the participants, especially their social status. People in a liminal state disappear from society for such a rite of passage.

The liminal state is characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. It is a time when the sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behaviour are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives.

When used about the church, it refers to the transformation in western society as a result of which the church has become largely invisible to the wider society.

Before the 1900, the church had been for centuries the central religious and moral role model in society. Even during the early 20th century, as the church became more marginalised, it still performed a spiritual and therapeutic role.

Roxburgh suggests that liminality is much more than the church being marginalised in favour of other social structures. The world of late modernity is a de-centred world, and for Christians it is no longer our world. It is a flux of ever-shifting and competing forces within the culture. In complex societies such as ours there is no longer a coherent ‘centre’. So it is not that something else has replaced the church at the centre of society. Everyone and everything is on the margin because there is no centre.

For Roxburgh, few in the church have come to terms with how far this process has gone. The Christendom phase of history in the Western world is over; we may now find ourselves back in the liminal role experienced by the pre-Constantine Church.

Roxburgh says that the urge is for the church to try and return to the former certainties of ‘Egypt’! But that re-entry into the lost world of pre-20th century is impossible; the door is firmly closed.

However, Israel’s wilderness experiences can be a paradigm for the kind of benefit that this liminal places can be for the church. In both Hosea and Exodus the desert is the place where Israel enters her most profound reshaping experiences of God. In the desert, the potential for a new future is forged. God promises Israel that through the process of wilderness cleansing she will become a new people.

So that’s liminality, I think!

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