Liminal Spaces

I am intrigued by the notion of liminal spaces. The transitional places, the spaces in between where we think we have been and where we believe (hope?) we are going. And it strikes me that at any given time, we tend to conceptualise ourselves as either occupying a particular space, or as moving between two permanent states. British philosopher, Alan Watts, wrote: “We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infintesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”


This idea of our occupying liminal spaces impacts powerfully on how we give meaning to life. Wandering, as we are, in this in-between, we invariably tie happiness either to a past that is irretrievably lost or to a future that we hope will be unencumbered by the baggage of the loss we now feel. The liminal space is always a state of deficit. And so we doom ourselves to restless dissatisfaction and quiet desperation. We cannot find satisfaction in the Now.


But as I reflect on this, I am not sure there are any liminal spaces. There are no permanent states that we move between; we are – whether individually or as communities – always in a state of flux. We are not human beings, we are human becomings. But constant change is hard to make sense of. We need stability, and so we impose stories onto the chaos to help us make sense of it.


We are, research would suggest, narrative beings. We make sense of ourselves through stories. Culture, for example, and religion, are grand narratives that help us make sense of the flux, and we locate ourselves as players within those grand narratives. We identify what we think are the parts we are to play, and measure our performances in accordance with the dictates of those imagined roles. We are more or less constantly aware – on some level – of the metanarratives that we believe give shape to our lives. We seldom make important decisions without some sense of what we believe the storyline to be, and how our decisions align with it. And this influences how we experience time. Our Pasts are always constructions of our minds. We select events to store in our memories, and we plaster them over with feeling: we paint them in regret, or wash them in guilt, or strip them of all negativity and varnish them in glossy idealism. We never remember things as they were, only as we felt them; we know them according to the significance we believe they hold in the light of the greater story. The Future, on the other end of the linear time spectrum, is also a construction of our minds, a state for which we constantly long, in which the regret and the guilt and the loss we feel now have been eased, eradicated even. Our happily ever after. It is an horizon towards which we sail expectantly, but which moves further away as we move. towards it. Life will be okay once the weekend comes, once the holidays arrive, once we get a new job, earn more money, overcome an illness, find a new partner, emigrate, retire. We place our hopes for happiness in a future that in all likelihood will never come.


But the truth is that the only reality we have is Now. The past is unchangeable, the future beyond our control. The only power we have is in how we relate Now. But, even then, we cannot help but view this Now through the tainted lenses of our past and future constructs. And these, in turn, are framed within the metanarratives we have hooked them on. Even the Now, it seems, is irredeemable.


Here is another reason that I love Jesus. A bit left-field, I know, but a reason – among many – nonetheless. I love Jesus because I think he tries to shift us beyond the metanarratives, beyond the borders of our stories – bound as they are in false promises of permanence – and into the Now. He teaches that the only way to anything higher (and it is a Now higher, not an idealised future) is through love. “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Light”, Jesus is famously quoted, “Nobody comes to the Father but by me”. I do not believe that Jesus was thinking about comparative faith systems when he made that claim. I do not think he was talking about creeds, and rituals and beliefs. I think he was making the profound point (among many others) that we cannot transcend the baser parts of our humanity, we cannot escape the traps of the “Past” and the “Future”, unless we live out of self-giving love. Only love can transform and transcend the loss implicit in the liminal space of the Now because only love can transform relationships.


The truth that Jesus offers is that any of the idealised futures to which we believe we are moving, by whichever individual paths we choose, will always be realisable only if we prioritise loving one another as the overarching value. Love, as a guiding value, is superlative for a number of reasons. First, it recognises the primacy of relationships to human experience. It recognises that if “I” am to find any sort of fulfilment, “we” must find it too. It concedes that the alternative, where “I” find fulfilment but “we” does not, will result – without fail – in exploitation, injustice, prejudice, colonialism, abuse – systemic violence. Because love values the health of the relationship first, not merely the individuals in relationship, it refuses problematic power relationships: it can abide neither abusing others nor being abused.


Powerfully, love operates in the Now. It is capable of completely ignoring the vice-like grip that the Past has on us, which all too often distorts how we choose to act in the now because of the influence we believe it has on our choices, because love erases power (and the things that the Past that we let control us – like shame or guilt or regret – are functions of problematic power-relationships). It is immune to the Future too, because there are no negative consequences to a mutually loving relationship, and it thus drives out fear. Love is the most beautiful expression we can give to our actions Now, and thus must lead to the most abundant way we can live each moment.


The only thing that matters – the only thing that has ever mattered – in terms of quality of life, is loving relatedness. Not moral purity, not group identity, not material wealth. And we have always known this, I contend: love has been the overarching theme of our literature and art for thousands of years. All that Jesus does is suggest that since we all share the planet, perhaps we ought to consider the benefits of extending that loving relatedness to everyone. Imagine how that would transform your daily experiences, and thus both your memories, and your expectations of the Future.


That, I suspect, is what makes being Christian – and by that I mean actually attempting to follow the teachings of Jesus, as opposed to simply subscribing to a version of the many creeds that bear his name – so difficult. It is less terrifying to follow a script we have grown familiar with, to ignore the inconsistencies in a story handed to us, than to recognise that there is no one story. It is far easier to buy into a holiness code and practice a prescribed set of rituals, with their false sense of permanence and security, than to yield to the uncertain immediacy of loving. I promise you, I get it. Love (the self-sacrificing, all-forgiving, having-the-courage-to-value-the-relationship-and-doing-what-it-takes-to-restore-it kind of love) sometimes seems to be simply too big a risk to take. But I am starting to understand something important: faith is not a destination, faith is a journey. And it is not an intellectual journey either (although that is part of it); it is a journey of being. More accurately, of being-with. We have always treated faith as a sort of liminal space, a transitional space between two worlds. But what if faith simply is understanding what it means to live, Now?

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