Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.
If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.
It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.
The 2000 movie Cast Away is all about liminal space.
In the closing scenes, the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, of whom some of you may have heard, finds himself at a crossroads with new possibilities for his future life–and perhaps love–before him. In his prior life he had been a fast-rising executive with a major international corporation, summoned away from his family–on Christmas eve, no less–to assist with solving a problem overseas. The plane carrying him and his team crashed in the middle of the Pacific and left him stranded on a desert island. He was the lone survivor. For four years he survived, utilizing items found in the wreckage of his plane and on the island. Finally he was rescued and returned home, only to find that his entire world–career, family, relationships–had long since given him up for dead and moved on without him. There was now no possibility of him going back to his prior life and picking up where he left off. After taking care of one last item of business from his prior life–returning a now-undeliverable package that he had salvaged from the wreckage of his plane to its sender at a home out in the country–he meets a woman in a pickup who, it is hinted, may offer direction for his life going forward.
“Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. Liminal space, then, is the space between who you once were and who you are becoming. We are changing, others around us are changing, the world itself is changing.
Some of you may be going through, or emerging from, seasons of life marked by disorientation and disruption resulting from loss: Loss of job. Loss of health via illness or injury. Loss of loved ones via death or divorce. Loss of opportunity for romantic connection.
Some of you may have seen your prospects move the other way via good fortune: You got accepted to your dream school. You got the scholarship. You got the job. You got the promotion. He asked you out. He proposed. She said yes. You’re having a baby.
Some of you are just having to deal with the natural life changes that are part and parcel of growing up and/or growing older, facing new roles and dealing with new realities. You’re at school and away from home for the first time in your life. You’re out on your own and having to pay bills now. The kids have grown up and moved out. Your body is changing, your metabolism isn’t what it was back when you were in college, gray hair is starting to come in, and you’ve got these new aches and/or pains that won’t go away.
Some of you have seen changes in the world around you, changes in yourself, perhaps both, and are coming to the realization that you just don’t fit in anymore. Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and now no longer Christian (by his own admission), is a prime example of this. In the process of working through misgivings he had lately begun to have about his work, he came to a place where he could no longer consider himself a Christian by any of the measures he had used up to that point. For my own part, I am struggling to hold on to faith despite the immense changes in myself and in the evangelical world around me which lead me to believe that I don’t quite fit in anymore. I am unsure at this point what I am becoming or what a life of faith will look like for me moving forward.
The ending of Cast Away is a tidy, emotionally satisfying ending, just what one would expect in a Hollywood movie, yet with just enough ambiguity to be at least somewhat believable in real life. But real life is not like a Hollywood movie. You can’t count on receiving a sign to foreshadow the way forward.
Herein lies one of the greatest shortcomings of evangelical spirituality. In the evangelical world, the path of spiritual formation is one-dimensional: Read your Bible. Pray. Attend church regularly. Get involved and serve. Share your faith with those around you (the word commonly used in many parts of evangelicalism is “witnessing”). Pursue personal holiness: that is, avoid sins and cultivate good habits. Not that these aren’t good things to be doing in and of themselves–they are–yet this program is typically presented as a one-size-fits-all garment that will stretch to fit anyone of any size and any shape, apply in any imaginable circumstance, and equip one to face any conceivable challenge.
When life’s changes are acknowledged, too often spiritual leaders create the expectation that the Christian life is a journey with recognizable landmarks and that perceptible, measurable progress is to be expected. This expectation is all over the place in evangelicalism. Mission statements of many evangelical churches are quite clear in that they expect certain marks and measurements of growth to be evident in the lives of their members.
Real life is not that simple. I’m sure we all, on some level at least, know better than that. I wonder how many of us would be honest enough to stand up in our congregations and say something to the effect of “I see myself at a crossroads out in the middle of nowhere, with all roads stretching equally to the horizon, and no signs or landmarks anywhere indicating which is the way forward”?
Allow me to close with a quote from Richard Rohr:
…Where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…
…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.