Author Note: This essay will be part of a book currently in-progress. While not necessary, you can read Part I here.

Modernity’s collapse and our collective thrust into the transitional “flux” marking today’s global insecurity surely suggests the need for a serious study of transitions. Navigating unstable times without a sense as to the “why” and “how” of the moment undoubtedly make the present and the future causes for concern and worry rather than causes for hopefulness and opportunity. It’s the feeling that life seems to pass us by without any sense of purpose or direction (or at least one we can decipher with any certainty). Now in the past such concerns might have been alleviated through a collective trust in religion, manifesting in confident assurance that not only does God know the future, but “He” has a plan. Thus, mitigating some of the anxiety that comes from life’s transitional nature (see part I). Government, culture, and a belief in “progress” also helped to form the collective belief that our individual and communal transitions into the future were under control. One could look to religion or history and get a sense of where we’re going based on where we’ve already been, or at least that was the idea. Of course, this doesn’t mean that life didn’t bring feelings of fear, anxiety, and a lack of control (a quick glance at history says otherwise). But today the sources of those fears, anxieties, and feelings of lacking control are strikingly different. Life is infinitely better for a large number of people (but not all) than it was 200 and even 100 years ago. Yet, as stated earlier (see part I) we’re carrying a great deal of fear regarding our transition into the future.[1] Again, this just shouldn’t be the case given the immense advances in science, medicine, communications, and technology over the last century, particularly since World War II. Quite frankly, we’re in a better position to tackle the same global issues that have plagued humanity since the beginning of time. And presumably advances will only improve our ability to handle problems in the future. It leaves me wondering why we aren’t more hopeful about the future.

Pessimism reigns despite all of life’s improvements, and it’s easy to see why. Climate change, inequality, racism, global tension, growing nationalism, unemployment, and a raging pandemic (I’ll stop here for the sake of space) are all pretty good reasons for not being optimistic about the future. These (and many more I haven’t named) are incredibly complex and difficult problems. Many of which may not be solvable in our lifetimes. But again, this doesn’t mean that they’re not solvable. Even climate change, probably the most challenging and frightening of them all, could be slowed and made manageable if the right actions were employed, none of which are beyond our reach to do so immediately.[2] Asking, “Why aren’t we more hopeful about the future?” isn’t to suggest that these aren’t serious problems. Instead, it’s to prompt thought about why we’re pessimistic rather than optimistic when it comes to tackling these issues. Our transition into the future isn’t one of problem solving, it’s a transition explicitly haunted by the thought that such problems will only get worse.

At first glance, naming the reason for our collective nervousness and pessimism seems relatively simple. Frankly, most of us lack the financial means and influence to control our own destinies (at least in a meaningful way). Practically speaking, those in the 99%[3] know that their futures are determined by a host of outside forces (political, financial, natural, etc.) beyond their control. And yet, we also possess immense technological tools that were undreamed of by those living only half a century ago. Thus, the cruel paradox of our time is one where we’ve gained incredible access to powerful technological tools (i.e. the internet and social media), but our individual and collective power has decreased to the point of negligibility.[4] Consequently, it’s not surprising that most of us feel that our individual and collective transitions won’t hold anything to look forward to. Existing problems will only grow worse while new and unforeseen problems lurk just beyond the horizon, waiting to pounce. We’re stuck in-between a “rock and a hard place,” trapped in an inhospitable present and moving toward a frightening future.

However, not all of our fears are justifiable. A growing number of people resist the future and transition out of a perpetual fear of the “other.” Sadly, xenophobia and racism continue to find fertile ground in the United States and beyond, manifesting in the cruelest of ways in politics, economics, culture, and the justice system. The rise of “Trumpism,” growing resentment toward immigrants, and ever-increasing police brutality against black men and women provide ample evidence of major racial and social problems in the United States.[5] This mentality is nowhere more apparent than in the duel mottos, “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great.” Essentially, resist (by any means possible) a changing, transitioning, and more diverse America and return to a “golden age” that looks remarkably “whiter” than it does today.[6] Thus, transition, change, and the uncomfortableness of being in-between (that is between an idealized past and unclear future) drive far too many toward people, policies, and ideals that promise a return to what’s familiar, predictable, and safe. 

To be clear, I don’t have the answers to these problems, nor am I suggesting that such answers are easy to find. They’re not. But in light of global instability, pessimism, and xenophobia, I think a study of transitions, engaging our collective fears and anxiety, is ultimately beneficial. Studying our reactions to transition, searching within the mystery of the flux, and understanding the reasons for our fear of the future and the unknown, could be helpful for dealing with this insecurity and provide good ways of replacing our fear with hope. Simply put, in a world that’s growing increasingly unstable, a better sense of our own indeterminateness, in-betweenness, and transitioning might provide at least a glimmer of hopefulness and openness. The future doesn’t necessarily need to be bleak or hopeless. The in-between, the space we occupy between the present and the future, offers both opportunity and failure. What matters is recognizing the transitions and reacting to them in a way that is positive, constructive, and hopeful. These transitions, at both the individual and communal levels, represent important moments for study, understanding, and clarity as to who we are and what we might become. More importantly, a study of transitions may provide the needed impetus for combating inequality and continuing the work for justice across society. 

Fortunately, we’re not undertaking such a venture from scratch. In fact, there’s already a term that helps to capture these ideas of in-betweenness and transition. The term liminal, first coined by Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957) and further developed by Victor Turner (1920-1983), identifies the middle point of rituals or “rites of passage.”[7] It’s the ambiguous middle stage of a ritual or rite, which is nestled in-between separation (detachment) and restoration (completion). Thus, liminality, ritually speaking, is the second of three phases involving a point of separation from a group or social structure and concluding in a reintegration. The crucial point is that middle portion, where after one passes a threshold (limens in Latin), the ritual participant enters into a place of ambiguity. According to Turner, between a ritual’s beginning and ending is a hard to identify point where those participating are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.”[8] Following a participant’s reintegration with the group, he or she is no longer the same person. The journey through liminality is a transformative one, usually meaning that the participant is now a full member of the community and expected to adhere to certain social and group standards (e.g. initiation rite).    

Liminality has obvious ritualist implications, but beyond that are important social and cultural implications that help to paint a better picture of personal/social thresholds and transitions beyond the overtly ritualistic. For example, Timothy Carson describes this liminal state as a “transitional one, the result of crossing a threshold between location, status, position, mental state, social condition, war and peace, or illness and death.”[9] Such experiences can often be difficult and hard to understand. Carson goes on to describe the liminal experience as

Feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that a metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?[10]

Carson helpfully shows how dramatic and overwhelming the liminal state can be. Outside of the confines of ritual proper (since everydayness carries some ritualistic traits), liminality can be absolutely terrifying in contexts that are unclear, unknown, and undetermined. Meaning that, liminality might feel even more ambiguous, betwixt and between, than it might within clear markers of separation and restoration. Both individually and socially, absence of an obvious threshold marking the beginning of liminality could ultimately result in a transition that feels chaotic, distressing, and hopeless. I like how Michelle Trebilcock describes it, “When there is no demarcation of a pre-liminal and post-liminal experience, there is no journey from one world-of-life to the next, and therefore no progression, no growth, no maturation for the individual in terms of his or her relationships.”[11] Without markers that help to show pre- and post-liminal experience, our own personal growth stagnates and relationships fail to mature. Transition without moving forward means that we’ll never reach that point of reintegration with ourselves and others.

“By replacing fear with opportunity, liminality offers what I think to be a better way of approaching the future.”

Bjørn Thomassen states that “Liminality is both social and personal. Liminality reminds us of the moment we left our parents’ home, that mixture of joy and anxiety, that strange combination of freedom and homelessness; that pleasant but unsettling sensation of infinity and openness of possibilities which—at some moment, sooner or later—will start searching for a new frame to settle within. And if it does not, the void will perpetuate, and anxiety with it. . . . endless liminality.”[12] Carson echoes this sentiment, describing how some suffer from a “permanent liminality” that is forced upon them by “calamity, forced slavery, and prison.”[13] To that list I could add racism, sexism, poverty, and many more examples of a permanent liminality. In that sense liminality doesn’t just become chaotic and hopeless. Liminality becomes injustice.

What I’d like to suggest is a way to understand and reframe liminality as a means of hope and opportunity. That certainly won’t be done easily given the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over our contemporary lives. And yet, it’s this very uncertainty that also offers the openness of promise. Liminality, with markers that help clarify transition and frames to settling within, can be a space for hope and opportunity. One that may or may not materialize, but nevertheless offers a way of moving forward both individually and socially. By replacing fear with opportunity, liminality offers what I think to be a better way of approaching the future.

A lingering question remains, “How can liminality be a space for hope and opportunity when it also feels hopeless and chaotic?” It is of course true that liminality, without markers or frames, can quickly become problematic and even a form of injustice when it’s forced upon others. What’s key here is Turner’s term communitas. This term signifies the deep social bonds that develop between members of a community who are experiencing or have experienced the liminality from a rite of passage. Turner uses the Latin term rather than “community” to signify the importance of the “social relationship” over a common living area. Communitas suggests an important connection occurs through a shared liminal experience, one that bonds the community together in a way that goes beyond simple distinctions between sacred and secular. Turner writes, “It is rather a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society. Liminality implies that the high could not be high unless the low existed, and he who is high must experience what it is like to be low.”[14] Through a shared liminality experience, each individual acquires a better understanding of the other person. The community becomes communitasby living through the same transition, ambiguity, and betweenness. Each individual has a sense of what it’s like to be the other, thus forging an equality not usually found in community. Turner also writes,

Liminality, the optimal setting of communitas relations, and communitas, a spontaneously generated relationship between leveled and equal total and individuated human beings, stripped of structural attributes, together constitute what one might call anti-structure. . . . For its very existence puts all social structural rules in question and suggests new possibilities. Communitas strains toward universalism and openness.[15] 

Turner’s conception of communitas is immensely important for understanding liminality. Communitas forms the basis that prevents liminality from becoming individualistic, unequal, and hopeless. And in some cases, liminality causes involuntary and perpetual liminality when it’s separated from communitas. When separated from a community, and those guides to help demark and frame the process, liminality becomes the cruel form of injustice mentioned earlier. But, with the assistance of an egalitarian community, liminality opens us toward possibility, opportunity, and hope. Thus, liminality and communitas are components of what Turner calls “anti-structure.” Here, anti- doesn’t mean against structure. Rather, anti-structure provides the conditions for what is new to break forth. Where structure creates barriers, anti-structure removes them. Both liminality and communitas define what Turner means by this term. Clarifying his usage of anti-structure, Turner explains,

In liminality, communitas tends to characterize relationships between those jointly undergoing ritual transition. The bonds of communitas are anti-structural in the sense that they are undifferentiated, equalitarian, direct, extant, nonrational, existential, I-Thou (in Feuerbach’s and Buber’s sense) relationships. Communitas is spontaneous, immediate, concrete—it is not shaped by norms, it is not institutionalized, it is not abstract. Communitas differs from the camaraderie found often in everyday life, which, though informal and egalitarian, still falls within the general domain of structure, which may include interaction rituals.[16]      

The beauty of communitas comes from a shared liminal experience, one that opens new possibilities with one another. Birthed from anti-structure, liminality and communitas removes all of the old barriers that used to define us (our prejudices, our fears, our selfishness) and opens us to the real possibility and experience of equality, hope, and love for others. Liminality is that journey from ambiguity, being betwixt and between, and moving toward the loving embrace of others. The fear that so defined us before the journey is remade into love.

“Liminality, understood as a space of hope, also brings forth new and exciting connections for understanding the human condition and the social bonds urgently needing healing and repair.”

In a world marked by seemingly uncontrollable transitions, the importance of communitas is as evident as ever. Particularly so during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a fear for one’s health and the health of loved ones, rising unemployment and financial concerns, and uncertainty regarding institutions that were stable in the past such as schools, colleges, and universities. Young people increasingly face a future that appears to be less prosperous than it was for their parents and grandparents,[17] thus forcing many to return home in numbers not seen since the Great Depression.[18] Covid-19 has also brought to light systemic racial issues that continue to make the future uncertain for Black Americans.[19] In response to such liminal experiences, every effort should be made to not only understand these experiences, but also foster and develop the communitas necessary to help navigate and emerge from this liminality with better communal bonds, strong support, new opportunities, and a renewed hope in the future. Such transitional experiences should nurture a “community of the in-between, a connection that transcends any former distinctions between status and station created by social structure.”[20] Shared liminal experiences become the new cultivating space for a new hopeful future together. Thus, our reaction to transition shouldn’t be one of fear, isolation, and xenophobia. Such reactions only break down communal bonds and renew perpetual liminality on others, namely immigrants, minorities, and the poor.

Liminality, understood as a space of hope, also brings forth new and exciting connections for understanding the human condition and the social bonds urgently needing healing and repair. As I see it, liminality leads us to a number of important postmodern, sociological, and theological viewpoints. And as we move forward, we’ll explore these in-depth and how they might help to foster communitas. More importantly, a study of liminality is vitally important for today’s world, one caught within the flux of confusion, anxiety, and despair. Liminality, in connection with communitas, provides an important means for navigating a world that’s seemingly in constant transition and ambiguity. Therefore, this study will be a search for liminality, building communitas, and healing the deep hopelessness, fears, and hatreds that seem to define the transitional and liminal experiences of today.

[To be continued in Part III: Liminality and Postmodernity]


[1] See Kim Parker, Rich Morin, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts,” Pew Research Center, March 21, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/03/21/public-sees-an-america-in-decline-on-many-fronts/; see Kim Parker, Rich Morin, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “America in 2050,” Pew Research Center, March 21, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/03/21/america-in-2050/.

[2] See U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions,” https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/28/; NASA, “Responding to Climate Change,” https://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/; and NASA, “Is it too late to prevent climate change?” https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/16/is-it-too-late-to-prevent-climate-change/

[3] Brian Stelter, “Camps Are Cleared, but ‘99 Percent’ Still Occupies the Lexicon,” New York Times, November 30, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/us/we-are-the-99-percent-joins-the-cultural-and-political-lexicon.html

[4] Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595

[5] Drew Desilver, Michael Lipka, and Dalia Fahmy, “10 things we know about race and policing in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, June 3, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/03/10-things-we-know-about-race-and-policing-in-the-u-s/ and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, Pew Research Center, April 9, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/.

[6] Hua Hsu, “The End of White America?,” The Atlantic, January/February 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/01/the-end-of-white-america/307208/

[7] Victor Turner, “Liminality and Communitias,” in The Ritual Process (New York: Routledge, 2017). Cited from Foundations in Ritual Studies: A Reader for Students of Christian Worship, ed. Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh (London: SPCK, 2007), 74.

[8] Turner, “Liminality and Communitias,” 74.

[9] Timothy Carson, “Neither Here nor There,” in Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality, ed. Timothy Carson (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2019),3.

[10] Carson, “Neither Here nor There,” 6.

[11] Michelle Trebilcock, “Hope in a Dark Passage,” in Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality, ed. Timothy Carson (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2019), 62.

[12] Bjørn Thomassen, Liminality and the Modern: Living Through the In-Between (New York: Routledge, 2018), 4. Italics mine.

[13] Carson, “Neither Here nor There,” 10.

[14] Turner, “Liminality and Communitias,” 76.

[15] Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), 202.

[16] Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, 274.

[17] Annie Lowrey, “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance,” The Atlantic, April 13, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/millennials-are-new-lost-generation/609832/; See also Joe Myers, “Millennials Will Be the First Generation to Earn Less Than Their Parents,” World Economic Forum, July 19, 2016,  https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/07/millennials-will-be-the-first-generation-to-earn-less-than-their-parents/

[18] Richard Fry, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’vera Cohn, “A majority of young adults in the U.S. live with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression,” Pew Research Center, September 4, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/04/a-majority-of-young-adults-in-the-u-s-live-with-their-parents-for-the-first-time-since-the-great-depression/; See also the effects on immigrants, Rakesh Kochhar, “Hispanic women, immigrants, young adults, those with less education hit hardest by COVID-19 job losses,” Pew Research Center, June 9, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/09/hispanic-women-immigrants-young-adults-those-with-less-education-hit-hardest-by-covid-19-job-losses/

[19] Shayanne Gal, Andy Kiersz, Michelle Mark, Ruobing Su, and Marguerite Ward, “26 Simple Charts to Show Friends and Family Who Aren’t Convinced Racism is Still a Problem in America,” https://www.businessinsider.com/us-systemic-racism-in-charts-graphs-data-2020-6

[20] Carson, “Neither Here nor There,” 5.

Featured Photo by Alexis Fauvet, additional photos by Ahmed Hasan, and Jonatan Pie. All on Unsplash

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