The Power of Liminal Spaces In Changing Times

Column by Kaitlin Curtice on 5 December 2019 0 Comments

I was thinking recently about how much I loved getting my hair cut growing up. If I became bored with something in my life, I chose a new style. If I felt like I needed to express myself in a new way, I decided to get bangs, or chop all my hair off, or try something completely new. My hair was a part of me that could shift and change as I shifted and changed. My hair, in a way, was the space where I asked questions and took chances, when I couldn’t do that in other realms of my life.

I grew up in the conservative southern Baptist tradition, in a conservative town, where, even at the public school, there were rules based on Christian principles. Girls couldn’t wear tank tops with straps less than two inches , or shorts and skirts above the knee, so the evangelical purity movement was alive and well in all realms of life. Even though I followed all the rules, I expressed myself through my fashion sense, through my hair, and through the music I listened to and wrote.

I pushed the boundary only as far as I felt comfortable without crossing a line, and I found that creativity was an outlet, a safe space for me to be exactly who I am as a beloved person.

I’m not southern Baptist anymore, and would loosely call myself a Christian. And today, while I still have an eclectic style and love of music, I’ve found that the power of words and identity are also ways of expression, especially coming out of a religion that does not greatly value either one when they belong to women.

I write as an act of resistance.
I identify myself as a Potawatomi woman within the church as an act of resistance.
This means that I live in a lot of gray areas.

Many of us who grew up in fundamental spaces were taught to live in dualities: black and white, in and out, saved and unsaved. In those spaces, there isn’t liminality. There aren’t many safe spaces to ask really hard questions, to show anger toward injustice, or even to grieve when we need to grieve. We are taught to brush it off, smile, move on, trust God, and believe.

But the cost of those dualities is our identities. The cost is the identity of a gender non-binary or trans person who can’t fully, safely live into who they are. The cost is a sense of self-love for a mixed-ethnicity or bi-racial person who is made to feel ashamed of who they are. The cost is young girls and women expressing themselves only within the boundaries of patriarchal relationships and marriages. The cost is disabled people being told they don’t belong and they aren’t enough.

Can we create spaces that are not built by those dualities, but built in the liminal spaces, where we gather to ask questions, to lean into difficult conversations with grace and truth-telling?

I’ve been thinking lately about Bob Dylan’s song The Times, They Are A-Changin’.  Written in the 1960s, this song was an anthem during a hard time in America. It pointed to injustice and called all people into the work of doing what is right, of not being silent, of using whatever gifts they had to create change and foster wholeness.

This particular line speaks to me:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again

As a writer who often criticizes the church and the false and harmful narratives America has told for generations, I live in a space that is difficult to inhabit sometimes. But I know I am not alone, and I stand alongside others who are asking hard questions. I am standing in a lineage of people, in Dylan’s generation and before, who are pointing to change that is coming, whether we are ready for it or not.

When we do not know where to go from here, we can look to our children. Another line in Dylan’s song says this:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’

I am a mother of two children, and so much of my own religious deconstruction has happened because they challenge me daily to ask hard questions about the God I grew up with and the God I now know and the God that I will learn about tomorrow. Because our children are the future, we ask hard questions now for them and because of them, and we allow them to ask their own questions. We listen to their wisdom and learn from their passionate way of loving the world.

This is where so much of the American white church has fallen short. This is why there are studies, books and conferences about why the younger generations aren’t interested in worship and are abandoning the faith of their parents and grandparents. My generation, millennials, are considered lazy and anti-religion because we are naming our own trauma and working to dismantle institutions that have traumatized us.

If we are trapped in a religion or spirituality that doesn’t allow us to ask questions, those questions either die (and our souls die along with them) or we begin to break out of those toxic boxes. Sometimes we leave religion altogether, and sometimes we stay, always pushing for things to change, for equity, for justice. We do it for the sake of our own wellness. We do it for the sake of future generations.

And what waits on the other side, in the liminality, is more questions, more unknowing, more mystery. For many, it’s scary there. We try to force answers. We hate the process.

But the young ones lead us. Their dreams carry us forward. Their persistence and passion create a path where we didn’t see one before.

We are all, always, changing, and accepting that truth is the beginning of everything.

Today, while I’m not getting haircuts to express who I am on a regular basis, I am using words to guide me, to lead me, to push those boundaries and show me what the next step might be. For now, that is enough. For now, I know that no matter what changes are coming, I am not alone in this work.

~ Kaitlin Curtice



Would you comment from your Christian perspective on the Buddhist assertion that we have no separate self or separate existence because we cannot understand who we are without understanding who we aren't, and our separate existence is known only because of everything we are? Is the sense of self an illusion?


Dear John,

First, I should say that although I have studied some dimensions of Buddhism, I am not deeply enough conversant with Buddhist understandings of self to offer a cogent counterpoint of Christian and Buddhist views.

I wrote a book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?), and as I explain there, I tend to agree with John Cobb, who says that different religions are "incommensurable." In other words, different religions are not saying different things about the same thing, or the same thing about the same thing. Rather, having developed in different contexts, they're different research projects, so to speak, saying different things about different things.

They each have their own unique backstory and are addressing problems and challenges unique to their own contexts. That doesn't mean they have nothing to say to one another, but it does suggest that it is best to try to approach each religion as its own language or its own world, and to try to enter it and understand it from the inside, rather than thinking that one can understand one religion fully when operating within the mind and assumptions of another religion.

Having said that, I do recall a story told about the Buddha that relates directly to your question. I found the story here (
When Vacchagotta the wanderer asked him point-blank whether or not there is a self, the Buddha remained silent, which means that the question has no helpful answer. As he later explained to Ananda, to respond either yes or no to this question would be to side with opposite extremes of wrong view (Samyutta Nikaya 44.10). Some have argued that the Buddha didn’t answer with “no” because Vacchagotta wouldn’t have understood the answer. But there’s another passage where the Buddha advises all the monks to avoid getting involved in questions such as “What am I?” “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” because they lead to answers like “I have a self” and “I have no self,” both of which are a “thicket of views, a writhing of views, a contortion of views” that get in the way of awakening (Majjhima Nikaya 2).

I take the Buddha's guidance to heart. Rather than speculate about whether a separate self exists, I would say that if a self exists, in a truly Christian understanding, it cannot be separate. That's because every person, along with every other creature and reality, lives within the love and attention and presence of God. In God and in God's love, each thing is connected to all other things. This, I think, is what Paul is pointing to in Romans 14:7 where he says no person lives to himself or herself alone, and no person dies to himself or herself alone.

This, I think, comes close to the concept of inter-being that many Buddhist teachers explain. The self-ness of a sentient being doesn't require it to be separate. The selfness of one can inter-be with the selfness of another. This is what love, communion, and unity are about. Howard Thurman spoke of this when he said: Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.

Here, I think, the Christian teaching of the Trinity also can be helpful. I don't bring in the Trinity as an exclusive and coercive dogma, but as a healing teaching in the Christian tradition that suggests that in the One-ness of God, there is harmonious otherness. There is a Fatherness, we might say, that includes but doesn't absorb and eradicate Son-ness, and a Son-ness that includes but doesn't absorb or eradicate Spiritness, and so on. The threeness of the Trinity is diversity-in-unity or unity-in-diversity. In other words, in God, there is not oneness that opposes otherness, nor is there otherness that violates one-ness. Rather, in God there is infinite one-anotherness. Dynamic relational harmony is what God is, or as John puts it, "God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). In this sense, Paul can quote (Acts 17:28) an ancient poet, "In God we live and move and have our being." Our self can exist within God, without separation, and yet without a hostile takeover or absorption.

In short then, we might say that in a Christian framework (I say "a" rather than "the," because there are many viewpoints in Christian communities), the separate self is an illusion, or better put, a delusion. We often promote this delusion because it gives us permission to be selfish, arrogant, bigoted, egotistical, even narcissistic. The Christian self is a relational self, a self that seeks to love one's neighbor as oneself, because God loves both myself and my neighbor's self without discrimination.

When this insight goes beyond a notion that one sees and actually becomes the way one sees, that, I believe, is at the heart of the Christian mystical experience. There is no separation, no condemnation, no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, no clean or unclean, but God becomes all in all. God is all because I see all in love, and God is in all, because the love and presence of God fill without obliterating. We might say the fullness of God doesn't replace, but rather fulfills the self. The self, whatever it is, is a bush that burns with the fire of God but is not consumed.

Thank you for your question.

~ Brian McLaren




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