Loosely-Associated Thoughts on Liminality

I’ve been having a bunch of scattered thoughts on the purpose and meaning of ritual and religion in a larger context, but I’m having a difficult time stringing them together. I guess for now, a bulleted list might help me put them in order and expand upon them at a later date.

These thoughts are still being refined. Consider this another “thinking out loud” post.

-Religious ritual is a form of liminality, and the lack of liminality is a hallmark of the modern Anglo-American makeup. This void originates from the High Church/Low Church split that sprang from Calvinism and its eventual integration into the mainstream, and has to do with the Calvinist roots of modernism and the rejection of uncertainty and things deemed “superstitious.” However, because modernism rejects subjective experience and emotion as being superfluous, it also denies the need for liminality, thus leaving a void to be filled by any number of low-quality substitutes such as consumerism, television, team sports, and various strains of secular and religious fanaticism. In no way are these intended as direct substitutes, since that would imply a design that recognized the importance of liminality; they are rather seized upon instictively as substitutes for an ineffable something lost in a past now so distant that we scarcely understand that we have lost anything important. It always struck me, when visiting predominately Catholic countries like Spain, how much public ritual and liminality still play an important part in the lives and minds of the people there. Despite my misgivings about Catholicism as a whole, it does at least offer a degree of liminality that our Anglo-Calvinist milieu is distinctly (and perhaps uniquely) deprived of.

-The liminal act is a vital part of the human experience, and one craved by the human psyche. The exact content and focus of the ritual is less important than the creation of a state of otherness wherein the practitioner of the ritual becomes something other than themselves, or enters a time or space other than their own time or space, or makes use of ritual items which become something other than their actual physical presence (for example, the Wiccan ritual of the Chalice and Blade where a cup and knife become the embodiment of the female and male energies in union). The reason and purpose of liminality has been understood by practitioners of esoteric rites for a very long time but has only recently come to the attention of academia, especially in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology.

-It is crass to compare, for instance, consumerists or sports fans to pilgrims, or cartoon characters, products, and mascots to gods. I have certainly heard sociologists (or at least armchair sociologists who see something of a pattern but cannot clearly interpret it) make the comparison, but it is vitally different. What is missing from these surrogates to ritual is the dimension of liminality, wherein these figures are at least momentarily transformed, in the mind of the practitioner, into something more than what they are. There is no equivalent in modernity to the hunter who dons a buffalo skin to ritually “become” the buffalo, or the bread and wine that ritually “becomes” the body and blood of a Messiah. Indeed, we are encouraged to always observe the unreality of things that are unreal, out of a deep-seated fear of superstition that ultimately goes back to Calvinism and its hatred of both Catholicism and its ritual remnants expressed in Protestantism. Furthermore, the structure of the consumer culture seems designed at times to emphasize and reassure us of the insincerity of it all, because a product mascot cannot, by its very nature, foster the sort of reverence of a religious icon.

-It was inevitable that Calvinism’s relentless push to eliminate superstition through the application of Aristotelian thinking as the chief philosophical underpinning of all critical thought would ultimately result in atheism. The progression from Calvinism to atheism was the inevitable result of Calvinism’s literalism and materialism. However, the Anglo-American cultural milieu has been made deeply schizophrenic by this split between the persistence of earlier, religious forms of Calvinism and the inevitable progression of their ideas to total atheism among those who followed that progression. This phenomenon seems isolated to the West, and concentrated in those countries that embraced Calvinism though not entirely limited to them. Furthermore, the rise of antitheism is a further and inevitable progression of the stark dualism and black-and-white logic that is the highlight of Calvinism, wherein religion becomes the “other” to be feared and denounced as entirely negative just as a Calvinist might fear other religions or even irreligion as the “other.” This split- inevitable as it is- has made the West vulnerable to civil unrest and will inevitably result in a conflict where religion and irreligion will struggle, either by civil or forceful means, for supremacy unless the culture evolves to reconcile this schism, either by the unlikely event of the complete abandonment of either religion or irreligion, or by the introduction and adoption of new, extraneous ideas of nondualism. It is therefore desirous, in the interest of peace and stability, that nondualist thought be brought out of the cloisters of the esoteric and into the public attention as an alternative to the us-versus-them narrative of the Calvinist cultural milieu.

-Liminality is not entirely positive, since it does represent a moment of vulnerability. The practitioner of the liminal act must suspend disbelief for at least the duration of a ritual for the mechanism of liminality to work; however, the total and continual suspension of disbelief is often the result and moreover is potentially damaging when cynical leadership determines when and where the liminal state begins and ends. It is therefore desirous that the restoration of liminality be taught as the choice of the practitioner and not as the prescribed act of a larger body.

-One can understand the mechanics and underlying purpose of liminality without “losing the magic” so to speak. Liminality is not an intellectual process but an emotional one, and one need only be possessed of the ability to enter the correct mood to practice a liminal act in some form.


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