I have a real post coming soon, because we have had a lot of fun stuff going recently, and plenty of pictures, but in the meantime, until I have a chance to properly write something, here's a little paper I did for my class entitled "Anthropological Issues in Theology." It's a synthesis of a book entitled The Ritual Process, written by an anthropologist named Victor Turner. Maybe it just proves that I'm boring, but this stuff really interests me, especially as a member of a religious community, since religious life is often seen as having something of the character of permanent liminality about it. Liminality, by the way, comes from the Latin limen, "threshold," and implies being outside of the social conventions of class and gender and hierarchy roles that exist in every culture, like being a "tweenager" -- neither child nor adult. Anyway, read it and sleep...
Turner spends a great deal of energy in The Ritual Process discussing the notion of liminality, including its occurrence in rites de passage, following van Gennep’s three-stage outline of separation, margin (i.e. liminality), and aggregation. He links the formation of communitas with liminality while attempting to analyze the peculiar phenomenon of socially marginal groups holding considerable sacral power.
Turner’s discussion of liminality has numerous connections to the notion of the regressus ad uterum discussed by Mircea Eliade: “The return to the womb is signified either by the neophyte’s seclusion in a hut, or by his being symbolically swallowed by a monster, or by his entering a sacred identified with the uterus of Mother Earth.” (Myth 80) Eliade then goes on to discuss the Indian upanayama ceremony, in which “the teacher is said to transform the boy into an embryo and to keep him in his belly for three nights,” (Myth 80) which symbolizes not only a return to the womb, but to the womb of a ‘male mother,’ an initiatory holy person who, holding together male and female, becomes “undifferentiated” and therefore himself a liminal figure.
In Turner’s words, “liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” (Turner 95) Ritualized encounters with death in the belly of the beast typically enact rebirth as well, so that, “The initiatory cabin represents not only the belly of the devouring monster but also the womb.” (Birth 36) Anthropologist Martin Buss points out that the prophet or shaman in aboriginal cultures is typically a socially marginal person, and that such cultures watch their children for signs of such marginality, and are able to steer them toward shamanistic vocations. The unconventional figure might stand outside conventional gender roles: he/she may be homosexual or androgynous (which some Native American cultures see as “two-souled” and thus super-spiritual), or a celibate or eunuch. The shamanistic figure might be both haunted and gifted psychologically, which might lead to or flow from extended solitude or meditative distance which would lend itself to alternative modes of seeing reality. The possibility of physical handicap, especially blindness, also has a long history in the mythic tradition: the blind one is the one who truly sees, who is not confounded by the illusions of the senses, such as Tiresias, Oedipus, or the Stygian Witches. Eliade says by way of example, “In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude, becomes absent-minded, loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings in his sleep.” (Birth 87) He then goes on to elucidate:
"the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis so deep that it sometimes borders on madness…
The total crisis of the future shaman, sometimes leading to complete disintegration of the personality and to madness, can be valuated…as a symbolic return to the precosmogonic Chaos…Now, as we know, for archaic and traditional cultures, a symbolic return to Chaos is equivalent to preparing a new Creation." (Birth 89)
This is in line with Jung’s statement that “the experience of the Self [that is, the true self] is always a defeat for the ego [that is, for the false self].” Although they are on different ends of a spectrum of “impressiveness,” to encounter one’s true naked and humble reality or to encounter the Numinous cuts the legs out from under the ego in favor of a more honest appropriation of who one truly is. The distance and social margination of which Eliade writes enables identification with the socially marginal or the ritually unclean, which then engenders critique of the religious symbol-structure itself, since the religion all too often enables and validates the purity code. As Turner puts it, “The shaman or prophet assumes a statusless status, external to the secular social structure, which gives him the right to criticize all structure-bound personae in terms of a moral order binding on all, and also to mediate between all segments or components of the structured system.” (Turner 128)
Turner says, “if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.” (Turner 167) This has important implications for the concept of prophecy understood in keeping with Walter Brueggemann’s image of prophecy as a poetic imaginative rendering of alternative possibilities for the world beyond the data on the ground at any given moment. That is, the world need not be as it is, should not be as it is, particularly for those who are ground under the wheels of the machinery of social control; societas devoid of communitas is a structure devoid of humanity.
Nevertheless, for it to endure, the communitas must undergo some kind of structuring. “Nowhere has this institutionalization of liminality been more clearly marked and defined than in the monastic and mendicant states in the great world religions.” (Turner 107) Both are meant to be states of “permanent liminality,” despite the never-ending sine wave of renewal and decline that inevitably accompanies them. Thomas Merton taps into this idea of “deliberate irrelevance” in his image of monastic renewal: “Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being…The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life.” (Cunningham 227) The categories of people whom Merton linked to monks all stand outside of the conventions of the social order, have nothing left to prove, no claims to be made on their behalf by the structure of their culture. Similarly, Turner discusses the original communitas of Francis of Assisi and its later codification, pointing out that “Francis appears quite deliberately to be compelling the friars to inhabit the fringes and interstices of the social structure of his time, and to keep them in a permanently liminal state, where, so the argument in this book would suggest, the optimal conditions inhere for the realization of communitas.” (Turner 145)
Turner, discussing the nature of liminality, anticipates the later insights of René Girard on the paradoxical power of the seemingly powerless, those who seem to be below the system of social stratification but who nevertheless wield power over it. Often liminal persons and groups are at once despised and honored, seen as both powerful in their ability to pollute and reviled for being beneath the system. Speaking of the Greek figure of the pharmakos, Girard says, “On the one hand, he is a woebegone figure, an object of scorn who is also weighed down with guilt…On the other hand, we find him surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration; he has become a sort of cult object.” (Violence 95)
In Turner’s mind this is because “from the perspectival viewpoint of those concerned with the maintenance of ‘structure,’ all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions.” (Turner 109) I would argue that, since the structure does not work for marginal people, they tend to create their own social organization, which necessarily takes the form of communitas, i.e., is egalitarian and generally dismissive of the distinctions such as property rights that enable structure to thrive. However, this non-structure is inherently subversive to the structure that says that existence apart from the structure is impossible, and so must be seen as poisonous to the health of the structure. Speaking of the “undifferentiated character of liminality,” (Turner 104) Turner comes very close to Girard’s view that liminality is dangerous to structure because it undermines “the very foundation of cultural order, the family and the hierarchical differences without which there would be no social order.” (Scapegoat 15) This would make sense in connection with the standard practices of allowing or forcing liminal people to transgress the usual conventions of the culture – initiates are sometimes allowed great sexual freedom or allowed to dress in clothing inappropriate to their gender and state of life, go about naked, or remain in solitude.
Paradoxically, this dangerous nature of communitas is also “almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,’ possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency.” (Turner 128) This, again, links with Girard’s notion that “the sacred embraces all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace.” (Violence 58) Hardly a predictable definition by our Christian standards, but interestingly in line with the imagery of the sacred-as-taboo (such as the prohibition against touching Mount Sinai in EX 19:12-3 because of its sacred character – “those zones of life that are inhabited by Yahweh in an intense way must be kept pure and uncontaminated.” (Brueggemann 192)) Turner and Girard both discuss how initiates into rites de passage “are kept on the periphery of the community or sometimes even exiled to the forest, jungle, or desert.” (Violence 282) However, Turner focuses on the goal of initiatory ordeals as “partly a destruction of the previous status [which, following Eliade, is essential for the rebirth of a new status] and partly a tempering of their essence in order to prepare them to cope with their new responsibilities and restrain them in advance from abusing their new privileges.” (Turner 103) Girard, on the other hand, claims that they “give the young person a foretaste of what lies in store for anyone rash enough to neglect or transgress prescribed religious rituals,” (Violence 285) that is, anyone who challenges the status quo of the structure.
Walter Brueggemann’s notion of Israel’s emergence from the hegemony of Pharaoh takes the shape of a new social phenomenon defined by communitas, in contradistinction to the faceless structure of Egypt, with the structure of the Decalogue defined precisely as a way to avoid Israel becoming that which it sought to escape. In this vein, following Turner’s insight that “it is the fate of all spontaneous communitas in history to undergo what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law,” (Turner 132) the prophetic tradition in Israel emerges as the structure of kingship begins to look more and more like that of Pharaoh, and the prophets oppose the kings as Moses did, with summons back to the communitas of covenant. Similarly, the monastic orders have been repeatedly reformed because of their ability to move away from the limen to the center of society, and the mendicant movements that emerged in response to the loss of liminality in the church quickly assimilated to the same kind of power and wealth against which they rebelled. Turner wants to hold structure and communitas in tension, and sees that tension as critical to sustaining the existence of a society while not sacrificing the esprit that makes it a community.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess, 1997.
Buss, Martin J. “An Anthropological Perspective Upon Prophetic Call Narratives.” Semeia 21
Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1958.
---. Myth and Reality. NY: Harper and Row, 1963.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
---. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.