Between the Streams | A Lesson in Liminality from a Walk in the Park

Bear Creek Park is one of my favorite places to walk during our annual visit with family in Denver, CO. It is a little green space that runs along the borders of Bear Creek on the southern border of the city of Denver. I walked the path this morning and, as I came out from under the bridge, I found myself between two streams. I was overwhelmed with a meditation on the liminal space in which I walk, both physically in that moment, and metaphorically in my life journey.

First, let me explain liminality. I first encountered this word in a little book written by Alan Roxburgh at the turn of the century titled “Leadership, Liminality, and the Missional Congregation.” Roxburgh borrows the term liminality, and liminal space, from anthropology. It describes the time between times when boys in aboriginal cultures are taken from the village and into the wilderness to experience their rites of passage. When they return from liminal space they have been changed and are now accepted as men in society. Liminality is the state of being between two places in life and society and all the anxiety that comes with it.

My walk took me through a liminal space. You must enter Bear Creek Park by walking through the back parking lot of a Home Depot where the bike/walking path meets its edge. The path then follows alongside the Bear Creek and under a large bridge. Large concrete letters, in relief against the massive concrete side of the bridge, display “Hampden Ave/285”. A six-lane road looms above your head while the icy mountain stream runs beside you in its shadow.

I walked along this path, as I have many times before, stopping once to take notice of the many orb spider webs spanned across the metal handrail. Then it happened. I emerged from the shadow of the overpass and found myself in a liminal space. On my left, the innumerable cars whizzed past me with the frenetic hum of modern, mobile, suburban life. On my right, the icy, brown waters moved quickly, yet majestically through the winding banks of the creek. How long, I thought, had these waters flowed along these banks? Decades? Centuries? Millenium? The greenspace park spanned far enough on the other side of my view that my horizon could only see river, trees, prairie flora, and the big Colorado sky beyond it. How long, I thought, on the other side, will the ever-increasing pace of mechanistic, technology driven, western culture be able to keep up its pace as it speeds along the highway?

Then there was the middle space. The path I continued to walk along took me through a lovely park. It was filled with people who represented two distinct groups. Many of the people–all of whom were white–whizzed past me on high-tech bicycles, clad in multi-colored spandex and space-travelesque helmets, politely calling out, “passing on your left.” These people represented, in my mind, the typical suburbanite, burning through the greenspace in order to stay fit. Another group/type of people also moved through this middle space. They were obviously of Central American descent. Most of them were picnicking together. They were in familial groups, and seemed to move at a slower pace.

I continued the walk and came to the end of the park. The left turn took me north into a sea of little rambler houses, built in the 1960s, that spread for blocks and blocks across the Denver City landscape. Behind me, to the south, spread an equally expansive sea of houses that sprawled further and further apart as the architecture betrays the decades in which they were built. Bigger homes with bigger yards and increasingly more space spread out exponentially as the southern suburbs lie interwoven with the edge of the Rocky Mountains on the West. Again, I find myself between worlds. The socio-economic strata of the suburbs are evident the further north I walk.

Then there’s me. A foreigner. I traveled 900 miles in a Japanese-made mini-van, on interstate highways that were originally designed to insure rapid military transport in case of a domestic invasion, in order to spend a few days with my wife’s sister’s family, with whom we stay in contact via Facebook and text, but only see physically once a year. What am I doing here? What is my role in this place? What right do I have to construe any thoughts or pass any judgments on the people that walk through this space?

I am a traveler, walking between worlds. The ancient rhythm of the water and trees pulses on my right. The frenetic buzz of modernity speeds past me on the left. Strangers move about within their own stories as I walk along the asphalt bike path, contemplating how all of this fits into what God is doing in the world. I am not just a traveler between worlds in this moment in time and space, but I am one in my theological and ministerial travels as well. I have traversed a small section of the theological landscape. Rooted in Baptistic fundamentalism, emerging into adulthood in the Christian Church/Willow Creek/Mega-church evangelicalism, spreading my wings of independence in an experimental, emergent house church experience, I now find myself in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, studying Missional Leadership with a Roman Catholic advisor steeped in post-positive, constructivist, communicative rationality and pedagogical theories and praxis.

I believe God calls some of us to travel. Some people need to settle and cultivate the land deeply. Others, however, need to be Johnny Appleseed and spread certain ideas across various landscapes. All of us, within the particular creation and journey that God calls us to be, are part of the bigger story that God is eternally unfolding in the dynamic relationality of the Trinity. In one sense, liminal space is the essence of relationality. The three persons are never solidly three distinct persons, nor one solid unified substance. The superposition of the persons of Trinity pulse in the liminal space between each mode of being, simultaneously three and one.

I bring this meditation into conversation with the book The Practice of Communicative Theology that I have been processing for the past few days. Communicative Theology is based upon Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI) which is a multiperspectival practice of groups interaction in which all participants work collaboratively around a theme and learn together. The pedagogical practice stands in contrast to the Modern, positivist, hierarchical practice in which the professionally trained educator transmits information to the passive recipients for the purpose of enabling the passive student to actualize his/her potential and move up the hierarchy of knowledge and power. TCI recognizes that learning happens, not through instrumental reason/action, as represented in the Modern pedagogy, but through, what Jürgen Habermas calls, communicative rationality. It happens through conflict and interaction of the I, the WE, and the IT in the cultural context of the GLOBE. The I is the individual self as it is self-understood, and self-regulated with the context. The WE is the collective identity of the individual I’s that come together to creative a collective identity, even for a temporary moment of the interaction. The IT is the content, or subject matter that comprises the topic around which the group is learning. The IT is a separate entity/face in the conversation as it represents the tradition that has shaped the content, thus contributing to the conversation. It is not a neutral packet of content to be transmitted to the learners. The conversation is centered on a particular theme to which all three faces–I, WE, and IT–can discuss, and even debate, in order to co-create new understanding. All of this takes place within a societial context called the GLOBE.

This communicative process is an image of the Communicative Trinity. God is three persons, eternally relating and creating in the relationality of their being. This is a construct of society that provides hope. The world needs to know that we can have conversations and conflicts over important themes, that do not have to polarize or destroy us, but can bring us, collectively, into something better. This is the hope of communicative theology and the pedagogy that it requires. This is not, however, the common practice of churches. Most people and churches function in the Modern, positivist understanding of theology and pedagogy. I stand between these traditions, trying to discern my own I, as I fit into the WE, trying to discern the IT, in an ever-changing GLOBE.

So I walk in liminality. The creek of God’s eternal otherness majestically moves on my right. The hum and physicality of God’s incarnation in my physical space/time particularity whizzes by me. The connective power of God’s Spirit weaves it all together as we all–the people, the air, sun, grass, trees, animals, and machines–dance our interdependence in this blessed liminal space of becoming and living into God’s preferred and promised future. Here I walk, Deep in the Burbs.