One of the fundamental foundations of good theological education is to understand your students and for most students, this means taking account of their liminality.
The adjective “liminal” comes from the Latin limen which means threshold. It was popularised by Turner in anthropological studies and, from there crept into sociology and then general usage. It signifies a state or position a person is in who has transitioned from a previous state and has not yet fully transitioned to a new state, position or status. In Turner’s words, it is “a mid-point of transition”.
Many of our students are in that position. They are leaving behind something and progressing to something new by their studies. They are liminal people while they are with us and will often look back on their time with us as a turning point in their lives.
It used to be a rare thing for colleges to accept students straight from secondary school but this is more and more common today as accredited degrees are offered. Such students are classic liminal people, no longer school children but not yet what they will be when they finish college or university. Increasingly students also come to us after some years in a job or profession, seeking to be equipped for a new situation, position or way of serving God. These are more settled in their life but are also liminal.
What are the usual characteristics of liminal people?
Firstly, liminal people experience excitement but often also emotional insecurity. The excitement is palpable at the beginning of a new year in most colleges. However, for our students it is not just that the past is receding (often with as much sense of loss as excitement), but even more, that the future after college is uncertain in many cases. Thresholds create insecurity which needs plenty of understanding, gentleness, acceptance, advice and mentoring
Secondly, liminal people are in a difficult position socially. As our students transition between patterns of biblical teaching usually found in our churches to a deeper and more thoughtful engagement with scripture, for instance; or as they transition from a church situation which generally lumps together the fundamental and the secondary issues of faith and practice, without distinction between the resurrection and a particular set of beliefs about ministry, for instance; they have to manage a continuing allegiance to what was before alongside the new attitudes, and struggle to continue a sense of belonging.
Thirdly, liminal people are especially open to intellectual newness. Just as refugees or economic migrants to cities are initially more open to the Christian Gospel, so our liminal students are often intellectually open, looking for new holds on reality, new patterns of thinking and living, new heroes, (although some remain closed). Our responsibility to such students is as immense as the opportunity they afford. We need to help them understand what is happening to them, to be careful, bold and pastoral with the truth, to be the example of the end of their transition -especially if that transition is into ministry.
Fundamentally, it is a theological opportunity we are faced with in all this. In their liminal state, we must help students construct a theology that helps them understand their faith, holds their allegiance to the Church, creates an intellectual pattern for their future life and guides them as they re-construct how to live, think, laugh and cry, and serve God in the exciting and new future they anticipate.