Encountering God in the Liminality of Graduate School, Part 1

I once had a seminary professor who liked to talk about something he called liminality. The term comes from the Latin word limens, which means “threshold.” Liminal space is a place of transition, of waiting and not knowing. People who are in liminal space exist in the threshold between their previous life and a new one. “It is the doorway or portal between statuses,” anthropologist Jack David Eller writes, “the road that links the origin and destination.”[1]

With its years of training and preparation, graduate school can be a kind of extended, self-imposed liminality. One is no longer an undergraduate, but not yet a professional. Liminal existence can be discouraging. Waking up each day without an end in sight can lead to frustration and even shame. You see friends moving on– you feel that your gifts could be put to use in the real world, but you feel trapped in academia. Perhaps you overanalyze whether the many years of education and training are worth it. Would you be better off choosing another career and life path? And if you do continue on your present course, how do you find the strength to persevere? If you struggle with this process, trust God to help you find your way and make it through.

Liminality, while difficult, is not necessarily a bad thing. It can also be a place of transformation. “In a way, the liminal condition is a lowly one,” Eller continues. “In another way, though, it is a sacred condition—special, powerful, and perhaps dangerous.”[2] “This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, Theologian Richard Rohr says, “and a bigger world is revealed.”[3]

Many people in the Bible encountered God when they had left behind one life but not yet moved on to the next. Here are a few examples:

  • Jacob was no longer part of his childhood family, but he did not yet have a family of his own. While fleeing from his brother Esau, he dreamt of a stairway reaching to heaven and cried out “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16b NRSV).
  • When Hagar had been cast out of Abraham’s household, she too encountered God and exclaimed, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Genesis 16:13b)
  • David struggled when he was no longer Israel’s military leader but not yet its king. When King Saul became jealous and wanted to kill him, David wrote: “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” (Psalm 18:6)

In each of these biblical accounts, an outsider encountered God in a liminal place of waiting and seeming abandonment. Perhaps the liminality of graduate school leaves you feeling similarly lost at times. How does one find God in the liminality? One way to start is just being open to God’s wisdom to guide your steps. Along the way, you may discover that God has greater plans for you than you could have imagined—beyond just finishing your dissertation or getting your degree. One of my seminary professors put it this way:

It is more than what you know, what and where you have studied, and what skills you’ve developed. Ministry (doing) flows out of being. Deeper humility also results from finding one’s identity in Christ. Crosscultural servanthood arises out of your very identity in Christ, not your academic training or professional skills.[4]

As an infectious disease physician who completed many years of education and training, I have found myself in that liminal place more than once. My own life choices were influenced by my interactions with God and my life experiences as a medical student in the early 1990s, when I was no longer an undergraduate but not yet a physician. In the next post, I will share some of these experiences.

In Part 2, Scott Santibanez shares some of his own story.


[1] Eller, Jack David. Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate. New York ; London: Routledge, 2007. Accessed 28 April 2017 at: http://www.antropologias.org/files/downloads/2010/08/ELLERJ.D._Introducing-Anthropology-of-religion.pdf

[2] Eller, Introducing Anthropology of Religion, 127.

[3] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation. “Transformation: Week 2 Liminal Space,” Thursday, July 7, 2016. Accessed 28 April 2017 at: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Liminal-Space.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=jd48qU30R0U

[4] Stephen Hoke and William David Taylor, eds., Global Mission Handbook: A Guide for Crosscultural Service (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 40.

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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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