By Dr. Kathy Maxwell
Increasingly, I find that students think of their time at a university as a time “between”. They are between adolescence and adulthood. Between secondary education and career. Between living with parents and starting their own families. They have just enough responsibility, moving into a dormitory, but not quite the responsibility of paying a mortgage.
Perhaps one of the most significant elements of this time between is the formation of students’ spirituality. I teach at a Protestant liberal arts university in the United States, in West Palm Beach, Florida. Many of our students come from Christian backgrounds, though their commitment to faith traditions vary. They find themselves “between” the faith of their parents and a carefully considered faith of their own.
As an instructor of biblical studies courses, I often find that even students who have been in worshipping communities their whole lives read the Bible for the first time in college. For many, this is a life-giving experience. Students find points of unexpected connection and direction from scripture that they thought they knew inside and out. Other times, though, students struggle with reconciling past perceptions of “what the Bible says” with a close reading of the text. Suddenly, they learn that there are two creation accounts sitting side by side in Genesis 1 and 2, that David’s character was far from untarnished, and that the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) is not included in the most ancient manuscripts of John’s gospel. In addition to new factual information about the Bible, students also begin to learn the art of interpretation and the challenge – and gift – of critical reading of scripture. For many, the university classroom is the first time they are invited to think critically about the Bible and matters of faith, and this can be a daunting task.
I recently came across the emerging field of liminal theology, which, as described by Jonathan Best, “explores God’s work within the transitional and in-between” (https://liminaltheology.org/whatisliminaltheology/). This theological project calls to mind literary insights of Umberto Eco, Wolfgang Iser, and others, who propose that literature’s meaning is found not in the text and not in the reader, but in the gap – the “in-between-ness” – between the two. In settings that prioritize the objective and the “right” answers, this liminal space is a problem to be solved. We do not want to be in-between; we want to arrive at one place, or another.
Yet being students of ancient texts invites us into many in-between spaces. While an undergraduate student, I learned in a missiology class the term “third culture”, which refers to children of missionaries. The child’s family originated in one culture, but the child grew up in a different culture. When returning to her family’s culture of origin, the child finds that she is not fully a member of one culture or the other – her culture is at the intersection of the two. We find ourselves at a similar intersection when experiencing the biblical text. As 21st century readers of ancient text, we are in-between time, culture, and language. We necessarily read from our own position, simultaneously valuing the ancient horizon of the text. Our experience of Christian scripture is in-between in terms of media: compositions originally experienced orally come to us most often in the form of printed texts. Paul Ricoeur’s work delves into the process of moving from speech to text, but what happens when we move in the other direction? When we take printed (and translated) forms of ancient oral compositions and put the words back into our mouths and ears and bodies, we have entered another space of transition. The questions suddenly multiply. What tone did Jesus use when addressing the Syrophonecian Woman (Mark 7:27)? What gesture did Paul use when wishing that the false teachers in Galatia would be “cut off” (Gal. 5:12)? How do we tell the story of the whispers that follow Naomi when she returns to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19)?
Far from being problems to overcome, each of these liminal experiences is a challenge – and an opportunity.
But standing in this intersection can be disorienting, especially if we assumed that everything was situated along one straight, well-defined path. Modern sensibilities in western society have taught us to prefer such a path and to move from point A to point B efficiently. Yet the application of critical thinking to matters of faith disrupts linear, measurable movement. Questions often evolve into doubt, even rejection of faith. Those who have nurtured students’ faith are understandably alarmed by this development, and the natural reaction is to limit these questions.
Last year, I encountered a student in the midst of struggling with her faith and in particular, with Christian scripture. She was angry and felt betrayed by those who had assured her of “what the Bible says”. As a senior in college, she was for the first time reading the Bible for herself, and much of what she read did not seem to match what she had been taught. After reading the Bible carefully, she decided that she could no longer identify with the Christian faith.
We connected rather randomly when I was a guest lecture for a colleague’s class, and I had the privilege of meeting weekly with this student during her last semester. We didn’t really have a goal, but each week, the student came with lists of questions. We talked about reading Scripture in context. The polyphonic voice of Scripture. How to ask constructive questions about the Bible and faith. After a couple of months, the student found a church home and a community that supported her exploration. By the time she graduated, she had recommitted herself to faith – though she still wrestles with it, and she is committed to a close reading of Scripture – even when it is hard.
When students begin to question their faith, those who care for them worry. But questions are a necessary part of the process of growing into faith, and with support, one emerges with a stronger and more reasoned faith – one that she can call her own. As a faculty member, students have taught me the value of the in-between-ness. Through honest questions and challenging perspectives, I have learned to honor the reality that there are often more questions than answers.
Rainer Marie Rilke challenges us in Letters to a Young Poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Dr. Kathy Maxwell is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where she teaches New Testament. Her current research focuses on rhetorical and performance criticism of the Bible. She is fascinated by the transformative power of engaged storytelling and is a certified storyteller through the Network of Biblical Storytellers, Int.