Christians in Practice?
David Primrose is Director of Transforming Communities in the Diocese of Lichfield, and a member of our Reference Group. Here, he writes about some of the key concepts that led him to collaborate on Christians in Practice.
Peter Davies is Professor of Education Policy Research at Birmingham University. He has done innovative work with Ray Land and Jan Meyer on threshold concepts. Threshold concepts are ‘troublesome knowledge”, disturbing comfortable ways of thinking, and ushering in different ways of understanding the world. There is often a transitional state, a liminal phase, before new opportunities emerge. During this process of transformation, disparate aspects of knowledge achieve a measure of integration. The change is irreversible, even if recourse to early forms of understanding may occur when we return to situations reminiscent of our past, are under stress, or are operating at a superficial level. Threshold concepts are ideas central to any academic discipline which, until one ‘gets’ them, constrain understanding and learning. When a person grasps a threshold concept, then disparate areas of knowledge come together, and whole new areas of learning open up. For example, mathematics was my favourite study at school. I remember the excitement when mysteries such as binary counting, irrational numbers and calculus became clear. Once understood, these threshold concepts became embedded in one’s thinking, clashing with and replacing earlier thought patterns. Threshold concepts are a form of proactive knowledge, in that we seek opportunities to apply them in practice.
I had an hour with Peter to think through what the threshold concepts might be for my engagement with Christians in Practice. One suggestion is hope. It is often necessary to indicate the particular meaning given to words which are in common circulation. Hope, here, refers to the belief that life can be better. Hope is based in faith not in facts, enabling us to look beyond our current experience. Hope implies action in that any change in understanding that does not lead to a change in response is illusory. Faith without works is dead. Hope is my first threshold concept.
My second suggestion may be contentious. An asset-based approach to community development is, for me, transformative. I have come to that conclusion over several years, whilst my colleague, James, seems to have had that understanding for most of his adult life. There is a pressure to “do good” to those less well-of than oneself. This approach, even with the refinement of robust needs-analysis, perpetuates a power imbalance between those who are labelled strong or weak, healthy or sick, competent or feckless, and donors or recipients. An asset-based approach has opened up, for me, a whole range of new understanding regarding agency, personhood, dignity and empowerment.
Threshold concepts can challenge contemporary culture. We are obsessed with independence, which condemns people to isolation and loneliness. Interdependence is my third threshold concept, the recognition that we come to life as we live with others. “I am not who I think I am, I’m not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am.” Humanity flourishes in community, and so much of my work sees each person within multiple networks of relationships.
Charity which begins at home can end there. Pro-social behaviour can be reduced to ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. There is a gospel imperative to overcome all limits upon God’s love. A universal inclusivity is my fourth threshold concept that forbids closure on the overflowing of grace. My connectedness is not just with everyone everywhere, it is extends to generations to come. It is with not just all of humanity, but with the whole of creation.
I would add one more threshold concept that underpins my practice. Vulnerability is a state imbued with fear. Yet it is only when we are able to inhabit that state of vulnerability, that we discover the potential for transformation. The story of Jesus epitomises life through death, strength through weakness, redemption through betrayal.
I am aware, within myself, of primitive thinking that pre-dates such understandings of hope, asset-based community development, interdependence, inclusivity and vulnerability. I can still revert to instinctive responses of despair, needs-analyses, independence, limitations and defensiveness. My personal and professional commitment is to maintain this set of threshold concepts, and to behave in accordance with this understanding.