Nothing Propinques Like Propinquity

Way back in 1983, six people met to study together.  The Christian Praxis Group still meets, almost 40 years later.  I was one of those 6 and we still meet 2-4 times a year.  Four of us have stood the test of time.  One died, one retired through ill-health and one new person joined.

I’d like to share three words and one phrase that have been formative for the group.  Let’s start with the obvious one – Praxis!

We had all experienced the study year with the Urban Theology Unit (UTU) in Sheffield, UK.  M and R the year before me, H and MV during mine and D the year after me.  We were inspired by Liberation Theology or for inner-city Britain, contextual theology. 

The word Praxis can be found in the Bible, “Preaxeis ton Agion Apostolon”, The Acts of the Holy Apostles.  But some people trace it through Liberation Theology to Marxist economic theory.  As far as I can tell, it was an idea borrowed by Marx, not his invention.

So, what does it mean?  It refers to the cycle of action and reflection.  It’s been widely adopted by churches, who complicate it and call it the Pastoral Cycle.  I once sat in a conference workshop with several theological college principles.  I expressed the view that if you could pass an exam in it, it means you don’t understand it.  Praxis is something you do and reflect upon.  It’s for life, not college.  They were not impressed but not as much as I was not impressed!

Soon after we started R, our resident classical scholar, introduced the idea of anthropagogy.  There’s no point looking it up because R coined it.  I’m sure all my readers have heard of pedagogy.  Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is a famous use of it.  This is the teaching of children.  Adult learning is usually called andragogy.  Which is OK except that the root andre, means adult male.  Hence R, substituted anthropos, which means adult human being.

This was not merely an attempt to be inclusive.  As we discussed anthropagogy over a few years, we saw it implies something more.  A completely different approach to education.  The best analogy is to the distinction between an orchestra and a jazz ensemble.  The orchestra follows written music, led by a conductor.  A small group of jazz players, follow each other’s leads. 

Over the years, I used participative methods in my community development work.  These methods allow participants to fully take part, working on a local problem.    In no small part, this includes tying up the leaders to create a space in which participants can work stuff out together, without someone telling them their definitive answer.

I honour this approach through the name of my business, Market Together.  I’m hopeful to find ways businesses collaborate in their marketing.  This is not so radical as it sounds, businesses help each other all the time, they know collaboration is far more fruitful than competition. 

R explains some aspect of New Testament Greek each time we meet.  One time we discussed exousian, a word usually translated as authority.  “(Jesus) taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes”, Mark 1:22.  This shows how translations mislead generations.  The English word authority implies wisdom handed down from on high, pretty much how the scribes taught.  The Greek word, according to R, literally means “from the belly”.  It encourages us to see teaching engaged with reality and makes no claim to be of God.  The point is, we see the world through reality and not by laying claim to truths handed down by the God we imagine to exist.

These three words: praxis, anthropagogy, exousian together make up my worldview – we meet reality when we work together, by trial and error, to work out what’s really happening.

And then M said the words “Nothing propinques like propinquity.”  We discussed this phrase over several meetings, trying to grasp what he was saying.  The phrase comes from a chapter heading in Ian Fleming’s “Diamonds are Forever”.  It took me a while to realise that propinquity is a real word! Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.  Nothing’s as close as closeness.  Nope, doesn’t really help.

Eventually, M heaved one of his deepest sighs, frustrated at our lack of insight.  He adopted his most pedagogical stance.  “It doesn’t matter what propinquity means”, he explained.  “Nothing X’s like X.”  Nope. 

Exasperated, he said, look the only definition of poverty that works, is that poor people are poor.  It isn’t true that specific ethnic minorities are poor.  Yes, some are more likely to be poor than others but when we talk about neighbourhoods, we need to look at who is disadvantaged.  When we slice the poor into ethnic or other groups we drive wedges between them, divide and rule.

I get it now.  M was spot on.  I have seen neighbourhoods divided into warring factions all competing for the same pots of money, to tackle the same problems for their specific group.  The only certainty in these circumstances is that the disadvantaged do not benefit.

It’s a great privilege to have such long standing friends, who can and do tell me when I’m talking rubbish.  We solitaries need support too.

Day 14/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: A Question of Sport. Next: How I won the Napoleonic Wars!

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Mark Woodhead - February 17, 2020 Reply

Hi Chris,
I think Fleming spelt it ‘propinks’. So it seems that I will go down in history for my borrowings from Fleming.


Chris - February 17, 2020 Reply

That’s right, I think he did. I looked it up online and the spelling was “propinks”. (Interesting that a chapter heading from a novel should be so easy to find.) I deliberately changed the spelling so that it was closer to “propinquity”. I thought this would be less confusing. Probably wrong.

By the way, this is a first draft for my talk for UTU study year in May.

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