by Marc Lalonde
On Thursday morning, January 28, Concordia University Professor Emeritus of Religion Charles Davis died in his Edinburgh home at the age of 75. His passing constitutes a great loss to Concordia, the Department of Religion, and to the Canadian academic community as a whole, for Charles Davis was a highly distinguished scholar and writer, and he was my teacher, mentor, and friend.
Davis came to Concordia University in 1970, after founding the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. During his 20 years of tenure at Concordia, he served as chair of the Department of Religion (1971-79), principal of Lonergan University College (1978-91), published seven books and countless articles, and was a recipient of the prestigious Killam Research Fellowship (1981-83). In short, Davis was a dedicated academic whose critical acumen, sharp discernment, and sense of fairness informed all his activities both within and outside the University.
As notable as his record is at Concordia, there are countless people throughout the world who will remember Davis as the priest- theologian who left the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church at the height of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
At that time, Davis was certainly the most important theologian in Great Britain. His many books and articles dealt clearly with the complex doctrinal and liturgical issues commanding the attention of many Catholics concerned with the progress of reform in the Church. Indeed, having served as a theological expert at the Council, he was looked to by thousands as a force for prudent, sensible change. It is for this reason that his dec ision to leave the priesthood and the Church came as a huge shock, sparking off a fury of public debate, as well as a good deal of popular speculation.
So why did Davis leave the Church? I almost hesitate to say. I know that Charles had become extremely tired of dealing with the issue. On the event of a book launch in Cambridge for his last work, Religion and the Making of Society (1994), the media were eager for a replay
Charles, however, was anxious to discuss his recent work, to inform the British public about his current theological concerns, to encourage his lost readership to take up the challenge of his more mature reflections. Unfortunately, the past got in the way. That need not be the case for us.
In his groundbreaking work, A Question of Conscience (1967), Davis claims that he left the Church because he felt that its rigid social structure and closed attitude contradicted the dynamic drive and openness of genuine religious faith, the kind of faith that compels fresh inquiry and the development of new perspectives.
To me, it is entirely evident that while teaching at Concordia, Davis produced his most challenging and erudite books. During this period, for instance, he began to investigate the critical social theory of the Frankfurt School and Jürgen Habermas. Indeed, Davis's efforts here produced one of the most sophisticated appropriations of critical theory within contemporary religious thought.
The insight and creativity exhibited by Davis as he endeavoured to think through the critical potential of the religious in a secular context compels further study.
Such critical openness is a difficult thing to achieve, as Charles Davis learned in 1965. However, his boundless integrity, courage and faith carried him through to the point where the man and his work fused to produce a challenging and exciting body of research. Thankfully, that is what we remember, and that is how Charles would have liked it.
Marc Lalonde is a Professor of Religion, a Fellow of the Liberal Arts College, and the editor of The Promise of Critical Theology: Essays in Honour of Charles Davis (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995). We extend our condolences to Dr. Davis's wife, Florence, and their grown children, Claire and Anthony.