THESE two books, fruits of the pandemic, flow from the pens of two self-proclaimed “old men”. Into his ninth decade, John D. Davies has the edge in this regard: in his words, “This book is a pensioner’s signing off.” Mario Aguilar’s status as an older man, in contrast, needs to be appreciated in the context of the writing.
Both are firmly and uncompromisingly grounded in an understanding that the gospel message should be one that liberates, and that the business of theology is about discernment and doing, not intellectualisation.
Drawing on his experience as an RAF fitter, Davies sees theology as connecting faith to the nuts and bolts of our earthly life. As a result, Seven Days to Freedom is a highly accessible, well-written work, which sits lightly to its significant intellectual and experiential underpinnings. In relation to the latter, Davies notes that he has been on the wrong side of the law “more times than I care to remember”, a refreshing reminder of the Anglican commitment to fighting apartheid in South Africa.
Davies’s focus is on the doctrine of Creation and an exposition of the theology of sabbath, which he argues (convincingly) is a whole programme of social liberation. The book sketches how the theology of the sabbath connects to the experience of the Israelite people as slave and exiles and underpins much of the Jewish law.
Davies draws out the implications of sabbath for how we should think about labour, land, and learning. In his view, a doctrine of creation which does not affirm the rights of labour is clearly defective. Perhaps more challenging for those in a society that aspires to be a “property-owning democracy” (however illusory the reality) is the chapter on land ownership. Here, Davies points out that the biblical account (in common with other cultures, not least in Africa) does not have a concept of the outright ownership of land in perpetuity. While the right to use the land and the product of that labour can be bought and sold, land itself is seen, like air or water, as part of the common inheritance of humanity.
Appropriation (let’s be honest — plunder and theft) of land is of course one of the most poisonous bequests of European imperialism to subsequent nation-building. “The original sin” in South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa called it, a sentiment echoed around the globe.
Closer to home, Davies notes that British thinking is more indebted to Roman laws of property based on conquest, plunder, and enclosure than the scriptures. He enlists the support of William Temple and others to highlight a tradition of reflection on the entrenched injustices that are perpetuated by increase in land values, detached from any activity on the part of the landowner, and the long-term decline in land rents as a source of public revenue.
Peppered with pertinent observations and wide-ranging pithy judgements (e.g., the absurdity of a lack of aviation fuel-cost tax), Davies produces a highly coherent, scripturally grounded account of the importance of sabbath. He also lays down a challenge to the Church to look again at how injustices are enscribed within society’s structures, hidden in plain sight — corroding the common good, rewarding the privileged few.
Aguilar’s theological reflections are in a different key, one attuned to the current state of academic reflections on liberative and contextual theologies. Yet, this is fed and nurtured by powerful experience, namely that of finding himself locked down, not in his faculty in St Andrews, but in Chile, where, while he was unable to leave his flat for 143 days, “the humble and the poor took special care of me, an older and foreign man.” This book is the fruit of that experience and his reflections on liberative theologies during the pandemic.
What emerges is a voice renewed by the “sensorial shock” of the pandemic and by the solidarity of the poor. While in many ways this voice is understated, it communicates a clear view of what theology should — and should not — be.
That view reaffirms much of the central emphasis of liberation theologies, namely: that it is the “second act”, the narrative that flows from a faith expressed in prayer and action; that to act faithfully requires an engagement with the everyday demands of the world through politics; and that “the poor are the presence of God.”
More specifically, Aguilar looks at the way in which the pandemic has exacerbated the division between rich and poor; points to those “masters of humanity”, such as Pope Francis, for whom theology is not a safe profession, but a dangerous proposition; explores the common purpose of dialogue and of learning from the poor; and paints a picture of theology as a diverse and contextual activity, arguing that “multiple belonging becomes the essence of existence in a post-pandemic theology.”
The clear contemporary challenge for Aguilar and others is “to foster a universal understanding of contextual liberation theology”, and he guides the reader to several excellent contemporary writers (Anderson Jeremiah, Eve Parker, Peniel Rajkumar, Rajbharat Patta, Mercy Amba Oduyoye — among others). Nevertheless, he is clear that this approach also requires a clear understanding that, despite its pretensions, European “systematic” theology must be understood as another contextual theology.
Much theology is, frankly, quite useless. Some of it is worse. Contrastingly, in their different ways, Davies and Aquilar provide a vision and a challenge — to act in the world, with humility and in solidarity with others.
The Revd Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of the USPG.
Seven Days to Freedom: Joining up connections in Creation
John Dudley Davies
Church Times Bookshop £13.49
After Pestilence: An interreligious theology of the poor
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20