Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Book Reviews

Taking Theology Public

How does one deal with the “trees and forests” complexity of a career like David Tracy’s?

Michael J. Lacey

Sketch of David Tracy, 2019, by Stephen F. Condren; courtesy of the artist.

Among those who have tried to make serious sense of the culture wars of the past half century, polymorphous and perverse as they have been, is David Tracy, a Catholic priest and genial, high-voltage, scholarly intellectual. He has spent most of his long life—he is now eighty—reflecting on the hardest problems facing interpreters of culture and religion in modern life. His home base has been the University of Chicago, from which he retired in 2007 after nearly forty years as a shining star in its nondenominational divinity school. He was also an elected member, the first Catholic priest to be so honored, of the university’s famous interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought. His written output has been prodigious; the Tracy bibliography in the work under review runs to 28 pages. It includes 11 books and hundreds of articles, essays, and reviews.

Recipient of a drawerful of awards and honorary degrees, he has been profiled in many journals, including Newsweek, Commonweal, and Christian Century. A cover story in the New York Times Magazine depicted him as leading the van of those trying to articulate a new theology sufficient to the demands of our times. He has debated Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, George Lindbeck, and other celebrated movers and shakers of modern thought.

Yet for all the writing and the jousting and the profiles, Tracy is no celebrity. Nor, really, are his counterparts. The world no longer works that way. Modern academic life is specialized, and remote from the shared experience of ordinary, educated readers. While it cannot be said that the university has no bearing upon the life of the broader culture—indeed, no other institution has impact remotely comparable—the influences are indirect, complicated, and difficult to isolate.

How then does one deal with the “trees and forests” complexity of a career like David Tracy’s? Stephen Okey, an assistant professor of religion at Saint Leo University, in Florida, manages the job well, highlighting seven themes he finds in Tracy’s work: conversation, public theology, pluralism in modernity, theological method, classics and fragments, Christology, and the reality of God. Whether taken singly or together, these themes are difficult, and necessarily so. But each is indispensable to the theologian’s thought.

The theme most widely associated with Tracy is unquestionably that of conversation itself. In Tracy’s usage the term is recondite, related to but not to be confused with the unexamined, common-sense meaning of the term. It is a philosophically rooted ideal of practice, intended to take “the other” seriously—including the Ultimate Other. Tracy emphasizes the element of personal risk involved in genuine conversation. The outcome is always uncertain, and might require a difficult change of mind or attitude. Any posing or self-deception could be called out. Both sides know that there is an ethic to be followed, one that calls for the governance of mind, tongue, and heart. Too much “talking to win” is a conversation stopper. And one can converse not only face to face with contemporaries but, with a bit of effort and imagination, with other minds from other eras, a point that opens vast fields of possible experience. At its best, conversation is a technique for learning, a form of spirituality that reaches out beyond the particularities of personal identity, a means of self-transcendence.

Following closely on that theme, and bound up with it, is that of public theology. It, too, has its subtleties, because its most important element is an ideal that is at best only partly realized. Religion itself has a familiar place in public life; theology does not. Few believers are theologically inclined. Most are content with the tacit assumptions of faith, and happy to leave well enough alone. The common view of the rightful place of religion in America is the time-honored one, constitutionally mandated and buttressed by judicial interpretation, that belief and its rationale are private matters, and should remain so—appropriate concerns for the denominations, perhaps, but no more. Tracy considers this a shortsighted view, bad for the denominations and the public alike.

Tracy’s realization of the need for something new possibly grew out of his experience teaching at a nondenominational seminary. What kind of theology would make sense there? There was no such thing as a nondenominational seminary prior to the mid-twentieth century, no agreed-upon institutional locus for thinking beyond the denominational line. Such an institutional setup virtually guaranteed that the modern secular university, home to the scientific and academic disciplines that began to emerge in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the graduate school, would contribute in rather clumsy fashion to the secularization of the broader culture, in both its desirable and undesirable aspects.

It was this historical context that the ideal of public theology was intended to address. Tracy wanted to see a new style of nondenominational theology find a home in the secular university alongside all the other disciplines engaged in cultural analysis and criticism. To secure a place there, it would have to give a reasonable account of itself, and to do so against all challengers in all fields and disciplines, precisely what denominational theology dared not attempt in a truly public setting. The aim of the ideal is not to vanquish or convert, but simply to hold one’s own against academic skepticism in all its varieties, each rooted in some notion of what valid reasoning requires and reveals. It is a tall order. One must know a lot about methods and models of reasoning, ancient and modern, to appreciate the stakes and scale of public theology. The practice is hard, and few are good at it.

Thinking about the underlying reasons for its beliefs and practices is the lifeblood of any religious community—if the thinking stops, so does the community. The aim of the public theology ideal, then, is not to displace denominational thought but to supplement it. The task is temporarily to transcend (meaning, literally, to move beyond without leaving behind) the particularities of religious traditions in the hope that more general insights might emerge to support a higher viewpoint ultimately useful to all of these traditions. The exercise is premised on what cultural anthropologists used to call “the psychic unity of humankind.” Is there such a thing? If so, does theism play a role in coming to terms with it? These are public theology issues.

The search for a new public form of theology capable of working cross-culturally around the globe is thus one way of addressing the challenges of pluralism in modernity. Briefly, in Tracy’s outlook, pluralism is part condition, part problem, and part ideal. It is part condition, in that it is an inherent feature of modern consciousness, with an inescapable “like it or not” quality to it. It is part problem, since some of our differences are not benign, and in Tracy’s view all traditions, sacred and secular, are compounds of achievement and failure, stories of ideals pursued, then compromised, then pursued again. Ambiguity marks each one and must be acknowledged if useful conversation is to proceed. And, of course, pluralism is part ideal, because making it work remains the fundamental human issue in modern life. It calls for transforming a condition into a community, unified by some common spirit, in which collaboration across the lines of race, gender, class, and tradition is invited and ongoing. The unity must be worked on. It doesn’t happen by itself.

When it comes to theological method, the fourth of Okey’s concerns, Tracy’s work is inspired by that of his mentor (and the subject of his first book), Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984), a Jesuit priest who was one of the great Catholic theologians of the past century. It starts with this query: What exactly is one doing when one is doing theology? What cognitive operations are involved? What gradually develops is the idea of theology as a “mediating discipline,” a search for correlations that require shuttling back and forth between cultural changes, on the one hand, and the meaning and role of religious life within the culture, on the other. The traffic is not one-way. On the side of religious thought, both conflict and cooperation with other types of knowledge in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities are necessarily involved. Modern theological method cannot stand alone. It is in essence both interpretive (“hermeneutic,” in academic jargon) and interdisciplinary. Tracy’s contributions to the role of what he calls “limit language” in marking the boundaries of specifically religious experience and his thinking on the role of imagination in the evolution of religious systems of thought have been fundamental contributions to theological method.

Okey also explicates Tracy’s development of the idea of classics and fragments. Both are tools for working on the deeper cultural history of religious beliefs and behavior. Classics are understood broadly to include not only texts but also persons and events, each of which manages to hold a “charge” that sets it apart from other kinds of cultural data. The classic carries inspirational power across boundaries of time and space, and for that reason points to the existence of something beyond the limits of the particularized worldview of its culture of origin. It tests readers as they test it.

Fragments, on the other hand, are symbols and images taken from bygone cultural wholes, in which they were understood to point to divine disclosures of some kind. Waving a cross around a bit in a place that sees itself as “post-Christian” would be a rather heavy-handed example, but the fragment need not be a Christian one. Symbols and images are staples of a kind in literary modernism, with its nostalgia for the presumed unities of earlier ways of life. T.S. Eliot, for example, speaks of gathering fragments “to shore up against our ruin.” Taken together, classics and fragments offer keys to interpreting from their beginnings all living religious traditions with an eye to accounting for their continuing vitality, problems, and prospects as parts of the global civilization now emerging.

One theme on Okey’s list, Christology, may come as a surprise to those critics who say that Tracy has none (being too focused for too long on nontraditional questions). Not so, Okey shows. The concern has been present from the very start. How could it be otherwise with an earnestly Christian thinker? It has developed through Tracy’s ongoing reinterpretation of the pluralism inherent in the New Testament itself, the diverse understandings of the “Christ event” itself (the “classic” par excellence in the tradition), and his response to the subsequent, apparently unending episodes, arising in modernity’s assault on traditional belief, of “the search for the historical Jesus” of the past two centuries.

A broader point emerges here, however, relating to the notion that public theology is intended to supplement, not replace, church commitment. In Tracy’s work, and he is hardly alone in this, the only way to realize universal values (and “realizing” values is what ideals are for) is through loyal participation in the specific tradition in which these values came to life and developed. Stepping outside tradition leads nowhere in particular. While abstract concepts are essential to thinking, one must be aware of their limits, that they are, after all, merely abstractions, parts of reality, not wholes. In actual experience we encounter plurals: religions, sciences, languages. There is no such thing as religion-in-general, science-in-general, or language-in-general. Particulars matter, and their neglect comes at a cost.

Last but not least among the seven themes is Tracy’s lifelong obsession, to use his term, with how to articulate the reality of God. A satisfactory answer waits on successfully meeting the challenges bound up with modernity’s pluralist disarray, that is, on progress in working out the program of public theology as an intellectual ideal. It is at best a work in progress, involving the efforts of an indeterminate number of thinkers around the globe. Short of that completion, to which he has contributed his bit, Tracy speaks of the problem of “naming God” in an age that cannot name itself or agree on the deeper sources of its unity and aspirations.

The naming problem is thus time bound, and involves running the maze of modern intellectual history. It is distinct, however, from holding personal convictions about the reality of God. Religious faith does not wait on the conclusion to any chain of reasoning to take its root, though reason plays a vital role in its long-term viability. Faith depends, rather, on something closer to the accidents of birth, the particular details of the way of life into which one was born, starting with family, ethnoreligious group, and class, and expanding into all the other factors that shape personal identity.

In Tracy’s case, he was satisfied as to the reality of God at age thirteen in Yonkers, New York, and decided he would become a priest in response. In the following decades, through rigorous study, he has learned a good deal about how other interpreters from other times and places have confronted the problem of thinking responsibly about the meaning of God, but he has not yet achieved his own synthesis. Many of his admirers feel an exasperated impatience in regard to the whereabouts of the “God book,” promised for years, that is supposed to pull it all together as a proper finish to a life’s work. It is known to exist as a baggy monster of a manuscript under constant revision, and parts have been used in lectures and discussion groups over many years. Tracy insists it is nearly ready.

No other contemporary theological program quite matches Tracy’s in the scale of its ambition and the breadth of its historical range. Tracy wants to make pluralist, secular modernity safe for divine mystery, and has made a start on new ways to think about the problem. Yet there is also a strong element of tradition in his vision. For Tracy, the mind itself, the source of all discoveries in every field throughout the course of human evolution, is a sacred space, a created share of reality. And cognition is, or can be, a holy practice—a conviction that has powered this very public theologian’s entire career. Okey’s invitation to the reader to get into conversation with this bracing thinker, both Catholic and catholic, is well worth accepting.