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.