God-obsessed

David Tracy’s Theological Quest

David Tracy has God in a box. Or is it the other way around? For Tracy, long regarded as one of the most distinguished and adventuresome contemporary Catholic theologians, such a dilemma might be intriguing, even amusing, were it not so personal.

For nearly twenty years, Tracy, born in 1939 and retired after thirty-five years on the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, has been hard at work on what his friends refer to as “the Big Book,” a multivolume doctrinal treatise on God. To the frustration of admiring colleagues and students—and the University of Chicago Press—the Big Book has become the most celebrated case of delayed publication in theology today. “In my imagination, there is a room in his house with yellow legal pads up to the ceiling, row after row after row,” says Tracy’s old friend, Frank Oveis, a former senior editor at Continuum Publishing and editor of some of the theologian’s early work.

In part, Tracy’s delay reflects personal struggles. He suffered a serious illness, then the death of his mother, Eileen Tracy Couch, who was a crucial support to her son, both emotionally and practically (she typed many of his manuscripts). But the glacial writing pace also reflects both Tracy’s personality and his theology, with its discursiveness and occasionally daunting complexity. Notorious for ruminating and writing and rewriting and annotating ad infinitum—“one of the toughest writers I have ever edited,” says Oveis with affection—Tracy himself jokes that he likes to include so many footnotes “because they’re cheaper than Christmas cards.” In an interview some years back, a journalist kept coaxing the theologian to state his thesis more succinctly, until Tracy drolly protested: “I can only fly so low before I crash.”

When Tracy’s Divinity School colleagues gathered for his retirement party in March 2007, speaker after speaker pointedly wished him a “productive” retirement. The implicit hope was that the Big Book would now be completed—capping a career “central to the life and reputation of the Divinity School for over three decades,” the medievalist Bernard McGinn noted—and that it would succeed in moving the theological conversation in a challenging new direction. That is what Tracy’s first important book, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology, did in the 1970s, and his subsequent volume, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, did again a decade later. Following in the footsteps of Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, whose “correlational” method engaged with both secular and religious experience, Tracy in Blessed Rage for Order urged the Christian theologian to adopt an “ethical commitment to the morality of scientific knowledge” and a “critical position toward his own and his tradition’s beliefs.” Such a theologian, he insisted, must be truly open-minded, and in this open-mindedness must grapple with the fact that he can “abandon neither his faith in the modern experiment nor his faith in the God of Jesus Christ.” Tracy’s friend, the late Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen, had called theology “this impossible mode of thinking”—and that very impossibility, Tracy argued, makes theology more important than ever. In his view, both modernity and traditional Christianity are undergoing fundamental crises of intellectual and moral confidence. His bold claim is that theology is essential to restoring confidence in both projects.

“The God Book,” as some call it, began as the prestigious Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which Tracy gave in Edinburgh in 1999–2000. But the project had been incubating for much of the previous decade. The goal, Tracy has somewhat gnomically remarked, is to attempt to “name God in an age that cannot name itself.” How can we think about God in the postmodern era—an age marked by endemic religious pluralism, by social and intellectual fragmentation, and by a profound skepticism toward universalistic claims, especially claims concerning God? Tracy’s Gifford Lectures, titled “This Side of God,” allowed him to gather his thoughts. But he was in no hurry to publish them. His friend, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, delayed for years before publishing her own Gifford Lectures—years spent revising, adding, and nuancing. “And so that’s what I’ve been doing,” Tracy explained to me when I interviewed him in Chicago.

But two decades is a long time to spend on one book. Tracy has had his critics over the years, and some interpret his failure to finish the Big Book as symptomatic of what they regard as the larger failure of liberal theology. In a recent essay on the First Things Web site, a former student, Stephen H. Webb, praised Tracy for his brilliance and generosity, his capacious intellect, and his vast reading—then went on to suggest that such qualities, and Tracy himself, belong to an era and a worldview now coming to a close. “We had no idea that we were really witnessing the end not only of the glory days of theology at the University of Chicago,” wrote Webb, “but also of the liberal paradigm itself, which reached its apotheosis in Tracy’s schematizing imagination.”

That verdict may be premature, both for “the liberal paradigm”—whatever that is—and for David Tracy’s work.

Tracy’s eagerness to engage believers and unbelievers alike, while seeking to find God in everything, makes him an emblematic figure in post–Vatican II Catholicism, one who embodies the ambitions and hopes of an impressive generation of Catholic theologians, scholars, and priests now passing from the stage. It was a generation strongly attached to both the church and the American democratic project. Its coming of age coincided with the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and many of its members became outspoken advocates of its reforms. Like other promising seminarians, Tracy had been sent to Rome in the early 1960s to do his doctoral work at the Gregorian. There he studied with the formidable logician and Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan, and immersed himself in the heady atmosphere of the council. His subsequent, surprising appointment to the faculty of the nondenominational University of Chicago Divinity School in 1969 was widely greeted as evidence of the optimistic new ecumenical and intellectual spirit infusing postconciliar Catholicism. Catholics were marching out of the “ghetto” and making their presence felt everywhere in American society.

Forty-five years after the council, the theological landscape has changed, affected by both the marginalization of religion within the secular academy and by what some have called a restorationist agenda in Rome. For decades Catholic theologians have been subjected to official scrutiny—and often censure—over perceived heterodoxies. Now one of the men who led that effort, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is Pope Benedict XVI. Contrary to expectations, however, the pope has tried to mute conflicts over neuralgic issues of ecclesiology and sexual morality in favor of a conversation about the nature and purpose of theology.

Such questions are David Tracy’s bread and butter. He wants to bring the Catholic tradition into intellectual contact with a world that might never have engaged faith, much less the church, in a serious way. “He always has the larger audience in mind,” says Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, the recently retired Catholic University of America theologian who has been friends with Tracy since their days in junior seminary at Cathedral College in New York. “He makes the distinction between the academy, the church, and the public, and he has always felt a tremendous sympathy for people who are struggling with faith, or who don’t believe.” Tracy’s God Book assesses that struggle amid a modern culture marked by the absence of God. “That’s why what’s apparently going to be a very big book,” Komonchak continued, “is going to give such attention to the experience of absence, of a void.”

Tracy’s work has often been contrasted with the influential school of “postliberal” theology exemplified in the writings of George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas, theologians who emphasize Christianity’s unique epistemological foundations and “countercultural” claims. Tracy, notes Komonchak, is suspicious of an approach that simply sets “out the Christian message in all its distinctive challenge and invites people to enter the world the gospel reveals.” In Komonchak’s view, Tracy “has always been wary of a ‘take it or leave it’ approach and has looked also for points of contact even within a secular culture.”

Tracy’s Chicago colleague Bernard McGinn agrees. The great systematic theologies of the twentieth century, such as those of Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, and Paul Tillich, cannot counter “the challenges that have erupted in the past generation from so many directions,” McGinn said at Tracy’s retirement celebration. In the face of such challenges, theology has tried to re-imagine itself in various ways—either by ditching tradition, by closing itself off to nonbelievers, or by engaging contemporary challenges directly. Tracy has always been committed to this last path, and thus, McGinn argues, he has fulfilled the vocation of the theologian as posed by Rahner, who urged that “we do theology today...in as wide as possible a confrontation and dialogue with the enormous variety of contemporary anthropological sciences.” The Big Book about God would surely attempt this. It would also reintroduce Tracy’s groundbreaking work to a new generation of Catholic thinkers—especially those preparing for priesthood and ministry.

Given Tracy’s high standing in the theological community, it might seem odd that he would need to be reintroduced to theologians and ministers in training. Indeed, for a while he seemed about to break through to a kind of popular renown rarely granted a theologian in this country. In 1986, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story portraying Tracy as “a dissenting voice” on the vanguard of a new theology. Subsequently, however, his profile seemed to slip beneath the tumult of internal church battles. His writings, cited more often than read, became part of the wallpaper of theological salons. His last major work, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, was published more than twenty years ago.

“[Tracy] never was designed to be a popular writer,” says another Chicago colleague, the religious historian Martin Marty. “He influenced the influencers.” Such writers are important well beyond their name recognition, Marty points out. “A lot of people in religious studies are getting him without knowing where they’re getting it.” Fr. Andrew Greeley once told me of his own great debt to Tracy, whose ideas on the distinctive cosmologies of Protestantism and Catholicism, developed in The Analogical Imagination, were the key to Greeley’s sociological and popular writings. “I feel that I have usurped his theory,” Greeley confessed.

That theory posits that one way in which we apprehend religious truth is through the use of analogy—through symbols that are not in themselves the fullness of truth, but reflect important similarities with, and connections to, ultimate truth. Catholicism’s historical embrace of metaphor, sacrament, and image exemplifies the analogical approach by emphasizing God’s emphatic but mysterious and never fully graspable presence in the world. Tracy contrasts this way of apprehending God with what he calls the “dialectical imagination” of proclamation, which emphasizes God’s inaccessibility, and which he associates with Protestanism. (Though he insists the contrast has often been overplayed by his critics and devotees alike.)

Placing Tracy in an academic niche is difficult. He is often referred to as a philosophical theologian, since philosophy (and literature) are his great passions. Yet for years, like his mentor Bernard Lonergan, Tracy remained focused intently on methodology, on explaining why we should speak about God in this way rather than that way—so much so that substantive questions of God, Christ, and the church were almost overlooked.

Eventually Tracy himself saw the limitations of this methodological focus. During one of our conversations in Chicago, the theologian cited a review of Plurality and Ambiguity as his Damascus moment. The reviewer, he recalled, wrote that after reading Tracy’s book, he understood what its author meant by such terms as “plurality,” “ambiguity,” “hermeneutics,” and “religion.” Tracy can still recite the rest: “‘But I don’t know why he has hope,’ wrote the reviewer. ‘All he says is one line near the end: “I hope because I believe in God.” But what does that mean?’” Tracy was chastened. “The reviewer was right,” he told me. “I had to articulate what that means and why I have hope, because of that belief in God, through Christ, and in Christ through Jesus.”

That has been his fixation ever since. “I am God-obsessed,” Tracy says. Why have hope, and what does it mean? It is the question his unfinished book attempts to answer.

By sensibility and intellectual instinct, Tracy epitomizes Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Even as a child he was very religious, even pious, and intensely curious. Literature was Tracy’s first love—his father, a union organizer, would read to the children from Dickens and Henry Adams—and his theological work remains intensely engaged with imaginative writing. Along with this passion came an instinct for criticism and interpretation, or what theologians and academics call “hermeneutics.” According to Tracy, all human experience must be interpreted before we can make sense of it, including our experience of God. Hermeneutics is essential to any effort to make sense of religious experience and truth, and to communicate it to others. This communication, what Tracy calls “conversation,” is a public activity, and in undertaking it, theologians must be willing to engage not just believers and the church, but society and academia as well.

In this context, Tracy has formulated the concept of the “classic” to help explain how religious truth and meaning are made manifest across time. A classic is a work of art, a person, an experience, or a symbol that discloses or reveals something so obviously true that it succeeds in conveying universal meaning to any age. Tracy identifies the Exodus story as a classic event that continues to be reinterpreted, in the modern American civil-rights movement for example, without losing its original spiritual power. A classic is not necessarily truth itself; rather, it is an avenue to understanding truth. In this way, great literature and art make manifest and reveal “ultimate reality,” namely God’s presence. “All genuine writers,” Tracy insists, “ask theological questions.”

In minor seminary Tracy’s formidable intellect embraced literature with particular zeal. “He read all the time, and he read very widely,” Komonchak says of their school years. Going on to study at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, Tracy was ordained for the Diocese of Bridgeport in 1963. He received his licentiate in theology in 1964 at the Gregorian. Returning home, he spent a year at a parish in Stamford, Connecticut—his only full-time parish experience and one that has bred many tales of his pastoral abilities. The late William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1967 how a “very intelligent and bright curate in my parish”—he was referring to Tracy—persuaded him to become a lector despite Buckley’s reservations about the new Mass. Tracy himself tells the story of a young couple who came to him for marriage counseling. One night the highly distraught husband called from the local YMCA, where he was in exile, and bemoaned his marital troubles. Tracy racked his brain for something to say, and finally suggested taking advantage of the fact that the YMCA had a bowling alley. Nonplussed, the man hung up and immediately called his wife to share the news that the priest had advised him to go bowling. They laughed so much that the ice broke, and they reconciled that very night. “And people say I have no pastoral sense!” Tracy laughs.

Beloved as a priest and highly regarded as a homilist, from the beginning Tracy showed his greatest promise as a theologian. From the Stamford parish he went on to teach at the Catholic University of America for two years, before leaving for Chicago. Once there, he immersed himself in the works of his colleagues—“a secular monastery,” Tracy calls the university—and was eventually appointed to the prestigious Committee on Social Thought, the only priest to hold a chair on that famously secular (and often contrarian) body. Saul Bellow, long a member of the committee, liked to quip that the group was comprised largely of “highly conservative secular Jews—and the only leftist is a Catholic priest.”

Tracy reveled in the interdisciplinary swirl, yet it never diverted him from his love of theology and his passion for God. Indeed, Leszek Kołakowski, the late Polish philosopher and Tracy’s onetime colleague on the Committee, liked to introduce Tracy to his friends as “a very unusual person—a theologian who is writing about God!” This theocentric emphasis has often steered Tracy in a different direction from the Christocentric concerns of theologians such as the current pope. Tracy’s critics accuse him of substituting a merely formal concept about God for the traditional Christian understanding of who God is and what God has done. His high regard for pluralism and interreligious dialogue often seems to trade on the assumption that God can be conceived and embraced independently from the Christian story, an emphasis for which Benedict, for instance, sees little theological justification.

Though much of Tracy’s work has been done at a high level of abstraction, it has also always manifested a concern for justice—in the world and in the church. He has periodically criticized Roman excesses. In the 1986 New York Times Magazine piece, for example, he denounced Vatican “authoritarianism” toward then–Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and moral theologian Charles Curran. And in 2005, Tracy strongly defended his friend Roger Haight, SJ, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judged the Jesuit theologian’s writing on Christology to be in serious error and barred him from teaching at a Catholic institution. Tracy told the National Catholic Reporter that the Vatican action was “devastating and deplorable”; Vatican officials, he asserted, “should be ashamed.” (In spring 2008 Haight was prohibited by the Vatican from teaching altogether.)

So how has Tracy himself escaped censure? In 1968 he was one of twenty-two faculty members, including Charles Curran, brought to trial before the Catholic University faculty senate on charges of rejecting the birth-control teaching in Humanae vitae. Though all were acquitted, Tracy left the next year for Chicago, while Curran stayed and was eventually fired after a long and bitter battle. Tracy’s new job at a secular university placed him further from Rome’s jurisdiction, though not completely out of reach. After Blessed Rage for Order came out in 1975, he received a letter from the CDF asking him to explain and defend the “process” understanding of God set forth in the book. “So I did. And I never heard back again. I don’t know what that means.” Perhaps it meant that Tracy’s real protection was his notoriously idiosyncratic prose and the complexity of his arguments. Ironically, since the surest ticket to theological celebrity in the past thirty years has been a Vatican rebuke, Tracy’s escape may have been another factor in his relatively low name recognition outside the academy.

That is not to say that he went entirely unnoticed. Tracy first met Joseph Ratzinger—then cardinal and head of the CDF—at a conference on fundamental theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, where Tracy was one of six theologians on a panel that was to be moderated by the future pope. When the six lined up to be introduced to the cardinal, Tracy, last in line, gave his name. Ratzinger responded with a curt, “Si, capito”—“I know”—then turned to his aides, said “Andiamo” —“Let’s go”—and walked off. A few years later Tracy was invited to a Vatican-sponsored conference on the reception of Vatican II in North America. After his talk, in which Tracy tried to explain why Americans liked Vatican II, Ratzinger approached and said, cryptically, “I hear many different kinds of things about you.” Tracy smiled and jovially replied, “Some good, I hope.” “Some!” Ratzinger responded—and once again turned on his heel and walked off. The recollection still makes Tracy laugh out loud. “I like him! He knows how to leave a room. It’s a lost gift.”

Tracy’s humor and personal kindness make him easy to like, attracting a devoted following of colleagues, former students, and friends. But even his friends have occasionally expressed good-natured skepticism about the trajectory of his thought. Komonchak recalled that a mentor of his and Tracy’s in minor seminary, the church historian Msgr. Florence D. Cohalan, used to ask about Tracy when Komonchak visited Cohalan at a retirement home in later years. On one of his last visits (Cohalan died in 2001), Komonchak remarked that Tracy was delivering the Gifford lectures. Duly impressed, Cohalan asked what Tracy was speaking on. “God,” Komonchak told him. At which point the aged priest looked up and said, “For, or against?”

When I mentioned to Tracy the oft-repeated quip that he would be a bigger target for church officials if his writings were easier to understand, he seemed wounded. “I don’t think I’m that obscure,” he insisted. But certainly no one could accuse him of parochialism. His brilliance as a lecturer is legendary, and his casual conversation, like his writing and lecturing, ranges so widely that a listener is often hard-pressed to keep up. Tracy will invoke Euripides and Derrida, Ricoeur and Nietzsche, Simone Weil and Saturday Night Live all in the same riff, and somehow it all makes sense, even if you’re not always sure how.

Such a protean intellect has made him a thinker known as a “theologian’s theologian.” Bernard Lonergan’s axiom could be Tracy’s motto: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change.” Living with such tensions is not always a comfortable place for believers, especially today. Tracy’s consistent aim has been to isolate the paradigmatic features of the “religious” and “God” in order to establish some background for dialogue with other religions, and with the secular world. The balance between the ecumenical demands of that discussion and the specific content of the Christian story is a delicate one, and Tracy’s critics have not always thought he got it right. The late Avery Dulles, SJ, deemed Blessed Rage for Order insufficiently critical of secular reason, and criticized it for suggesting that “theology can suitably be done by a detached, noncommitted observer.” Dulles complained that “the method of correlation, as Tracy describes it, seems to be a one-way process, in which the Christian positions are shown to be consonant with the secular vision of life.”

In response to such criticism, Tracy has denied that his regard for critical reason and secular culture “necessitate[s] a capitulation of traditional religious beliefs to contemporary secular beliefs.” Indeed, the book about God, he told me, has taken him both more deeply into the Christian tradition and more extensively into other religious traditions. With these twin voyages he intends to shed light on what he considers the two fundamental challenges for faith and hope: naming God for a postmodern world, and providing an answer to the problem of suffering.

The centrality of suffering is essential, he insists. “If God is only this abstract question that doesn’t respond directly to what human beings are going through,” he told me, “then I don’t see why we would pay that much attention.” Tracy sees “massive global suffering” as “the overwhelming issue” in the modern world. That is why he has always tried to support liberation theologians. “Doing something about it—the struggle for justice and to clarify what that means in relationship to God and Christ—has become for me an overwhelming focus.” Through his exploration of suffering Tracy has come to focus less on the “analogical imagination” of his early career than on the inaccessibility of God. From the incomprehensibility of the God of Job and the apophatic moments of mystics like the sixth-century monk Dionysius, to the terror of Martin Luther’s Hidden God, Tracy is riveted by the silence of God. More and more, the man famous for complex theological formulations is exploring the mystical limit at which words fail. “You know, without mysticism, I think we are lost,” he says, echoing Rahner. “And mysticism is not odd or strange. It is an articulation of faith.”

“Silence may indeed be the final and most adequate mode of speech for religion,” Tracy wrote in The Analogical Imagination. And yet silence cannot be all there is. “The mere existence of religious classics should alert any interpreter that, whatever else these strange expressions are, they are, precisely as expressions—whether in the texts of the mystics and theologians, the styles of life of the saints and witnesses, the imagery of the icons, the founding symbols of the tradition, the events of religious history—all finally discourse. We must interpret them.” In other words, what we say and how we say it matters. Content matters. The problem, as Tracy sees it, is that an obsession with content has drowned out the silence. Religious silence must precede religious speech. But much of academic theology has forgotten its prayers.

Interestingly, here Tracy echoes the concerns of Benedict XVI, especially the pope’s claim that the liturgy is the center of the life of the church. Like Benedict, Tracy has always considered mystery indispensable to religion; “Religion’s closest cousin,” he insists, “is not rigid logic, but art.” He’s convinced that theologians must reestablish the connection between spirituality and theology that was severed by medieval Scholasticism. “It was a great disaster in the history of Christian theology,” he says ruefully. “And in the history of philosophy. Spirituality became something you do after you do your theology. It’s terrible.”

As immersed as Tracy is in the quest for God, he stresses that theology, while “very important,” is not “the key to religion.” More important, he says, is trying to live the religious life, or the liturgy, or the struggle for justice. In Tracy’s view, making doctrine central to theology is “disastrous.” “It isn’t central. It’s just a form that emerges when you need to clarify something if the community is confused.” In addressing the postliberal theologian George Lindbeck’s assertion that doctrines are the grammar of belief, Tracy has written that “grammar is not enough. Theologians also need rhetorical analysis.” As Tracy told me, “Rhetoric is the metaphors, the symbols, the stories, etc., which are much more important.”

When all is said and done—even if not yet written and published—David Tracy’s work is much more sprawling city than alpine mountaintop. For Tracy, theology is not about supplying answers that cannot be questioned. A theology should be judged, he likes to say, by the questions it asks rather than the answers it gives. Theology is “a very odd thing to try to do,” he muses. “You really are taking mystery, which faith is, and trying to find understanding to it. And relate that understanding to other modes of understanding. And that is at once a necessary and difficult and almost impossible thing to do. But you need some people crazy enough around to do it.”

Happily, David Tracy is crazy enough to try.

 


This essay has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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