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...