KENNETH L. WOODWARD: David, the University of Chicago Press is about to publish two books by you, the first, they say, in twenty-five years. Both are collections of essays, some of them written as recently as last year. To quote a line from Yeats, “Speech after long silence; it is right.” Volume One is titled Fragments: The Existential Situation of Our Time. Why fragments, and what is the existential situation of our time that you’re referring to?
DAVID TRACY: “Fragments” is a category I developed some years ago. It was started as a major category by the German Romantics in the late eighteenth century. And of course it eventually became very popular with the literary modernists and even more with the postmodern writers who typically write in fragmentary ways. I defend it as a way to break totalities, to fragment all totality systems and open them to infinity, which has become a major category for my work.
In my opinion, all our traditions are in fragments. People like T. S. Eliot and others thought that was unfortunate—his famous line is “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” I don’t think of fragments in that way. Sometimes, of course, fragmentation can be negative. But in fact, the traditions—in philosophy, theology, the arts—have always been in fragments.
KW: For example?
DT: Well, no one uses the entire Bible. No one uses all of Greek philosophy. Given our temperament, or needs, or our culture’s needs, we all choose particular fragments of the great traditions that we think are exceptionally valuable right now. And therefore I find fragments a very valuable category that helps people, especially in theology, to understand that one can be cognizant of and faithful to the fundamental Christian tradition, but also to realize it’s not really possible to do the entire tradition. I believe it would take about seven or eight lifetimes to do the whole of Christian tradition—even just the theological part of it.
KW: What do you mean “do” the whole tradition?
DT: To really absorb, appropriate, and articulate the whole tradition. But that’s not necessary.
KW: It sounds to me that this approach is, in some sense, the form fitting the content.
DT: It is. You’re right.
KW: In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre lamented, like Eliot, the fact that all we have available now are fragments of previous moral traditions that turn up in classrooms like potshards that archeologists cannot make cohere. Clearly, MacIntyre is not fond of fragments.
DT: I like MacIntyre’s work very much. I think he is one of the best living Christian thinkers. But he himself is not doing the whole tradition. He even says [in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry] that there are too many Thomisms. He’s doing those aspects of Thomism that he finds particularly valuable for our own problems now. And that’s what I think everyone does whether they realize it or not. So by emphasizing, as I do, and developing the notion of fragments, I think I’m giving people a new way to look at our traditions, and it’s a liberating way. It’s not to shore up our ruin, it’s to undo the ruin and find new resources.
For example, I’ve done work on reception theory and the four gospels. For first-century Christians, Matthew was the most important gospel, because it’s the gospel that tells a new community how to be a community, how to have new laws. It’s the most Jewish of the gospels. Luke-Acts is the gospel that appeals especially to Christians today concerned with social justice, in another way to Pentecostals focused on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and in yet a third way to ordinary, everyday Christians. It tells one how to live a sensible Christian life. Mark, which used to be thought the simplest of the gospels, is in fact now considered by many postmodern thinkers the most fragmentary of the gospels.
KW: How so?
DT: It’s the gospel that doesn’t quite end. It’s the gospel that has a radical interruption in the middle with the apocalyptic passages in Chapter 14. And unlike Luke, where Jesus is a prophet people basically understand, especially the disciples, in Mark the disciples don’t seem to understand anything. He’s understood by the poor, by the marginal, and by the demons. It’s an amazing gospel. And John remains the great gospel of philosophers, theologians, and mystics. As Augustine rightly said, John is the gospel of love. For him, for Thomas, Eckhart, Schleiermacher, Hegel, [Karl] Rahner, [Bernard] Lonergan, John’s the preferred gospel.
All this means is that we’re fortunate as Christians to have four gospels. Actually, you should add Paul as the fifth, because he’s so influential. And each of them is in a sense a fragment of the wider New Testament. And within each of them, there are certain fragments. I had to invent a neologism, which I regret, to say certain fragments become “frag-events.” They become events that break totality, negate totality, fragment it, and open us to—
KW: What’s wrong with totality?
DT: Totality closes. It won’t allow the openness and the dynamism that I think is demanded of any great tradition. It tries to close it. Here I draw on modern systems theory where systems are understood as open. “Systems” does not mean what it used to mean in Whitehead’s distinction between an assemblage, which is just a collection, and a system, which is a closed totality. That is not an ideal today, certainly not for me. The ideal is of course the whole, but the whole not as a totality but as infinite, dynamic, open.
KW: We’ve mentioned T. S. Eliot. As a critic he regularly invoked “the tradition,” but as a poet you could say he wrote in fragments, which initially made him so hard to understand.
DT: Yes, Eliot famously wrote The Waste Land in pure fragments. It’s perhaps the most fragmentary poem of the twentieth century. But even the Quartets are fragments, and not only Christian fragments, but Buddhist fragments (the pool in the first Quartet), Neoplatonist fragments, Aristotelian fragments, Hindu fragments. And unlike in The Waste Land, in the Quartets, Eliot was, in my opinion, able to provide the kind of systematic expression of the fragments. One of the most beautiful things in the Quartets is in the third Quartet, where he speaks of the “unattended moment, the moment in and out of time”—in other words, “fragments”:
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
I’ve never read a better fragmentary expression of the heart of Christianity, the Incarnation.
KW: Turning to the second part of your first-volume title, what do you mean by “The Existential Situation of Our Time”?
DT: For philosophers and theologians, I think, it’s nihilism. The sense that there is no meaning. The sense of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Even if it’s not brought to a theoretical level, when people live without religion, in my judgment, they eventually end up leading a nihilistic life, sometimes without knowing it. That’s the intellectual situation.
The more important existential situation, I think, remains the massive global suffering that human beings face—both as whole cultures and groups and of course as individuals. Christian salvation, after all, is fundamentally about responding to the profound sense of transience—that we are transient, and everything we own or love is transient, including our cultures, and our traditions. And of course death, and facing death, which remains a great existential issue for every human being. I call these kinds of issues “limit” questions, limit experiences, limit situations. These ultimate questions that any thoughtful human being eventually asks. And that is our existential situation.
KW: Your second volume of essays deals with great thinkers from Augustine, Luther, and Erasmus to moderns like Rahner, your mentor Lonergan, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Iris Murdoch, and Simone Weil. How do these essays relate to the big book, the magnum opus you’ve been working on?
DT: Well, I was reluctant to publish these essays but my editor and a couple of good friends basically prodded me forward and to my surprise it turned out to help the bigger book I’ve been working on, because instead of having to give a whole chapter on, say, Augustine, who’s so central to my thinking, I can say “read these essays” in a footnote and then summarize it, and the same with all the other major figures.
KW: For a long time now, the quip on the street has been that the reason the “big book” you’ve been working on hasn’t yet appeared is because every time you pick up a new book to read you rethink your project.
DT: Not every book, no. I thought about publishing the Gifford Lectures I gave in 1999 and 2000 as a book. I ended those lectures with two ideas that I still have in the “big book” I am working on. The first is the idea of the Incomprehensible God, especially as we find it in Dionysius the Areopagite and that whole tradition of negative or apophatic theology. The second is the notion of the Hidden God, especially as we find it in the profoundly Christian work of Luther, where God discloses God’s self through contradictions—life through death, wisdom through folly, strength through weakness. And these in turn are enriched by Christianity’s apocalyptic tradition.
DT: Yes, I don’t think you can understand the New Testament, and therefore Christianity, without its strong apocalyptic tradition. And not just apocalyptic texts like Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians, Matthew 24, almost the whole of Mark, and especially the tremendum et fascinans power of the Book of Revelation. The whole Christian Bible ends with that plaintive cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Without its apocalyptic dimension, properly deliteralized of course, Christianity would settle down into a religion that has lost its sense of the not yet, and the existential sense that the Second Coming, like our own death, could happen at any time.
KW: Why didn’t you publish those lectures as a book?
DT: I felt I still needed something to initiate the discussion, something that I would call philosophical theology. Something that would allow others besides Christian believers to enter into the discussion of God, especially of the Incomprehensible God or the Hidden God.
KW: And that something was…
DT: About ten years ago I hit upon the notion of the infinite. It’s a notion, after all, in mathematics and physics and cosmology. And therefore it opens the discussion of God to those areas, which I’ve always loved, especially mathematics. The big book will provide an expansive understanding of the infinite, because I’ve now had all these years to trace through the history of the understanding of the infinite in philosophy and theology.
For example, Plato and Aristotle would not call the ultimate reality infinite because it’s formless. God must be perfection, and for perfection you need form. So for Plato it became the form of the good beyond being, for Aristotle the unmoved mover. Plotinus is the first major philosopher to speak of the infinite as ultimate reality, along with the one and the good. And then you can trace through history why some do and some do not. To my knowledge, Gregory of Nyssa is the first major Christian theologian to say the infinite is the first primary name of God, and from that all the other names—being, the good, et cetera—come.
KW: So can we still expect three separate volumes on God, Christ, and the Spirit?
DT: Two, I think—most of it is already written. What I’m trying to do now is move from the category of the infinite, explaining it both in its relationship to space, time, and number, to the absolute infinite—a distinction Aristotle already had—which of course is God. And then, I try to show how the philosophical notion of the infinite can move, through Revelation, to the notion of infinite being, intelligence, and love—the Trinity. It’s a difficult argument to make but that’s the structure of it.
KW: So you rethought the whole project?
DT: I did, yes. Because you know, once you hit on a major idea, in this case the infinite, you have to rethink the whole project.
KW: Tell me about your experience of three years in a Buddhist-Christian dialogue. What kind of Buddhists were they?
DT: Mainly Japanese—Zen and Pure Land. There were one or two Theravāda Buddhists, plus some Westerners, especially from California. It was organized by John Cobb and Masao Abe, who had been raised Pure Land but became Zen. So the dialogue ceased to be serene when the Zen and Pure Land Buddhists argued with each other. It was almost like the old Protestant-Catholic debates that are now, happily, mostly gone. The Christians were representing our own theologies, not any church, and trying really to be challenged by the Buddhists.
We were all abstract types, we philosophical theologians. We wanted to discuss immediately God versus Emptiness as the names for ultimate reality. Abe and Cobb said, “No, you can’t discuss that till the third year.” The first year we discussed “What’s the problem with human beings?” So the Buddhists discussed “What is primal ignorance, Avidyā?” The Christians discussed “What is sin, as a basic orientation?” The second year was “What’s the response to this problem?” The Buddhists, of course, discussed “What is enlightenment?” The Christians—I gave one of the papers—discussed “What is redemption or salvation?” Only in the third year were we allowed to discuss what we all wanted to. But they were right to make us wait until we did those anthropological issues, before discussing Emptiness and/or God.
KW: What did you learn?
DT: At the end of the third year, everyone was to say what they thought they had learned. I said that one of the things I learned most, as a Westerner and as Christian theologian, was how to understand why someone would call ultimate reality “emptiness,” or “radical impersonality.” Furthermore, we all admitted—and this is the great importance of interreligious dialogue—that we also learned more about our own religion. Another thing I noticed: the Buddhists, unlike myself and the other Christians, had a way of incorporating their meditative practices into their metaphysics. I didn’t know how to do that, but they helped me out, and now I’m better at it.
KW: You have long maintained that the Christian theologian addresses three publics—the academy, the church, and the wider public of the intellectually curious. But as I listen to you I am thinking: throughout the second half of the twentieth century there was a large general audience, including many Newsweek readers, for articles on theology. But today books on religion, not to mention theology, are rarely given notice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review or the New York Review of Books, or any other serious secular-review media. So how does the theologian address a public that doesn’t seem to be paying any attention?
DT: The day of, say, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, when theology was at the heart of a good deal of public discussion is, alas, over. Even the Catholic world of Vatican II, when Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Johann Baptist Metz, and Gustavo Gutiérrez were all widely read and discussed, has faded. I must say I regret that.
KW: Don’t we all.
DT: Part of what I’m trying to do with the notion of fragment in relation to all the religious traditions, not only the Christian, is to alert people that they have fragments they’re not aware of that are real resources for their lives and for their thinking. And the notion of God as infinite allows a public discussion of the category “the infinite,” which people can get interested in. You know, there’s so much public interest in science, less so in mathematics, but science is also mathematical. And I hope there could be enough interest in that category to allow it to build into what I’m trying to do by answering the question “Why name God for the ‘infinite’—rather than, say, the void, or the open, or being, or the good?”
KW: How would you describe yourself as a theologian?
DT: I would describe myself as a Christian theologian with the Catholic center of gravity. I am clearly Catholic, and at the same time I have tried to be not just ecumenical, which is maybe too easy a word, but to genuinely learn from the many Protestant traditions, and the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions.
KW: What would you say to someone who asked: “David Tracy, do you believe that Christ is the one way of salvation?”
DT: For myself, Christ is the decisive way. And Jesus of Nazareth is the unsubstitutable person who is the Christ, and Jesus Christ is God and man. Now, does that mean you can’t honor other religious traditions? Certainly not. Because if you believe that Jesus Christ is the decisive manifestation of God, you have to honor that and ask others to honor it as what Christianity is about, which I think it is. So when you enter interreligious conversation, the dialogues that I spoke about as so important, I don’t myself think that one should immediately say “pluralism.” I’m pluralist on many things, but on that I think it’s much more subtle, nuanced, and difficult. If you hold as traditional, Chalcedonian Christianity does, and I do, the centrality of Jesus Christ, it’s more like inclusive Christianity. You’re open to the other traditions, and in some way, Christ includes, welcomes. I don’t believe in exclusivist Christianity.