Theology of David Tracy

From Conversation to Fragments

David TracyHe is a theologian who has been based in Chicago and is responsible for the New Chicago School is opposed to defending rigid received dogmas of Christianity against critical thinking, yet he also considers liberal theology self critical. He wants a multidisciplinary approach to avoid ideological distortion of theology (as well as other forms of ideological distortion) and theology to be self critical particularly of its ambiguous history and to avoid further marginalisation.
So he sets up a mutually critical correlation between theology and the achievements of modernity. There are discontinuities too between the secular view of modernity and Christianity, and this should reveal the mysterious nature of God and Christocentrism in the New Testament. This latter point seems odd at first, if it seeks to preserve something not in a discourse with the secular but showing it to be separate in any sense. Yet this is his criticism of liberal theology, that it has been too happy to see human culture and Christian faith as continuous. And whilst neo-orthodoxy both results from liberalism and criticises it, it is too happy to accept uncritically the Word of God.
He wants instead a non-dualistic double track method of examining a reconciliation between
...the principal values, cognitive claims and existential faiths of both a re-interpreted post-modern consciousness and a reinterpreted Christianity (Tracy, 1975, 32).
This asks how Christianity has responded to the sacred experience outside of itself through history. This reconciliation is between a consciousness of common human experience, along with the view that life is worthwhile, including religious aspects beyond Christianity, which is to feed into Christian theology, as well as Christian sources themselves. This is broader than Tillich who considered that the Christian message answered longings manifesting outside of itself and thus joined the two, one into the other; Tracy sees dialogue not joining the two but mutual critical work and informing.
As for the Christian resources, there needs to be a hermeneutical approach which extracts meanings from the poetic and symbolic character in the New Testament (proverbs, proclamations, parables, and eschatological sayings in particular, pushing the language to its limits) and a transcendental approach which recognises the limits of human meaning and indeed the limits of language as a container of God - God is beyond this. When it comes to ultimate reality, nothing is master of its own speech; true testimony to ultimate reality means text that is uncontrollable and unmasterable (1987, 109). This approach needs the use of analogy to show the limit of language (1981) - although it uses language. So Tracy moved more towards hermeneutics, especially in the notions of the classic and the conversation. This is because it always comes down to language, including the need for a compelling and liberating language speaking to contemporary conditions to bring out the power of the love of God. The need to interpret and express goes on. He preferred analogy to dialectic, however, as analogy, with its integrity and dignity with openness and willingness to change, propelled more towards unity in diversity and harmony. This was his hermeneutic method - imaginative, reflective, broad and comparative, space-clearing to both show truth concealed and revealed.
The classic is a transcending piece (Tracy, 1981, 119) that impresses itself upon any interpreter: and it covers texts, events, images, rituals, symbols and persons. Any of these disclose truth. (1981, 108). The classic cannot be limited to a context, and has a power to interpret the intending interpreter in its permanence, attention demand and excess of meaning (Tracy, 1983/4, 296), and does this by itself with anyone coming into contact with it. The religious classic is one variant of this, and the Christian one impresses just the same prior to any declaration of centrality by Church or group. Clearly the classic is the meanings of Jesus Christ disclosing God for the Christian tradition.
The classic is stable - it just is - but the interpretation is unstable in terms of the conversation and its mutual questioning.
The conversation (sometimes argument, but conversation implies more of a totality than argument) means enquiry on a communal level. The community includes the voices of the oppressed and marginal. The difficulty is here the distance in the postmodern situation from inherited classics, with plenty of suspicion about them and their role in oppression. We are even distanced from ourselves and how we used to think and know. Modernity in the form of the self in Enlightenment, expressionism in Romanticism, the anxious in Existentialism, or Transcendentalism of consciousness cannot suffice (Tracy, 1987, 73). So an effort needs to be made to get to the classics of art and religion: not that people gain the correct interpretation but that they express appropriate interpretation according to their reading and who they are - speaking their reading so that they are heard (see 104). There is here the relationship between event, memory, narrative and reflective interpretation in bringing forward all voices in the conversation.
Resistance is required when genuine benefits have been found and must be held, for example classic liberal rights (from the bourgois), when these come under challenge (Tracy, 1987, 106), but readings of other often unheard groups (in solidarity with them) that add to these rights means choice and application (107). Hope is found in the more modest and self-critical approach to reason gained through conversation (113). Hopes are expressed in the great religions, from which Christianity should listen and learn. Hope is also in a theology of justice for women, including within Churches, and a theology for nature, including hope in hope itself as they express as well as trust in ultimate reality, even some sense of enlightenment and emancipation for the non-believing reader (113). The point is that language is dynamic and leads on to reality, and therefore understanding leads to action and change.
He now rejects the totality isms of theology and prefers the fragment instead (Holland, 2002).
The fragment means an end to wanting to explain by a total modernist system. It is the small input that offers hope of redemption where it is, and different from those who want fragments to restore what was a unified culture within theology (an example would be John Milbank), or the postmodernist thrusting ahead in criticising total systems. This redemption itself comes on the margins, and from those who move over boundaries and hardly settled in cultural-linguistic communities. Fragments are available from various places, such as the secular, postmodernity and Buddhism, in Asian thinking, Celtic traces (Holland, 2002). This does not mean consistency but is another plurality, different fragments from different cultural-linguistic origins and gathered into an open mix. Two fragmentary inputs are the the apocalyptic and the apophatic.
So by apocalyptic Tracy means God enters history in a hidden manner among the rejected and suffering offering hope beyond hope. In the context of the postmodern the apophatic and love mystics allow back in the marginalized, fools, dissenters, heretics, martyrs, and the different to speak their own stories their way (Holland, 2002).
He resists a manifestation of sacredness that takes one to a total system again. He wants to prevent the prophetic tradition generalising into an ethical system and the wisdom tradition generalising into the good and aesthetics and art. Against this there can be intensification of each, so that the wisdom tradition becomes apophatic and the prophetic tradition becomes apocalyptic - avoiding systems. (Holland, 2002)
The apocalyptic joins to Christology in that Christ has come and has not come, that the messianism must remain. The second coming equals incarnation, the cross and resurrection as symbols of christological faith. (Holland, 2002)
Tracy has become focused on the Hidden-Revealed God and the Comprehensible-Incomprehensible God on the context of postmodernism. This context informs studies on Christology and then the Spirit relating Christianity to other faiths. (Holland, 2002)

My reflection on this is that postmodernity questions the stability of the classic too, not just its interpretation. Art has asked this question: is there high art in a postmodern regime? Is there a standing classic, religious classic, and Christian core materials?

Ultimate reality (which can be Buddhist as well as theistic) is another name for highest meaning derived, even if it can overflow. Is this God? Does this all relational ultimate reality deliver purpose (via resistance, solidarities, hopes)? The earlier Tracy wants it both ways in that God is related to all reality yet knows that postmodernism questions reality, and upsets all unities into contingent relationships in the plural. Not that Tracy is worried, for postmodernism gives new opportunities for change in thought and action, and indeed he moved the argument further with the fragments approach.

He had been trying to connect Church, academy and community, but to do this would call on fundamental changes especially to Church. It was one key part of the eurocentric elite, and this is part of its very textual classic narrative; and if the world is now polycentric, it should take on board the results of the conversation and change the classic (but indeed, not that it should become as the swamped "consumer goods" of liberal theology). He remains right that modernity suppressed the once outer voices to create a change in solidarity, and that suspicion is necessary to all constructions. This does not leave the classic untouched or it is in danger of becoming in large part a monument or museum to irrelevant and despised thinking and action, creating at best a classic with an awful lot of redundancy.

So the turn to a theology of fragments is consistent with postmodernism, as all systems open space and break down as totalities. More interestingly too is to locate the marginalised on the edge of cultural-linguistic communities. So concepts take on a dual characteristic of being revealed and not-revealed, themselves sitting on the edge. The implications for a once systematic linear-historical Church are obvious. The question is whether he is trying to recover theology still in terms of social dialogue, or if it has become one of the fragments of contemporary times.

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and ThoughtfulTo the Home Page: click here only if you arrived at this page directly and close this page when finished


Some works on and by David Tracy

Carmody, J. T., Carmody, D. L. (1980), Contemporary Catholic Theology: An Introduction, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Holland, S. (2002), This Side of God: A Conversation with David Tracy, Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: at work at the beginning of the millennium [Accessed January 9, 2005, 17:05].

Jeanround, W. G., Rike, J. L., (Eds.) (1991), Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion, New York: Crossroad.

Tracy, D. (1970), The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan, New York: Herder & Herder.

Tracy, D. (1975), Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology, New York: Seabury.

Tracy, D. (1981), The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, New York: Crossroad.

Tracy, D., Cobb, J. (1983), Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism, New York: Seabury.  

Tracy, D. (1983-84), 'Creativity in the Interpretation of Religion': The Question of Radical Pluralism', in New Literary History, 15.

Tracy, D., Happel, S. (1984), A Catholic Vision, Philadelphia: Fortress.

Tracy, D., Grant, R. (1984), A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2nd edition, Philadelphia: Fortress.

Tracy, D. (1987), Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Tracy, D. (1990), Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue, Louvain: Eerdmans/ Peeters Press.

Tracy, D. (1990), 'On Naming the Present', Concilium: On the Threshold of the Third Milennium, London: SCM, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Tracy, D. (1994), On Naming the Present, God, Hermeneutics, and Church, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.