Review: A new theology to serve a world in need of decisive action

(Mike Labrum /Unsplash)

By almost any standard, it has been a horrible year. Covid-19 has claimed over a million lives worldwide and destroyed untold livelihoods. For the United States, often immune to (and ignorant of) the plagues that others around the world routinely face, the pandemic erupted along with other crises and disasters. We have felt outrage over our history of racial injustice. The political landscape is bleak, and the U.S. West Coast seemed for months to be literally turning to cinders. The sheer totality of tragedy seems apocalyptic.

Fragmentsby David Tracy

University of Chicago Press

408p $39


Filamentsby David Tracy

University of Chicago Press

432p $39

Into this world David Tracy has published a two-volume collection of previously published essays. For those familiar with the work of this distinguished American theologian, such a publication is itself an event. (His friends apparently urged him on.) In a year that has seen such suffering, however, it is fair to ask why we need two more volumes of learned reflections on everyone from Plotinus to Proust, from the Gospel of Mark to passages of Toni Morrison...and many, many, many others in between.

If I read Tracy correctly, he himself would positively encourage such a question. He may even ask (as many people do): What in the world do we need from theology in the first place? How does it matter to those who fight fires, nurse dying patients or barely survive in refugee camps? What can theology do for those who have been traumatized by centuries of racism? For Tracy, who has always seen theology as developing critical correlations between contemporary experience and the Christian tradition, the emergence of almost 900 pages of his essays together with the events of 2020 presents something of a stress test. They may have been written long before the pandemic or renewed calls to racial justice, but they are still read today, and each of them represents an attempt to interpret our times.

David Tracy notes that theologies representing the voices of those who have been oppressed understand human tragedy in ways others do not.

Tragedy, then, may be a timely point of entry—both to interpreting our times and reading these volumes. “All religions,” Tracy notes, “begin with an unnerving sense that something is fundamentally wrong with reality.” Whether it is Hindu and Buddhist doctrine on primal ignorance or Jewish and Christian teaching about sin, religious thinking of varied traditions sets forth some basic vision of good while attempting to respond to the horrors of life. Yet Tracy argues that even concepts like evil and sin do not adequately account for the sheer scope of human suffering, which results from conditions that cannot be readily controlled, much less fixed. Rather, much suffering seems determined as if by some ineluctable necessity, fate or extremely bad luck.

In several fascinating essays, therefore, Tracy urges us to retrieve an appreciation of tragedy as a category for understanding human experience in our own times. Even though some people may enjoy personal liberties and access to godlike technology, from time to time we still feel caught in thick nets like those described so richly by the ancient dramatist Aeschylus. Ancestral crimes (like chattel slavery, colonialism, the degradation of the environment or genocide) seem to have established unending cycles of suffering. As Tracy notes, theologies representing the voices of those who have been oppressed (including Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone and Cornel West) understand human tragedy in ways others do not.

Yet tragedy does not exclude hope, and Tracy wonders whether Christian self-understanding would have been enriched if early theologians had turned to Greek tragedy as a resource in addition to philosophy. Augustine, for instance, had a profoundly tragic sensibility, even if he resisted the notion of tragic fate, which was inconsistent with his understanding of God. In addition to the thick range of human cruelties, however, Augustine shows an anxious awareness of floods, earthquakes, plagues and other catastrophes that are not the fault of human beings. Tracy observes that Augustine’s sense of Christian hope, his understanding of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection would have been strengthened if had allowed himself to think not only in terms of sin-grace but of tragedy-grace. Another of Tracy’s favorite thinkers, Simone Weil, did just that, and the result was an exceptional vision that speaks to late modernity—“a deeper Christian vision of God as hidden, of Christ as incarnate and crucified, of ourselves as wretched (i.e., as great, tragic, and sinful all at once), and of creation as sparks of the Good let loose in the world.”

David Tracy wonders whether Christian self-understanding would have been enriched if early theologians had turned to Greek tragedy as a resource in addition to philosophy.

‘The spiritual situation of our time’

Tracy asks us to read the essays as “Fragments” and “Filaments.” The latter term alludes to a poem by Walt Whitman, in which a lonely spider launches “filament, filament, filament out of itself” to bridge spheres that are otherwise detached. The creature does so “Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” Like the patient spider (or Whitman himself), this theologian hopes to draw slender but real connections with a range of thinkers, ancient and modern, that may help souls in their own journeys.

The image of fragment, however, is the far more important construct for understanding what theology may contribute to our world. In the first chapter of these volumes, Tracy calls a world of fragments “the spiritual situation of our time.” As an archaeologist unearths shards of pottery or stones from fallen buildings to understand an ancient civilization, often all we have are pieces of traditions that may provide some spiritual insight. Whereas thinkers since the Enlightenment may have had confidence in a rationality that tried to assimilate all reality into closed, centralized, totalizing systems (often associated with “Western modernity”), more and more we recognize otherness, difference and irreducible particularity. As a result, those totalities have been shattered, and we are left with fragments of former structures. That, as Tracy sees it, is not a bad thing. Not only have these systems led to economic, political and cultural oppression; they have also marginalized religious phenomena that did not conform to what counted as “rational.” Fragments can still reveal so much.

The term fragments, then, operates metaphorically to suggest cultural resources that resist the totalizing impulse of so much modern thinking, especially in relation to religion. For Tracy, fragments can be portals of hope. As opposed to those whom he labels “the neoconservatives,” who regard fragments nostalgically, as all we have of a formally unified culture and in contrast to others (“the postmodernists”), who just celebrate our liberation from the domesticating power of modern rationality, Tracy calls his own approach “theological-spiritual.” Discover the right fragment, he says, “and you will discover an entry into the eventful, infinite character of reality itself.” A Christian like Tracy would name that reality God, who is infinite love.

The usefulness of “fragments” as a heuristic device is significant. Among American Catholics, for instance, there can be significant hand-wringing at data that shows the religious disaffiliation of many young people. While that certainly merits reflection, the eclecticism, concern for diversity and resistance to institutional religion among Millennials (and whatever we will call their successor cohorts) suggests the promise of fragments. A young woman who serves as an emergency medical technician may not have any religious background, but she still wonders at the suffering she witnesses and looks for support. A young man shocked by the American history of racism may find in a Black Lives Matter protest greater moral purpose than in the Mass his grandmother has been urging him to attend. At the end of a long shift in which several people died, a transgender emergency room nurse may find great solace sitting before the Blessed Sacrament and spending weekends in activism.

Those familiar with fragments of our traditions (whether theologians, pastors, teachers or parents) need to discern which ones can be gathered to address the spiritual situations of our times in such a way that may “burst open the vision of Infinity.” At a time when the American public has such little trust in institutions (religious, political or educational), fragments hold promise as “saturated and auratic bearers of infinity and sacred hope, fragmentary of genuine hope in some redemption, however undefined.”

As an archaeologist unearths shards of pottery or stones from fallen buildings to understand an ancient civilization, often all we have are pieces of traditions that may provide some spiritual insight.

Infinity, Public Theology and Limit Experiences

Infinity as a category for thinking about God remains prominent throughout these two volumes. Tracy finds in the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus the first argument for the Infinite One as a positive reality and goes on to link the concept to the thought of Christian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Nicolas of Cusa, William of St. Thierry and others. These figures appear throughout the essays, especially Gregory of Nyssa, who posits a relationship between divine infinity and human longing that stretches out (epektasis) in love for God and neighbor. Yet infinity also provides Tracy with a point of entry to conversation with philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, as well as other schools of thought (religious and otherwise) that linger around ideas of radical openness—whether named God or Void or the Open or the Impossible or Creativity or Being or the Good Beyond Being. In finding language that can be applied across disciplines or confessional and philosophical boundaries, Tracy remains firmly committed to public theology, which engages a range of publics in service of a better common life.

One of his essays, for instance, reflects on “Religion in the Public Realm: Three Forms of Publicness.” First, Tracy makes a strong case that good theological thinking contributes to a larger “community of inquiry,” which has to reflect on what counts as reasonable, sharable public assertions. Second, lest public discourse be limited to techno-economic means rather than more substantive ends, Tracy argues that religious thinkers (like artists) can contribute to visions of the common good that provide insight on matters ranging from the environment to restorative justice. Third, the prophetic and contemplative strains of religion offer resources for public discussion of reality that goes past the limits of reason. If theology can contribute in the ways Tracy suggests, it will surely edify public discourse, which is becoming increasingly mean and nasty.

Following thinkers like Tillich and Jaspers, Tracy frequently refers to boundary situations that all human beings experience—the death of a loved one, for instance, or anxiety over one’s own impending death or a dread of nothingness. Together with occasions of joy, like falling in love or the birth of a child, these “limit-experiences” often call for expression that exceeds the limits of ordinary language. “Limit questions,” like why one should be moral at all or why one should fight for justice, again gesture to an implicit religious dimension of our ordinary experience and encourage the deployment of different language forms (e.g., metaphor, narrative, analogy, etc.) in various traditions.

David Tracy makes a strong case that good theological thinking contributes to a larger “community of inquiry,” which has to reflect on what counts as reasonable, sharable public assertions.

Theology From Here On

Although the 37 essays in these volumes were written for particular contexts, common themes and variations emerge throughout. Tracy, for instance, is especially concerned with issues of hermeneutics. Interpreting the principal texts and events of a tradition remains a key task of the theologian, whether the purpose is to retrieve with trust or to render a critique or with a certain suspicion to expose subtle, perhaps unconscious, patterns that repress, silence and harm. After all, “every document of civilization,” he says, “is at the same time a document of barbarism.” He also insists in multiple essays that, like ancient philosophy, the work of theology needs to be a spiritual exercise or a “way of life,” lest it become a desiccated routine.

Tracy’s interlocutors are many, but the circle is also limited. For instance, he names feminism in its various forms as the most powerful and influential of modern critical theories. And yet his single chapter on feminist theology is one of the shortest in the volumes (five pages). In no way does Tracy oppose contextual theologies (e.g., feminist, African-American, liberationist), but he is aware that his context is what he calls “my own male, white, academic theology.” Clearly such a group is being de-centered, and one senses that Tracy, at the end of his long career, welcomes that movement.

Much of contemporary theology, he acknowledges, has shifted from questions of individual meaning (like those his mentor, Paul Tillich, posed) to problems of the interconnection of massive global suffering and oppression. He suggests the world desperately needs reflection, analysis and action. And yet from the rare, serene context of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, Tracy has given us a gift in his very depth of thought and imagination. As a Catholic, Christian theologian he exemplifies how one can engage the world from a particular tradition, which imperfectly strives toward the infinite love of God, who is Trinity and revealed in the singular person of Jesus. Tracy has for years promised a “big book” on God, and these volumes of fragments whet the appetite.

In a context, however, where there is a loss of confidence in religious language (to say nothing of religious institutions), we may presume some people are uninterested in whatever “God” may mean. In a situation where so much discourse can be ugly, cheap and reactive, we might think that public dialogue on questions of ultimate value is simply no longer possible. In a year that has truly been terrible, we might be tempted to see theology as building castles in the air. But even in our current crises, our deeper questions have not gone away. We are in great need of exemplars to model how to marshal what resources we have to address them. In Tracy we find someone who strives for a “public theology” that resists the temptation to retire complacently to “some pleasant but deceptively secure reservation of the spirit.” And he does it with such care, discipline and intentionality that we should both notice and imitate.

As Tracy himself cautions, “The alternative is whistling in the dark.”

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