Defending the Public Character of Theology

by David Tracy

David Tracy is Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor of Catholic Studies at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 1, 1981, pp. 350-356. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock..


No major religion, properly understood, can accept a privatistic self-understanding. Indeed, theologians of every radically monotheistic religion realize that its fundamental commitment to God demands that we express that theistic belief in ways that will render it public not merely to ourselves or our particular religious group.

For the past ten years, three theological issues have concerned me most: the public nature of theology, the religious reality of fundamental trust, and the meaning of theological pluralism.

The issue of the public nature of theology is a familiar one. The shorthand word for the cultural problem which this question of publicness addresses is the "privatization of religion." A major concern for any religious thinker is that religion often serves as another purely private option with merely private effects. Yet no major religion, properly understood, can accept a privatistic self-understanding. Indeed, theologians of every radically monotheistic religion realize that its fundamental commitment to God demands that we express that theistic belief in ways that will render it public not merely to ourselves or our particular religious group. No Christian or Jewish theologian alert to the radical theocentrism at the heart of theology can rest content with the fatal social view that religious convictions are purely "personal preferences" or "private options."

The Thrust to Publicness

If a theologian does rest content with privateness, no one in. our society will really mind. There are many "reservations of the spirit" for the weary in American society. One more will not prove too burdensome. But whenever a theologian will not allow a societal definition of religion as a sometimes useful, sometimes dangerous, usually harmless "private option," then the struggle of contemporary theology for authentic publicness begins. If theologians in the liberal ‘tradition, moreover, resign themselves to privateness, they unwittingly betray the genius of that tradition. They also reject the heart of that tradition’s attempt to achieve publicness through persuasive argument. Indeed, they hand over that public role of theology to the coercive tactics of a resurgent reaction announcing itself as the "Moral Majority."

It is not, of course, the case that all theologians should accept an explicit concern with "publicness" as their major focus. A thrust to publicness must, however, be present in all theologies. Otherwise, theology no longer exists. Such is my conviction. It is a conviction based on the theological warrant that any seriously theocentric construal of reality demands publicness. To speak and mean God-language is to speak publicly and mean it. Theologians must speak of many matters. And yet, if they are not also speaking of God while they address these other issues, they are not doing theology. Theologians can and must speak in many forms and genres. But if they are not articulating a public position, they are not speaking theologically.

To speak in a public fashion means to speak in a manner that can be disclosive and transformative for any intelligent, reasonable, responsible human being. Yet how is that ideal actualized in theology? First, theologians must pay more attention to the primary social realities (the actual "publics") informing every particular theology. Second, theologians must argue how the general "publicness" of all theological language is actualized into distinct but related theological disciplines. A good deal of my own theological reflection in the past ten years has been the attempt to speak to these two interrelated dimensions of the single issue of the public character of theology.

The battle for historical consciousness in theology has been waged for over 150 years. In the present climate of a neoconservative resurgence in both the churches and society, that cause may be endangered in some theological circles. Even so, the fight for historical consciousness in mainline theologies seems basically secure. For myself, certain early formative influences in the early ‘60s (biblical criticism, Bernard Lonergan’s reflections on method and historical consciousness, and the splendid ambience of student days in Rome during the Second Vatican Council) solidified my own sharing in the common conviction that there can be no return to a pre-ecumenical, prepluralistic, ahistorical theology. Historical consciousness may be rejected at the moment by some official church authorities. Yet that consciousness and all it implies for theology cannot be rejected by theologians. And it will not be rejected by history itself.

More recently, a social-scientific consciousness has also entered theology, with effects both as disturbing and as liberating as theology’s earlier recognition of the need for historical consciousness. Indeed, a "sociological imagination" is slowly transforming all theologies -- sometimes with unsettling and explicit power, as in the use of critical social theories in political and liberation theologies; sometimes with more implicit but no less unsettling effect, as in the increasing use of sociology of knowledge to clarify the actual social settings (or publics) of different theologies.

The use of social science suggests that the question of the public character of theology is best posed first, as noted above, as a question of these different publics to which theologies are addressed. For the kinds of "publicness" achieved by different theologies are strongly influenced by the distinct kinds of social realities (or publics) from which theologies emerge and to which they speak. As a discipline, theology has the peculiarity of being related to three distinct publics -- academy, church and society. Any genuine theological proposal that really means what it says about God implicitly addresses all three publics.

In fact, however, most theologies emerge from and are principally addressed to one of these three publics. Academic theologies (with their focus on such questions as method, the disciplinary status of theology in the modern university, the relationships of theology and religious studies, and the development of public criteria for theological language) are obviously related principally to the public of the academy. Many other theologies are more explicitly church-related in both their principal interests and their primary audience. Still other theologies are far more concerned with a theological response to societal struggles for justice. In every case the primary social locus (or "public") of the theologian (society, academy, church) will undoubtedly influence but need not determine the particular form of public theological criteria and language that are used.

Breaking Through the Swamp of Privateness

This is not to say that theology should now become social science. Indeed, as Harnack correctly observed of historical study itself, history (and, we can now add, social science) must have the first word in theology but cannot have the last. There an explicitly theological analysis must occur. For all theologies intend their language to include a fully public character. All theologies are implicitly related to all three publics even though usually one public (society, academy or church) will be primary.

My own proposal on particular ways through which publicness occurs is to argue that there exist three major sub-disciplines constituting theology -- viz., fundamental, systematic and practical theology. This proposal is easy enough to state briefly yet impossible to defend short of lengthy analysis and argument.

In an attempt to provide those necessary arguments, I have written two related books: first, a book on fundamental theology (Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology [Seabury, 1975]). That book defends the first and obvious meaning of publicness (viz., as meaning and truth available to all intelligent, reasonable and rational persons through persuasive argument) for the logically ordered questions of religion, God and Christ. A recently completed book on systematic theology (The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism [Crossroad, 1981]) defends a second, less obvious but no less genuine notion of the kind of publicness that systematic theologies actually achieve.

I continue to believe that the discipline of fundamental theology is necessary to investigate critically the central claims of Christianity. I continue to believe that this kind of enterprise is indeed fundamental for the attempt to break through the swamp of privateness that afflicts religion and theology in our day. The basic strategy of that earlier book still seems correct to me: an attempt to develop criteria of publicness for responding to the three central questions posed to Christian belief. First, is a religious interpretation of our common human experience meaningful and rue? Second, is a belief in God as the proper referent of that religious experience and language meaningful and true? Third, within that religious and theistic frame of reference, is it meaningful to appeal to the particularity of the Christian event of Jesus Christ?

I suspect that the way the questions are posed already suggests that my basic response to each of these questions is affirmative, as indeed it is. My public warrants for a Yes to religion, God and Christ are articulated in that book on fundamental theology. Since I have not in fact "‘changed my mind" in any basic way on the availability, of a positive response to all three questions, I will here move on to the more difficult question of the public nature of systematic theologies. Here some important changes have occurred for me.

Appeals to Particularity

At first sight, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that systematic theologies are public. For systematic theologies, after all, are theological expressions of a particular religious tradition’s construal of all reality from the vantage point of that religious particularity. Moreover, the ease with which Christian theologians can move from an emphasis on Christian particularity to the trap of Christian exclusivism (especially in Christology for Protestants, in ecclesiology for Catholics) has made me wary of many theological appeals to particularity. Are not these appeals to particularity often sophisticated expressions of a private option from the fabled land of personal preferences? And yet this correct suspicion clashes with another basic intuition: the greatest works of art and all the major religions are in fact highly particular in both origin and expression.

Every classic work of art reaches public (and sometimes universal) status through, not despite, its particularity. All the major religions remain deeply rooted in highly particular experiences, persons, events, rituals, symbols. Religions tend to collapse as religions whenever their rootednesses in particularity is ripped away by later reflection. Each of us contributes more to the common good when we dare to undertake a journey into our own particularity (this family, this community, this people, this culture, this religion) than when we attempt to homogenize all differences in favor of some lowest common denominator. Like the ancient Romans who made a desert and called it peace, we are tempted to root out all particularity and call it publicness.

A full defense of this intuition as true (i.e., as "public") demands the kind of argument and modes of reflections which I have attempted in my recently completed work on systematic theology (The Analogical Imagination). Pursuing that intuition in research for four years proved, for me at least, liberating. When I wrote Blessed Rage for Order, I did state that even if the arguments for the public character of fundamental theology in that book were sound, those arguments could not determine the distinctive form of publicness proper to systematic theology or that proper to practical theology. At that time (1975) I knew that there was a real difference between fundamental and systematic theology and, therefore, between the forms of publicness proper to each. Yet I could not then formulate exactly what the difference was.

A Theory of the Classic

The central puzzle became the paradox of the classic. The initial paradox I formulated this way: why do the classic systematic theologies, like the classic works of art, function so disclosively, indeed so publicly, in spite of their particularity? The most important change of mind I have experienced has been the gradual replacement of that crucial "in spite of" clause with a firm "because of." The productive paradox of the classic is that every classic in both art and religion achieves its genuine public-ness because of, not in spite of, an intensified particularity.

To understand this productive paradox, I turned first to the experience of art and developed a theory of "the classic." This theory provides an argument for how the experience of a public disclosure of truth actually happens in the classic works of art. I then reflected upon the distinctive characteristics of the religious classic and, more specifically, the Christian classic: the person and event of Jesus Christ.

I attempted, therefore, to develop public criteria for the truth of art and religion as distinct but related disclosures of truth (for systematic theology). I am now attempting to develop public criteria of ethical (personal and societal) transformation for practical theology. A book on practical theology now preoccupies me in the same way that an earlier struggle for public criteria in fundamental theology concerned me in the early ‘70s and the struggle for criteria of meaning and truth in the disclosures of the beautiful and the holy in the classic works of art and religion preoccupied me in the late ‘70s. Such was -- and is -- the basic program designed to defend the public character of theology. Whether that program succeeds or fails, the readers (i.e., the public) must finally decide.

Of this much, however, I feel sure: no theologian can long avoid these kinds of issues if the character of theology as serious speech about God is to survive. A culture can abandon metaphysics, marginalize art, and privatize religion -- but it will eventually pay a heavy price. Our increasingly splintered society has begun to recognize how heavy the price can be. Consider the disturbing witness of our present American spectacle: a popular and privatistic gospel of self-fulfillment lined up against the deceptively "public" gospel of the "Moral Majority." Can these really be our only choices: the pathos of privateness or coercive theological nonsense? For ethicists, philosophers, artists and theologians, both alternatives should be unacceptable.

The Universality of the Divine Reality

As these reflections on the public character of theology indicate, my own major social locus is the academy -- more exactly, for the past ten years, that remarkable center of colleagueship and scholarship, the University of Chicago divinity school. I recognize that my theology bears all the marks (including the negative ones) of what many now criticize as "academic theology." Yet I can see no good reason, short of abandoning my own particularity, for forsaking those limitations and those possibilities. Each theologian, to repeat, is related implicitly to all three publics. I have been fortunate enough to be explicitly related to all three. Yet whether our relationships to academy, society or church are implicit or explicit, we all must remind ourselves anew of certain theological realities in our present situation.

Each theologian attempts to speak in and to three publics. The demands and the plausibility-structures of each public have been internalized to different degrees of radicality in each theologian. That drive to publicness which constitutes all good theological discourse is a drive from and to those three publics. Existentially, the theologian invests loyalty and trust in both church and world. Each strives, as a single self, to recognize that one’s fundamental faith and loyalty are to God. Each knows, as a theological interpreter of Christian self-understanding, that faith in God includes a fundamental trust in and loyalty to both church and world. We know that only God is an unambiguous object of loyalty and trust. We also know that both church and world are as ambiguous in actuality as the internal conflicts in the "foul rag and bone shop of the heart." To live with that ambiguity is incumbent upon every Christian. To try to think honestly, critically and clearly in relationship to it is incumbent upon every theologian.

Many theologians try to resolve this dilemma by choosing one of the three publics as their primary reference group. They tend to leave the other two publics at the margins of their consciousness.

Theologians also recognize, however, that their fundamental trust and loyalty are to the all-pervasive reality of God. Any radically monotheistic understanding of the reality of God (whether classical, process, liberationist or liberal) affirms the strict universality of the divine reality. Whatever else it is, any Christian theology is ultimately and radically theocentric. An insight into the universal character of the divine reality as the always-present object of the Christian’s trust and loyalty is what ultimately impels every theology to attempt publicness. For God as understood by the Jew or Christian is either universal in reality or sheer delusion. Theology in all its forms is finally nothing else but the attempt to reflect deliberately and critically upon that reality. Theology is logas on theos.

A theologian’s private universality is, at best, an oxymoron. At worst it is a serious misunderstanding of the fundamental reality of God. If faith in God is serious, then any discourse about that faith must be public. An understanding of the reality of God ultimately should determine all other theological discourse, just as fundamental trust in and loyalty to God should determine all one’s other loyalties.

An Ambiguous World

Theologians also acknowledge the ambiguous reality of all three publics. A public of a society where reason is often reduced to sheer instrumentality, where technology is in danger of becoming technocracy -- yet a public where the interest of a genuine public good is symbolically, legally and politically affirmed and where a "rough justice" can occasionally prevail. A public of the academy where too often Plato is preached while Hobbes is practiced, yet where the interests of critical reason and civilized experience are honored and practiced even in the breach. A public of the church where the bureaucrat finds new "outlets" for "input," where mystification and repression can often breathe heavily -- yet still a public where the gift of God’s liberating word is preached, where the sacraments of God’s encompassing reality are re-presented, where the dangerous memory of Jesus is kept alive, where a genuine community of persons who actually live the Christian reality may yet be found

Does it not follow that the theologian should maintain trust in and loyalty to all three publics as concrete expressions of "world" and "church" so long as loyalty to God remains the first and pervasive loyalty?

In an ambiguous world, an ambiguous self can still find trust. In a broken world where the sense of the reality of the whole often discloses itself as a sense of the eclipse of the reality of God, one can still find a fundamental trust in the very meaningfulness of existence itself. Thereby can we learn anew to trust in the reality Jews and Christians name God. If that trust is articulated in the properly eschatological terms of Christian self-understanding, then a confident hope for a future full recognition of that God, a hope for a vision of the whole beyond present ambiguity and brokenness, is disclosed in the proleptic manifestation called Jesus Christ. A gift that is also a command; an enigma that is also a promise; an ambiguity that is also an assurance -- in such terms does the Christian consciousness attempt to understand both itself and the encompassing reality.

Yet as important as such methodological reflections on the public character of theology may be, they should not become the occasion to shirk reflection on the central issues of theology. As Karl Rahner rightly remarks, "We cannot spend all our time sharpening the knife; at some point we must cut." Such theological cutting as I have done has centered on three central theological doctrines: the nature of religion (and, therefore, of revelation), the nature of God, and, more recently, the nature of Christology. I have tried to speak on these three issues in the books cited and shall try to speak on them again and more adequately in the future. My positions on all three are probably still best described as revisionary (Le, the use of a "limit-language" approach to the questions of religion and revelation; the use of process categories for understanding the reality of God; and the use of symbolic literary-critical analyses for interpreting Christology).

A Route Highlighting the Negative

Upon reflection, I cannot claim that any major changes on the issues of religion, God or Christ have occurred for me over the past ten years. Still, I do hope that my more recent work develops the sometimes fairly embryonic positions (especially on Christology) presented in Blessed Rage for Order.

On one substantive issue, however, I do think that I have experienced something like a sea-change in both sensibility and theological understanding. In my earlier work, I tended to emphasize an approach to religion by means of reflection upon what can be called the positive limit-experiences of life. I especially emphasized the experience of fundamental trust as the principal contemporary "secular" clue for approaching the meaning of religion, God and Christ.

I do not doubt that fundamental trust remains a crucial (and still widely overlooked) phenomenon for approaching the issues of religion and God. Yet I have come to doubt that the route from fundamental trust to religion and God can prove as direct or as unencumbered as I once thought. More exactly, I no longer believe that the "route" of the negative realities (anxiety, responsible guilt, death, illness, bereavement, alienation and oppression) is correctly described as an alternative route to the questions of religion and God.

Rather, the profound negativities of human existence -- personal, societal and historical -- seem so pervasive in this age that any route to fundamental trust must be far more circuitous, tentative and even potholed than I had once hoped. The Christian symbols that speak to those realities of negation -- cross, apocalyptic, sin, the demonic, the radically incomprehensible, the hidden and revealed God -- strike home to me today far more than they ever did before.

The theological results, as I suspect my recent work shows, are clear enough. My theological understandings of religion, God and Jesus Christ remain fundamentally the same in substance yet really different in tone. For the route to those interpretations is now arrived at less quickly and even less surely. The experience of fundamental trust remains as central to me as it ever was. Yet even that trust has now become subtly transformed by being arrived at only through a route highlighting the negative at every moment of the theological journey.

The classic theological language of analogy (the language of somehow ordered relationships) remains my real theological home. Yet now the analogies emerge more tentatively through (not in spite of) the various languages of radical negative dialectics. This recognition of the need for both the negative and the positive as always already together in every religious journey has forced me onto a more unsteady route for every, question of theology.

The Darker Side of Pluralism

I have never, for example, regretted or bemoaned contemporary theological pluralism. I have always assumed that any authentic pluralism -- personal, cultural, theological, religious -- is an enrichment, not an impoverishment, of the human spirit. I still trust my instinctive affirmation of our pluralistic actuality.

Yet I have come to see more clearly the darker side of this pluralistic vision. Whenever pluralism slides into the all-too-human option of a simple. minded "let a thousand flowers bloom," it corrodes even as it builds. Whenever pluralism becomes too content with a relaxed model of "dialogue," it can ignore the need for conflict and the actualities of systematic distortions in the personal (psychosis), historical (alienation and oppression) and religious (sin) dimensions of every person, culture and tradition. Whenever pluralism in theology resists the need for argument, warrants, theory, evidence, praxis, it becomes a kind of Will Rogers pluralism: one where theologians have never met a position they didn’t like. I have met several I didn’t like. So, too, has every other responsible pluralist.

In order to continue a genuine affirmation of pluralism despite the profound negative realities in the buzzing, blooming confusion of this pluralistic moment, I have turned to a strategy I name "the analogical imagination." Technical matters on analogy aside for the moment, the strategy itself rests on certain basic beliefs. We understand one another, if at all, only through analogy. Who you are I know only if you will allow me to sense -- through a gesture, a text, a symbol, a story, a theory, a way of life -- what central vision of existence actually empowers your life. If we converse, we shall both be changed. For then our central visions will meet and conflict, join and depart, and, in that very dialectic, disclose the genuine differences, the latent negativities, the possible identities and, above all, the similarities-in-difference (the analogies) in every life and all thinking.

The global culture which the present suggests and the future demands impels everyone -- every individual, every group, every culture, every religious and theological tradition -- to recognize the plurality within each self, among all selves, all traditions, all cultures in the. face ot the elusive, pervasive whole of reality: the whole which Christian and Jew know as the Who named God. Our present situation demands that each come to the dialogue with a genuine self-respect in her or his particularity as well as a willingness to expose oneself as oneself to the other as really other. Self-exposure is merely the reverse side of the self-respect demanded by this pluralistic moment.

Authentic Conversation

To the neo-conservatives of the moment, no such theological strategy for embracing pluralism without forfeiting mind, negativity, argument, rootedness, tradition, particularity can ever succeed. ‘The neoconservative strategy for the ‘80s is quite different. All we need do, it seems, is return home and bolt the doors. All we can hope for is that our own particular reservation of the spirit will be the last to fall.

Yet the neo-conservatives are in fact more "neo" than conserving. No tradition ever was or will be conserved by rejecting the enriching possibilities for change in the pluralistic reality of every historical

moment. The now beleaguered non-neo-conservatives in every tradition may find that something like an analogical imagination is at work among us all, The need -- my need and theirs -- is to find better ways in the future of articulating that imagination and that strategy in both theory and in practice.

Otherwise, the alternatives left to us seem bleak. Perhaps we should simply announce, with La Pasionara at the end of the Spanish Civil War, "They took the cities, but we had better songs. It is a consoling thought. And we do have better songs. But consolation is not necessarily what theology has to offer. It is time for the genuine pluralism among theologians to affirm itself again as a conversing, arguing, conflictual pluralism grounded in a common commitment to publicness. It is time to join in authentic conversation on the differences, the similarities-in-difference, the hidden and often repressed negativities in the communal task. It is time to forget the ‘70s and the consolations of our former songs and to try again to take the cities.