God, Dialogue and Solidarity: A Theologian’s Refrain

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 October 10, l990, pp. 901-904. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


David Tracy shares his present theological concern, which is to describe or discover a new hermeneutical practice, which he calls “mystical-prophetic.”

To respond to the question "How has your mind .changed (or remained the same) in the past ten years?" is initially disorienting. It seems to demand a degree of self-consciousness about one's work that may be undesirable. Most of us carry our continuities of desire, hope, beliefs, opinions and judgments more subconsciously than consciously as we move forward month by month, year by year. Readers and friends have proven this by helping me see more clearly where I've really "changed" in thought or sensibility than I would have realized on my own. Perhaps that is part of what Schleiermacher meant by his famous statement that good interpretation means "to understand the author better than the author understands himself." For once one has written a work, the. work lives on, its own. The author becomes another reader with some privileged knowledge of what, she or he once meant, but with no hermeneutical privilege at all in interpreting what the text actually says. For that latter task, for better and for worse, the work alone speaks.

Like most disorienting questions, however, this one can help theologians to reorient, or at least to see what has been the general direction of their work and what significant differences, detours and interruptions have occurred. The fine theologian Jean-Pierre Jossua once told me that he rereads Proust every ten years in order to find out what has happened to himself. It is a wise choice, for Proust's texts, so meditative, slow in pace, self-reflective, and demanding in concentration, are unequaled in their power to make one reflect on both "time lost" and "time regained." These last few months I have been rereading Tolstoy's later works and Simone Weil's for largely the same reasons. Jossua, I observe, did not reread his own work to try to understand his changes. Nor, I confess, have I reread my work. What I attempt here is to reflect on what, at this moment, seems to me reasonably clear about the continuities and shifts in my own attempts to pursue that almost impossible -- but for me necessary -- mode of inquiry, theological reflection.

First, the continuities. Like many others in our confusing theological period, I have spent a great deal of time (perhaps too much) on theological method. Here I continue to believe that some form of revised. correlational method (i.e., correlating an interpretation of the tradition with an interpretation of our situation) remains the best hope for theology today. I have continued to revise my form of correlation method when it seemed necessary. For example, I have for the last ten years (but not before) always added the important qualifier "mutually critical" to the word "correlation" in order to indicate the fuller range of possible correlations between some interpretation of the situation and some interpretation of the tradition. This signals that theological correlation is not always harmonious (much less "liberal"), but covers the full range of logically possible relationships between situation and tradition from nonidentity (or confrontation) through analogy to identity. I have also tried to give more attention in several essays and one book (Plurality and Ambiguity) to the kind of public criteria necessary to adjudicate the inevitable clashes between the claims to meaning and truth in both situation and tradition. Hence my efforts over the last ten years to retrieve, rethink and indeed radically revise William James's suggestive criteria for "on-the-whole" judgments. I have elsewhere formulated, therefore, a threefold set of criteria: first, the hermeneutical concept of truth as primordially "manifestation"; second, cognitive criteria of coherence with what we otherwise know or, more likely, believe to be the case; third, ethical-political criteria on the personal and social consequences of our beliefs.

For some of us the demand for public criteria for all truth-claims remains both the initial impetus and the great hope for all contemporary theology, whether liberal or postliberal, neo-orthodox or neoconservative, modem or postmodern., reformist or revolutionary, contextualist or universalist. This remains the case insofar as Christian theologians mean what they say when they say "God" or any other universal ethical or cognitive demand that such God-language (theo-logy) necessarily involves. True, we are all deeply embedded in particular contexts, and this contextual reality makes the warranting of universal claims exceedingly difficult. And surely God is universal, or we are speaking either nonsense or Zeus-talk, not Yahweh-talk. This complexity necessitates further attention to questions of criteria and method not only, let us note, in theology but across all the modern disciplines where the inevitable strife over method shows no sign of abating.

In sum, I shall have to continue to work on theological method questions as the questions and dilemmas of developing theology in our pluralistic and ambiguous situation multiply (as they surely will). I have always been thankful that my major mentor in theology, Bernard Lonergan, devoted his entire painstakingly intellectual life to questions of method. I am also thankful that I have spent the last 20 years at the University of Chicago Divinity School, an institution noted (or infamous) for its concern for method in religious studies, history of religion, philosophy and theology. At the same time, I have come to acknowledge far more than I did ten years ago that Karl Rahner (no stranger to questions of theological method himself) was right when he stated, "But we cannot spend all our time sharpening the knife; at some point we must cut."

The only way to cut accurately is to try to analyze questions of method simultaneously with substantive theological topics. That was the strategy behind my book on fundamental theology (Blessed Rage for Order) and my book on systematic theology (The Analogical Imagination). About half of each book is on method, the other on testing the method with substantive theological issues (God, revelation, Christ). If I can ever successfully think my way forward to the most complex task of all, practical theology, the same ratio will hold: the principal methodological issue will be the relationship of theory and praxis in: both personal and social terms, and the principal theological topics will be Spirit and church. I may never be ready to attempt, that third volume of the projected trilogy; I know that I am not ready now. I make that unhappy admission not just because I still do not know my own mind clearly and systematically enough about four central issues of that practical theology task -- contemporary social theory, ethics, ecclesiology and the history of spirituality. It is also, indeed primarily, because I have changed the focus of my theological thought.

The hopes of modernity, including modern theology, are noble ones. I have shared in these hopes, especially in my book Blessed Rage for Order, and to a large extent I still do. One need only reread Kant's classic essay "What Is Enlightenment?" to understand -- or better, to sense -- what was and is at stake in the hopes of modernity. Better yet, one should read Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel. In both society and church, the need to fight against obscurantism, mystification and outright oppression is as clear now as it was in the 18th century. The need to defend reason, often against its presumed guardians (e.g.. positivism and scientism), remains clear to all not tricked into intellectual and moral languor by too-easy assaults on the modern heritage. On theological questions, the same truth obtains: for example, Protestant neo-orthodoxy, as Wilhelm Pauck insisted, is a self-critical moment within the liberal tradition; it was not and should not become a return to a premodern orthodoxy. Even "postmodernity," that ever-elusive word in search of a definition, is more an acknowledgment that we now live in an age that cannot name itself than that we should simply reject modernity.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to understand our period and our needs as more postmodern than modem. Part of the change is clearly cultural: we no longer assume the cultural superiority of Western modernity. Anyone who continues to think and write (as many in the modern Western academy still do) as if other cultures either do not exist or exist only as steppingstones to or pale copies of Western modernity is self-deluding. Most of us now find bizarre those 19th-century Whig historians like Macaulay with their sublime confidence that true history means what leads up to and finds its glorious culmination in us, the "modems." A similar fate has overtaken modern liberal philosophical and theological schemas ,(such as those of Hegel, Schleiermacher, Troeltsch and Rahner) on the relationship of Christianity to the other religions.

Another aspect of the theological change from modernity to postmodernity is the new ecclesial situation. The Eurocentric character of Christian theology surely cannot survive in a Christianity that is finally and irreversibly becoming a world church. That there are now more Anglicans in Africa than in Great Britain, more Presbyterians in South Korea and Taiwan than in Scotland, and that there will probably be more Roman Catholics at the close of this century in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern, should give us all pause. No modem theologian can continue to assume that European and North American modes of Christian thought and practice can, even in principle, any longer suffice for an emerging world church.

Another part of the question of postmodernity focuses less on cultural or ecclesial shifts than on more strictly intellectual problems. Without serious rethinking, the Enlightenment notion of rationality is in grave danger of becoming part of the problem, not the solution. That is even the case for those, like myself, who continue to believe that the very nature of the claims of theology demands public, indeed transcendental or metaphysical, explication. This mode of reflection (for Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher; for Rahner, Tillich and Whitehead in their competing formulations) always was difficult. But it was also, with great effort, available (viz., by formulating classical metaphysics into modem transcendental terms). The acknowledgment of the role of language (and thereby history) in all understanding combined with the awareness of the large role unconscious factors play in all conscious rationality have made those theologically necessary transcendental forms of reflection not impossible, but far, far more difficult to formulate adequately than modern theology (including my own) once believed.

The modern notion of the self, like the modern notion of rationality, also needs radical rethinking -- especially in new theological anthropologies. The theological language of sin and grace once spoke of a decentered ego with all the force of the most radical French postmodernists. Anyone who doubts this ought to reread that brilliant, genreconscious postmodernist (not existentialist) Soren Kierkegaard on sin, grace and the decentered Christian self Even the otherwise happy recovery of the traditions of Christian spirituality in our day are also in danger of becoming further fine-tuning, further new peak experiences for the omnivorously consuming modem self.

In sum, there is a dark underside to modern thought, including modern theology. Anyone who senses this problem at all is likely to attempt one or another form of postmodern theology. Some forms of this will prove straightforwardly antimodern, as in the profound but disturbing reflections of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Augustinian pessimism pervading the theology and restorationist policies of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger or a good deal of the rhetoric (if, happily, not the practices) of some of the neo-Barthian theologies. Other forms will prove more clearly postmodern, such as Gustavo Guttierez's powerful reflections on contemporary theology's need to face the reality of the "nonperson" of the oppressed in the massive global suffering surrounding us, as distinct from modern theology's more typical concern with the "nonbeliever"; and the many alternative forms of postmodern theologies in feminist, womanist, African-American and global liberationist struggles and theologies. Still others will embrace postmodernity in its most decentering, deconstructive forms so fully that "a-theologies" will be born to announce, yet again, that the "death of God" has finally found its true hermeneutical home.

In the midst of all this, it is perhaps a little odd to say that my own theology has two principal foci: a hermeneutics in which the "other," not the "self," is the dominant focus; and a theological insistence that only a prophetic-mystical form of theology for naming God can help us now. Odd, but for me necessary.

I focus on hermeneutics because one way to respond to the crisis of modernity and the ambiguous arrival of postmodernity is to reflect anew on the problem of interpretation itself. In fact, the question of interpretation has always been a central issue in times of cultural crisis. So it was for Aristotle and the Greek Stoics in the waning days of the Greek classical age. So it was for the development of allegorical methods for interpreting classical religious texts by Stoic, Jewish and Christian thinkers in the Hellenistic period. So it became for Augustine in that watershed of late classical antiquity and the emerging medieval period. Again hermeneutics came to the center of attention with the explosive arrival of Martin Luther. In early modernity,. moreover, from Descartes and Spinoza through Schleiermacher and Hegel, the problem of hermeneutics demanded attention from all those classic moderns concerned to learn new ways to interpret their classic texts in a now new, because modern, setting. The full-fledged arrival of historical consciousness in theology, best viewed in the often tortured, always honest, reflections of both Troeltsch and Lonergan, only heightened the need for new reflection in hermeneutics.

"May you life in interesting times,"says an ancient Chinese curse." Unfortunately, our choice, is not when to live, but only how. This. is not a time when Western culture needs one last burst of overweening, indeed hubristic, self-confidence masking self-absorption and newfound insecurity. At this time we all need to face the strong claims on our attention made by other cultures and by the other, subjugated, forgotten and marginalized traditions in Western culture itself. We also need to face the ambiguous otherness within our own psyches and traditions. The last great attempt to salvage modernity -- indeed, so great an attempt that it bears all the marks of classical Greek tragedy -- was Husserl's Crisis of the European Sciences. After that, the deluge.

Amid the often conflicting strategies for rethinking our situation and thereby rethinking our pluralistic and ambiguous heritage, contemporary hermenetitics can prove of some aid. From the exposes of the illusions of modern conscious rationality by Freud, Marx and Nietzsche through contemporary feminist theory, modernity has been forced to rethink its Enlightenment heritage on both reason and. the self in increasingly radical -- that is, postmodern -- de-centering forms. Central here has been postmodern rereadings of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, especially by feminist thinkers. Or consider Walter Benjamin's willingness to rethink the classic traditions he so loved, now guided by the hermeneutical acknowledgment that "every great work of civilization is at the same time a work of barbarism." Consider Foucault's noble attempts to rethink and retrieve the "subjugated" knowledge of our own past. In every case of serious postmodern thought, radical hermeneutical rethinking recurs. Little wonder that the most marginalized groups of our heritage -- mystics,, hysterics, the mad, fools, apocalyptic groups, dissenters of all kinds, avant-garde artists -- now gain the attention of many postmodern searchers for an alternative version of a usable past.

The emergence of a hermeneutical consciousness is clearly a part of this cultural shift. For hermeneutics lives or dies by its ability to take history and language seriously, to give the other (whether person, event or text) our attention as other, not as a projection of our present fears, hopes and desires. The deceptively simple hermeneutical model of dialogue is one attempt to be faithful to this shift from modern self to postmodern other. For however often the word is bandied about, dialogue remains a rare phenomenon in anyone's experience. Dialogue demands the intellectual, moral and, at the limit, religious ability to struggle to hear another and to respond -- to respond critically, and even suspiciously when necessary, but only in dialogical relationship to a real, not a projected, other.

My own attempts in the last ten years to enter into interreligious dialogues have revealed the same kind of hermeneutical. need to attend to a real, not a projected, other. Consider the crucial need to rethink the Christian relationship to indigenous traditions (still often misnamed, "pagan" or even "primitive") by facing the history of Christian projections upon and oppression of those traditions in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Consider the needs of Jewish-Christian dialogue in a post-Holocaust situation. How can We pretend to take history with theological seriousness and then ignore the Holocaust? If we do ignore it, then we should either admit the bankruptcy of. all theological talk of history as the locus of divine action and human responsibility or admit that we consider only the "'good" parts of our history worthy of theological reflection.

With the Jew and the so-called pagan, the Christian in dialogue (which demands, in practice, solidarity) needs to face the constant Christian temptation to project a Christian consciousness upon the other. Both the "pagan" and the Jew have too often served as the projected other of "Christian" self-understanding. When in dialogue with. the Buddhist, Christians need to face not a projected other but this great other tradition with its profound vision of ultimate reality as emptiness (sunnyata). Buddhists speak and live that vision so persuasively that, in first meeting them, Christian theologians like myself are hurled into a state of such initial confusion that it bears all the marks of an experience of the mysterium fascinans et tremendum. Dialogue with Buddhists has forced me to rethink theologically the more radically apophatic mystics of the tradition, especially Meister Eckhart.

Dialogue with Buddhists has also forced me to see how even so classic a Christian witness as Francis of Assisi can be allowed to speak anew to all Christians concerned to establish new relationships to all creatures (not only humans) and thereby to the whole earth. This may seem a strange claim, for Francis of Assisi is the one Christian saint whom all Westerners profess to love, even if most quietly continue to view him as a kind of holy fool who somehow wandered off the pages of Dostoevsky. But the usual view of Francis is no longer even the noble one of. Dostoevsky's holy fool; Francis now lives in common memory as something like the lost eighth member of Walt Disney's seven dwarfs, somewhere between Happy and Bashful. But Francis was in fact -- as Buddhists see clearly -- a Christian of such excess and challenge to ordinary, even good, Christian ways of understanding all of God's creation as beloved that we still cannot see him clearly. We have not yet, in Christian theological dialogue, taken even Francis of Assisi seriously.

Dialogue with the women mystics or the Shakers also would make one radically rethink one's own heritage. The hermeneutical turn in theology is a difficult and demanding practice just as it is a necessarily complex theory.

If we are to hear one another once again, then dialogue and solidarity amid the differences and conflicts that dialogue may demand is our best present hope. There is no escape from the insight that modernity most feared: there ,is no innocent tradition (including modernity), no innocent classic (including the Scriptures) and no innocent reading (including this one). My hope is in genuinely dialogical thought accompanied by real solidarity, in action.

Otherwise we are back where we began: with officially exorcised but practically, dominant programs of Western and modern stories of progress; with monological forms of rationality and increasingly brittle notions of a self seemingly coherent but actually possessive and consumerist; with "others" present, if at all, only as projections of our modem selves, our desires, wants, needs.

My experience conviction is also that sometimes the best road to hermeneutical retrievals of tradition is through critique and suspicion. One route to retrieval is facing the disturbing otherness. within ourselves and our traditions as well as the reality of others waiting, no longer patiently, to speak. It. is no small matter. that now many "others" do theology in ways very different, even conflictually other, from my own white, male, middle-class and academic reflections on a hermeneutics of dialogue and a praxis of solidarity. They bespeak critiques, suspicions and retrievals of the Christian theological heritage that I too need to hear _far better, than I have to date. Uniting so many of these new voices, it, seems, is not a theory of hermeneutics, much less a revised correlational method for theology, but a new hermeneutical practice that actualizes that theory and that method better than many of the theorists do.

This new hermeneutical practice become living theology is best described as mystical_prophetic." The hyphen is what compels my interest. For these classic religious types are just as much figures of religious excess as of theological conflict. How can we think of such two different modes of religious otherness together? That is the question toward which much serious theology today strives. In The Analogical Imagination I tried to rethink the traditional Christian theological dialectic of sacrament and word as the more primordial religious dialectic of "manifestation" and "proclamation." I continue to believe that such a religious dialectic is at the heart of Christianity. But I now see more clearly -- thanks to the voices of the new theologies allied with the welcome recovery of spirituality within theology -- that in practice and thereby in theory this pervasive religious dialectic of manifestation and proclamation is best construed theologically as mystical-prophetic.

How, therefore, can we find anew the power to name God in a mystical-prophetic way? That is theology's central postmodern question. The theological center of gravity of all Christian theology is the God disclosed in Jesus the Christ. My own major concern, therefore, has been to try to rethink how Christian theology first came to name God. In a perhaps overambitious but necessary work in progress, I am trying to rethink how Christian theology, in fidelity to the Christian religion and the demands of critical reflection, first rendered its names for the God of Jesus Christ in dialectically mystical-prophetic ways. This effort demands new hermeneutical attention to the otherness of the forms disclosing the content in the narratives of the synoptic Gospels, the meditative narrative of John and the relentless dialectic of Paul. It also demands close attention to the otherness of the forms of dialogue in Plato, the treatise in Aristotle and tragedy among the classic Greeks. In the puzzling history of these often conflicting forms disclosing their contents through the form lies the secret, I have come to believe, of Christian theology, that puzzling hybrid of Jewish and Greek forms and contents. Through these forms we first learned to name God theologically.

How Christian theology -- that always elusive, always reflectively necessary, form. of naming God first emerged could provide some central clues needed, even now, for how we might be able to hear God even as we attempt to listen to one another in the minefield of modernity, postmodemity and antimodernity. Is it possible to find. a contemporary naming of God that renders God's reality in forms that unite excess with elegance,. mysticism with both rigorous intellectuality and the ethicalpolitical seriousness of the prophets?

Perhaps not. But this much is clear: to say and mean "God" is what must drive all theology, whenever, wherever and whoever speaks. Those who doubt this should join me, at this ten-year juncture, in rereading the later Tolstoy and Simone Weil. They knew, for they managed to render God's name with some of the originating power of the Gospel narratives. And they rendered that name in and through the honest confusions, terrors and hopes of this age, our age--the age that cannot name itself. .