Chapter 1: The Context: The Public Character of Theological Language by David Tracy

Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism
by David Tracy and John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 1: The Context: The Public Character of Theological Language by David Tracy

The specific aim of this section of the book is to articulate a contemporary Christian theological discussion on the doctrine of God. To execute that task in summary form, the logic of the argument will take the following form: The first chapter will articulate the general character of all good theological language as fully public language. The second chapter will argue that the primary theological language for the Christian doctrine of God is analogical language. The third chapter will specify the significant differences and similarities among two major analogical traditions (neo-Thomist and process theologies) and the major contemporary dialectical tradition (neo-orthodox theologies). My hope is that by the conclusion of the third chapter, some appropriate constructive suggestions of my own on this crucial theological discussion of the doctrine of God might make both public and specifically Christian sense.

Each theologian often seems dominated by a single concern. For some that concern takes the form of a particular thematic focus (salvation, reconciliation, liberation) around which cohere all uses of the broad range of the Christian symbol-system and the broad range of experience disclosed by those symbols. For others -- myself among them -- the wide-ranging character of the symbol-system and the equally wide-ranging and more elusive nature of the forms of experience and language involved in theological discourse occasions the need to reflect first on the character of theological discourse itself before proceeding to more thematic interests such as our present question of the doctrine of God. Moreover, the distinct but related crises of meaning of both Christianity in the modern period and of the Enlightenment model of modernity intensify the need for clarification of the character of any claims to public truth. The related phenomena of historical and hermeneutical consciousness are the chief forces that position the question of the character of theological language at the center of reflective attention for many theologians in our period.

This general and familiar set of questions may take the more specific form of seeking ways to express anew the authentically public character of all good theology, whether fundamental theology, systematic theology, or practical theology, whether traditional or contemporary,

analogical or dialectical. In initially general terms, a public discourse discloses meanings and truths that can in principle transform all human lives in some recognizable personal, social, political, ethical, cultural, or religious manner. For example, Christian theological discourse -- here understood as a second-order, reflective discourse upon the originating Christian religious discourse -- serves an authentically public function precisely when it renders explicit the public character of the meaning and truth for our actual existence that is embedded in the Christian classic texts.

Before setting forth some more strictly theological implications of that position, however, a few more general comments may clarify the context of this position. When one focuses on the character of theology as an academic discipline one notes certain complexities of the discipline itself. For distinct theologies can be related principally to distinct social realities. Indeed the university setting of theology, by forcing theology to engage itself with other disciplines, also forces to the center of theological attention the public character of any theological statement. This setting, which posits theology as an academic discipline, allows the contemporary academic theologian to reflect upon the social realities involved in doing theology. Since the very choice of the word "public" as a focus logically involves a relationship to social realities (publics), it may prove helpful first from the viewpoint of the .sociology of knowledge to reflect on which publics are involved here.

In terms of social realities, fundamental theologies are related principally to the social reality expressed but not exhausted in the academy. Systematic theologies are related principally to the social reality expressed but not exhausted in the church, here understood as a community of moral and religious discourse.

Practical theologies are related principally to the social reality of some particular social, political, cultural, or pastoral movement or problematic which is argued to possess major religious import (for example, some particular movement of liberation or some major pastoral or cultural concern),

In terms of modes of argument, fundamental theologies will be concerned principally to provide arguments that all reasonable persons -- whether religiously involved or not -- can recognize as reasonable. It assumes, therefore, the most usual meaning of public discourse -- that is, that discourse available to all persons in principle and explicated by appeals to one's experience, intelligence, rationality, and responsibility.  

Systematic theologies will show less concern with such obviously public modes of argument but will have as their proper concern the representation, the reinterpretation, the ever-present revelatory and transformative power of the specific religious tradition to which the theologian belongs.

Practical theologies will also show less explicit concern with theory and more with praxis as the proper criterion for theology -- praxis here understood as practice informed by and informing (often transforming) theory itself in relationship to a particular cultural, political, social, or pastoral need with religious import.

In terms of ethical stances, other real differences emerge.

Fundamental theologies will be concerned principally with the ethical stance of honest, critical inquiry proper to their academic setting,

Systematic theologies will be concerned principally with the ethical stance of fidelity to some classic tradition proper to their church relationship.

Practical theologies will be concerned principally with ethical stances of responsible commitment, in praxis situations, to the goals of particular movements and/or groups in addressing particular problems.

In terms of religious stances, certain logical differences also emerge.

Both systematic and practical theologians will ordinarily assume personal involvement in and commitment to either a particular religious tradition or a particular praxis-movement bearing religious significance (sometimes -- as in James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Juan Luis Segundo -- to both).

While academic theologians in fact ordinarily share that commitment, in principle they may abstract themselves from religious "faith-commitments" for the legitimate purposes of clarifying the arguments of theological discourse so they may be viewed as public arguments in the obvious sense -- argued, reasonable positions open to all intelligent, reasonable, and responsible persons.

Perhaps most crucially, in terms of expressing claims to meaning and truth, claims to a genuinely public character, the following differences also seem present and will receive the major attention in section two:

Fundamental theologies will ordinarily be principally concerned to show the adequacy (or inadequacy) of the truth-claims of a particular religious tradition to some articulated paradigm of what constitutes "objective argumentation" in some recognized discipline in the wider academic community.

Systematic theologies will ordinarily assume (or assume earlier arguments for) the truth-bearing nature of some classic religious tradition and thereby provide reinterpretations of that tradition for the present. (In that sense systematic theologies are principally hermeneutical in character).

Practical theologies will ordinarily articulate some radical situations of ethical-religious import (sexism, racism, economic exploitation, environmental crisis, etc.) as the (or a major) situation which the theologian should be committed to transform. In terms of truth-claims, therefore, the transformative praxis implied by personal communal commitment will be assumed or argued to bear predominance over "theory."

If the situation described above is at all accurate, then it becomes clear that a radical if not chaotic pluralism of paradigms on what constitutes theology as a discipline and the public character of theology is likely to occur. It thereby becomes necessary to study more closely the kinds of arguments that cross the more radical lines of difference and then the kinds of public discussion of the remaining major differences that might profitably occur.

Some Constants and Differences in Theological Discussion: The Need for Reflection on Arguments


The route from a chaotic to a responsible academic pluralism within any discipline demands that all conversation-partners agree to certain basic rubrics for an academic discussion. In fact, for the-

ologians such agreement does occur. Central among those already existing rules would seem to be the following: All theologians agree to the appropriateness (usually the necessity) of appeals to a defended interpretation of a particular religious tradition and a defended interpretation of the contemporary "situation" from which and to which the theologian speaks. Moreover, even within the very general rubrics of this fundamental agreement, two further agreements occur before the major differences surface.

First Constant: Interpretation of a Religious Tradition

In keeping with the demand that a theological position appeal to a religious tradition, all theologians are inevitably involved in interpretation. This in turn implies that some method of interpretation of religious texts and history will be implicitly or explicitly employed and defended. Since the general issues of hermeneutical and historical interpretation can be argued on extra-theological grounds it seems imperative that each theologian clarify her or his general method of interpretation. Included in that clarification should be an explicit argument for any major shift in the rules of interpretation for religious texts or events.

In sum, each theologian should feel obliged to develop explicit "criteria of appropriateness"

whereby her or his specific interpretations of the tradition may be critically judged by the wider theological community. For example, consider the present theological discussion between some major forms of "existentialist" interpretations of the New Testament and some major forms of "liberation" (Exodus) interpretations of the same document. All or most of the prevailing differences outlined in section one are usually involved in those contrasting interpretations. Still it remains legitimate, even imperative, to bracket all other differences for the moment so that a purely hermeneutical argument can take place on what interpretations the texts can support without further extra-hermeneutical backings or warrants. Once that specific argument is clarified, the conversation-partners may then move on to the equally relevant issue of the present truth-status of the interpreted meanings. If that conversation does not occur, then all the issues at once -- and all the differences obscuring this crucial constant -- soon emerge to assure that the partners will be talking past one another's theological position.

Second Constant: Interpretation of the Religious Dimension of the Situation

In keeping with the demand that a theological position appeal to some analysis of the contemporary situation, all theologians are also involved in another constant of theological discussion, that of interpreting or defining the religious dimension of the situation.

This second "constant" is more elusive than the first since some theologians argue for the admissibility of appeals to contemporary "experience" as warrants for a theological statement while others deny this. Yet even before the arguments for and against that position are advanced, an agreement can be reached, I believe, on the following propositions.

Whatever specific interpretation of the phenomenon of religion a theologian follows, she or he assumes or argues for an understanding of religion that, in some manner, involves specific "answers" from the specific religious traditions to the fundamental questions of the meaning of human existence. This implies, negatively, a reasoned refusal to employ any strictly reductionist interpretations of religion -- that is, religion is really art or ethics or bad science, etc., without remainder. This implies, positively, that although the theologian will often share particular methodological commitments with her or his colleagues in religious studies, the theologian will also bear the obligation to raise to explicit consciousness the question of the truth of, first, an interpretation of the most pressing, fundamental questions in our contemporary situation and, second, the answers provided by a particular religious tradition.

If these premises are accurate, then even before the difficult question of what constitutes a genuinely public claim to "truth" in theology is addressed, there is a common assumption on the need to provide an analysis of the contemporary situation insofar as that situation expresses a genuinely "religious" question, that is, a fundamental question of the meaning of human existence. A public discussion within the wider theological community is entirely appropriate, therefore, on (1) whether the situation is accurately analyzed (usually an extra-theological discussion) and (2) why this situation is said to bear a religious dimension and/or import and thereby merits or demands a properly theological response.

Although these two sets of questions by no means resolve all the important differences among models for theology, as a discipline they do clarify certain crucial constants that cut across theological boundaries. The second set of questions, moreover, may serve to indicate when a position in religious studies -- whether sociology of religion, psychology of religion, or philosophy of religion -- is also an implicitly or explicitly theological position.

The Major Differences: What Constitutes a Public Claim to Truth in Theology

If every theologian does provide both interpretations of a religious tradition and interpretations of the religious dimension of the contemporary situation, it is also clear that the logic of those interpretations forces the matter of the truth of the questions and answers of the tradition and the questions and answers in the situation to the forefront of any genuinely theological discussion. Precisely here, I believe, radical pluralism erupts with a vengeance. Yet to pose this question to all three disciplines in theology outlined earlier seems entirely appropriate, given the fact that each asserts in some manner the truth of its position. The constant in this second and more complex discussion, therefore, is the articulation of some truth-status to any particular theological position. My wager is that if that articulation can be initially defined, then the significant differences among theological disciplines might surface to allow for a clearer discussion of all claims to truth in the inevitable clashes which ensue, and a university setting is precisely where that discussion is most likely to occur.

Fundamental Theologies

Fundamental theologies share the two constants articulated above. Yet their defining characteristic is a reasoned insistence on employing the approach and methods of some established academic discipline to explicate and adjudicate the truth-claims of the interpreted religious tradition and the contemporary situation. With historical origins in the Logos theologies of Philo and the Christian tradition, these theologies ordinarily possess a strongly apologetic cast, sometimes reformulated as fundamental theologies.

The major discipline usually employed is, of course, philosophy or the philosophical dimension of some other discipline. Philosophy continues to be the discipline especially well-suited for the task of explication and adjudication of such truth-claims as those involved in religious answers to fundamental questions. Granted the pluralism of methods and approaches within philosophy itself, a philosophical discussion will inevitably sharpen this issue of truth. For example, theological claims to truth may be formulated in some version of adequacy to common human experience and/or language or, more elusively, some model of disclosure or even aletheia. In any case, an explicitly philosophical analysis of the model employed and its success or failure in application cannot but advance the analysis.

In fundamental theologies, arguments will be formulated in harmony with the rules of argument articulated by a particular philosophical approach. The theologian will employ those arguments first to explicate the truth-claims and then to adjudicate them. The most obvious strength of this position is its ability to explicate and defend in a fully public way all theological statements (indeed its insistence that this be done). More exactly, "public" here refers to the articulation of fundamental questions and answers that any attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible person can understand and judge in keeping with fully public criteria for discourse. The argument for this approach to theology takes some form like the following:

There are inner-theological reasons for this task: that is to say, the character of the fundamental questions that religion addresses and the claims to truth that major religions articulate logically impel a fair-minded, public analysis of those claims.

Hence, even if in fact the theologian is a believer in her or his tradition, in principle as theologian (that is, as one bound by the discipline itself to interpret and reflect critically upon the claims of the tradition and the "situation"), the theologian should argue the case (pro or con) on strictly public grounds.

In all such argumentation, personal faith or beliefs may not serve as warrants or support for publicly defended claims to truth. Instead, some form of philosophical argument (usually either implicitly or explicitly metaphysical) will serve as the major warrant and support for all such claims.

These last two factors (understood in the context of the larger, inner-theological argument) clearly distinguish this model of theology from the two remaining models.

Systematic Theologies

The major task of the systematic theologian is the reinterpretation other or his tradition for the present situation. Since I can find no reasons why anyone holding this position need reject the two "constants" outlined above -- interpretation of a religious tradition and interpretation of the religious dimension of the situation -- disagreements between this position and the first must take a different form. One form of the argument for systematic theologies can, in fact, be articulated on public, philosophical grounds:

First, the systematic theologian might argue that it is a mistaken judgment to assume that only the model for objective, public argument employed in fundamental theologies can serve as exhaustive of that which functions as genuinely public discourse. Indeed, as Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, has argued on strictly philo-sophical grounds, belonging to a tradition (presuming it is a major tradition that has produced classics) is unavoidable (given the intrinsic nature -- that is, ontological historicity -- of our constitution as human selves). Moreover, tradition is in fact enriching, not impoverishing (given the radical finitude of any single thinker's reflection and the accumulation of a wealth of experience, insight, judgment, taste, and common sense which are the result of acculturation into a major tradition for anyone willing to be formed by that tradition).

Finally, the Enlightenment "prejudice against prejudices" (as prejudgments), which is said to inform some earlier models for public truth, disallows crucial human possibilities for meaning and truth. In art, for example, this prejudice against prejudice disallows an experience of the disclosure of the truth of the authentic work of art. In effect, it destroys the truth-disclosure of the work of art by removing the event-character of the work of art and forcing that work of art to become an object-over-against an autonomous subject who already possesses exhaustive criteria for "truth" and thereby judges all artistic truth on "unprejudiced" grounds. On this reading, the "enlightened" bourgeois critic of the work of art is not superior to the work. Indeed she or he may be a philistine disallowing a disclosure of any further meaning and truth than that already articulated in "objective" criteria. The real artistic experience, however, comes to the one who holds herself or himself open to the potential newness of each work of art; who has made a prior decision that the experience will prove to be worthwhile; and who thereby has pre- judged each work of art as a potentially enriching experience, one that can change the person having the experience. In an analogous fashion, religion, like art, is argued to disclose new resources and meanings and truths to any one willing to risk allowing that disclosure to happen by faithful attendance to (and thereby involvement in and interpretation of) that truth-disclosure of genuinely new possibilities for human life in a tradition of taste, tact, and genuinely common (as communal) sense.

With this understanding, the theologian's task must be primarily hermeneutical. Yet this is not equivalent to being unconcerned with truth, unless "truth" is exhaustively defined in strictly Enlightenment terms. Rather, the theologian in risking her or his faith in a particular religious tradition, has the right and responsibility to be "formed" by that tradition and community so that a communal taste, a faith-ful tact, a reverential judgment may be expressed through the interpretations of the tradition in new systematic theologies.

Moreover, since every interpretation involves application to the present situation, every theological interpretation will be a new interpretation. The criteria for judging its appropriateness and its truth, therefore, will be the general criteria for true interpretation. These criteria include the disclosure (alternatively the aletheia) possibilities of new meaning and truth for the situation to which the interpretation is applied.

This argument is dependent upon the assumption that "classics," defined as those texts which form communities of interpretation and are assumed to disclose permanent possibilities of meaning and truth, actually exist. If classics do not exist we may have tradita but not authentic tradition as traditio. Since even their most skeptical critics grant that the Hebrew and Christian traditions include classical texts, the hermeneutical theologians can argue that they perform a public function analogous to the philosophical interpreter of the classics of philosophy or the literary critic of the classics of our culture. Any text, event, or person that reaches the level of a classic expression of a particular person, community, or tradition serves an authentically public character. One need not accept theRomantic notions of classic and genius justly criticized by Hans-Georg Gadamer to accept this argument on the ontological truth-status of the classic. Indeed all that need be accepted is the following thesis: A systematic theologian's commitment and fidelity to a particular classical religious tradition should be trusted on two conditions: first, that it reach a proper depth of personal experience in and understanding of (fides quaerens intellectum) that very tradition that "carries one along"; second, that appropriate forms of expression (genre, codification, systematic exigency) have been developed to represent that tradition's basic experience and self-understanding in an appropriately academic manner. I will suggest in chapters two and three, moreover, that to develop a systematic theological language for the doctrine of God the systematic theologian should appeal to analogical and dialectical language as the classic and public languages for Christian God-language.

This application to systematic theology of the notion of a classic does involve public criteria: criteria of a depth-dimension of personal experience in understanding a particular classical religious tradition; criteria of proper forms of expression to assure that the first factor does not become merely private or idiosyncratic (as unexpressed). Each of these criteria demands, I realize, far more technical analysis of the notion of a realized experience of some public truth in one's reception of a classic along with the notion of the modes of expression (codification, composition, genre, style) in the production of a classic before these criteria can be accepted as more than a statement of a thesis.

Since time justifiably does not allow for those technical developments here, allow me to conclude this present argument on the basis of an appeal to intuition (proper only in an initially public ap- peal). Do we not all properly and publicly assume that those texts, events, and persons that express a particular vision of life with sufficient personal appropriation of the tradition are public documents? Do we not thereby assume that the particularity of a major tradition once personally appropriated does disclose certain public possibilities of personal, communal, and even historical transformation? For example, consider the genuine heroes and heroines of our own blood- drenched century -- a Mahatma Gandhi, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Martin Luther King, a Martin Buber, a John XXIII, a Teresa of Calcutta -- does not each of these figures show how a deep and committed fidelity to one's own tradition of spirituality discloses universal transformative possibilities for all persons (as Hannah Arendt shows with the example of John XXIII in her brilliant work Men in Dark Times)? When any one of us witnesses Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, we are aware that this powerful drama, so personal, indeed autobiographical, to O'Neill, in fact discloses transformative possibilities for all. In short, it has become a modern classic.

All first-rate systematic theology, I believe, serves exactly the same public function as any classical expression. For when studying a Karl Barth, a Karl Rahner, a Rudolf Bultmann, a Paul Tillich, a Martin Buber, one notes in their best systematic works precisely the same kind of reality at work: an experience and understanding of a classic religious tradition united with an intense, intellectual struggle to find proper, second-order genres and modes of reflection to apply that tradition anew (and thereby to interpret it), which frees their work to perform its authentically public character.

In sum, if this brief analysis is accurate, then a case can be made for the public character of the systematic theologian's work as a hermeneutical theologian. "Truth," then, will ordinarily function here as either that disclosure-model or aletheia-mode} implied in all good interpretation. With that working-model for the universality of the hermeneutical task as the true task, precisely a fidelity to and involvement in a classical religious tradition (faith or "belief in") will function as a correct and public theological stance.

Practical Theologies

Practical theologies seem to possess the following characteristics:

1. Like fundamental and systematic theologies they share the two constants described above.

2. They ordinarily argue that some specific form of oppression (for example, racism, sexism, economic exploitation) or some inter-related nexus of economic-social-political-cultural factors (for example, the environmental and energy crises as related to the technocratic system linking and enforcing racism, sexism, and economic exploitation in Western societies) is the major factor in our situation demanding theological response.

3. They either assume or argue that there is a genuinely religious and thereby theological import to the limit-situations impelling their theologies.

4. They ordinarily also argue that a theological response to this situation demands commitment to and involvement in the attempt to remedy the oppressive situation.

5. They usually argue that the major task of theological interpretation should be the re-intepretation of overlooked resources of the tradition which promise hope for a transformation of the situation (for example, "liberation" themes over earlier theologies of liberal reconciliation or existentialist revelation). In terms of the character of theological truth, therefore, the argument for the greater adequacy of a praxis-model for theology over the two earlier alternatives seems to take two principal forms:

Praxis is ordinarily understood by these theologians as not simply practice but as "authentic" practice (actions in the situation) informed by and informing (sometimes transforming) theory in accord with perceived personal, societal, political, cultural, or religious needs (for example, the need to overcome the perceived inability of even good theological theory to overcome actual alienation). If understood in this way, then the basic argument against the relative inadequacy of all theoretical positions in theology is that theory (including metaphysical theory) cannot sublate praxis but praxis can sublate theory. In one sense, this dictum may prove to be a truism since I am unaware of any major contemporary metaphysical theologian who is strictly intellectualist or rationalist in her or his claims for theory. In a more important sense, however, significant differences on the character of theological truth-claims do in fact emerge.

The first difference is the common insistence among many praxis theologians (especially liberation theologians) that only a personal involvement in and commitment to a specific community or cause struggling for authentic praxis will assure the truth-bearing character of theology (perhaps describable as doing-the-truth).

The second difference follows from the first: a transformationist-model of theological truth as distinct from a disclosure- or correspondence- or adequacy-to-experience-model seems implied by all praxis positions: the claim is that praxis transforms theories just as theory transforms practice into praxis. Theory, in sum, is sublated into praxis; theories of theological truth as either correspondence', adequacy, or disclosure, are sublated into a transformation model whereby the theologian, involved in and committed to transforming a particular praxis situation, may find some truthful way of functioning. The "risk" the theologian takes here is a risk that any human being thus involved must take: the risk that the involvement itself, if authentic, will transform one's ordinary (and possibly alienated) modes of acting and knowing (including one's present models for truth), and thereby free one to develop a "liberation theology" or, alternatively, a "political theology" in a truth-as-praxis-transformative manner. These theologies also seem to assume that the greatest public need in our situation is to liberate ourselves from general or specific norms of alienation or oppression. When they help to do so, these theologies clearly serve a genuinely public function in the full transformative meaning of the word.

This general argument on the sublation possibilities of praxis over theory functions, I believe, as the basic implicit or explicit argument for the greater adequacy of the praxis-transformation-model of theological truth over alternative models.

Conclusion: Pluralism in the Strenuous Mood as a Direction

The major point of this analysis, therefore, is the insistence that once the university setting becomes a central setting for theology, then all three major disciplines in theology do share two constants for discussion and one other constant (namely, the search for a model of theological "truth") which leads to wide and important but discussable differences (that is, the meanings of truth for theological statements as coherence, correspondence, adequacy to experience, disclosure, or authentic transformation),

The major differences, to be sure, are so sharp as to encourage an increasing tendency within contemporary theology toward a chaotic pluralism. Yet the differences are also differences on common questions (namely, the character of the fundamental questions of human existence, the proper means to interpret a religious tradition; and the central meanings of any public truth-claims). That fact can and does assure the possibility of a community of genuine public academic conversation wherein (as Plato would remind us) a genuine discussion of the subject matter itself can eventually decide the issues for any authentic participant in real academic conversation.

The possibilities of pluralism "in the strenuous mood" will be enhanced if (more likely when) better arguments for each major position than those presented here are advanced as the discussion continues. One direction for theology to take. therefore, is the self- imposed' demand that each theologian be willing to render as explicitly as possible exactly where she or he stands on these three questions and thereby on the nature of the discipline itself. My guesses that it that occurs some substantive differences will prove major and others relatively soluble. On the specific question of the doctrine of God and appropriate language for that doctrine -- namely, analogies and dialectical languages -- the remaining two chapters will try to see what some of those real differences are and where the conversation might now move.