Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism
by David Tracy and John B. Cobb, Jr.
Introduction by David R. Mason
The topic for the 1977 Tuohy Chair public lectures, "the problem of God today, " is critical for the very lifeblood of any form of theistic faith, whether it be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The two scholars who were invited to reflect on the problem with us and to propose "resources for its resolution," John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Tracy, are themselves Christian -- the one, Protestant, the other, Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, while each speaks out of his own religious and intellectual tradition and both speak primarily to the Christian community, it quickly becomes apparent that both are sensitive to diverse religious traditions. Moreover, the tentative proposals they advance for treating the problem of God are aimed at any theistic believer who takes seriously the demand to express that faith in a way that is both intelligible and accountable to its initiating religious vision. This book contains the public lectures given by professors Cobb and Tracy in May and June of 1977, as revised for publication.
The initial impression one is likely to gain from an examination of this work is the utterly different way in which each theologian has seen fit to address the issue. Perhaps it should be remarked that the difference is not that between a "Protestant viewpoint" and a "Roman Catholic viewpoint." Anyone conversant with present day theology knows that it is virtually an open air market. However large a role the particular religious heritage may have formerly played in framing a theologian's ideas, it plays a relatively minor one today. The difference lies, rather, between an approach that views the problem as one of substance and one that views it as one of method.
Cobb, on the one hand, understands "the problem of God today" as a substantive problem arising out of various significant challenges to the traditional Christian doctrine of God as a supreme person who acts in the world and is chiefly known as the Father of Jesus Christ. Thus, in accepting the invitation to address the problem of God and to offer "resources for its resolution," he chooses three from among the many diverse movements and modes of thought in the modern world that, in some way, present formidable difficulties for Christian belief: the scientific world view, Buddhism, and feminism. And in responding to the challenges each of these presents, Cobb seeks to reformulate our idea of God in ways that both meet the challenge and remain faithful to the initial Christian vision of God.
Tracy, on the other hand, argues that before we can engage in discussion on such a substantive matter as the doctrine of God, it is necessary to reflect on the nature of theological language and the context in which it gets worked out. He sees the problem as deriving from the diverse religious experiences and the manifold types of theological language, each of which lays claim to be the normative Christian way of being and thinking. In response to this, Tracy first attempts to lay bare the relationship between the different tasks of theology and the social realities identified with each. He also endeavors to distinguish the different tasks in terms of the modes of argument, the ethical and religious stances, and the ways of expressing claims to meaning and truth
appropriate to each. Then he lifts into prominence the two classical types of theological language, analogy and dialectic, analyzes them, and argues that while both bear witness to important truths, the former, analogy, is better able to incorporate the insight of the latter than vice versa. Tracy approaches substantive issues regarding the doctrine of God, especially in comparing the major types of analogical God-language in our day, Thomism and process theology. Even so, his contribution to the resolution is primarily methodological rather than substantive.
Granting this major difference, it might seem inappropriate to issue these lectures together as one volume. Yet despite the difference, there are similarities of spirit that join them in a common undertaking. Some of these are not insignificant, and it is well to alert the reader to them.
In the first place, both Cobb and Tracy concur that speech about God today is, in a real sense, problematic. That is, while neither of them treats the existence of God as problematic, both realize that many of the things that have been said about the nature and agency of God in the Christian theological tradition have been brought into question by much in the modern world. Thus theology's task is not — and cannot be -- exclusively dogmatic. That is, theology cannot simply unpack the tradition and attempt to render it acceptable in modern dress. As Tracy says, all good theology has an "authentically public character," and that, in part, means that theology must be attentive to the voices in the contemporary, secular world that make claims to express meaning and truth about the ultimate context of our lives. Thus the essentially apologetic task of theology is not a matter merely of working out the strategy for convincing the modern world of the truth of the Christian claims. Theology recognizes meaning and truth in the contemporary situation and thus, sometimes, on points that come into conflict with the received tradition. The task of theology is not only to be faithful to its initiating religious experience but to be intelligible in terms that any intelligent, reasonable, and responsible person can understand and evaluate according to accepted public criteria. The second half of this task is what initially raises into prominence the problematic character of some of what the received theological tradition has said about God, but on closer inspection it appears that that tradition may not have been as faithful to the vision of God contained in its original experience as it claimed to be.
Not surprisingly, then, both Cobb and Tracy find resources for the resolution of the God-problem in the very challenges of modernity themselves. Cobb makes this point explicit at the outset and proceeds on that very basis. Each of the three modes of thought and behavior that he examines not only creates a special difficulty for the usual way of conceiving and expressing God, but each contains within it resources for re-conceiving God in ways more nearly compatible with what the original witness of faith implies. Feminism, for example, not only radically critiques the
specifically masculine imagery of dominance usually associated with divine transcendence, but offers us a vision of wholeness that reforms the notion of transcendence and enables us to grasp anew the meaning of the "kingdom of God" toward which and out of which Jesus calls us to live. Similarly, the other two challenges offer ways of thinking that enable us to conceive God as the source of freedom and the one who is open to all that is, and so the creative and redemptive lover of the universe.
Although Tracy does not formulate the issue in terms of specific challenges to specific doctrines, he finds the challenge in "the wide-ranging character of the symbol-systems and the equally wide-ranging and more elusive nature of the forms of experience and language" which practically constitute Christian theism. In addition, the "crises of meaning," which challenge both
traditional Christian formulations and the Enlightenment model of truth, precipitate the effort to clarify the manifold meanings of the "public character" of theology. Tracy's response to the challenge, his ability to interact carefully and creatively with the various dimensions of the contemporary situation, and, above all, his willingness to accept others as conversation partners rather than as adversaries, enables him to work toward a theology that is both faithful to the essence of the Christian tradition and intelligible to any reasonable person today. He tries to illustrate the resourcefulness of interchange by bringing neo-Thomism and process theology
together and showing how each can contribute to the other. Moreover, he sees that both of these representatives of the use of analogical God-language benefit from the searching criticism -- the "hermeneutics of suspicion" -- of dialectical thought.
Finally, the attentive reader will discern an underlying accord between Cobb and Tracy with respect to certain fundamental ways of re-conceiving the idea of God. Having said that Tracy's contribution is primarily methodological rather than substantive, it nevertheless remains true that he makes several suggestions that dis-close a sympathy with Cobb's avowedly Whiteheadian views. Thus, when he endeavors to bring the modern representatives of Thomism and the advocates of process theology into a fruitful dialogue, he criticizes Hartshorne for failing to understand the historical circumstances in which Aquinas developed his concept of God's real and nominal relations but insists that the neo-Thomists respond to the "crucial Hartshornian question": "Is God really affected by our actions in time and history?" Tracy notes that the Thomists, as well as the Scriptures, assume "that God, as a loving God, is affected," but that they have not worked out a conceptuality that is adequate to this "Christian religious insight." Process thought has. Similarly, Tracy seems clearly to suggest that it is no more "logically coherent to speak of knowing an actual future than of a square circle, " a position that process thinkers have advocated for some time. If the future is, by definition, always possibility and never actuality, he says that the neo-Thomists will have to work out more precise and subtle analyses for the perfection terms "omniscience" and "omnipotence." Moreover, Tracy agrees with Hartshorne that the "logic of perfection" entails that "God be unsurpassable by others but not by self" so that in aesthetic matters, if not in ethical matters, God is capable of genuine self-enrichment. Admittedly, Tracy's substantive proposals for revision of God-language are few and often couched in the language of rhetorical question. But, if I have understood them correctly, they are consistent with Cobb's idea of God who, as the source of possibilities, is the ground of our freedom and the one who calls us to transcend our given condition. Likewise, they are consistent with Cobb's idea of God as the one who is "constituted by perfect openness to and reception of whatever is possible as possible and is actual as actual." Finally, it seems to me that Tracy's proposals are consistent with Cobb's realization that the feminist imagery of wholeness is the very corrective needed to free the idea of divine transcendence from its typically male notion of dominance so that we can conceive God purely as "the giver of freedom, who urges us to dare great things, and the assuring lover, who accepts us both in success and failure."
These brief comments pointing to some differences and similarities between Cobb and Tracy can in no way convey the subtlety and richness of their thought. They are written, however, as an invitation to the reader to enter into dialogue with their ideas even as they have with one another and with the ideas of other cultural, philosophical, and religious movements.
David R. Mason
John Carroll University