Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

David Tracy (1939-)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy (1939- ) has been hailed as one of the most original theologians in recent decades for his work in hermeneutics and theological method in a pluralistic context. His work is distinctive both for its breadth—he integrates insights from modern theology, philosophy, biblical scholarship and literary criticism—and for the critical love he shows for his own Christian tradition, even in the face of what he takes to be the undeniable pluralism of the contemporary intellectual horizon. Although well-known for his debate with George Lindbeck regarding the public character of theology, the density and complexity of Tracy’s thought on hermeneutics and theology has made much of his work inaccessible to many (Sanks, 698). This essay provides an introductory overview to Tracy’s work and highlights some of the salient aspects of his work in theological hermeneutics. It proceeds in four parts. The first offers an overview of his life and work. The second considers important characteristics of his hermeneutical thought. The third considers his emphasis on conversation and his more recent work on naming God. The fourth identifies some implications of his thought and offers a brief evaluation.

1. Background

Born in Yonkers, New York in 1939, Tracy underwent seminary training in philosophy and theology at St. Joseph’s seminary in Dunwoodie New York after “intensely” feeling called to the priesthood at the age of thirteen (Breyfogle & Levergood, 310). He was ordained a priest in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1963 but went on for further theological study at the Gregorian in Rome, where he received a licentiate in 1964 (in the midst of the second Vatican Council) and a doctorate in 1969, writing his thesis on the work of his teacher, Bernard Lonergan. After teaching briefly at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. from 1967-1969, he moved to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where he continues to teach (Sanks, 698). Tracy was named Distinguished Service Professor in 1985 and Distinguished Service Professor of Roman Catholic Studies in 1987. He has served on the University’s Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Methods and on the Committee on Social Thought. He was a fellow, with john Cobb, at John Carroll University in 1976-77, delivering the Tuohy lectures on "the Problem of God." The recipient of several Honorary Doctorate degrees, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982. "David’s gentle, generous, and humble spirit, his quick and incisive intelligence, and his total devotion to the theological task and the Christian faith (in him, inextricably tied to one another) have deeply touched countless numbers of his students, friends, colleagues, and coreligionists." He was a founding editor of Religious Studies Review, has been a coeditor of the Journal of Religion, and has served on the editorial board of Concilium in addition to contributing to and editing various issues. He is the author of some eight books and numerous articles.

Tracy’s work displays a concern both with a broad range of studies within theology and for almost constant conversation with fellow scholars in other fields. Although the roots of his thought lie in transcendental Thomism, he has also been influenced by many other thinkers and traditions, such as the hermeneutical work of Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, the process theology of Schubert Ogden, and the mysticism of Simone Weil (McCarthy, 468-69). Despite this constant development of interest, however, his work has consistently focused on theological method and pluralism, emphasizing the role of interpretation and hermeneutics in systematic theological thought. It is for these methodological contributions, somewhat to his disappointment, that he is best known. In a more recent interview, Tracy reported his regret that so much emphasis has been given to his methodological considerations while his more substantive theological reflections, such as those on Christology, have been neglected (Breyfogle & Levergood, 305).

His first book, The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan (1970), addressed these issues from a transcendental Thomist perspective, but his more original and lasting contributions came in his next two books, Blessed Rage for Order (1975) and The Analogical Imagination (1981).  Blessed Rage for Order set forth his own “revisionist” method, which sees the central task of theology as a critical correlation between the values and claims of postmodern human experience and the texts of the Christian tradition, and which develops a panentheistic understanding of theology in the metaphysical categories of process theology (Sanks, 703-09). In The Analogical Imagination, Tracy’s most systematic work to date, he presents a hermeneutical understanding of theology, centered on the notion of the classic, which emphasizes interpretation and the necessarily public character of systematic theology (Breyfogle & Levergood, 301).

Tracy had originally intended these two works as the first installments of a trilogy, to be followed by a work on practical theology, but he never completed this project. His next two books, Plurality and Ambiguity (1987) and Dialogue with the Other (1990) focused instead on the need for inter-religious dialogue and for articulating a Christian understanding of God appropriate to the current radically pluralistic context. His most recent project, an unfinished three volume work on God, Christology, and the Spirit in light of inter-religious dialogue continues in this vein. His 1999-2000 Gifford lectures, entitled “This Side of God,” will, when published, constitute the first volume of this trilogy (Holland, 54-55).

2. Works (Selected List)

The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan (1970), Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (1975), The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (1981), Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism (with John Cobb, 1983), A Catholic Vision (with Stephen Happel, 1984), A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (with Robert Grant, 2d. ed. 1984), Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, and Hope (1987), 1990. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue (1990), On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and Church (1994).

3. Themes

Hermeneutics and Public Interpretation

The above description of the trajectory of Tracy’s own development is significant because it exemplifies his understanding of the systematic theologian’s hermeneutical task: the reflection upon a focally meaningful event by someone who feels themselves gripped by this event and who journeys through the symbols of his or her own tradition in order to articulate this understanding (Tracy, 1981, 420). For Tracy, this meaning is found in the grace and love disclosed in the event of Jesus Christ; his work tries to articulate the hermeneutical task by which this meaning is related to the challenges of a pluralistic society. In order to understand Tracy’s conception of theology’s hermeneutical task here, it will be helpful to consider this task under the following four aspects: human interpretation, the publicness of theology, the notion of the classic, and the analogical imagination.

Human interpretation

The task of the theologian is interpretation. To claim that interpretation is central to theology, for Tracy, is only a recognition of the centrality of interpretation in human life in general. To understand at all is always to interpret. As human beings, we exist in the world by the way we understand (McCarthy, 469). In fact, interpretation, in Tracy’s view, is unavoidable because to experience anything in other than a purely passive sense is to interpret (Tracy, 1987, 9). Interpretation, then, is part of the larger activity of participatory understanding, as human existence finds itself always already participating and being already ‘on the way.’ Every human person is thrown into a finite and temporal horizon, says Tracy following Heidegger, and every person must risk an interpretation of the things encountered within that horizon (Tracy, 1981, 103). Tracy’s emphasis on the “risk” of interpretation here is reminiscent of the work of Ernst Troeltsch, who insisted that amidst the complexities, partialities, and limitations that surround questions of religion in history, one must nonetheless responsibly risk an interpretation of the religious essence in history. Far from undermining the validity of one’s interpretation, this subjective element was for Troeltsch a creative act that had the potential to shape this essence afresh (Troeltsch, 142-163).

Consequently, interpretation is not the activity of a particular elite, but is common to all human experience. Such interpretation becomes theological when encountered by phenomena touching limit-experiences that can be correlated with Christian symbols (McCarthy, 467-70). A phenomenon provokes interpretation insofar as it touches on a limit experience: this is a moment of intensification when the ordinary discloses the mysteriousness of human existence that calls for hope, faith, love, and further interpretative understanding.

The Publicness of Theology

This common activity of interpretation in human experience supports Tracy’s contention that all authentic theology is public theology. For Tracy, “theology is public discourse,” and systematic theology necessarily holds public status (Tracy, 1981, 3). Specifically, he says, each theologian “addresses three distinct and related social realities: the wider society, the academy, and the church” (Tracy, 1981, 5). Every theologian, therefore, addresses these three publics. The first, society, encompasses the technoeconomic realm, politics, and culture and involves concern for social justice and the poor. The second, the academy, provides the intellectual context of contemporary theology, which involves a responsibility for rational dialogue and interaction with other fields of knowledge and inquiry. The third, the church, identifies the theologian’s responsibility to the living tradition of a faith-community (Tracy, 1981, 14-24). A particular theologian, of course, will principally address one of these three publics. The wider society typically this is the concern of practical theologians. The academy is typically the concern of fundamental theologians. The church is usually the realm of systematic theologians. Yet, as the common social-reality of any theologian involves an experience and participatory understanding in each of these three groups, he or she implicitly addresses all three realms. The complexity of this situation, which for Tracy is only a reflection of the complexity of pluralism, is something that must be faced with serious reflection. What is needed in theology, then, is a drive not towards privateness but towards authentic public discourse (Tracy, 1981, 30-31).

The classic

Tracy further explores the authentically public nature of theological interpretation with his notion of the “classic” a text(s), event(s), or person(s) that bear an excess of permanence of meaning, yet always resist definitive interpretation, it claims authority because of the intensification of meaning and value that occurs in this work (however, not all classics are ‘religious classics’). This notion of the “classic” is central to Tracy’s theological hermeneutics and forms the conceptual cornerstone for his work in The Analogical Imagination. Systematic theology, he says, requires a profound acceptance of finitude and historicity and yet maintains a kind of normative status. One can only understand these two claims through a non-authoritarian notion of authority and truth, which is to be found in his notion of the classic (Tracy, 1981, 100). A classic is a person, text, event, melody, or symbol encountered in some cultural experience that bears a certain excess of meaning as well as certain timelessness; it confronts and provokes us in our present horizon with the feeling that something else might be the case (Tracy, 1981, 101-07). This notion, therefore, is an articulation of the experience one has when encountering a truly significant book, person, work of art, or piece of music. In contrast to mere period pieces, which are meaningful for a time but which one eventually ‘grows out of,’ genuine classics transform one’s horizon. They bring a meaning that is both particular and universal (Tracy, 1994, 115), and give rise to limit-experiences that can bear the power of the whole (Sanks, 713). Tracy does not offer any epistemological theory for how the truth of such classics is perceived but rather affirms that such understanding happens, like an event, and that such experiences are a common element of human life and thus provide a category for speaking about the truth (Tracy, 1981, 102). It should be noted that Tracy’s description of the notion of the classic, in which truth is linked to the spontaneous ‘happening’ of understanding that comes from having one’s horizon’s challenged and provoked by something at once particular and universal, bears resemblance to Bernard Lonergan’s description of the occurrence of an insight (Lonergan, 1-33). 

One is not given access to univocal truth in this event-like understanding that accompanies encountering a classic such that one could isolate or codify the meaning of this truth. Rather, the encounter with a classic raises certain fundamental questions that haunt us with the weight and excess of meaning that bears upon our finite horizon from the whole (cf. Tracy, 1981, 430). In the classic, therefore, lies “the one finite hope of liberation to the essential” (Tracy, 1981, 119). This very surplus of meaning in the classic, however, prevents it from becoming a monologic conception of truth. Instead, Tracy insists that “every classic contains its own plurality and encourages a pluralism of readings” (Tracy, 1981, 113). The realized experience of the classic, then, lends itself to dialogue and conversation, and consequently occasions reflection that is essentially public.

The analogical imagination

This notion of the classic is the key to Tracy’s description of authentic systematic theology as the work of an analogical imagination. Christian symbols focus on the event of Jesus Christ as a religious classic. A theologian is confronted or grasped by some encounter with Christ and then journeys through the full range of Christian forms and symbols in order to set forth the significance of this event with relative adequacy (Tracy, 1981, 407). The encounter with the religious classic that is the event of Jesus Christ thus gives rise to second-order reflection on this encounter, and such reflection, Tracy says, takes the form of one of two major conceptual languages in theology. The first of these is analogical language, an interpretation of real-similarities-in-real-difference that focuses on a primary meaning or analogue in its manifestation and seeks to articulate the harmony of meaning in this event in relation to the whole of reality and in particular in relation to the realities of God, the self, other selves, and the world. The harmony achieved in such reflection is not forced and is not a static and univocal uniformity. It is rather a unity-in-difference, always involving negations of any claim to full adequacy, yet perceiving nonetheless an emerging harmony (Tracy, 1981, 408-13). The second major conceptual language is that of proclamation or dialectical language, which emphasizes the necessity of radical negation in faithful theological language. The theological language of dialectics insists on the negation of any human efforts to save oneself, exposes the nonidentity of human reason with God’s word, and unmasks any easy continuities between God and the human or God and the world (Tracy, 1981, 414-17). The conceptual language of analogy, Tracy says, is that used by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Rahner, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, while the language of dialectics is the domain of theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich as well as more recent political and liberation theologians. In their actual usage, however, he contends that these two traditions of analogy and dialectic, or manifestation and proclamation, are not two competing languages but are both necessary and complementary aspects of theological language. Genuine analogy requires negation if it is not to become a deadening univocity and dialectical language must move forward into analogy if anything but a chaotic equivocity is to be left when “the purging fire” of negation ends (Tracy, 1981, 417-20). Both analogy and dialectics, therefore, have a similar status as “theologies within an uncanny journey through and in the event-gift-grace disclosed in the entire Christian symbol system” (Tracy, 1981, 420).  Both, consequently, are aspects of an analogical imagination that seeks to formulate a theological understanding of the original religious event in relation to the realities of God, the self, and the world.   

Such understanding, of course, is not guaranteed, and it necessarily involves some personal risk. Yet, the subject matter itself, in the surplus of meaning in the religious classic of the event of Jesus Christ, guides the reflection and, by transforming the interpreter’s horizon, releases him or her to trust in the overwhelming reality disclosed. It thus releases a power that transforms one’s understanding of God, self, and the world, freeing one to the self-transcendence of regard for the other and allowing the possibility for authentic conversation. Tracy writes:

Thus released, we are not freed to some new knowledge, some new gnosis which we now possess for ourselves alone. Rather we are finally freed to embrace a fundamental trust in the whole, to demand of ourselves, by that trust, a hope for the sake of the hopeless, to risk a life in the impossible gospel possibility of a faith and hope working through a love given as pure gift and stark command (Tracy, 1981, 430).     

For Christian theologians, the systematic theological interpretation of life focuses on the religious classic of Jesus Christ. Tracy recognizes, however, that thinkers in other religious traditions are engaged in similar processes of reflection occasioned by their own religious classics. Because the disclosure of meaning in each of these religious classics necessarily has a public character, he is convinced that conversation with thinkers in other religious traditions is a necessity for Christian systematic theology in the radically pluralistic present (Tracy, 1981, 449).

Conversation and the Postmodern Naming of God

Tracy’s more recent work has picked up this emphasis on conversation and this, together with a greater appreciation for the ambiguity and pluralism of the contemporary theological situation, has led him to focus on mystical, prophetic, and apophatic elements in Christian theology. An emphasis on conversation, of course, was present in his work from the beginning. Yet, looking back upon his early work, especially in Blessed Rage for Order, Tracy sees his writing as too closely wedded to the “modern project” and not attentive enough to the relationship to the other and the different (Breyfogle & Levergood, 301). While still affirming the modern insight that reason can really function as a tool for communication, he objects to the search for “the correct ‘-ism’ for naming God,” including his own earlier attempt to develop the viewpoint of panentheism in the categories of process thought (Breyfogle & Levergood, 294). Contemporary western theology, he says, is unable to name the present, for all of its namings are too narrow and do not account for the complexity and “polycentrism” of the present pluralistic situation (Tracy, 1994, 5-20). Even his own work, he recognizes, is limited by his experience as a Caucasian North American priest and university professor and must face the challenge of relating to concrete others with their own centers, such as African American, Native American, feminist, and womanist theologians (Tracy, 1994, 4, 22). He sees the need, therefore, for a mystical and prophetic theology that engages in conversation with such concrete others. “The true present,” Tracy writes, “is the present of all historical subjects in all the centers of conversation and solidarity before the living God. The rest is whistling in the dark” (Tracy, 1994, 22).  

Such an emphasis on dialogue and ambiguity has led Tracy to his current project on the post-modern naming of God. Although recognizing the radically pluralistic context that theology must address, he still argues that it is both possible and necessary to engage in attentive and responsible theological interpretation (Rike, ix-xiii). Yet, his current project displays a shift in his own thinking toward the recovery of the apophatic, the apocalyptic, hiddenness, and the fragment, emphasizing God entering history not as a consoling ‘-ism’ but as an awesome and terrifying “hope-beyond-hope” (Holland, 55). The first volume of Tracy’s unfinished trilogy, therefore, develops a theory of fragmented forms, in which these fragments challenge systems of totality and act as bearers of infinity and hope, and tries as well to recover the traditions of hiddenness and apophaticism in Christian theology (Holland, 56-59).

This shift in emphasis parallels a shift in Tracy’s own thought. He has recently become more interested in the tragic vision of such thinkers as Nietzsche and the Greek playwright Aeschylus as well as mystical theologians like Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, and Simone Weil.  He has also become more attentive to theologians who speak of the hiddenness of God such as Luther, Pascal, and Calvin. This shift does not, however, involve a move away from his early emphasis on the public character of theology. Indeed, Tracy reports that it was largely from his participation in dialogues with Buddhist philosophers that he was led to a greater appreciation for such mystical and prophetic voices (Breyfogle & Levergood, 295-301).

Implications and Evaluation

Tracy’s consistent emphasis on the hermeneutical character of systematic theology has given his own theological work both continuity and development, and his work has been widely received with admiration and appreciation. His emphasis on the publicness of theology and the necessity of theological interpretation amidst an increasingly pluralistic and complex society have made original and lasting contributions to the recent theological dialogue and have stimulated the work of many other thinkers from diverse theological and philosophical backgrounds, such as Rosemary Radford Reuther, Paul Ricoeur, and Gregory Baum (Rike, xxvi-xxvii).

His work has also, of course, received significant criticism. The sharpest rebuke has come from George Lindbeck, who opposes Tracy’s emphasis on the publicness of theological interpretation with his own cultural-linguistic model of religious understanding (Lints, 658-60). In addition, Tracy has been criticized by David Burrell and others for writing on methodology rather than actual systematic theology.  He has also been criticized by a former student for insufficiently connecting hermeneutical theory with Christian practice (Sanks, 719-26).

Tracy himself recognizes the validity of some of these criticisms, yet he continues to be committed to a theological interpretation that risks engagement with the complexity of the contemporary world despite the high price it demands in broad scholarship, honesty, and the risk for change. His own scholarship, with its shifts and continuities, is characterized by this commitment and is stamped by the transcendental imperatives he learned in his study with Bernard Lonergan: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be rational, be responsible, develop and, if necessary, change” (McCarthy, 468). While one may take issue with the theological formulations of the various stages of Tracy’s work, then, the complexity, detail, and thoughtfulness with which he approaches the theological task is undeniably admirable and has established him as one of the most influential voices in Christian theology today.

4. Outline of Major Works

Blessed Rage for Order

Tracy was a student of Bernard Lonergan’s, and his first book is a study of Lonergan. His own themes began to emerge quickly thereafter, and they have seen development and detailed articulation ever since. Blessed Rage for Order, which appeared in 1975, is his seminal work. He is already committed here to critical theological reflection accountable to and speaking within the modern university, the Roman Catholic Church and the radical pluralism of the late twentieth century.

Tracy makes two assumptions that continue to guide his work: first that philosophical and religious pluralism can be enriching if the theologian neither flees from it nor capitulates to a lazy consumer-tolerance. But the tools and insights of many viewpoints are only useful if theologians delineate and defend their methods of inquiry and apply them with integrity to the same sources. The twin loyalties of scientific inquiry and interpretation of one’s faith tradition are held joined in the ethical dilemma of the theologian.

He investigates orthodox, liberal, neo-orthodox, radical and revisionist models in contemporary theology by considering the subject and object referents in each model. Committed to what he calls a common faith or trust in the worthwhileness of life, he advocates revision and sets forth five theses. These are (1) that the principle sources for theology are common human experience and language and the facts (texts, symbols, stories, and rituals) of Christian tradition; (2) that the task of theology is to set these sources in critical correlation; (3) that the phenomenology of the religious dimensions of everyday life, morality and science must be weighed; (4) that historical-hermeneutical investigation of classical Christian texts is necessary; and (5) that transcendental/metaphysical reflection is also critical to theological work. Criteria of adequacy and appropriateness for evaluating the meanings of human experience and Christian texts are introduced. The hermeneutical analysis of subject- and object- reference is advocated as avoiding psychologizing, applicable within breadth of theology, appealing to imagination and including aesthetic elements.

Next Tracy turns to the task of outlining a new model and method for fundamental theology through the investigation of limit-language, both at the boundaries of everyday life and of intellectual inquiry. Limit-language at the edges of life and in ecstasy or peak experiences. We neither make nor control these horizons. Tracy tests the meaningfulness and truthfulness of Christian language and symbols at these horizons, beginning with New Testament religious language. His initial linguistic analyses show the illogic or emptiness of religious language, but pressing further he shows that it has a poetic/symbolic character joined by total commitment and universality. In the New Testament, "going to the limits" of language through intensification or transgression in proverbs, proclamations, parables, and eschatological sayings jars us into impossible-possible modes of being in the world. This provides confidence in the ultimate worth and purpose of life. The possibility and vision is radical honesty and love in the presence of the gracious God in Jesus Christ.

The remainder of the book investigates the questions of God, meaning, and truth in relational and process models. This investigation is qualified by the need for a fuller recognition of ambiguity, tragedy and sin than is present in most process thought. Possibilities of transformation are set in the imagination through the interpretation of tradition, and the necessity of transformation is clear in the face of evil. God’s love is persuasive and non-coercive, yet its power to change our lives needs compelling and liberating language speaking to the contemporary situation. The stories, symbols, images, myths, and fictions of the Christ event disclose possibilities, so this non-cognitive function of religious language reorients us to real possibilities.

Talking about God

In the 1976-1977 Tuohy Lectures on "The Problem of God," delivered at John Carroll University, Tracy’s commitment to interpretation is evident. David Mason’s introduction to Talking About God (the lectures edited for publication) highlights Tracy’s realization that the evaluation and articulation of a doctrine of God requires reflection on the nature of theological language as well as the context of its use. Investigation into the means of inquiry and methods of articulating truths is necessary. Tracy’s advocacy of analogical method and process metaphysics are already strong, particularly in his affirmation of the openness of the future, and the idea that God can surpass God’s Self in response to the affect of the beloved creature. He is committed to the public character of theology, both in its possibilities for the transformation of all human life and in its need to be accessible to all thinking people. Theology’s constants are the need to interpret tradition in the present situation. Here his analysis of religious language discerns a focal meaning in human subjectivity in relation to God as Absolute Being and Mystery. Religious language follows the logic of metaphor. Neo-thomism and Process theology provide analogical languages for God – who is love, and is therefore in relation to all creation – thereby affecting and affected by creation.

The Analogical Imagination

By 1981, Tracy’s understanding of fundamental theology would be furthered in relation to systematic theology. The Analogical Imagination begins by setting forth the publicness of systematic theology. Theology as public discourse is set in relation to society, academy and church, the latter having both a sociological and theological reality. The task of systematic theology is the coherent interpretation of the Christian Classics in critical correlation with the contemporary situation. Thus both event and situation must be interpreted. Theology needs to convey the "critical freedom granted as grace and command in the originating religious event itself." Therefore it must be adequate to common experience and language, it must convey existential meaningfulness, it must disclose truth and so hold power to transform life.

Theology has typically sought to accomplish these ends through analogy or dialectic – Tracy advocates the priority of analogy. Analogy provides focal meaning that empowers harmony and unity-in-difference. So the analogical imagination is equipped for the polycentric, contemporary situation – the analogical imagination is open, yet committed to its own integrity and dignity, yet willing to change if it must. According to Aristotle, the power of analogical imagination is to spot the similar in the dissimilar. The analogical imagination at work in systematic theology is free to note the profound similarity in difference of all reality. Theologians participate in the wonder, trust disclosure and concealment of the religious event and step back to second order language for the sake of critical reflection. Then theology sets forth in reflective, conceptual language the original wonder and confidence. While there are always dialectics within the analogues, always no’s ringing emphatically before every yes, they give way to analogy – otherwise they degrade into rage or despair. The Christian analogue is always the Christ event – and this event has the character of always-already/not yet of the grace and gift disclosed in Jesus Christ. Christianity lives by an event and person – Jesus Christ – not by ideas. All relations of God-self-world are ordered and oriented by the always-already/not yet Christ event. In words reminiscent of Heidegger’s idea of clearings in which truth is disclosed and concealed, Tracy’s book concludes,

For the analogical imagination, once religiously engaged, can become a clearing wherein we may finally hear each other once again, where we may yet become willing to face the actuality of the not-yet concealed in our present inhumanity in all its darkness – a deepening, encroaching darkness that, even now, even here, discloses the encompassing light always-already within us. (455)

Plurality and Ambiguity

Tracy published Plurality and Ambiguity in 1987. Beginning by showing the tremendous difficulties in all interpretation through the example of the French Revolution, he explains that all understanding is dependent upon interpretation. In the contemporary pluralist situation, conversation is the way forward. It is a game, and can recover the joy of play, but it has rigorous rules. It seeks illumination and good action through questioning – and the questions arise from the classic events and texts themselves. The classic both endures, so is stable, and is always open to interpretation and in this sense is unstable. Acknowledging an interaction between event, memory, narrative and reflective interpretation, he seeks a useable and retrievable past through the otherness of event, text, possibility. Above all, he recognizes the voices of oppressed, marginalized and impoverished people contributing to the conversation. Through his analysis of language in relation to knowledge in relation to reality, Tracy hopes for transformation and change.


The themes drawn from these early texts may now be more clearly delineated through summarizing Tracy’s 1994 publication of a group of articles first appearing in Concilium. But first, notably, in the Preface to On Naming the Present Tracy writes about the work and purposes of Concilium. Founded near the end of Vatican II, it is a journal and a movement imbued with the spirit of reform of both church and society. Having served on its editorial board, as a contributing editor and writer, and most especially as a reader, Tracy speaks as a North American theologian who recognizes that theology must break out beyond both the academy and the "first world." There is an emerging, energizing world Christianity, and too many theologians are reluctant to face the narrowness of their perspectives as well as the contextual nature of all theology. The contemporary situation is a new one for theology – it is not only no longer centered in the dominant elite of the West, it is polycentric – therefore it must be dialogical. Concilium is committed to, and Tracy advocates, the "mystical-political" dimension of Christian faith. This dimension carries both a negative way which names the idols in church, society, academy and faces global suffering, and a positive way of hope in struggles for justice and integrity. So Tracy bids all readers, especially those engaging the tasks of theology, to join the larger, ecumenical theological conversation.

The articles in the volume begin with the difficulty of naming our present time and not e that one thing is sure – the Western center no longer holds; indeed, the contemporary situation is polycentric. In this situation, the deepest need of those who have been privileged is the drive to face otherness and difference. Since the aim of Christian theology is to write the present in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a mystical-prophetic option emerges in the present situation.

Tracy’s appraisal of the contemporary situation focuses on the dominance of techno-economic social systems – which level memory, resistance and hope, and privatize and marginalize religion, art and the classics. Although liberal theology addresses finitude, guilt, anxiety, meaninglessness and death, it has fallen prey and become consumer goods. In order not to do so, theology must be both historical and political, offering hope and consolation which are public, not private. Thus new theological models of self and of present time are needed, as are theological incorporation of memory, hope and resistance. The voices and actions of concrete, historical others must be heard, especially the poor and the oppressed in all cultures if theology is to offer resistance and hope. Thus the future becomes both promise and judgment. Three particular movements of hope and resistance that need theological development are justice for women, including within ecclesial structures, developing a theology of nature, and opening Christianity to the views and experiences of the world religions. Neo-conservatism contributes the desire to retrieve resources; post-modernism contributes identifying the hopeless hope of modernity due to the subjugation of voices as well as the new sense of the "subject in process." Yet theology remains too Western, and must hear the prophetic voices of the day found in people, individuals and centers most privileged to god and lost to us – the suffering and the oppressed. Therefore, joining a mystical-prophetic theological conversation enacts a new solidarity.

That God is Love means God is radically relational and personal; God is the origin, sustainer and end of all reality. God is uniquely relational since God is related to all reality. The Scriptural answers to the question of who god is are primarily that God is love joined with the Greek idea of logos, or intelligence. These are primary analogies developed by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, et al. This led Tracy both to acknowledge all reality as sheer intelligibility and the entire cosmos as erotic. Yet there are undercurrents – the incomprehensibility and the hiddenness of God are manifest in the weakness, suffering and cross of Jesus Christ. Tracy’s analysis turns to the marginalization of people with strong senses of the reality of God, who are called mystics by a modernism that hold God captive to concepts. He asks where a living god breaks through totalistic systems. Post-modern attacks on logos bring new opportunities for serious thought about god in the wake of challenges to modern views of language and history. God enters post-modern thought as awesome, as hope-beyond-hope, bringing liberation and transformation. Here is the ever-deeper hiddenness of God whose Love is known in excess and gift. Christ’s resurrection is proleptic – God’s is the One who raised him, so God is hidden in all struggles for life, liberation and justice. Acknowledging the victims of history means acknowledging the hidden as well as the revealed, the absent as well as the present God, God as incomprehensible as well as comprehensible.

Throughout several further articles, Tracy is concerned with unity in diversity, both in individuals and societies. He retrieves this emphasis through reference to Newman, von Hugel, and the Catholic model of caritas – which unites eros and agape. Then he seeks to show the particularity and universality of Christian Revelation. He articulates the needs for self-respect and dignity, openness to difference and otherness, and engaging the ethical universality of true and liberating justice. The universal is found in embracing the particular. Finally, all interpretation must be a hermeneutics of suspicion as well as of retrieval, because there must be a devotion to the correction of error as well as right rendering for the present situation. Seeking a theology beyond foundationalism and relativism, Tracy writes,

The theological alternative is clear: a fidelity to the ever-greater God in a new cultural and religious situation where the realities of otherness and difference are critically and religiously appropriated by all Christian theologies that dare to move beyond any form of intellectual foundationalism and its institutional counterparts, cultural imperialism and ecclesial triumphalism, and beyond any exhausted model of liberal modernity that can promise only relativism. The emerging world church is newly anxious to be freed of Eurocentrism – freed by the theologies of the new Europe that struggles to find a new intercultural and interreligious theological identity for itself. European hermeneutics reconstrued as hermeneutical discourse analysis shows one way forward intellectually. Will the new European theologies show the same hermeneutical and political way forward in an increasingly multicultural and multireligious world? (139)

5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Breyfogle, Todd and Thomas Levergood. 1994. “Conversation with David Tracy.” Cross Currents 44 no. 3: 293-315.

Carmody, John Tully and Denise Lardner Carmody. 1980. Contemporary Catholic Theology: An Introduction. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Holland, Scott. 2002. “This Side of God: A Conversation with David Tracy.” Cross Currents 52 no. 1: 54-59.

Jeanrod, Werner G., and Jennifer L. Rike, eds. 1991. “Bibliography of David Tracy.” In Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 286-93.

Lints, Richard. 1993.  “The Postpositivist Choice: Tracy or Lindbeck?” Journal of the Academy of Religion 61 no. 4: 655-674.

Lonergan, Bernard. 1963. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. New York: Philosophical Library.

McCarthy, John P. 1996. “David Tracy.” In A New Handbook of Christian Theologians. Edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 468-478.

Peck, Abraham J. Peck, ed. 1982.  Jews and Christians after the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Rike, Jennifer L. 1991. “Introduction: Radical Pluralism and Truth in the Thought of David Tracy.” In Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion. Edited by Werner G. Jeanrod and Jennifer L. Rike. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, ix-xxvii.

Sanks, T. Howland. 1993. “David Tracy’s Theological Project: An Overview and Some Implications” Theological Studies 54 no. 04: 698-727.

Tracy, David. 1970. The Achievement of Bernard Lonergan. New York: Herder and Herder.   

__________. 1975. Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. New York: The Seabury Press.

__________. 1981. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

__________. 1983. Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism. With John Cobb. New York: Seabury.

__________. 1984. A Catholic Vision. With Stephen Happel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

__________. 1984. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible. With Robert Grant. 2d. ed. Philadelphia: Fortress.

__________. 1987. Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, and Hope. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

__________. 1990. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company; Louvain: Peeters.

__________. 1994. On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and Church. New York: Orbis Books.

__________. 1994. “Roman Catholic Identity amid the Ecumenical Dialogues” Concilium (1994) 5: 109-17.

__________. 1994. “The Return of God in Contemporary Theology” Concilium (1994) 6: 37-46.

Troeltsch, Ernst. 1990. “What Does ‘Essence of Christianity’ Mean?” In Writings on Theology and Religion. Edited and Translated by Robert Morgan and Michael Pye. Louisville: Westminster, 142-163.

7. Internet Resources

Tracy’s University of Chicago Divinity School faculty profile.

David Tracy (1939- ), a page of links to articles, e-books, and interviews.

Concilium: International Journal for Theology

8. Related Topics

Lindbeck, George (1923- )

Lonergan, Bernard (1904-1984)

Ogden, Schubert (1928- )

Ricoeur, Paul

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865-1923)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Kevin M. Vander Schel (2005), Pat Henking (1999), and Mark Mann (1997).


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