Catholics In America – A contemporary theologian with few peers

In the last half century, a prominent ongoing scholarly debate has unfolded between faculty members at Yale and the University of Chicago.  The disagreements arise over interpretation of what has been called “post-liberal” theology, a movement based on the thought of figures such as George Lindbeck, Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom had connections to Yale as doctoral students or professors.

These thinkers followed the trajectories of Protestant thinker Karl Barth in highlighting the dissimilarities between Christianity and the other religions, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language to focus on the intrinsic logic and “grammar” which constitute religious statements and doctrinal assertions occurring within a tradition.

In response, one of the most respected living theologians, Chicago professor Father David Tracy, employs the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur and the methodological studies of Bernard Lonergan to dispute this interpretation and to propose the theory that all theology is essentially “public” discourse.

When a theologian writes, he is not engaged in what Lindbeck would call an internal “cultural-linguistic” game, but rather he is addressing three distinct and very public spheres: the church, the academy, and the world at large.

Tracy’s work focuses on questions of hermeneutics (the science or art of interpretation), the “classic,” interreligious dialogue, and the dialectical relationship between religious thinking and the surrounding culture which informs and is informed by it. As the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology puts it, “While one may take issue with the various stages of Tracy’s work,…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.”

As Tracy eloquently writes about his own work: “All contemporary systematic theology can be understood as fundamentally hermeneutical. This position implies that systematic theologians, by definition, will understand themselves as radically finite and historical thinkers who have risked a trust in a particular religious tradition. They seek, therefore, to retrieve, interpret, translate, mediate the resources — the questions and answers, form and content, the subject matter — of the classic events of understanding of those fundamental religious questions embedded in the classic events, images, persons, rituals, texts and symbols of a tradition.”

I have seen few better analyses of what we systematic theologians do on a daily basis.

Like Karl Rahner and John Milbank, Tracy is notoriously dense. To hack one’s way through the thickets of his writing unassisted is no easy task. The sheer volume of references and academic allusions, his literacy in thinkers spanning millennia, and the reader’s presupposed philosophical background make reading Tracy sometimes daunting, frustrating and humbling. Yet, it is an endeavor both invigorating and worth the effort.

Some of Tracy’s most famous works are “Blessed Rage for Order,” “On Naming the Present” and “The Analogical Imagination.” Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Catholic Theological Society of America, of which he is a past president, recognized his genius and honored him with the John Courtney Murray Prize, its highest award.

Still maintaining a connection with the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Tracy continues to lecture and publish.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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