Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Adam Kotsko reviews David Tracy’s Selected Essays

David Tracy. Selected Essays, vol. 1: Fragments: The Existential Situation of Our Time, 429 pp., and vol. 2: Filaments: Theological Profiles, 432 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 

Review by Adam Kotsko

20 January 2021

Recent decades have seen an explosion of interest among scholars in the interdisciplinary humanities in the theological heritage of the West. Some have mined the Christian tradition for hints at a new direction for radical politics, while others have been concerned to trace the genealogical roots of our modern woes to Christian theological sources. In either case, though, increased interest in the historical sources of Christian theology has not translated into a renewed engagement with contemporary academic theology.

Hence the appearance in these pages of a review of a sprawling career retrospective from a major theologian may be surprising. Mindful of the context, I will be approaching this review somewhat differently than I would if writing for a journal in theology or religious studies. In place of an exhaustive inventory and assessment of these two volumes’ contents—which naturally include a good deal of theological “inside baseball”—I want to present David Tracy as a model theologian to explore the question of what contemporary theology has to offer to the broader academic humanities.

In many ways, Tracy is an especially strong candidate for such a role. A Roman Catholic priest, Tracy completed his theological training in Rome in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, a historical moment when the Catholic Church was as confident, dynamic, and open to the wider world as it had ever been since the Protestant Reformation. Tracy has arguably carried forward the spirit of Vatican II more consistently than the church itself, dedicating his academic career to reimaging Christian theology as a potential partner in a dialogue with other religions, other academic disciplines, and the broader public at large—a dialogue that would be genuinely open in the sense of prompting all involved to rethink their own convictions.

Such a stance may be surprising coming from a committed Catholic, but Tracy insists that no tradition is ever fully univocal or unambiguous. Instead, engaging faithfully with one’s tradition means engaging in the hard work of interpretation, which is always necessarily provisional and contextual. He grounds these claims in the discipline of hermeneutics, especially as developed by Hans Georg Gadamer, an intellectual commitment that generates some exceptionally dry methodological essays but also gives him productive points of contact with modern continental philosophy. More broadly, Tracy amply displays one of the qualities that most drew me to the academic study of theology even as I was drifting away from religious practice—its intrinsically interdisicplinary nature. Theology necessarily includes elements of history, social theory, philosophy, literary criticism, and philology, and Tracy casts his net even further, engaging at some length with mathematical and scientific approaches to the infinite.

Tracy’s hermeneutical approach allows him to sidestep many unproductive questions about the meaning of religion, its relationship to reason, and so on. Instead, he presents the core texts, rituals, and historical experiences behind the great religious traditions as classics that can make some kind of claim on anyone who seriously engages with them. While he himself has responded most deeply to the classics of the Christian tradition, particularly in its Catholic form, Tracy never gives the impression that he views any of his preferred classics as more than simply one classic among many.

In other words, he is not out to convert anyone. At the same time, Tracy is confident that the classics of his tradition are potentially relevant to all serious thinkers, without the need for radical revision. Although he is open to liberation theologians and other more radical internal critics of Christianity—as, indeed, he is open to every potential dialogue partner—his own intellectual sympathies and interests tend to be more traditionalist figures. He includes essays on feminist theology, the Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Guttiérez, and the black theologian James Cone, and consistently name-drops such figures and movements where appropriate in other essays (albeit sometimes in mildly tone-deaf ways). But he is more confident, and more interesting and informative, when he is dealing with the mainstream of the Western Christian tradition. One can say, then, that he combines conservative content with a liberal form.

The volumes at hand collect essays from the entire span of Tracy’s prolific multidecade career, with the majority stemming from the last ten years or so. Such a wide-ranging assortment of material obviously cannot represent a single unified argument or project, and Tracy tries to make a virtue of that necessity by arguing in his introduction that the unifying theme of the collection is the very concept of a fragment itself. Distancing himself from a conservative view of fragments as the nostalgic remnants of a lost whole and from a more nihilist (or postmodernist) approach in which fragments testify to the impossibility of any stable meaning, Tracy claims, “The classical, emancipatory fragments in every tradition are events opening to Infinity” (vol. 1, p. 2). And after a chapter fleshing out his concept of the fragment, he devotes a long essay to the concept of the infinite. Drawing on contemporary mathematics and science as well as ancient Greek philosophy, Tracy argues that the idea of a positive infinite is one with intellectual credibility for the modern age—though, characteristically, he does not seem to be particularly concerned with whether one chooses the term God to name that reality. The point is not to assert a religious claim but to point toward a type of experience that can be, and indeed has been, approached from numerous directions and in terms of many different traditions.

This basic framing in terms of fragments and the infinite does help to give some minimal cohesiveness to the collection. It is the third essay, however, that introduces the theme that is at once most unexpected in terms of Tracy’s earlier work and most interesting from a broader humanistic perspective—namely, tragedy, which he views as “the most persuasive response in the history of the West” to the problem of evil and suffering (vol. 1, p. 63). That assessment includes Christian theological responses, and in fact—in perhaps his most radical critique of his own tradition—Tracy claims that Christian theologians need “to rethink original sin” in light of the tragic view of the world (vol. 1, p. 84). Where original sin seems to pin the blame for all suffering and death on human choices, a tragic viewpoint acknowledges that there are forms of destruction and loss that simply exceed human intentionality.

The theme of tragedy becomes an undercurrent throughout the entire collection, surfacing most forcefully in the opening essay of the second volume, “Augustine Our Contemporary”—the piece I would recommend most highly to readers outside the field of theology. There, he attempts to stage a missed encounter between Augustine’s account of selfhood as irreducibly conflictual and the Greek tragic vision of life, arguing that a more tragic Augustine would have been both more theologically coherent and more resonant with contemporary debates about the meaning of selfhood. This is academic theology at its most compelling, making a case that a classic theological text is relevant to our modern concerns without giving into the temptation to “explain away” its specifically theological character.

One wishes, in fact, that Tracy had assembled a smaller collection of essays on tragedy or even reworked the material into a short monograph. Such a work may have given him the opportunity to clarify his references to various traditions of the oppressed, which often serve more as examples than genuine dialogue partners. I do not doubt Tracy’s sincerity when he declares the importance of overcoming racism, sexism, and homophobia, but he would have done well to engage more extensively with figures who are concretely doing so. As with his strengths, here too Tracy’s failings are emblematic of the white-male theological establishment. Thus, while I can recommend that readers looking for a sense of the (white-male) mainstream of postwar American theology at its genial and open-minded best can profitably dip into Tracy’s work, they would be even better served by tracking down the Latin American and black liberation theologians, feminist theologians, and queer theologians whom Tracy is mainly content to name-drop—their creative, iconoclastic, and at times even shocking work represents the real future of theology.