THIS SIDE OF GOD: A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID TRACY
by Scott Holland

University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is an old friend of CrossCurrents. His books, Blessed Rage for Order, The Analogical Imagination, and Plurality and Ambiguity, established his reputation as one of the twentieth century's most important revisionist and public theologians. Many readers of this journal remember an engaging piece we ran in which Tracy discussed why theologians attentive to the life of the mind and the passions of heart should pray, for forms of worship or spiritual practice, he suggested, do structure our thoughts. (Fall 1994).

For the past decade Professor Tracy has been at work on what his friends and students describe as "a huge God-project." He has given CrossCurrents two articles that present the critical and creative core of his project: "The Hidden God: The Divine Other of Liberation" (Spring 1996) and "The Post-Modern Naming of God as Incomprehensible and Hidden" (Spring/Summer 2000). He recently presented part of this new work as the Gifford Lectures and the University of Chicago Press will be publishing it sometime next year.

I recently caught up with Tracy at his office in Swift Hall at Chicago and talked with him about his current projects and asked for a brief update on his work.

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Scott Holland: Some of our readers have noticed an interesting shift or a turn in your recent work. Where is your theological imagination taking you?

David Tracy: Well, as you know, for the past ten years or so I have been at work on the question of God or the naming of God in ways that recover the languages of both the Hidden-Revealed God and the Comprehensible-Incomprehensible God. Your readers have seen some of this in my article on Luther's Hidden God and in my article on postmodernism the apophatic mystics. This project will be three volumes. The first and now completed book is titled, This Side of God. The second volume will address Christ or Christology and volume three will discuss Spirit and Christianity in relationship to the other religions.

SH: So, God, Christ, Spirit? Has this planned trilogy replaced your earlier hopes to complete the theological trilogy in which Blessed Rage and The Analogical Imagination were envisioned as the first two volumes awaiting a final, projected book on practical theology?

DT: Yes, I think so. I continue to value and learn from the many modern debates on God -- theism, atheism, pantheism, panentheism -- but these modern "isms" of theological argument and persuasion no longer provide for me the best way to approach the question of God. When one shifts from modern argument, speculation, and persuasion to a God-centeredness one shifts to mystical and prophetic approaches for naming God, and thus to the notions of hiddenness and incomprehensibility.

SH: For most of your career your theological program has been attentive to both the analogical and the dialectical movements of the imagination. This was expressed first in the classical categories of manifestation/proclamation and later in terms of the mystical/prophetic, with more accent now on the Hidden-Revealed God or the Comprehensible-Incomprehensible God. Is this really a shift or is it a development?

DT: There is a shift to the apophatic, the apocalyptic, and also quite importantly to the fragment.

SH: Please say more, for this shift or turn seems to have given rise to the important question you raise in the Luther article, "Does God lead history -- or disrupt it? Appear at its center -- or at its margins?"

DT: Few modern theologians have been willing to speak about the apocalyptic but history is apocalyptic for Luther. An openness to the apocalyptic suggests that God enters history not as a consoling "ism" but above all as an awesome, often terrifying, hope-beyond-hope. God enters history again not as a new speculation but as an unpredictable, liberating, Hidden God. For this God reveals Godself in hiddenness: in the cross and negativity, above all in the suffering of those others whom the grand narrative of modernity has set aside as non-peoples, non-memories, in a word, non-history.

SH: Even as your postmodern appropriation of Luther's Hidden God invites the silenced and suffering to speak, so you believe that a recovery of the Incomprehensible God of the mystics, especially the apophatic and love mystics, can bring the repressed stories of the marginalized, the heretics, the dissenters, the fools, the martyrs, and the avant-garde artists back into the theological conversation. When they are invited to speak in their own terms, you have argued, they utter difference, transgression, and excess as an alternative discourse to "the deadening sameness and totalizing systems of modernity." Is it then this criticism of modern totalizing systems that has turned your attention to "the fragment"?

DT: With Joyce and other modern critics we see the abandonment of a nostalgia for a lost totality. The peculiar form of the fragment first became important for artists, then for philosophers, and now for theologians. It is a form, a literary or religious form, that can challenge any totality system, especially the totalizing systems of modernity. There are three kinds of contemporary thinkers for whom the category "fragments" is crucial: the first, the radical conservatives see fragments with regret and nostalgia as all that is left of what was once a unified culture. The second, the postmodernists, see fragments as part of their love of extremes and thereby as emancipatory toward and transformative of the deadening hand of the reigning totality system, the rationality of modern onto-theology. The third group, of whom Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil are the most suggestive in the early twentieth century, see fragments theologically as saturated and auratic bearers of infinity and hope, fragmentary of genuine hope in some redemption, however undefined. I am most interested in Benjamin and Weil in developing my own theory of fragmented forms.

SH: Both Benjamin and Weil seem to almost embody the category of fragment, thinking through and working out "redemption" on the borders of several communities.

DT: Simone Weil could never join a religious community, she could not be baptized, and thus can remind us of the importance of listening to and learning from those who cannot join as well to those who are joined to religious communities. Both must be respected and I do deeply respect both.

SH: This is to me an important point, and with the renewed emphasis on the importance of being firmly situated in one's own cultural-linguistic community in various inter-religious conversations, I wonder if we are as willing to learn from intellectual and spiritual migrants like Benjamin and Weil. For example, work of Stanley Hauerwas in his own recent Gifford Lectures seems to me to return us to rather bounded religious communities.

DT: I like Stanley's work. We share some concerns and in other ways we are opposites, I suppose.

SH: Yes, you both emphasize in different ways two concerns of postmodern thinking: the turn from the self to the other, even to the otherness of God, and the critique of modern totality systems.

DT: Hauerwas challenges the triumphalist totality system of Christendom and calls for the recovery of more authentic Christian communities. I am sympathetic with this yet I would see this move as yet another recovery, a positive and important recovery, of the "fragment." This is where he and I would likely differ in emphasis, for I also remain interested in the fragments from the secular world, I'm interested gathering fragments from postmodernity, from Derrida's criticism of a nostalgia for a lost totality. I am also very interested in Buddhism and its emphasis on letting-go, on non-attachment or the "not clinging" aspect of faith.

SH: As one who grew up in the kind of Anabaptist community-minded tradition that Hauerwas romanticizes, I have appreciated very much the attention your work has given to the necessary "opening" to see at least traces of the divine in a plurality of texts, traditions and in human experiences, through the sheer gifts and graces of life, in both life's beauty and terror. I think I once heard you say that, "Christian theology began when Greek questions were asked about a Hebrew narrative."

DT: Yes, and now it seems to me that we theologians must be as interested in Asian thought as the early church was in Greek questions; Africa should interest us as much as the Celtic concerns that freely entered earlier Christian conversations. I think also of how Martin Luther King brought the Declaration of Independence into his own preaching. I remain interested in fragments and forms from all the great traditions.

SH: This broad interest has been clear in your close reading of a plurality of both religious and secular classic texts, but I'm wondering if could you say more about this process you refer to as "gathering the fragments." As I understand it, in This Side of God, you are most interested in recovering the neglected fragments of the apocalyptic and the apophatic?

DT: I am emphasizing a gathering or ordering of forms that maintains the sense that these religious expressions are not totalities but fragments and also recognizes that there will be conflicts between the forms, because they are strong. For example, consider the religious forms of manifestation and proclamation. When one has a radical sense of participation in a religious form, such as a sacrament, one has a manifestation. Manifestation as a form can move toward becoming a totality system, a whole, that presumes to offer a complete account of all reality. There is a danger in this sense of radical participation.

SH: Thus, one needs a corrective distancing, a proclamation, a prophetic word?

DT: The prophetic tradition of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam breaks or fragments the whole. With prophetic proclamation you have a fragmentation of totality. In the movement of history and experience, the religious form becomes either prophetic or meditative. There is proclamation and there is manifestation, meditation, participation and wisdom. The contemplative or meditative form is found in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John. I am suggesting that prophecy and wisdom can either be generalized or intensified. If the prophetic tradition is generalized it becomes primarily an ethical tradition. When the prophetic is generalized, the religious and ethical are collapsed into one another.

SH: Thus, you have suggested that in Kantian fashion, liberal Protestants, Reformed Jews, and liberal Catholics are tempted to simply equate the ethical and the religious but that a "postmodern" recovery of neglected and perhaps even disturbing forms like apocalyptic and apophatic can make religious thought and practice far more interesting and imaginative.

DT: On the other side of this polarity, though, when the wisdom tradition is generalized it tends to become aesthetics and art becomes the form of the good.

SH: Ah, but one thing I have loved about your earlier work is that you have argued that art is religion's nearest analogue.

DT: Yes, I maintain that they are kissing cousins, but the generalization of wisdom into the aesthetic realm so that art becomes in an almost religious sense the primary form of the good is not adequate.

SH: So, the movement of intensification?

DT: When the wisdom tradition is intensified it becomes apophatic and when the prophetic tradition becomes intensified it becomes apocalyptic.

SH: And this movement returns us to the intriguing notions of God as Hidden and Incomprehensible. What will this look like in your Christology and Spirit volumes?

DT: For Christians, the Scriptures end with, "Come, Lord Jesus." I now add the apocalyptic to my developing Christology in ways that my earlier work did not. You see, Christ has come but quite importantly, he still has not come. We must remain messianic as Christians. We don't fully know what Christ will be nor when his second coming will occur. So the second coming of Christ now becomes a symbol as important as the symbols of incarnation, cross and resurrection. Then, the work on Christology will open up into Spirit -- and into a theological interpretation of Christianity in relationship to the other religions.

SH: This in indeed complex and lovely theology for a time in which some of us have wondered about the ability of theology to address our late-modern or postmodern intellectual and spiritual concerns. Thank you for giving us this window into your forthcoming work. I know many of us in the CrossCurrents circle will eagerly await your new book.

SCOTT HOLLAND is a contributing editor of CrossCurrents.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1.