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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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