In May 2008 a conference was held at the University of Chicago in honor of David Tracy, who had retired the year before after nearly forty years on the faculty. The accolades of colleagues and friends were abundant and well deserved. Tracy, a Catholic priest, was the first theologian at the University of Chicago to be appointed to the prestigious Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Methods and one of the few theologians in the nation to gain membership into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. More importantly, during the seventies and eighties Tracy represented the great hope that liberal theology was a vital and ongoing intellectual project, mainly because he was a liberal in the best sense of that term, meaning his generosity knew no bounds. Tracy was the Google of theology before Google existed, and what he remembered he also cherished or, put differently, he saw the goodness of God in every book he read, every idea he contemplated, and every person he met. Rare were the conversationsoften late at night, at a coffee shop, to accommodate his nocturnal working habitsthat did not end with Tracy saying, “You should write a book about that.” He lit up ideas like a Christmas tree and distributed them like every day was a holiday.
It is hard to imagine today how much optimism Tracy generated about the future of liberal theology. He hit his peak when he made the cover of the New York Time Magazine on Nov. 9, 1986, and his students could not have been more excited. The University of Chicago Divinity School was still basking in the light of past luminaries like Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade, Roman Catholicism was in the middle of sweeping theological changes, mainline Protestantism was not yet theologically exhausted, and Tracy’s students, including me, were certain that he was on top of everything happening in the world of theology. If he hadn’t read a book, we joked, then that book did not exist. All theological roads seemed to converge in Tracy’s trajectory-mapping mind.
Tracy became a symbol of liberal theological ambition because the state of theology was in such disrepair. Throughout the seventies, theology had become so fragmented by conflicting political and philosophical agendas that it was more like a no-man’s-land riddled with buried mines and barbed wire than an open field of intellectual pursuit. Everyone was celebrating pluralism, but nobody knew how to practice it without retreating into various camps with their own rules and boundaries. That Tracy could read everything and like everybody offered hope that a liberal consensus about the meaning of religion was still, theoretically at least, a possibility.
Nobody could think out loud like Tracyjuggling names and analogies in what seemed like a careless manner only to tie everything together with the sheer charm of his guileless demeanorand his students loved him. We thought we were witnessing the beginning of a new theological epoch, one that would apply a robust theoretical rigor to religious conflicts like a concentrated solvent breaking down resistant chemical bonds without leaving any residue or odor. In our sensitively trained hands, contradictions that demanded prayerful decisions would instead soften and bend to the discovery of ambiguities and the multiplication of aporias. Tracy was too inclusive to ever found a school of theology, but he called himself a revisionist, which teased us with how radical it sounded and blinded us to the fact that, when everything is revised, the last thing to be overturned is revision itself. We had no idea that we were really witnessing the end not only of the glory days of theology at the University of Chicago but also of the liberal paradigm itself, which reached its apotheosis in Tracy’s schematizing imagination.
Liberal theology can be defined as post- or meta-denominational, an attempt to think about religion from the broadest possible perspective, apart from specific denominational traditions and historical restraints. Its public is everyone, because theology at its liberal best is grounded in arguments and claims that are accessible to anyone’s exercise of reason. In the seventies and eighties, liberal theology actually had two distinct moments, and Tracy’s work epitomized both. The first moment was methodological, and the second was hermeneutical. Theologians in the seventies scrambled to discover the right theological method like European powers rushing to divide Africa, hoping to settle boundary disputes by negotiating a consensus about epistemological rules. Rather than doing theology, theologians talked about how theology should be done if somebody else were to do it. Methodology is a compulsive’s game, and the more method is separated from its subject matter the less important it becomes. That is why the hermeneutical turn in the late seventies was so exciting. Hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation, was a means of appreciation more than a mechanism for resolving differences, and it had the benefit of focusing attention on the literary aspects of the Bible when there was little agreement about what the Bible really meant. Everyone could enter the hermeneutical circle, and nobody had to agree about where it is going.
Tracy demonstrated his mastery of theological method in Blessed Rage for Order (1975), where he argued that religious language is necessarily presupposed by what he called limit experiences, which was his way of reviving the power of existential apologetics. At this point in his career, Tracy was still in debt to his mentor and the subject of his first book, Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian Jesuit who wrote the book, literally, on Method in Theology (1973). Tracy was also influenced by his logic-splicing colleague at Chicago, Schubert Ogden, who was involved in a similar project of combining hard-nosed process philosophy with wooly Bultmannian existentialism.
By the end of the eighties, foundationalismthe idea that reason can provide a firm basis for faithhad become a dirty word in theological circles, and Tracy’s rage for order dissipated. He began taking his inspiration from the French philosopher of language Paul Ricoeur rather than the methodical Lonergan or the argumentative Ogden. The Analogical Imagination (1981) was to be the systematic theology to complement the foundational theology of Blessed Rage, but it ended up being the hermeneutical whole that swallowed the rest of his work. The idea of a classic text replaced the earlier terminology of limit experience, but the theological moves remained the same. Reading a classic was an experience that broke through all limits, and only religious language could do justice to the surplus of meaning classics generate. In fact, reading a classic text became the paradigm for religious experience itself, because anything can be a text and every act of interpretation involves the same dynamic of losing and finding yourself in something that defies ordinary description.
Analogical Imagination appeared to continue Blessed Rage’s quest for a method that could order the house of theology, but appearances were deceiving. Tracy was writing in a new key, using hermeneutics to deepen the mysteries of faith rather than to resolve theological arguments. Tracy had become our Erasmus, and I mean that as a compliment rather than a criticism. Their similaritiestheir ideas about rhetoric and the precedence of hermeneutics over dogmaticsare striking. They are theological statesmen whose intellectual turns led the theology of their era in a new direction. They did so by replacing a commitment to logic with a love for style, Erasmus rebelling against the metaphysical ambitions of scholasticism just as Tracy resisted the metaphysical ambitions of the great theologians who had come of age in the era of Vatican II.
Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, for example, delights in analyzing theological arguments for their moral ambiguity rather than their internal consistency, and trumps logical conclusions with poetic condescension. Although Tracy never uses sarcasm or ridicule in his work, he shares with Erasmus an essentially humanistic outlook on religion. Both want to speak to broad audiences on the basis of what people share, rather than what divides them, and both have an essentially aesthetic approach to the value of religious language. Both can write as if they are making arguments when they are really trying to keep argumentation at bay.
As much as Erasmus is known today as a polemicist, he was actually very generous in his judgments of others, and his attempt to avoid what he considered unproductive theological disputes eventually put him on the sidelines of the great issues of his day. His Jesus was a peacemaker, and the guiding principle of his rhetoric was the imitatio Christi. This does not mean he treated Christ as a mere teacher of morality. Christ is the perfect speech of God, and for Erasmus there can be no higher compliment. After Augustine set theology on a course away from the pursuit of eloquence for its own sake, Erasmus restored rhetoric to its classical prestige by arguing that the truth should be as pleasing to the tongue as to the brain. The study of rhetoric had civilized the Romans, and the study of Christianity should be no less pedagogically impressive. Erasmus was an optimist who believed not only in free will but also in the priority of charity over faith, and he always managed to give church hierarchy its authoritative due without being elaborate about it. His favorite symbol was the circle, which he used to depict the harmony of Christ, anticipating the reconciling spirit that Tracy names the Catholic analogical imagination. What Erasmus detested most of all was extremity of speech, the frenzy of absolutist claims and endless, sterile bickering. He was a public theologian who defined the public in terms of safety, peace, and the common good.
Much of this description can be, with slight amendments, applied to Tracy as well. Tracy certainly has the intellectual range of the best of the Renaissance scholars. While his first influential book, Blessed Rage for Order, was not dissimilar to the scholastic quest for a complete metaphysics, even that book placed style over argument by depicting religion as the means of expressing basic human experiences. Moreover, Tracy’s representational Christology, which portrays Christ as reflecting back to us an existential completeness that we can grasp but not fully understand in this life, is a close cousin of Erasmus’s philosophia Christi. For both Tracy and Erasmus, Christ presents an essentially aesthetic appeal to our imagination, drawing together the beautiful, good, and true in a way that no philosophical system can reduplicate. Although Tracy took the rhetorical turn of theology in a postmodern direction, toward the twists and lacunae of fragments and contradictions, he is still writing in an essentially Erasmian space. Tracy’s rhetorical theology has passed through Luther’s exuberance and intensity in a way that Erasmus’ never did, but it still subjects the upending drama of dialectic to the encompassing assurances of analogy.
Tracy’s panoramic vision of the spiritual landscape is evidence of a profoundly Eucharistic imagination. Tracy’s whole being is analogical, which made it possible for his students to imagine that the theological world was united and harmonious even as it was falling apart. Like Erasmusand this is their most fundamental similarityTracy raised theological hopes that he could not fulfill. Erasmus thought he was leading the way beyond the pedantic disputes of the scholasticsdebates between realists and nominalists, like our exchanges between Darwinian reductionists and social constructionists, which left many students longing for a change in intellectual direction. In reality, however, Erasmus was caught unaware in one of the great theological controversies of Christendom, and his literary disposition prevented him from understanding the revolution that he had helped ignite. Much the same thing can be said about Tracy’s polite lack of interest in evangelical forms of theology. Blessed Rage and Analogical were supposed to be the first installments of a projected trilogy on foundational, systematic, and practical theology, but the third volume never came. Its absencewhich was, perhaps, predictable, given Tracy’s reversal of Kierkegaard’s ranking of the aesthetic and the ethicalis one of the most important symbols of the fate of liberal theology at the end of the twentieth century.
Instead of engaging the many difficult political issues that Christians had become mired in throughout the seventies and eighties, Tracy began writing shorter pieces on the incomprehensibility of God, which was the subject of his 1999--2000 Gifford Lectures, still unpublished. Tracy's postmodern turn to rhetoric signaled his recognition that the liberal theological project no longer had a firm methodological foundation, but by the nineties, liberal theology had also lost its public audience. Besides, Tracy was always the most conservative of liberal Catholic theologians. He took the political side of liberalism for granted, and did not think it was very intellectually interesting, so he had nothing to contribute to the new political realities in post-Reagan America.
The photograph of Tracy that accompanied the New York Time Magazine cover story shows him perched on a ladder in his office, attending to his books like a hen surrounded by her chicks. The titles that are visible indicate his catholic tastes: Merton, Marx, Hume, Calvin, Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Rahner. On the ladder are the Bible and Plato, a prescient coupling for a theologian who always enjoyed teaching philosophy as much as theology. In 1986, in the middle of the Reagan years, there was still hope that the liberal media would be overwhelmed with the idea of a theologian so polished and respected. Eugene Kennedy, who wrote the magazine article, gave it the title, “A Dissenting Voice,” but that was wishful thinking. Tracy did not dissent from anything or anybody. He was an affirmer of the first degree, the epitome of liberal theology because he was liberal to a fault. His voice was the last, and perhaps the most brilliant, of that era of theologians who could assume that being a theologian meant being a member of the highest echelon of the academic guild, and that being a public intellectual meant being able to speak to an audience that appreciated someone who appreciated everything.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Dylan Redeemed.