While working on a project yesterday, I found myself revisiting a book that was very influential for me in seminary. David Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology is a contemporary theological classic that established Tracy as a preeminent theologian in our time. I took a few classes from Tracy at the University of Chicago Divinity School, including an incredible seminar on biblical theology he co-led with my late teacher and adviser Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Returning to this book after several years reminds me how seminal it was for my theological formation and how many of the themes have carried over into my subsequent theological journey. This is a book that should be studied by anyone who considers themselves a liberal or progressive Christian. It should also be studied by those engaged in the emerging church conversation as a hermeneutical alternative to the postliberal theology that informs so many emergents.
I pulled this book from my shelf as a refresher in Tracy’s theological method of critical correlation. Building on the approach of Paul Tillich, Tracy argues that the project of theology is to bring into conversation questions raised by our culture and the resources of the Christian tradition. Whereas Tillich primary understood this task as turning to Christian theology to answer the questions of culture, Tracy suggests that the exchange goes both ways. Not only does the theologian use the Christian tradition to answer questions of culture, but the questions raised by culture are employed to critically consider the tradition itself. More on this later.
For now, I want to offer something of a reading commentary on the first chapter of this book. I found it helpful to write down these thoughts as I read. This is a kind of introduction to Tracy’s project, while at the same time providing some of my own reactions, interpretations, and applications.
Tracy’s launching point is the pluralism of our contemporary situation. For Christianity to have a meaningful role in public discourse, theologians must be able to interact with others within the plurality of ideas, worldviews, philosophies, and religions that characterizes our world.
There is an assumption here, not actually articulated by Tracy, that Christian participation in the public discourse of our pluralistic world is in fact worthwhile and desirable. One could halt this conversation at the beginning with one or both of the following approaches: 1) assume a triumphalistic and exclusivist understanding of Christianity that considers all other worldviews to be flawed or irrelevant or 2) assume a separatist understanding of Christianity that places no value on engagement with the wider culture for any other reason than conversion to Christianity. Theologians such as Tracy would reject either of these approaches, as do I.
The pluralism of our world is a reality to be engaged, not a problem to be ignored or confronted. For the common good of all of God’s children, Christians must learn to collaborate with others in our common project as human beings. This does not mean that Christians must somehow water down or diminish the particulars of our tradition, but it does mean that we must be able to operate from our tradition in a way that is intelligible and meaningful to ourselves and to others.
According to Tracy, contemporary Christians share a common “faith” with other post-Enlightenment thinkers. Tracy suggests that the common “faith” (by which he means a basic orientation to the world) of the contemporary world is “the full affirmation of the ultimate significance of our lives in this world.” I would extend this to suggest that the common project of humanity is not only to affirm the significance of human life but to promote and nourish human thriving for all. A corollary of this notion is that for such post-Enlightenment thinkers, ultimate significance is located in this world, not in a “supernatural” realm beyond this world. This is another important assumption, from which many Christians will surely depart by thinking that what happens after life has more ultimate significance than what happens during the life we are given, the only life I would suggest we truly know.
As Tracy outlines the project of contemporary theology in this context, he notes that the Enlightenment of the 18th century (itself a development of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century) is the crucial turning point. The introduction of truly critical thinking to all aspects of human life, including religion, has left Christians in a precarious position. Critical thinking will either destroy Christianity or refine it in such a way that it will be meaningful in public discourse.
The result of the Enlightenment, modernity, produced what Tracy calls a “crisis of cognitive claims”. History, science, and philosophy have made significant challenges to the traditional claims of Christianity. A major task of contemporary theology is answering these challenges in an intelligent way.
In the post-Enlightenment world, a theologian cannot approach the Christian tradition in any other way than the process of critical thinking. Such theologians will inevitably be torn between loyalty to the tradition and loyalty to critical inquiry, but it is this very tension that results in constructive theology that is meaningful to contemporary culture.
In this context, it is not sufficient to simply retreat to traditional beliefs in our post-Enlightenment world. We must subject our beliefs to critical intellectual scrutiny and be able to converse with others in intellectually defensible ways.
Postmodern critiques of modernity and the legacy of the Enlightenment should not result in a retreat to pre-modern, traditional beliefs. Neither should postmodern critiques derail the entire project. As Tracy notes, you cannot get to postmodernity without going through modernity, which is to say that even postmodern critiques employ the kind of critical thinking developed in modernity.
While making these arguments for a critical approach to religion, Tracy in no way suggests the abandonment of the particulars of the Christian tradition. For a theologian like Tracy, these Christian symbols can and do articulate and interpret the ultimate concerns of humanity. Understood correctly, Christian theology is a meaningful and intelligible way of describing human existence and responding to the existential concerns of human life.
As Tracy envisions contemporary theology, “neither secularism nor supernaturalism can adequately reflect or appropriately ensure our commitment to the final worthwhileness of the struggle for truth and honesty in our inquiry, and for justice and even agapic love in our individual and social practice.”
Those that practice such a theology “believe that only a coherent articulation of the reality of the Christian God can provide an adequate reflective account of both the unavoidable presuppositions of our inquiry and our moral activity, and of the basic faith in the final meaningfulness of an authentic life which secularity itself has articulated with such power.”
There is an assumption here, which many will reject, that it is the contemporary world (shaped by Enlightenment thinking) that that proposes the questions our theology attempts to answer. More conservative or fundamentalist Christians will object and suggest instead that the Bible and the tradition itself sets its own agenda and is the foundation for understanding the world. But a critically historical understanding of both the Bible and Christian tradition recognizes that these foundational texts and traditions are themselves shaped by the cultures in which they developed. In other words, the traditional theological formulations of the Bible and Christian tradition are themselves responses to questions posed by the cultures in which they were first articulated. It stands to reason, then, that the task of contemporary theology is to not simply reiterate these formulations, which in many ways are now anachronistic, but to articulate a Christian theology that addresses the questions and concerns of the contemporary world.
When it comes to postmodernism, Tracy reminds us that the supposed enlightenment of modernity is itself an illusion or myth. It took thinkers like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche to expose the fallacies and hubris of the Enlightenment project. But this does not mean that critical thinking should be abandoned. Rather, postmodernism only reinforces our commitment to robust critical thinking that questions even itself.
In the process, Tracy leans on Hans-Georg Gadamer (another thinker that was very influential in the halls of the Divinity School) to argue that because we are historically situated in culture, it would be a mistake to follow the Enlightenment project to its ultimate conclusion and abandon our traditions altogether. Instead, he suggests that our approach should be a “hermeneutics of restoration” and a “hermeneutics of retrieval”. By this I think he means that in addition to the often invoked “hermeneutics of suspicion” that critically engages our traditions, we must also seek to make these traditions meaningful for the contemporary human situation.
Tracy also takes up a Marxist critique of modernity which suggests that the elevation of rationality over symbolism (which I take to be the narrative elements of our tradition) is in fact responsible for the horrors of the twentieth century. It is a restoration of symbolic discourse that will enable liberation from the oppressive forces of modernity.
Immersing myself in this one, dense chapter was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon of my day off. I’m looking forward to continuing my re-engagement with Tracy’s theology. I will also be exploring Bill Placher’s postliberal response to this in his fine book, Unapologetic Theology.