Fragments

The Existential Situation of Our Time: Selected Essays, Volume 1

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David Tracy
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , April
     2020.
     408 pages.
     $39.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780226567297.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

NOTE: This review encompasses the volumes Fragments: The Essential Situation of Our Time and Filaments: Theological Profiles

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These two volumes, Fragments and Filaments, present a selection of David Tracy’s essays along with introductions and commentary on them. Besides the value of the individual essays, which are each important, these volumes aim to provide an overarching perspective by dividing the individual essays into sections and tying them together in light of Tracy’s ongoing project of articulating the conditions of possibility for what he now calls a fundamental theology. That theology is, talk, logos, about ultimate reality as God, theos, from the perspective of a method of correlation that places the questions and answers of religious traditions—ultimately the Christian tradition—in conversation with the questions and answers of the present day. As the title of the first volume indicates, Tracy sees the present as existentially fragmented, so any totalizing, all-encompassing theology is not something currently conceivable. One has to start from fragments and can only expect to produce fragments, but they can be reasonable and meaningful ones.

In Fragments: The Essential Situation of Our Time, two issues motivate his discussion of these fragments: infinity and the question of suffering. On infinity, Tracy sees that this notion no longer can be invoked and taken for granted in light of developments in mathematics such as what Georg Cantor demonstrated are transfinite numbers. Therefore, there can be more than one kind of infinity, perhaps an infinity of infinities. For Tracy, this means the theological question about what has been traditionally called God’s infinity must now consider how to name and talk about what Tracy calls the absolute Infinite, which he identifies with absolute or ultimate reality and thinks can be best named by Christians as a God who is love. Tracy does not offer quite so direct an answer to the problem of suffering, although it runs through both of these volumes as a pressing issue, one that can only be dealt with by a public theology since suffering involves political as well as individual questions. In fact, the major focus of this first volume is on what I would call questions of method, how to respond to a fragmented reality—a reality that should probably be characterized as consisting of frag-events (Tracy’s proposed neologism for any contemporary ontology that has rejected the concept of substance in favor of events).

Tracy’s methodological reflections fall under three headings: hermeneutics, dialectic, and the analogical imagination. With regard to hermeneutics, it is the requisite response to a fragmented present that calls for interpretation. Tracy devotes a long essay to Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose approach he finds best suited to both making sense of the fragmented reality that calls for interpretation and the possibility that comes with  a plurality of possible interpretations in that Gadamer characterizes the process of interpretation as always dialogical and hence public because it is open to discussion.

Tracy also includes a long essay on Paul Ricoeur, whose work on hermeneutics is valuable because of how Ricoeur situates the relationship between explanation and understanding to a dialectic that seeks to relate and mediate oppositions, making way for the idea of truth as manifestation. The analogical imagination—a major theme in Tracy’s earlier work—relates more directly to theology in that it provides an entry into the question of how to talk about something like an absolute infinity or ultimate reality by providing an alternative to the opposition between equivocal and univocal language by providing a way of talk about similarity-in-difference. The one new notion here is the acknowledgement of a limit to analogy—drawn from the Fourth Lateran Council, which stated that “there can be no likeness noted between creator and creature without at the same time noting the greater unlikeness [major dissimilitudo] between them” (373). Dialectic, along with deduction and induction, are forms of discourse that give rise to possible arguments. This leads, in turn, to dialogue and with it the possibility of communication that makes possible public discourse, including any public theology. Communication, Tracy notes, when it makes use of assertions can be indirect or direct (it can also be commanded in situations of domination), but it can also be suggestive and meaningful in that way as well.

The second volume, Filaments: Theological Profiles, is focused on individuals rather than directly on topics or problematic issues. It is divided into sections dealing with historical figures (Augustine, William of St. Thierry, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo), mentors (Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, and Bernard Lonergan), conversation partners (Louis Dupré, Franklin Gamwell, George Lindbeck, and Jean-Luc Marion), prophets (feminist theologian, Arthur Cohen, Gustavo Gutiérez, and James Cone), and seekers of the good (Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and T. S. Eliot), all of whom Tracy argues also suggest a more transcending sacred dimension. All these figures can be read as classics in the sense Tracy has described elsewhere, hence as themselves fragments and frag-events who call for interpretation but who also suggest ways of making sense of fragments and frag-events.

These essays, according to Tracy, are therefore all “largely exercises in a hermeneutics of recovery” (2). They are all important in that they address the major problems of the separation in modern thought between passion and reason, form and content, and theory and practice. More significantly, they are important because they suggest ways of talking about major problems in contemporary theology represented by the separation between spirituality and theology and theology and ethics, both on a personal and political scale.

Tracy is particularly concerned about the split between spirituality and reason that was introduced with early modernity. Here, he is drawing on Bernard McGinn’s important multivolume history of Christian mysticism  (The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, 7 volumes (Crossroad, 1991-2021), but he also sees this split affecting secular ways of contemporary reasoning. In the figures he discusses, this leads to a reintroduction of the idea of mysticism, again in McGinn’s sense of concentration of on the presence of God, leading Tracy to speak of the individuals he discusses as in differing ways really being mystical-prophetic, mystical-political, mystical-aesthetic, and mystical-rational. Having traversed his sequence of historical figures, mentors, conversation partners, prophets, and seekers of the good, he concludes that hermeneutics needs to be extended. We need not only a hermeneutics of retrieval and a hermeneutics of suspicion, but also a critical hermeneutics, which like the analogical imagination is willing to acknowledge and question its own limits

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Pellauer is professor emeritus of philosophy at DePaul University.

Date of Review: 
July 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Tracy is the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Catholic Studies and professor of theology and the philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago, where he also served on the Committee on Social Thought. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of many influential essays and ten books, including The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and Church, Plurality and Ambiguity, and Blessed Rage for Order, the last two published by the University of Chicago Press.

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