A Theology of Conversation

An Introduction to David Tracy

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Stephen Okey
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , November
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this revised dissertation Stephen Okey presents an introduction to the work of David Tracy, one that “aims to be a guide, perhaps an interpreter, for entering into conversation with Tracy” (2). A Theology of Conversation: An Introduction to David Tracy is therefore not meant to be a study or critique of Tracy’s own theology as much as it is, itself, a conversation about conversation, and the possibility and shape of theology today as articulated by Tracy. In a word, Okey sees Tracy as arguing for conversation as a model for contemporary theology in a setting characterized by a plurality of publics and a pluralism of interpretations. Tracy, joining the conversation, offers a brief foreword thanking Okey for this work.

Following a brief biography of Tracy, Okey proceeds by focusing on what he presents as the core concepts and key themes in Tracy’s thought, and how they have developed and changed over the years. This diachronic approach is especially helpful in making sense of what Tracy has said, what changes have occurred, and why. The core concepts are the notion of correlation as naturally critical, publics and their operative paradigms, hermeneutics, and the analogical and dialectical imagination as essential to Catholicism. The themes are, once again, that of the public, with the emphasis on the number of diverse publics that must be acknowledged, including the church itself as a public or number of different publics; conversation with the risks it entails; the ideal of the classic, particularly the religious classic as a means of making sense of and conveying what the tradition has taught and as still disclosive of what the Christian tradition has maintained; the replacement of the classic by the idea of fragments as self-disclosive and what best correlates with plurality; and, finally, plurality itself as it applies to both theology and its social-cultural situation. Okey demonstrates that what begins as a revisionist model of doing theology, intended to make it possible to address a contemporary public situation and take seriously its critique of religion, becomes theology in conversation with a number of different publics—including interreligious dialogue, as Tracy became active in Buddhist-Christian dialogues.

Tracy is concerned with what his teacher Bernard Lonergan called fundamental theology rather than systematic theology, although there are two chapters discussing Tracy’s comments about God and Jesus. Today, God is best conceived as the answer to a fundamental religious question and as a limit experience of ultimate reality, a source of love and hope based on and in response to God’s own love for reality. It is the analogical imagination which best mediates this understanding of God, and of the life, message, and event of Jesus, that re-presents this possibility as liberating in the present moment through a plurality of forms of manifestation, proclamation, and action. In other words, contemporary theology must seek to re-present God and Jesus as possibilities for our imagination—particularly in terms of a possible life lived for others—by “naming” God, the title of Tracy’s proposed but as yet unpublished magnum opus.

The book ends with an epilogue examining the so-called Tracy-Lindbeck debate, presenting it as a confrontation between two influential, but apparently opposed, ways of doing theology today. In this debate, Yale theologian George Lindbeck portrayed Tracy as proposing what Lindbeck labeled an experiential-expressive model—a label Tracy rejected in favor of what he says is a hermeneutical-political approach. Although Lindbeck argued for a more confessional cultural-linguistic model, one that would preserve claims for the distinctiveness of Christianity. Okey is able to illustrate how the themes in Tracy’s thought he has discussed run through and make sense of this debate, carrying over to what are characterized today as post-modern approaches to theology, strengthening his case for the importance of Tracy’s work.

Along the way, Okey offers several critical comments on Tracy’s thought, often in footnotes, but does not pursue or develop them. Further examination of why Tracy’s thought continues to be important today is warranted, but that can be a topic for future conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Pellauer is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at DePaul University.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Okey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and ethics.


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