Friday, August 14, 2015

We Need More Theology That Isn't an Expression of an Arid, Lifeless Devotionalism

I recently got hold of the one-volume republication of The Gospel in Solentiname published by Orbis.  I'd only ever had two of the 4 volume set of the original translation.  I am finding the theology as expressed spontaneously by Nicaraguan peasants in discussing the Gospel, peasants under attack from an oppressive dictatorship sponsored by the United States in occupation by proxy to be some of the most powerful I've read.  As Ernesto Cardenal pointed out, these were people living under similar conditions as those who first heard Jesus and for whom the Gospels were first written.  I think it would be an extremely useful and important thing if groups of the destitute, poor, marginalized and oppressed in other places and communities went through the same discussion of the Gospels, telling each other and the world about what those books look like through their experience.   The results may well have an authenticity that a lot of learned theology written by academics with an upper class background may, sometimes, lack.   I think that, in the United States, with the enormous population we have in prison that a lot could be learned from theology as generated from people in prisons. Anyone who read the Gospels with its mention of visiting prisoners as a moral responsibility could not but think that would be a good thing to know what they thought on that topic.

Here is a column by Richard McBrien that gave me something to think about in that regard this week.

David Tracy on God

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), has written an excellent piece on the American Catholic theologian David Tracy in the January 29th issue of Commonweal. It is entitled “God Obsessed: David Tracy’s Theological Quest.”

Although I have not seen him in several years, I have always regarded David Tracy as a friend, having first met him many years ago when I was doing doctoral studies in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and he was a seminarian (for the diocese of Bridgeport, Connecti-cut) at the North American College.

Given its subject, Gibson’s Commonweal article is remarkably clear and can serve as a useful introduction to David Tracy for those who are understandably uncertain or even unaware of who he is. I say “understandably” because Tracy hasn’t published a major book in some twenty years, and his theological work has, for the most part, not found its way onto the Vatican’s radar screen. 

Why not? Because as one adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops put it back in the 1980s, like many others the Vatican cannot fathom what Tracy is saying. His writings have never touched upon such toxic subjects as church authority or sexual morality, and so have not been regarded as controversial or dangerous to the faith.

At the time, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine was investigating another U.S. Catholic theologian, who was warned by at least a couple of bishop-members of the committee that his problem was that, unlike Tracy, he wrote too clearly. People could actually understand what he was driving at.

According to David Gibson’s article, this frequently mentioned observation about Tracy’s dense writing style elicits a “wounded” reaction from him. “I don’t think I’m that obscure,” he insists.

But the main point of the Commonweal article is to focus on the central issue not only for Tracy’s theology but for all of theology, namely, the problem of God and of the possibility of belief in God.

Although now retired from his long-time teaching position at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Tracy is working on his so-called “Big Book,” a projected multi-volume treatise on God, which Gibson refers to as “the most celebrated case of delayed publication in theology today.”

Tracy has consistently followed a “method of critical correlation.” It is a slight modification of the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich’s (d. 1965) “method of correlation.” Tracy wishes to maintain a dialectical balance between the demands of the Christian tradition and the questions posed by what he calls the postmodern world. 

Some of Tracy’s critics have erroneously charged that he yields ground on the demands of the Christian tradition in favor of the concerns expressed by the world of science. 

But Tracy insists that his yet-unpublished book about the problem of God “has taken him more deeply into the Christian tradition and more extensively into other religious traditions.” 

For him, the “overwhelming issue” facing us today is “massive global suffering.” Consequently, he has come to focus less on the “analogical imagination” (the title of his 1981 book) than on the inaccessibility of God.

David Gibson describes Tracy as “riveted by the silence of God.” The problem his fellow theologians have created, Tracy believes, is that too many of them have “an obsession with content,” with the result that the content “has drowned out the silence.” Making doctrine central to theology has been “disastrous,” he declares.

He is convinced that “theologians must reestablish the connection between spirituality and theology that was severed by medieval Scholasticism.”

Before Vatican II, Tracy points out, “Spirituality became something you do after you do your theology.” I can testify from personal experience that this was, in fact, the operative assumption of much pre-conciliar seminary theology. 

Theology, he continues, “is not about supplying answers that cannot be questioned,” but rather is judged by “the questions it asks.” In the final analysis, theology is a work of mysticism rather than of logic.

What, then, is the “take-away” from David Gibson’s article?

That Catholic theology must always pay adequate attention to both the Christian tradition and the questions posed by the so-called postmodern world.

That Catholic theology must be attentive to massive global suffering, even though it will only deepen our sense of the inaccessibility of God.

That Catholic theology, as Tracy himself insists, must be “riveted” by the silence of God, and not speak, write, or act as if we have a direct, static-free pipeline to God and to the divine will.

And that Catholic theology must always ground itself in an authentic spirituality, not its many counterfeits, which are simply expressions of an arid, lifeless devotionalism.

3 / 1 / 2010

Note:  I hadn't known until reading Ernesto Cardenal's introduction in the Orbis edition that the translation used in the Sonentiname communities' discussions was the "Protestant translation" Dios llega al hombre, a Latin American older cousin to the Good News Bible. Cardenal, one of the foremost poets in the Spanish language, today, said the anonymous translator must have been a poet, he found the simple, common language of it so eloquent as well as faithful to the original.   I can always use some Spanish practice so I'm going to go through it this fall.


  1. Just to pause here:

    "Before Vatican II, Tracy points out, “Spirituality became something you do after you do your theology.” I can testify from personal experience that this was, in fact, the operative assumption of much pre-conciliar seminary theology. "

    Not only in pre-Vatican II Roman seminaries. At my very Protestant, very liberal, seminary, three of us tried to start a prayer group for the simple purpose of gathering for prayer. Not intercessory prayer of "Come, Lord Jesus" prayer or praying like high school Baptists, but spiritual communion as we imagined it to be in the ancient Christian traditions.

    The dean we approached had no problem with it, but also said it had been tried before, and never succeeded. We found an isolated space at the top of the main building, basically a room under the rafters on the third floor of a two story building, and met. Infrequently. With no mentor and no practice to fall back on, we didn't last long.

    The school emphasized theology and church history and ecclesiology and sociology and how to be a pastor (a difficult subject) and it was an excellent seminary.

    But it wasn't a place for spirituality. Whether that was because "spirituality" seemed too much like Pietism (which has German roots, as did our seminary), and Pietism too much like fundamentalist holy rollers, I don't know. But spirituality is very hard to reconcile with modern theology, especially among theologians influenced by Heidegger (Rahner and Bultmann come to mind here).

    Theology is in a bit of a wilderness, torn between devotion to the pre-Enlightenment world and determination to conform to post-Enlightenment modernity. It is, in some sense, all a darkness.

    But it needn't be.

  2. And if I hadn't stopped at that paragraph to get my thought out before I lost it, I'd have ended that post with this paragraph:

    "Theology, he continues, “is not about supplying answers that cannot be questioned,” but rather is judged by “the questions it asks.” In the final analysis, theology is a work of mysticism rather than of logic."


  3. I will, however, challenge the idea that "global suffering" is a measure of the inaccessibility of God.

    Global suffering is a measure of first-world awareness; and a matter of how we define "suffering." Too much of it is defined as "lack of first world benefits," even though those benefits come at great cost to the third world (something the liberation theologians point out, which is what gets them on the outs with Rome and, at one point at least, the CIA).

    Yes, there is tremendous suffering in the "Third World," but the source of the suffering is much closer to home than an inaccessible God. The very concept sounds a bit too much (at first blush, I should give Tracy the respect he is due) like a soteriology where God is supposed to save us from ourselves; let us, in other words, do as we please and withdraw from us all consequences of our actions.

    The precise opposite, in other words, of the God present in the Hebrew Scriptures, who doesn't punish Israel, but rather lets them suffer the consequences of their apostasy. Not because God withdraws from them, but because they withdrew from God.

    Hmmm....I wonder if Tracy ever finished that book. I'd like to look into it.