Ambiguous Others: Theology and Science in the Work of David Tracy Kenneth A.

Reynhout Princeton Theological Seminary Paper presented at the Zygon/HPRSS 2009 Student Symposium on Science and Spirituality May 1, 2009 Abstract In this paper I examine David Tracy’s treatment of theology as a public discipline in a pluralist context, in order to determine whether his view of theology includes a robust engagement with science, and what the nature of that engagement might be. I proceed by way of a more or less chronological investigation of his major works, and in each case I attempt to locate the place and role of science in Tracy’s theological landscape. This investigation results in a two-part thesis. First, I argue that although Tracy does eventually come to identify an explicit location for science and interdisciplinary engagement in his theological method, this location was initially unclear and mostly implicit. Second, I argue that an interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and science would take concrete shape in Tracy’s theological paradigm as a hermeneutical encounter between “ambiguous others.” Introduction I take it as axiomatic that theology should be interdisciplinary, and that theologians must engage the sciences in more than superficial ways. In this paper I examine David Tracy’s magisterial treatment of theology as a public discipline in a pluralist context, in order to determine whether his view of theology includes a robust engagement with science, and what the nature of that engagement might be. I will proceed by way of a more or less chronological investigation of his major works, and in each case I will attempt to locate the place and role of science in Tracy’s theological landscape. This investigation results in a two-part thesis. First, I argue that although Tracy does eventually come to identify an explicit location for science and interdisciplinary engagement in his theological method, this location was initially unclear and mostly implicit. Second, I argue that an interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and science would take concrete shape in Tracy’s theological paradigm as a hermeneutical encounter between “ambiguous others.” Before proceeding, it is important to be clear about what I am not trying to argue. First, I am not suggesting that Tracy either ignores or disvalues science. Rather, science is an explicit concern throughout his work, even if its role as an interdisciplinary dialogue partner was not initially clear. Second, I am not arguing that Tracy at any point denies the possibility or the importance of an interdisciplinary engagement between theology and science. Instead, he consistently

” and it is therefore incumbent upon the theologian to articulate how the Christian faith “can render intellectually coherent and symbolically powerful that common secular faith which we share” (Tracy 1975. a commitment to open-ended inquiry. The two principal sources for the theologian are thus (a) Christian texts and (b) common human experience and language. The Role of Science in Tracy’s Theological Method Tracy discusses the complex relationship between science and religion in his earliest work. and a fidelity to evidential reasoning (7). the fundamental theological task is to interpret the religious dimension that arises out of common human experience. 94-5). they share a “common faith. On the other hand. and actions. but toward what end? For Tracy. our thoughts. Science is thus one of the tools available for a theological investigation of human experience. theologians can no longer understand their task as merely defending orthodoxy because there is a now an ineluctable “morality of scientific knowledge” that demands a critical posture toward doctrines. Tracy argues that this situation calls for a revisionist approach to theology: the theologian must attempt a critical reinterpretation of the Christian tradition that is “appropriate to the central meanings” of both that faith tradition and of our shared secular faith (14). Theologians. the postmodern critique of autonomous rationality has not eliminated but only deepened and broadened this demand for self-criticality. meaningful existence. but its importance is limited to the way that the implicit religious dimension of scientific practice informs our understanding of the human. In Tracy’s early discussion of theology it thus appears that scientific practice would be included as part of our common human experience. the principal method of theological investigation is a “phenomenology of the ‘religious dimension’ present in everyday and scientific experience and language” (47). and the theological task involves a critical correlation of the investigated results of these two sources. even if the full implications of this recognition were not always apparent in his theological method. interdisciplinary theological engagement of science? He maintains that reflection on common human experience can include engaging “trustworthy modes of mediation. but does this entail a robust. aesthetic. . here and now. and some areas that disclose this religious dimension quite clearly are scientific. 66). in nature and in history” (8). and moral experience (93). history. On the side of human experience. philosophy. The practice of science is one of the important ways in which human beings expand their cognitive horizons by engaging and affirming a reality beyond themselves.” which is “that fundamental attitude which affirms the ultimate significance and final worth of our lives. meanwhile. are caught in a bind between the modern challenge to religious belief and the postmodern critique of modernity. where he argues that science has an implicit “religious dimension” (Tracy 1975. On the one hand. What is unclear is whether the truth claims of science are important for the theologian beyond this implicit religious dimension.” including art. The religious dimension of science is part of what Tracy calls the “faith of secularity. Blessed Rage for Order. existential condition. psychoanalysis. and as such scientific questioning and scientific judgments are a form of intentional self-transcendence.recognizes that theology and science must no longer be enemies. 9). As such. What the scientist and the theologian both share in this postmodern context is the belief that there is some meaning in the world and some path for achieving authentic. and the social and natural sciences (Tracy 1975.

it is in his discussion of the public of the academy where we can most easily discern an implicit demand for an interdisciplinary dialogue with science. no right at all) to violate the canons of . The truth claims of the sciences. theologians must navigate the inevitable tensions arising from their dual commitment to the church and to the world (Tracy 1981.In The Analogical Imagination (Tracy 1981) Tracy argues that in a pluralist context theology must be a “public” exercise that speaks from and to various aspects of our common culture. nevertheless.” which are the criteria by which truth claims are evaluated. critical attention from practitioners of each discipline. with both intellectual and existential dynamics. Tracy’s primary concern in this context is the question of whether theology qualifies as an academic discipline in public universities. but may also include other matters of theological importance. and the church. academy. the theological significance of a situation is no longer limited to its implicit religious dimension. the academy. Each of these three “publics” operates with different sets of “plausibility structures. usually the necessity. but where is science located in the three publics identified by Tracy? Science is not explicitly included in Tracy’s three theological publics.” Second. that they are in fact a complex arrangement of multiple selves in discourse with different social locations (5). but only if theology can be self-consciously interdisciplinary. But.” and (b) “why this situation is said to bear a religious dimension and/or import and thereby merits or demands a theological response” (61). Tracy calls for theologians to “recognize their responsibility to produce theological discourse which meets the highest standards of the contemporary academy” (21). especially when he claims that “the theologian has no more right than any other thinker (that is to say. He answers affirmatively. and church. if theology is a form of public discourse. First. theologians must navigate all three publics of society. The disciplines of science are clearly implicated in this interdisciplinary understanding of public theology in an academic setting. Such complexities are nevertheless tempered by two constants. one of the most ubiquitous and public aspects of our contemporary western culture. including the natural sciences. Existentially. Theologians who are committed to authentic publicness must therefore recognize and reflect on the fact that that they speak across the range of all three publics. We see here two subtle shifts. to whom does theology address itself? Tracy identifies three related yet distinguishable social realities that every theologian addresses: the society. are important considerations for theologians who desire to authentically engage a pluralist context in a public manner. of appeals to a defended interpretation of a particular religious tradition and a defended interpretation of the contemporary ‘situation’ from which and to which the theologian speaks” (59). The situation for contemporary theology as Tracy describes it is shot through with ambiguity. 51). It is hard to imagine Tracy disagreeing with this statement. A theological interpretation of a given situation can be publically evaluated according to two criteria: (a) “whether the situation is accurately analyzed. Intellectually. Moreover.” These two qualities guarantee “the possibility of genuine collaboration among the disciplines on a publicly adjudicable basis” (Tracy 1981. 19). Any academic discipline must have both (a) disciplinary autonomy and (b) criteria that “allow public. what Tracy previously called “common human experience and language” is now referred to more generally as the “situation. It seems reasonable to assume that a truly public theology would be committed to engaging the relevant claims of science. which correspond precisely to the two poles of his model of critical correlation: “All theologians agree to the appropriateness.

while interpretations of redemption and creation belong to our interpretation of the Christian tradition. literary criticism. In Plurality and Ambiguity. self. although he himself has on occasion engaged science (e. 81).. Tracy eventually makes interdisciplinary engagement with even the natural sciences an explicit part of his theological paradigm. However. Analogies. . philosophy or any other mode of disciplined reflection in making one’s case” (Tracy 1981. Contemporary theology is in danger of developing interpretations of God and self … while quietly dropping the traditional third category of ‘world’ or ‘cosmos. Tracy’s main concern is to articulate a theory of interpretation that can meet the challenges posed by religious diversity. Once again he affirms his view that “theology is an interpretive enterprise that attempts to establish ‘mutually critical correlations’ … between interpretations of our contemporary situation and interpretations of the Christian tradition” (Tracy and Lash. social science. 88). Here is explicit evidence that the sciences (including the natural sciences) are indeed a constitutive part of the contemporary situation.history. and world – present a set of inescapable “ordered relationships” for the Christian analogical imagination. Tracy 1994. I want to consider how he might have further elaborated on the specific character of the interdisciplinary encounter by borrowing from his reflections on the question of interreligious pluralism. and facilitate the possibility of a critical correlation between tradition and situation (Tracy 1981. it follows that theologians must include interpretations of nature (or natural science) in their attempts to interpret the contemporary situation (429-38). The function of analogical language in theology is to articulate the relationships between God. and important reality of all” (Tracy 1987. In what follows. as “similarities-in-difference. x). 1983. Since the “world” includes the cosmos.’ (89) Notice the parallelism here: interpretations of history and nature are part of what it means to interpret the contemporary situation. The three realities of theological reflection – God. self. where religion is “the most pluralistic. 408-21).’ A well-nigh exclusive focus on the doctrine of redemption (as related to liberation and emancipation) has not been paralleled by new explorations of the doctrine of creation. hermeneutics. he asks: Is it possible for theology to be faithful to the demands of either our situation or the Christian tradition while continuing to ignore cosmological concerns? The question is not merely rhetorical.” allow for both continuities and negations.g. Theology and Science as Ambiguous Others Tracy never again returns to discuss the interdisciplinary questions of why and how theologians should dialogue with the sciences. In a volume he co-edited with Nicholas Lash titled Cosmology and Theology. Tracy argues that theology must engage the natural sciences. ambiguous. and that part of the theological challenge is to critically correlate scientific interpretations of the cosmos with interpretations of traditional theological doctrines. Indeed. For the fact is that the rediscovery of ‘history’ by contemporary theology has not been matched by a parallel rediscovery of ‘nature. 47-58). Tracy’s move to make the interdisciplinary encounter with the natural sciences an explicit obligation for theology was prefigured in his call for theologians to exercise an “analogical imagination” in our pluralistic context. and world (which in the Christian tradition are focused in the primal event of Jesus Christ).

or analogies. texts. to interpret is to be human. in that we lose ourselves in the movement of the play that is shaped by the rules of the encounter. It is the “exploration of possibilities in the search for truth.” (Tracy 1987. and that this model is consistent with the correlational model of interdisciplinary theology that we have already established. Our interpretive interactions with these phenomena are like “games” that we play.” (18) A hermeneutics of conversation can function as a working model for interreligious pluralism when it is both honest to the self and respectful of other perspectives (Tracy 1987. Tracy argues. but the collapse of positivism . other. Conversation. are fundamentally about encounters with potentially ambiguous others. It is dia-logue.In this context he argues that “conversation” is a good model of interpretation for this problematic. including laws. understand. “every time we act. This included the scientific interpretations of nature and the cosmos. and sometimes strange. “Games liberate our ability to understand ourselves by facing something different. This means that Tracy’s model of interdisciplinary engagement is fundamentally equivalent to his model of interreligious dialogue. However. Such “scientism” was once a formidable obstacle. conversation is itself a kind of game. symbols. it will be willing to learn from anyone” (Tracy 1987. “if a pluralistic attitude is genuine. or even experience.” which involves the recognition of similarities-in-difference. and world in light of both the tradition and the contemporary situation. Religious pluralism is certainly different from disciplinary pluralism. As Tracy himself notes. someone may attempt to argue. judge. and not about interpretations? Tracy is not silent about this question. 9) In other words. In other words. According to Tracy. He recognizes that a view of science that denies its hermeneutic character is potentially disruptive to his argument because it undercuts his appeal to the universal exercise of interpretive understanding. They both require the exercise of an analogical imagination. … It is not a confrontation. The movement in conversation is questioning itself.” (18) Moreover. It is not an exam. and even other persons (1011). and it is through acts of understanding in interpretation that the human self finds itself (16). events. 26). self. It is questioning itself. conversation as a model of interpretation is precisely the successful exercise of an analogical imagination. deliberate. 91). Tracy reminds us. which is nothing more nor less than the successful exercise of our human capacity for understanding through interpretation. actions. I want to suggest that Tracy’s model of interreligious interpretation also works as a model of interdisciplinary engagement. “is a game where we learn to give in to the movement required by the questions worth exploring. we are interpreting. but that is not to deny that interdisciplinarity is itself a form of pluralism that requires the skill of interpretation. The phenomena we interpret vary widely. Interpretation is not merely a skill for reading texts. and that a hermeneutics of conversation should be practiced in encounters with ambiguous. how can we talk about “hermeneutics of conversation” when it is science with which theologians are in dialogue? Isn’t science about demonstrable facts. Recall that we located the interdisciplinary demand for scientific engagement in the responsible exercise of an analogical imagination that crosses disciplinary boundaries in order to interpret God. It is here that we may begin to draw a connection to our preceding analysis of interdisciplinary engagement in Tracy’s view of theology. Games. It is a willingness to follow the question wherever it may go. religious others in a pluralistic culture. something which “all good interpreters possess” (20). rituals. To understand at all is to interpret. It is not debate.

1990. Both are forms of a potentially radical pluralism that can increase ambiguity and appear threatening to theological integrity. Second. while it is true that the work of David Tracy is not frequently cited in scholarly discussions of religion and science. ———. it is also true that even after three decades he continue to exert an enormous influence on the way that theologians understand the complexities and obligations of their discipline in a postmodern context. The interdisciplinary demand. To date. References Tracy. 1987. and the church. By explicating both the implicit and explicit ways in which Tracy’s model of theological reasoning is harmonious with approaches that emphasize interdisciplinary engagement. San Francisco: Harper and Row. 1975. The sciences therefore represent for theologians a set of ambiguous others in a context of disciplinary pluralism. 1994. . we must interpret in order to understand. 478). is analogous to the interreligious imperative. NY: Orbis. Plurality and ambiguity: Hermeneutics. Instead. The analogical imagination: Christian theology and the culture of pluralism. ———. First.” One of my driving questions remains whether and to what extent a move to hermeneutics significantly alters our understanding of and practices within the dialogue between religion and science. Conclusion In conclusion. by painting the interdisciplinary encounter between theology and science as a hermeneutical conversation involving ambiguous others. the interdisciplinary question has usually been asked in terms of the divergent demands of rationality. Maryknoll. In Tracy’s theological paradigm. Blessed rage for order: The new pluralism in theology. 1981. ———. New York: the philosophy of science has diluted its potency. New York: Seabury. which follows from the theological obligation to interpret the contemporary situation in a publicly adjudicable manner. hope. he notes that all disciplines are hermeneutical in character (40. Louvain: Peeters. Dialogue with the other: The inter-religious dialogue. Even in science. I am hoping to expand the self-reflective horizons of the religion and science dialogue itself. I want to highlight two potentially important implications of my arguments. religion. both situations call for the exercise of an analogical imagination that can navigate similarities-in-differences. or what Tracy called “plausibility structures. On naming the present: Reflections on God. my hope is that otherwise disinterested theologians might sense an invitation to enter the theology and science dialogue. which presupposes a skill for dialogical interpretation.” (33) In fact. David. ———. cf. hermeneutics. “the hermeneutical character of science has now been strongly affirmed.

eds.Tracy. and Nicholas Lash. New York: Seabury. 1 . Cosmology and theology. 1983. David.

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