David Tracy: Theology and the Range of Reason. The Question of Mysticism, 14 May 2019

David Tracy

Andreas Telser

David Tracy (University of Chicago) was invited to come to Vienna by the Research Centre Religion and Transformation and Andreas Telser (KU Linz) who organized a conference and a guest lecture with him. David Tracy is one of the most influential theologians of our time. He held the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (1999-2000), was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has worked among other topics on public theology, methodology, inter-religious dialogue and the question of god in modernity.

In his lecture, Tracy claimed that a simplistic distinction between mysticism and theology falls short. Theology as the word of God has a deeply mystical element. Not only is it true that spirituality becomes tenuous without theology but also that theology needs spirituality. Mysticism has to be grasped as the constant awareness of the presence of God. In this broader sense mystical contemplation is more than an “inner experience”. It is rather an event of God joining a human being. 

Kurt Appel, David Tracy

In a historical outline Tracy explained that from 17th century onwards, modern rationality was distinguished from from classical reason. There is no possibility to go back to a premodern form of reason. Nevertheless, when rationality becomes a purely positivist rationality – scientistic instead of scientific – the results for culture are tragic because religion then becomes privatized and rationality itself becomes instrumentalized. In this situation, Aristotle’s distinction between the infinity of time, space and number on the one hand and absolute infinity on the other hand remains to have a critical value today.

David Tracy, Sabine Grenz, Mercia McMahon

In classical and medieval forms of contemplation, not only a discursive meaning but also an intuitive dimension of intellectual contemplation can be found. Similar to the philosophies of Levinas and Marion, these forms of contemplation always reach for the infinite. A “taste of the infinite” remains the sign of religion in modern thought.

Tracy focused on Descartes – who is often regarded as the representative of the beginning of modern rationalism – to show that he disclosed an intuitive approach to the infinite. For Descartes, the idea of the infinite, God, is an idea that cannot be constituted through reflection. Those moments in which Descartes himself becomes contemplative and no longer argues in a purely rational manner, might be called transient mystical moments in his philosophy.

Often neglected by interpreters, Descartes’ 3rd meditation contains an idea that allows to think more than one thinks. Tracy argued that Descartes 3rd meditation can serve as benchmark for a contemporary systematic theology. According to Tracy, a contemporary understanding of the infinite is possible without sacrificing the transcendence of God nor his immanence.

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