Interview with Robert Cummings Neville, author of Defining Religion

Robert Cumming Neville’s latest work, Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion, was published by SUNY Press in January 2018. I spoke with Neville by phone on August 2, 2018. —Stephen Dawson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lynchburg

SD: In Defining Religion you situate philosophy of religion as a mediator between philosophical theology, on the one hand, and religious studies, on the other. How would you describe the way in which philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and religious studies fit together?

RCN: That’s a good question, and an important one as well, because there are so many different ways of defining each one. Some scholars hold that religious studies does not deal with any first-order theological questions, such as the nature of God, the goal of human life, the nature of the self, and so on. If religious studies is simply the empirical/descriptive study of what people say about religious topics as opposed to the evaluative/normative study of religion, then I would say that philosophy of religion and philosophical theology are clearly different from religious studies. Philosophy of religion and philosophical theology both take the evaluative/normative study of religion into account.

This is why I gave Defining Religion the subtitle Essays in Philosophy of Religion. I was not trying to put together a systematic philosophical theology—I had done that recently, with the three-volume Philosophical Theology. In this new book I wanted to talk about the nature of definition and how that applies to religion. The sort of philosophy of religion found in Defining Religion is inclusive of philosophical theology.

SD: You have an expansive notion of what philosophy of religion is, as well as religious studies and philosophical theology.

RCN: Right. Yet I think there are many respects in which philosophy of religion can be practiced without raising first-order theological questions. You can, for instance, analyze arguments for the reality of God without trying to draw conclusions about whether they’re valid. You can talk about various aspects of religion that don’t have much to do with those first-order questions. I myself am quite happy with philosophy of religion and philosophical theology meaning pretty much the same thing. For me, philosophical theology means dealing with first-order questions, but not all philosophy of religion has to do that.

When philosophy of religion began to emerge as a type of philosophy—back in the eighteenth century with David Hume—there was a great deal of emphasis on first-order questions such as whether or not there is such a thing as a god, something that exercises control over human affairs, who can be influenced, who rewards or punishes human beings, and so on. This is a very existential way of thinking about first-order religious questions.

SD: Let’s move from the content of philosophy of religion to its method. What are the benefits that a comparative philosophical methodology brings to philosophy of religion?

RCN: We were just talking about David Hume, someone who is radically non-comparative. I think that any kind of philosophy ought to be addressed to all philosophical traditions. The same is true, I hold, for philosophical theology. In Philosophical Theology the background that I assume throughout includes reference to the main conceptions of fundamental things, or ultimates—not only God, but Brahman, the emptiness of Buddhism, Dao in the Chinese traditions according to Daoist and Confucian interpretations as well. All of these conceptions—drawn from a wide variety of philosophical traditions—need to comprise the background of the conversation.

Real inquiries—productive, useful inquiries—often take place between religious traditions. One way to think about different traditions is to consider what they are now, and then try to trace back their roots. Very often, what you find are multiple overlapping conversations. Look at the arguments that took place between Buddhists and Hindus in the fifth century CE—these are very important conversations. We look upon Buddhists and Hindus as representing different traditions, but we don’t pay as much attention as we should to the connections between them. Malcolm David Eckel, for instance, has studied many of the philosophical arguments that distinguish different traditions of Buddhists and Hindus. He is less interested in affirming one particular tradition, but rather focuses on the dialogue and the connections between the various traditions. I think the same can be said for Christianity and its relationship to Judaism—these crossovers and connections are often neglected.

In almost every religious tradition you’ll find representatives for each of the principal philosophical positions on free will, determinism, ultimacy, and so on. The significance of that for me is that in our own conversations we should be able to make reference to the philosophical positions and not the sociological denominations within which these positions are expressed. The arguments supporting these positions provide a foothold for comparative categories to be developed philosophically.

SD: Throughout your career, you have defended the importance and necessity of speculative philosophy, especially regarding metaphysics. Do you think the philosophical climate is now more accommodating of speculative philosophy than when you started publishing?

RCN: That’s a complicated question to answer because my career, like anyone’s career, is socially located. I was a student at Yale—Paul Weiss was there, and among the senior faculty were great speculative philosophers. I wanted to do speculative philosophy, but there weren’t many jobs. At that time, to get a job you had to be a continental philosopher or an analytic philosopher. I think the distinction between continental and analytic has now begun to break down. In continental philosophy, if you follow the line stemming from Hegel there is a great appreciation for speculation, but if you trace the line that issues forth in the postmodern version of continental philosophy there has been great opposition to speculation, though that has changed somewhat in the last ten to fifteen years. Now there are people in the continental tradition who argue that philosophical concepts refer to real things, and so system building is important and not dismissed as being a complete waste.

I don’t really hang out much with analytic or continental philosophers. The philosophers with whom I talk often come out of the American philosophical tradition, on the one hand, and speculative, metaphysical philosophers, on the other.

SD: We could label the former Peirce’s tradition and the latter Whitehead’s tradition.

RCN: Yes.

SD: Peirce and Whitehead have been present in your work from God the Creator up to Defining Religion.

RCN: Right. In writing my trilogy Philosophical Theology, I generally hold to a Peircean view of interpretation. I emphasize Peirce’s insistence on realistic reference to real objects. Interpretation is not simply limited to signs referring to other signs within the mind—interpretation is also concerned with the reference of signs to real objects.

I have come to appreciate Whitehead and in particular the main point at which he and Peirce differ. For Peirce, all movement through time is continuous, whereas for Whitehead it is discontinuous—there are acts of change. The beginning of the act is what was before, and the end of the act is what is after. Change takes place through the mode of the present, connecting with the past as well as the future, and that change, I think, is very important. Another way to put it is that Whitehead attempts to give an account of how something actually changes, while Peirce gives an account of how you measure change from one state of affairs to the next state of affairs, but continuity is presumed between the two states.

I’m coming more and more to appreciate Whitehead’s cosmology in that regard, although of course I have my own cosmology that goes well beyond what Whitehead did. But in terms of influence I appreciate more and more Whitehead’s work. Peirce, unfortunately, does not attempt to discuss how change takes place and what the changes are in the move from one state to another.

SD: What did you learn about your work in the course of writing Philosophical Theology? I remember reading an essay of yours two or three years ago where you described your secret fear that this trilogy would be largely a long summary of previous work, but you were pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of new ideas.

RCN: Yes. One important idea for me at this time regarded the organization of religion into three types or categories of inquiry: intellectual engagements of ultimacy, existential ultimacy, and finally the practices of religion. I had mentioned that three-fold distinction before, but I had never used it as an organizing principle as I did with the three volumes.

The first volume, Ultimates, is about how we know and can engage what is ultimate in reality. I argue that there are four cosmological ultimates and one ontological ultimate. These are the real ultimate conditions that every human being in every culture must face. In the second volume, Existence, I discuss how these ultimate conditions, which are experienced as normative obligations, constitute human predicaments because human beings invariably fail to meet these demands. Human brokenness, I argue, is the outcome of that failure. Ecstatic fulfillment—the experience of engaging the ultimates—works to heal that existential brokenness. In the third volume, Religions, I step back and talk more about the cognitive ways by which religious practice is understood. My conclusion is a four-chapter section called “Religionless Religion.” I argue that insofar as religious worldviews seems to be only hypotheses, sometimes religious hypotheses lose the context in which they have relevance and plausibility. How do you relate to what’s ultimate when the worldviews that articulate it are understood to be fallible, if not false? One consequence of this is the relativizing of religious practices. For this reason I emphasize the importance of courage—it’s a point that comes from Tillich, and is one that is very important.

SD: I’m glad you mentioned Tillich. Earlier we discussed the wide scope of your work, inclusive of philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and much of religious studies. Who do you consider your audience to be? I once read that your ideal audience was “Paul Tillich in heaven.”

RCN: That’s a question with a long history. After receiving my PhD, I sent off several papers and a book, which were all rejected. I sent these manuscripts to one of my graduate school professors, Wilfred Sellars, and he responded that because I didn’t fit into any of the major philosophical programs—analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and so forth—I should continue working on getting the book published and that would establish my audience. So that’s what I did. I had the book published in 1968 and it started with a small audience that has grown since then.

I’m happy to have taught at Boston University for thirty years because I’ve taught a generation of theologians how to read my material. It’s been very gratifying, though certainly not everybody agrees with me. When I was forty years old, I didn’t know how to answer the question of audience. I didn’t want to answer it by saying I’m writing for my students. I said that the person who would really understand what I was talking about is Tillich, though of course he was dead by then. So I said “Tillich in heaven.”

Now I write pretty much for the people with whom I’m in conversation. I publish frequently in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, the Journal of Chinese Philosophy, and other Chinese journals as well. You could say, I suppose, that I have two audiences. One is a Western audience—this would be the audience for Defining Religion. And the other is a Chinese audience, which includes those influenced by Chinese philosophy.

SD: This might be a good place to ask about the phrase “Boston Confucianism.”

RCN: It started off as a joke, actually. There were several of us from Boston at a conference in Berkeley, California, on Confucian-Christian dialogue. As it turned out, Confucianism was represented as being a very bad thing by many of the women in attendance because it was so much against women. Some of us, however, answered back that Confucianism, starting with Confucius, has always been critical of its social and political environment. So the question is, can the critical principles inherent in the Confucian tradition be creatively applied to a Western social and political environment? I argued yes. But I also wanted to argue that Confucianism is a religion because it engages what is ultimate, it is concerned with organizing social life in terms of how to be a self, and it has to do with religious practices. Now, the practices that Confucius would promote and the practices that Zhu Xi would promote in the twelfth century would be different from the practices, say, that you would promote in Lynchburg, Virginia. What these practices have in common, however, is that they relate Confucians to the community and to one another.

SD: You’ve practiced a form of Taijiquan for many years. Is there a connection between your practice of Taiji and your philosophical work?

RCN: I started studying Taiji when I was in my early thirties. For about ten years I taught it while teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. I didn’t practice it as much as I should have after coming to Boston. But now that I am retired, I try to write in my journal every day and practice Taiji—it’s amazing how I have improved in Taiji over the past few months. It doesn’t give me any new philosophical ideas, but it helps me feel good about getting older.

SD: Throughout your career you and your wife, Beth Neville, have enjoyed an enduring creative partnership. Beth has illustrated the jacket cover for almost all of your books and in some cases (God the Creator, for instance) she provided interior artwork as well. Can you tell me more about your and Beth’s creative partnership?

RCN: We’ve been married now for fifty-five years. In the beginning, she would sit in on one of my lectures, and I would go watch her teach art—she was an art teacher at a junior high school. Over time the process became less formal. Now she reads my books, figures out the themes, and designs the cover with those themes in mind. Sometimes we might talk about our mutual projects as we sit by the fire in the evening or on the sunset terrace watching the sun go down, drinking a little wine. I think the depth to which our work is intertwined is now infinitely deeper than it was at the beginning/