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On the Scope and Truth of Theology: Theology as Symbolic Engagement (review)
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On the Scope and Truth of Theology: Theology as Symbolic Engagement. Robert Cummings Neville. New York: T & T Clark, 2006. 236 pp. $48.95 paper.

This important new study of theological method comes at the culmination of the author's distinguished career as both a scholar and creative thinker in philosophy and theology. It makes an important, groundbreaking and programmatic contribution to contemporary thinking about theological method. It derives its creativity in no small measure by grounding theological method in the American pragmatic tradition: most notably in the philosophies of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder and guiding genius of American pragmatic philosophy; John Dewey, the articulate proponent of pragmatic instrumentalism; and George Herbert Mead, the founder of social psychology.

Its roots in the pragmatic tradition endow this theory of method with its fallibilism and its focus on theological truth. Charles Peirce formulated the logical doctrine of fallibilism which he balanced with a philosophical passion for truth. It may sound paradoxical to those unfamiliar with pragmatic forms of thinking to associate fallibilism with a commitment to truth; but a sound understanding of fallibilism banishes the paradox. Fallibilism has nothing to do with either skepticism or the nominalistic despair of truth popularized by some forms of deconstructionist postmodernism. On the contrary, logical fallibilism teaches that the human mind has a much better chance of reaching the truth if it admits it might be wrong than if it pretends to an infallibility it does not in fact possess.

Neville's own fallibilism motivates his willingness to welcome corrections [End Page 164] and improvements of his theory of theological method. His passion for truth motivates his decision to regard assertive thinking about religious realities as hypotheses in need of justification and vulnerable to critique. Conviction concerning the vulnerability of fallible theological hypotheses to critique also endows his theory of theological method with a cross-disciplinary character and with a mandatory openness to the religious beliefs and evidence supplied by other religions than Christianity.

Neville calls his method "symbolic engagement." Its symbolic character derives from the fact that it uses signs and symbols to interpret religious objects and realities. His correct insistence on the intentionality and evaluative character of the interpretative process explains the engaged character of theological thinking.

Other aspects of Neville's argument also break important methodological ground. For example, Neville correctly insists on imaginative thinking as a mode of symbolic engagement. His vindication of the realism and religious significance of the religious imagination also stretches significant roots into the pragmatic philosophical tradition. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, devoted his life to rethinking the foundations of logic and of metaphysics. In my judgment, he succeeded in that project. Moreover, his revision of the logic of inference and his development of the logic of abductive, or hypothetical, inferential thinking led Peirce to recognize that rational thinking does not obey the laws of logical validity. Instead, rational thinking begins imaginatively: with what Peirce called mind play. As his thought matured, he came to realize that people do not live their lives at the level of abstract inferential thinking and in fact ought not to do so. Peirce also found realistic significance in imaginative thinking.

A theology of symbolic engagement argues that imaginative thinking in religious matters must give way to critical religious assertion. Religious assertion engages logical argumentation and endows theology with its doctrinal character at the same time that the hypothetical character of religious assertions render them vulnerable to critique by disciplines other than theology and by religions other than Christianity.

The need for a theology of symbolic engagement to enter into dialogue with other disciplines as well as the need for interpretative dialogue among the religions endows this theory of method with its dialectical character. Dialectic examines the multiplicity of viewpoints, methods, and evidence required by cross-disciplinary and interreligious theological thinking.

Finally, a theology of symbolic engagement recognizes the need for theologians to engage the lived, practical character of religious beliefs. I find this recognition well justified by Peirce's pragmatic logic, which distinguishes between [End Page 165] theoretical, explanatory science and practical scientific investigation of how-to-do-it problems. At the same time, Peirce's...