- Wandering beneath Sacred Canopies: Robert C. Neville’s Systematic Theology
Robert Neville’s three-volume set, Philosophical Theology, is a work of considerable physical heft and remarkable intellectual scope, a magnum opus that redefines how we understand religion and its place in the interconnected world of today: “Religion is human engagement of ultimacy expressed in cognitive articulations, existential responses to ultimacy that give ultimate definition to the individual and community, and patterns of life and ritual in the face of ultimacy” (vol. 1, p. 4). This new definition is necessitated by the fact that “the ultimate reality of the world consists in its being created in all its spatiotemporal complexity by an ontological act of creation” (vol. 1, p. 1). Philosophical Theology is hence motivated by the need to account for how said creation unfolds and is comprehended cognitively, existentially, and as patterns of life and ritual. It does this by way of five “ultimate realities” as Neville calls them, the first of which is the ontological act of creation while the remaining four are of a cosmological nature and influence human life the world over: the first is form, value, and obligation; the second is components, comportment, and wholeness; the third is existential location, relation, and otherness; and the fourth is value-identity, achievement, and meaning (vol. 1, p. 4).
In addition to the new definition of religion and its grounding in five ultimate realities, there are four further points that set Philosophical Theology apart from similar studies of this nature: “its metaphysical pragmatism, with sidebars on value and logic; its shift from doctrines to engagements, with a sidebar on revelation; its shift from viewing religions as comprised of socially constructed categories to viewing [End Page 267] religion as a universal part of human nature with socially constructed variants; and its emphasis on the breakdown of sacred canopies” (vol. 1, p. 12). In order to succeed in its declared mission, Philosophical Theology must, by necessity, involve a level of comprehensiveness and specificity rarely seen in works of modern scholarship. Indeed, this is both an advantage and a disadvantage. In the case of the former, it provides a degree of maneuverability and refinement such that argumentative nuances can be worked out unhurriedly and with great clarity. In the case of the latter, the three volumes can be plodding at times, and some of the illustrative examples will have become passé in a year or two, making them discordant with the overall tone of the project, but these are minor quibbles, so let us speak of them no more.
Structurally, volume 1 of Philosophical Theology is divided into sixteen chapters, the first three of which are devoted to the concept of ultimacy as sacred canopy, a concept borrowed from Peter Berger. In summary, chapter one puts forth the concept of sacred canopy and chapter 2 then discusses the symbols used both to describe and to analyze canopies of ultimacy, while chapter 3 situates the first two chapters within the context of symbolic engagement so as to demonstrate why the finite-infinite dyad should be taken as its representative motif. These three conceptual chapters are subsequently brought together in chapter 4 under the umbrella of worldviews, of which three existential forms are notable: (1) that which is idiosyncratic to an individual but is shared culturally, (2) that which begins with a comprehensive coverage of life and moves toward a more relaxed view whereby only some aspects of life are involved, and (3) that which arises as an intense devotion to one particular worldview and turns into a more lenient stance in which multiple worldviews are possible (vol. 1, p. 98).