- Realism in Religion: A Pragmatist’s Perspective by Robert Cummings Neville
Robert Neville is the author of more than twenty books, and he is presently completing a three-volume systematic philosophical theology, a work that promises to be the crown jewel in a lifetime of extraordinary scholarly accomplishment. Considered within the framework supplied by this remarkable oeuvre, the material published in Realism in Religion takes on a special significance. The essays collected here, although in most cases modified for inclusion, first appeared in various other contexts over a period of time spanning four full decades. Despite their disparate points of origin, these essays represent variations on a single general theme, articulating a consistent and forceful argument for the adoption of a certain kind of pragmatic realism. That argument, in turn, supplies the rationale for Neville’s own distinctive approach to doing theology and the philosophy of religion.
The book’s introduction begins with a brief discussion of Charles S. Peirce’s “Scotistic realism.” Central chapters (chaps. 6 and 7) are devoted to the assessment of Peirce’s importance for contemporary thinking about religion. Moreover, the entire first section of the book (chaps. 1 through 5) develops a theological perspective that, on Neville’s own report, “is based on Peirce’s pragmatism and other sources” (3). Now these “other sources” are both multifarious and crucial for Neville’s ongoing project. But I want to pause just long enough at the beginning of these remarks to offer the judgment— a longstanding one based on my reading of Neville’s earlier books, but one confirmed by exploring the material in this volume—that no philosopher since Josiah Royce has succeeded better than Robert Neville in exploiting Peircean resources for the purposes of philosophical theology. (One of Neville’s comrades in this endeavor is the German theologian Hermann Deuser, appropriately, to whom this book is dedicated.)
The opening chapters of the book also represent an engagement with the post-liberal theology formulated by Neville’s Yale teachers, Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. He is much more generous to his former mentors than he is to the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and others, with whom the post-liberal movement (Neville and I would agree) is often much too hastily linked. This generosity is displayed most especially in the third chapter, where Neville insightfully observes the resonance between Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic theory of religion and a properly “pragmatic theory of interpretation [End Page 104] and truth” (49). Nevertheless, on his account, all of these thinkers display a problematic tendency to endorse some form of “identity theology.” Here Neville’s pragmatic realism announces itself prominently in the book’s opening pages. The primary purpose of theology is not the formation and defense of a specific religious identity; rather it is about seeking the truth concerning religious matters. Such truth-seeking should always be a humble enterprise, in Neville’s view, consistently self-critical and self-corrective, with even the most central religious claims to be regarded as hypothetical. From Neville’s Peircean perspective, however, their hypothetical status does not prevent religious beliefs from exercising a powerful shaping influence over human conduct. Indeed, “the best long run test of a theology, like testing the spirits by their fruits, is living with the theology as the guiding principle” (33).
The nuanced analysis supplied in this opening section of the book is too detailed to summarize in a brief review. In his engagement here with multiple others, Neville’s own carefully argued theological position emerges into view. (That position has been articulated at greater length in Neville’s earlier work On the Scope and Truth of Theology: Theology as Symbolic Engagement.) Concerned that the narrative theology of Barth and his progeny embodies claims that are “seriously arbitrary,” Neville leans toward a Tillichian point of view. Like Tillich’s, his is “an apophatic ground-of-being theology for which little if anything can be said literally about the divine nature” (15). It is a theology that not merely permits but rather actively encourages the cross-cultural...