- Neville’s Metaphysics
The goal of this essay is three fold: first, to describe briefly the “sublation thesis”; second, to show how Robert Neville’s Philosophical Theology evades the thesis; and, third, to assess the compatibility of Neville’s metaphysics and pragmatic naturalism. Traditionally, the philosophy of religion addresses a small bundle of interrelated issues: arguments regarding the existence, nature, and knowledge of God, the rationality of belief, and the problem of evil. Early modern forms of the philosophy of religion also address the immortality of the soul and the possibility of miracles. All of these issues ride the back, so to speak, of confessional theological concerns. The sublation thesis is an idea regarding the philosophy of religion that I have entertained since graduate school but never bothered to develop. The argument is this: cultural criticism is the Aufhebung of the philosophy of religion. If the philosophy of religion is the practice of offering rational explications of religious dogma and doctrine, which historically and prototypically construes Christianity as exceptional in rationality and truth, then cultural criticism has sublated that practice. Cultural criticism simultaneously preserves, cancels, transforms, and lifts that discourse higher. Cultural criticism refers to the messy intersection of philosophy, literary theory, and social science under a broadly poststructuralist and postmodernist intellectual habitus. The sublation thesis holds that the most interesting work in what we traditionally call the philosophy of religion is now done in this emergent space, after and around the various “posts.” But even more so, this interesting work is done in pragmatist and process spaces, within philosophies that were never modern, which took the “high road around modernism” and thus never required a postmodern correction. From the perspective of the sublation thesis, the philosophy of religion, insofar as it pretends to be more than a Christian-oriented discourse, seems every bit as dubious as the universality of concept of religion that it presupposes. Religion, a Roman idea and practice, articulated in Latin, institutionalized, transformed, stereotyped, and globalized by Christianity, eludes translation but not repetition.1 [End Page 248] What does it mean to do philosophy of religion when the concept of religion itself is the object of skeptical reflection? Does any real difference remain between the philosophy of religion under this skeptical consideration and efforts to theorize religion, that is, to trace the historical construction of the concept and analyze its uses? On the question of how religion should be understood, is there a nontrivial difference among theologians, philosophers, and theorists? Such are the questions that the sublation thesis provokes.2
Though holding that the sublation thesis is true, I offer only an indirect and partial defense by showing why Neville’s Philosophical Theology escapes its reach. Along the way, I invoke the names of a few leading philosophers of religion that serve metonymically and perhaps inadequately as icons and indices of the practice of the philosophy of religion. These invocations stand in for a more adequate defense of the sublation thesis. In light of this approach, readers can discount my argument as they deem appropriate.
With this acknowledgment in tow, I note a division between those scholars who think that there is a specifically religious object of knowledge and others who are skeptical of the notion that religion has a determinant character and who take the very category itself as the target of inquiry. The latter are much like contemporary anthropologists who, having become aware of the “thick history” of their discipline, that is, its complicity with imperial/colonial modernity and its racializing logics, challenged its foundational assumptions and orientations. Without ignoring the insights of critics or dismissing the claim that the concept of religion itself merits skeptical inquiry, Neville stands with those scholars such as the phenomenologist Mircea Eliade who hold that there is a specifically religious object of knowledge. Unlike Eliade’s “the sacred,” [End Page 249] Neville’s notion of the religious object, which he calls “ultimacy,” is embedded in a radical form of empiricism that eschews any mysticism that might block the road of inquiry. In Ultimates, volume one of Philosophical Theology, Neville presents his metaphysics: the ontological act of creation and the cosmological transcendental traits of...