- Philosophical Theology Vol. 2, Existence by Robert Cummings Neville
Existence, the middle volume of Neville’s Philosophical Theology, offers a theological anthropology, and so deals with “religious dimensions of human nature, its conditions, and processes” (xvi). As such it contrasts with (while of course also integrating with) the mainly metaphysical concerns of the volume that precedes it, Ultimates, and the social scientific interests (very broadly [End Page 89] construed) of the volume that follows, Religion. After a preface and introduction, the volume is arranged in four parts, each of four chapters. The parts deal respectively with (1) “ultimate boundary conditions” of human existence set by the metaphysics of determinateness developed in volume 1; (2) “predicaments and deliverances” of this human existence; (3) its “ecstatic fulfilments”; and (4) existential “engagement and participation” of those conditions, predicaments, deliverances, and fulfilments. An extensive index of subjects and names, cross-referenced to Ultimates, rounds out the volume.
The first thing to note about Existence and its place in Philosophical Theology is that it is here that Neville makes the normative force of religion most explicit. In volume 1, Neville defined religion as “human engagement of ultimacy expressed in cognitive articulations [such as Ultimates itself], existential responses to ultimacy that give ultimate definition to the individual and the community, and patterns of life and ritual in the face of ultimacy” (Ultimates, 4). If religion matters at all, though, it is thanks to individuals “actually engag[ing] ultimate realities in and through” the symbols and practices available to them (3). Religious symbol systems and practices matter—when they do—because individuals stake their inwardness, their ultimate identity, on them. Thus Neville approves and (he argues) improves upon William James’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s shared stress on interiority as essential to understanding religion.
The normativity of interiority flows, not from the descriptive observation that some individuals stake their inwardness on religious symbols and practices, but from the fact that “only the individual perspective allows us to make sense of the ultimate seriousness of life’s brokenness and ecstatic fulfilments” (4). “Religion” in any normative sense depends on existential engagement with ultimacy—on there being individuals who have as essential components of their identity engagements with ultimate boundary conditions of their existence. Whether individuals engage ultimates well or badly, and whether those engagements work well or badly for them: these questions are senseless in the absence of religious existence. Indeed, essentially, religion is religious existence (5). And if one did not exist religiously (if that is possible), one would be unable, or at least drastically less able, to grasp the particularity of one’s predicament, let alone means of coping and grace.
Of course, “religion” is a term used in nonnormative, or at least not so explicitly normative, ways, too (in attempting “substantive” and/or “functional” differentiations of religious from nonreligious phenomena, and in advancing critical explanations or deconstructions of the differences, for example). But the normative force of religion that vests in existence is, Neville argues, irreducible. One may also register this by noting that to exist is, inevitably, to experience “brokenness” of various kinds, relative to ideals that are metaphysically [End Page 90] ultimate. A condition of being human is having to inhabit these predicaments. Insofar as religions offer to “fix” what is broken and/or to open possibilities of ecstatic fulfilment transcending one’s predicament(s), they are normative undertakings, and the normativity involved belongs to religion in the proper sense.
The specific hypothesis is that “to be human is to be normatively bound to face the question of the affirmation of existence, to be under obligation, to need wholeness, to engage rightly with other things, and to achieve a meaningful identity with value” (26). These five ultimate boundary conditions of human existence are discussed in part 1, especially in terms of their derivation from the ontological and cosmological ultimates identified in volume 1. The condition of obligation stems from having to choose among different possibilities of form. Need of wholeness stems from having to integrate, more...