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  • Special Issue Introduction:The End of the Neville Era
  • Wesley J. Wildman (bio)

When Robert Cummings Neville retired from Boston University in May, 2018, an era ended. Not a career—certainly not; the publications keep pouring forth from the windowed, garden-surrounded office that has been the generative home for most of Bob's books and articles. Not a pattern of influence—obviously not; the many people Bob has influenced, including me, continue to give evidence of that influence in their writing and teaching, as well as more privately in their thinking and warm recollections of a model scholar and colleague. Rather, what ended was an era of institutional formation and commitment that crystalized, promoted, and protected rigorous yet generous philosophical reflection on every aspect of religion, one of the most mercurial and profound aspects of human life.

Eras pass. But their passing should be marked. To celebrate the passing of this era, Boston University hosted a panel event with a reception at which we heard remarks from most of the contributors to this volume. This special issue of the American Journal of Philosophy and Theology contains elaborated versions of those presentations together with a response from Bob himself, giving him the last word (which he is too polite to insist on in most personal exchanges).

My purpose here is only partly to introduce the essays that follow. I also aim to make a more personal statement, in two ways. On the one hand, I'll reflect on the nature of Bob's relationships to the institutions he has led and the fields he calls home. On the other hand, I'll tell you about the greatest professional privilege of my career and one of the most monumental pieces of good fortune of my life: having Bob as my close colleague and friend. After that I'll introduce the five essays to which Bob responds.

Bob's career has been externally structured by leadership appointments in academic administration. Aside from many departmental and other chairing roles, he was dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at SUNY Stony Book (1982–1985), dean of Boston University's School of Theology (1988–2003), dean of Marsh Chapel and Chaplain of the University at Boston University (2003–2006), and executive director of the Danielsen Institute at Boston University (2005–2009). Despite this record of full-time academic administration, Bob has the singular distinction of simultaneously teaching a full load of classes [End Page 5] and out-publishing every faculty member for whom he had administrative responsibility. In fact, in some periods, he out-published entire departments, collectively. Well that's doable, you might think, if you publish poor-quality work. But that's not the case here. Bob's oeuvre is marked by high-quality, innovative, nuanced philosophical reflection on an enormous variety of aspects of religion and related topics.

It helps that Bob possesses a mind palace of prodigious proportions. Instead of visiting archives to generate material for an essay or a book, which is a slow and painstaking process at the best of times, he turns inward to consult his ever-growing mind palace for something to say. Sure enough, there's always a new room being built or an old room being renovated, and he knows just how to explain what's going on in a way that doesn't require a map of the whole and yet, for those in the know, is beautifully consistent with the glorious and perpetually unfolding architectural achievement.

The systematic mind and prodigious devotion required to create and sustain such a world of ideas is difficult to conjure in our imaginations. But there's a not-so-secret secret to how Bob does it. His mind palace is built on a foundation forged by a single luminous idea, one that came to him as a young man and turned out to be so rich and multifaceted that it inspired its construction and upholds it to this day. The idea? Ultimate reality is an eternal creative act-without-an-actor in which the character of the creator is determined in relation to that which is created through the very act of creating. In the terms of...


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