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  • Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion by Robert Cummings Neville
  • Nathaniel F. Barrett
Defining Religion: Essays in Philosophy of Religion. Robert Cummings Neville. New York: SUNY Press, 2018. 380 pp. $95.00 hardcover; $29.95 paper.

In this book, Robert Neville brings together twenty essays that articulate and support his understanding of religion as "human engagement of ultimacy" (1). Most of the essays were originally prepared during the same period in which he wrote his three-volume Philosophical Theology (SUNY Press, 2013–15); accordingly, many of the early chapters can serve as introductions to the latter work. In later chapters, Neville sharpens his view of religion in conversation with various friendly rivals, including philosophical theologians (e.g., David Griffin and Joseph Bracken) and pragmatists (e.g., Richard Rorty and Nancy Frankenberry). Most of the essays were originally prepared as talks for diverse audiences; as a result, they can be read singly or in any combination, as suits the reader's fancy.

Because of these characteristics, the book can be recommended as an accessible entry point into Neville's thought on religion. However, although the bite-size form of the essays has its advantages, I have sometimes wondered if Neville's thought is better digested when chewed over slowly in book-length form. The problem is not just the complicated and sometimes very abstract nature of his thought. Actually, in these essays, Neville's exposition of his ideas is often admirably succinct and clear. Rather, the problem is that this succinctness and clarity can belie the peculiar difficulty of Neville's thought. My aim in this review is to articulate this difficulty in a way that helps readers figure out how to understand and evaluate his claims about religion.

The difficulty that I have in mind is acknowledged by Neville, but only obliquely. In a chapter that treats the relationship of philosophy and religion, Neville defines philosophy as follows: "Philosophy is far less than the analysis of arguments, I believe, than the imaginative or speculative construction of perspectives for thinking things together that otherwise would have to be thought separately" (165, emphasis mine). "Thinking things together" is a quintessential Nevillian trope deeply connected to his understanding of reality and, as we [End Page 188] will see, his understanding of religion. It is related to his metaphysical thesis that all things are harmonies, which means that nothing can be determined in isolation and, furthermore, that nothing can be defined, investigated, or understood in isolation (see p. 9). Neville's harmonic view of reality has important implications for inquiry, especially inquiry that is concerned with enormous complexities like religion. But the main difficulty with which I am concerned is not the complexity of religion per se. Unfortunately, the main difficulty is not easily brought into focus—and that is part of the problem!

Consider Neville's definition of religion: "human engagement of ultimacy expressed in cognitive articulations, existential responses to ultimacy that give ultimate definition to the individual, and patterns of life and ritual in the face of ultimacy" (9, emphasis in the original). How do we evaluate this definition? As Neville himself emphasizes, it is a heuristic whose value is to be discovered gradually, through a process of inquiry. But how exactly is it supposed to guide inquiry? With this definition in hand, are we supposed to march into the field and search for expressions of engagement of ultimacy? How would we know if we found one?

Such clear and succinct definitions, even when offered explicitly as heuristic guides for the investigation of harmonies, make it easy to slip back into habits of nonharmonic thinking. It seems that with this definition Neville has offered us a description of a highly distinctive but exotic trait, like the plumage of a rare bird, or a subtle, hard-to-detect property, like low-level radiation. Is there a telltale sign of engagement with ultimacy? Can there be such a thing as an ultimacy-engagement detector?

These questions may sound silly, but they point to a real difficulty. I suggest that to take Neville's definition of religion seriously, we have to understand how it could be testable, and this requires us to...


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pp. 188-192
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