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Research at Boston University

Reimagining Reality

By Sheryl Flatow
Modern Religion

Religion is never far from the top of the list of topics guaranteed to generate controversy. But the way we approach it can take many forms. As humans we are constantly reorganizing our thoughts and reconceptualizing our most basic ideas—ideas that can help us find what is common across religious, political, and popular beliefs. From the representation of faith in popular TV shows and movies, to the way we think about America’s foundational documents and these concepts on a grander scale, three Boston University professors are tracking the way these concepts inform our lives as they shift, change, and even take on new meaning in a modern world.

Photo by
Frank Curran

Robert Cummings Neville is a professor of philosophy, religion, and theology, and former dean of the School of Theology. He’s a philosopher by training, and a student of comparative religions for almost fifty years. His latest work, a planned three-volume undertaking entitled Philosophical Theology, is informed by Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. In it, he attempts nothing less than a new theory of religion and a redefinition of God.

Neville does not actually use the word God; instead, he refers to an “ultimate reality.” In fact, the first volume in the trilogy, published in September by State University of New York Press, is called Ultimates. “Most people say there’s just one ultimate, one God,” says Neville, “but my theory says reality contains these five ultimate conditions and that every culture has to deal with them in some way or another, just like having to deal with the weather. I understand religions to be culturally shaped worldviews that function to orient different domains of life, such as how you behave around your family, how you orient yourself toward issues in your community, how you relate to politics, and how you relate to ultimate things.” It is an all-embracing notion that even finds room for those who identify as secular.

For Neville, there is one ontological ultimate: what most people call God, he calls an ontological act of creation, because it creates all beings, everything that is determinate. “That part of my theory will be offensive to an awful lot of people,” he says, “because it rules out the idea of God as being anything determinate at all, such as a personal being or the big guy in the sky or a being that’s on your side and against someone else. I say that the ontological act of creation is the ontological ultimate reality that gives rise to whatever is determinate in any sense.”

In addition, Neville cites four cosmological ultimates: form, components, existential location relative to others, and value. For human beings, form includes having to make choices. From a religious viewpoint, it’s about how to be righteous. Components means relating properly to the various aspects of our lives, “like our families, our bodies, our DNA,” says Neville. “The religious meaning of that is the quest for wholeness, overcoming brokenness like illness or spiritual confusion.”

The third trait suggests the importance of being aware of and having respect for the world around us. “Every religion says that we should love other people, be compassionate toward them, and treat them humanely,” says Neville. “That’s related to making choices, but it also means developing a kind of character that has to do with being able to love, and coping with the fact that we’re often not very good at loving. Not only are there other people in the field in which we exist, but there’s nature as well. So we’re becoming much more conscious now of the environment, and how to treat it as it deserves to be, because of its own worth.”

Value, the final ultimate, is a combination of the first three. “Every religion asks, ‘What kind of value do I have and you have and we have together in the world?’” says Neville. “Part of our value is the effect that we have on others. We all make an impact. We occupy part of the environment; we use up resources. All sorts of things constitute our value overall.”

The second volume of Philosophical Theology is an analysis of the human condition, and the third will study the social aspects of religion. “It’s really important for people to understand religion, in order to understand how they relate to ultimates,” says Neville. “One of the big problems of our time is how to relate to people with other religions, who have different cultural symbols that may or may not be in agreement with yours. The goal of all three volumes is to provide a theology for people to live by.”

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