Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?

February 28, 2017
Robert C. Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University School of Theology.
Robert C. Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University School of Theology./ Photo: Courtesy of Robert C. Neville.

On Monday, March 6, Robert C. Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at the Boston University School of Theology, will deliver the Annual Comparative Theology Lecture at the Center for the Study of World Religions.

Below, Neville spoke about his work as a comparativist and scholar of Chinese religions and philosophies, in addition to some insight into his talk "On Comparative Theology: Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?"

HDS: How did you become interested in comparative theology?

RN: When I was about 14, I was the editor (and mimeographer) of the church newsletter at my little Methodist church in St. Louis. Since there wasn’t much news, I decided to write a column on world religions. So each month I wrote a 500 word article on one of the great world religions, comparing it to Christianity as I understood it. My information came from encyclopedias. Those articles were my first publications. (Not peer reviewed)  About 13 years later Thomas Berry at Fordham shamed me into teaching Indian and Chinese Philosophy courses, using the Princeton sourcebooks. He also coached me in teaching Sanskrit. I have always, since Kindergarten, thought that religious ideas should be true and so conversation about those ideas should include people from all religions. Only when I got to college did I find any non-Christians to talk with. My lecture coming up will be a sophisticated version of this general point.

HDS: I have read that sometimes you refer to yourself as a 'Boston Confucian'. What do you mean by that?

RN: The term 'Boston Confucianism' started as a joke at a 1991 Confucian/Christian dialogue conference at Berkley. Four of us from Boston (Tu Weiming, John Berthrong, Chung Chai-sik, and I) argued that Confucianism is a philosophical tradition that has been critical of its culture and can be applied in the late-modern West. We were called 'Boston Confucians,' and Prof. Tu really liked the idea. I wrote a book called Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World that explored what can be carried across and what can be left behind in Western Confucianism. I’m a Confucian (and Christian, and Platonic, and pragmatic) philosopher, not a scholar of Confucianism. My book has been translated into Chinese. The Chinese-American sociologist at Purdue, Fenggang Yang, refers to 'the Boston Confucians, most of whom are non-Chinese,' without any citation, assuming that his readers already know about us. I get applications from students in China wanting to come to Boston to study Boston Confucianism with me.

HDS: Does the study of Chinese religions and philosophy pose special challenges to the comparativist?

RN: Whether studying Chinese religions poses special problems for the comparativist depends on how and what you study. It helps to know Chinese, and any serious comparativist of Confucianism with anything else should know the language and the various ways of writing it. I just compare the ideas that I get through reading and conversing in English. A great advantage of studying Confucianism is that it has significant differences from Western religions and thus reveals biases in the comparative categories we might bring to its study. For instance, it has no denominational organization, and so cannot be identified with church institutions, or studied as a kind of church history. Its practice is based in family practices and its history is in the history of educational institutions. Confucian temples are as much civic buildings as religious ones. Its conception of the Ultimate is explicitly non-personalistic. But it has a deep tradition of thinking about ultimate realities, existential ways of relating people to what is ultimate, and hordes of spiritual practices and commitments to religious ways of life, so it is a religion.

HDS: What do you mean by the question in the title of your lecture: 'Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?'

By my title, I mean to contrast comparativists who work in comparison for the theology of their own religious tradition, not for an audience that includes the 'others,' with comparativists who feel accountable to everyone in the comparison. BC versus BU, for short.

HDS: What are you working on now?

RN: Now I am working on a monograph called Goodness: In Form, Art, Personhood, and Civilization, updating Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas  with a comparative base.

--by Dorie Goehring, MDiv '16, CSWR Staff Assistant.