Robert Cummings Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University where he is also the Executive Director of the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute. He is Dean Emeritus of the Boston University School of Theology, and Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He is past-president of the Metaphysical Society of America, the American Academy of Religion, and the International Society for the Study of Chinese Philosophy. The author of scores of papers, Professor Neville has published twenty books, two of which have been translated into Chinese, Behind the Masks of God and Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World. Two more books are currently in press, Ritual and Deference, and Realism in Religion. His current research projects include a theological approach to sexual identities and comparative cross-cultural philosophy and theology giving rise to systematic construction.
1. To those who are not yet familiar with the term “Boston Confucianism,” will you please say a few words to explain it with regard to its main ideas, history of development, and the scholars involved?
The term “Boston Confucianism” was first used at a Confucian/Christian Dialogue Conference in Berkeley, California, in 1991, and then again at a Daedalus conference at Harvard in 1994. It referred to the position that Confucianism is a religious or philosophical tradition than can be transported from its roots in East Asian culture to modern Western culture; the phrase began as a joke because John Berthrong, Tu Weiming, and I, who advocated that position, are all from Boston. In 2000 I published a book called Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World, to which TU Weiming wrote an extensive foreword, claiming that Boston Confucianism is a legitimate and valuable extension of the ancient Confucian tradition. Subsequently, he has used his good office as head of the Harvard-Yenching Institute to sponsor discussions and conferences under the name of Boston Confucianism. John Berthrong has published a number of papers about Boston Confucianism, and his Beijing Summit presentation was a theory of the development of a tradition with this in mind.
2. In your Beijing Summit article “Confucian Humaneness (Ren) across Social Barriers,” you mentioned “the role of ritual in Confucianism to build bridges across cultural differences.” Your proposal of advocating “a Confucian project of social analysis that inquires into the existence of rituals that inhibit or prevent the expression of humaneness across social barriers, and that goes on to develop rituals for the interaction of contending groups that allows for all participants to treat one another humanely even while in conflict” is especially intriguing. Do you plan to embark on such a project? Or, for those who feel inspired to carry out this project, what advice will you give them?
I have just published a book called Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008). In that book, several of the chapters deal with ritual as a way of engaging conflict, and I elaborate some ideas about how Confucianism needs to develop in order to connect with the social theory, epistemology, and metaphysics of the contemporary discussion.
3. As a member of the organizing team of the Beijing Summit, I know we are very grateful for your contribution to the success of the summit. We would also like to know if this conference has provided you with any ideas or new perspective with regard to your research.
This conference was a wonderful experience for me. I was especially pleased to meet so many social scientists who usually do not inhabit the philosophical circles in which I move. Among the new ideas I picked up is the suggestion that one of the most important defining elements of “religion” is ritual, on which account Confucianism surely ought to be accounted a [kind of religion]. I look forward to interacting with a number of the scholars I met in Beijing over the next few years.
(Interview conducted by Alice Wang)