How and why is there something rather than nothing? If that’s not an ultimate question, I don’t know what is. It’s also the driving question of the philosopher and theologian Robert Cummings Neville’s latest, and most ambitious, opus. This work, Ultimates, is not just ambitious in its question; it’s also incredibly ambitious in scope, as Neville looks at nearly every major religious tradition in depth.
The most surprising and refreshing part of this book is that it’s actually relevant to life. This is incredibly rare within modern philosophy, which is all too often just weird, dense, abstract reflections on itself. Instead, Neville dares to talk about goodness, beauty, and truth. He dares to recognize value. It’s crazy to have to call such a thing “daring,” but regrettably most of modern philosophy won’t touch these topics. Best of all, Neville doesn’t just talk about how we actually live – he brings as much data to bear on the question as possible. Like I said, it’s an ambitious book.
So of course I can’t cover the whole thing. But here’s a snippet. Given the way the cosmos is, Neville argues that there are “ultimate” questions that we can’t help but run up against. They’re the problems that are inescapable – to opt out of answering them is itself an answer. They’re also the sorts of problems that nearly all religions have built solutions to address. That’s not to say the solutions are all the same – they tend to range across the imaginable spectrum. It’s simply to say that even radically different solutions are aimed at answering the same questions – the ultimate questions.
1. Creation. How did all this come to be and what should we think about it?
At the most basic level you can’t get around the fact that we exist. Descartes used this as the bedrock of his philosophy. But his idea of a fun evening was to doubt everything he knew, so he probably gave too much credit to the thinking part of our existence.
More fundamentally, we are and the universe is. Even if you think this is all an illusion ‘cause, you know, the Matrix is a great movie, something still exists that’s having the illusion. So you can’t really get around the universal kids’ question: how did all of this come to be?
Almost all religions have had a way to account for this. You get great stories, like the ancient Mesopotamian myth about a war among the gods culminating with a battle between Marduk and Tiamat. Or you can find more philosophical, but equally poetic, visions, such as that of the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi describing the Great Ultimate giving rise to tranquility and activity. That’s some heady stuff.
These visions of cosmic creation are awesome, but more personally – you exist. Here the question of existence becomes less of an intellectual project about causation and more of a personal, emotional, question about how to regard your existence. Of course we don’t go around all day thinking about our existence, but sometimes great beauty or great tragedy can pull this bedrock reality to our attention. And in those moments we have a wide variety of reactions.
On one end of the spectrum there’s the deep gratitude that Jonathan Edwards called “consent to being in general.” At the other end of the spectrum we are faced with anger or resentment towards the cosmos as nothing but a source of suffering. The point is, you can’t really get off this spectrum. Just as you can’t get around the fact of your existence, we must have some sort of answer to the question of our existence. Maybe I’m biased, but gratitude seems way better than bitterness.
2. Possibility. What should we do?
Given the fact that we, and the whole cosmos, exist, what are we supposed to do? There are all sorts of possibilities that we have to choose from. Do I have a burrito or pad Thai for dinner? Is it better to work towards excellence or social justice?
The universe is also full of possibility. I don’t mean that poetically, I mean there are an unimaginable number of things that could happen in the cosmos. Galaxies collide, stars explode, bizarre creatures are born, civilizations rise and crumble, black holes are formed. The universe is a wild place.
This isn’t to say that the universe, or humans, have unlimited possibilities. (I still hope for telekinesis, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen.) There are all sorts of constraints on possibility. But regardless of these constraints, there’s still an abundance of different things we can do. This means we have to choose.
Religions often talk about this ultimate problem in terms of righteousness. Sometimes righteousness has more to do with performing rituals than behaving nicely. Other times it has to do with justice or compassion. Religions rarely go this route, but some folks just try to deny the whole problem of possibility and say that nothing we do matters. But even if you go that route, you’re still forced to make choices. Just like the other four ultimate questions, there’s no way around it: what’s worth doing? Or, as religion might frame it: how do we become righteous?
3. Wholeness. How do we become whole?
I’m taking some liberties here, because Neville talks about this question in a lot of different ways. If the last question came out of the existence of possibilities, this question comes from the inescapable fact that we’re built of parts. I know – that sounds pretty abstract. But think about it in terms of health.
There’s no shortage of different views about what’s healthy, but what most of them have in common is talking about health in terms of the different pieces that make us up. They differ in which pieces to focus on – it could be carbohydrates, cholesterol, or chakras that are important. Either way, health is about the relationship of these parts.
That’s a bit of a rough analogy because most religions don’t talk about wholeness in such physical terms. Instead they might talk about it in terms of piety. Piety might make you recoil since it often brings up the image of some sanctimonious priest. But Neville’s talking about reverence for the various components of life. We’re made up of parts, and one reaction to this reality is to have deference towards those parts. Other religions – I’m looking at you, Confucianism – talk about wholeness in terms of harmony.
Wholeness can also be conceived of in terms of realness. Many religions focus our attention on a sense of unreality. For example Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy, is built on the idea that our true identity is not what we commonly take it to be: you’re not your body or your thoughts or your feelings. Instead, you’re Atman, which is typically translated as pure consciousness. In this case, wholeness comes through realizing this true identity. Check out the Upanishads to get a better idea of what they’re talking about. Or, if you haven’t felt that sense of unreality, you could just watch Inception again. The solution to the problem of unreality isn’t just about realizing your true identity. It could be, like Jonah in the Hebrew Bible, that one becomes real by accepting one’s call.
But whether we choose the Paleo diet or Advaita Vedanta, we’ve got to have some way to deal with the various pieces that make us up.
4. Others. How do we relate to others?
Just as we’re made of pieces, we’re also parts of larger wholes. That means we’ve gotta deal with others. If the previous ultimate question was a bit abstract, then this one is as grounded as possible. Every moment of every day we encounter things that are not us. I’m talking about dogs, couches, pine trees, sidewalks, and, of course, other people. So how do we engage with these Others?
The easy answer, I suppose, is you either fear them or accept them. But the actual responses are more nuanced than this. For example, it depends on who counts as genuinely Other: do you draw the line outside of family? Neighborhood? Community? Nation? Sect? Religion? Do you draw any line at all? And then, once you do draw that line, what’s the appropriate way to engage with the Other?
Religious solutions to these questions vary widely. Some scholars talk about the Axial Age as a period from 800-200 BCE, when the first “universal” religions emerged in China, India, and the Mediterranean. One of the defining features of this period is a shift towards accepting even the most foreign strangers with compassion or, more dramatically, accepting others as no different from one’s self. Whether you’re able to reach that high standard of compassion or not, you’re still gonna run into others – so what’s the best way to greet them?
5. Value. What’s valuable and how am I of value?
This question may seem to be covered by questions of righteousness or piety, but that’s because the questions are often intertwined, especially in the Abrahamic religions. They’re also connected because what you think is valuable will probably affect your sense of what’s righteous or pious. All these ultimate questions are interconnected. But value considered alone is a little broader than some of the others.
You can think of value as contained in the question: what is the universe up to? You could say “nothing,” and some people do. Or this whole crazy mess of a cosmos may have a reason, a goal. Either way, value here is framed in terms of purpose. If that’s where value resides in the universe, then I’m of value as I align myself with this broader purpose. Themes of redemption and salvation all play into this more general theme of value as purpose.
Other approaches see value as contained in beauty or glory. If that’s the case, then we have value as we create beautiful things, whether they’re paintings or communities. And still others – I’m thinking about strands of Buddhism – construe value through the project of abandoning individual value-identity all together. I know that’s a bit circular, but when you’re arguing for the value of non-dualism, those are the sorts of mental acrobatics you have to do. Either way, like all the other ultimate questions, it’s nearly impossible to escape the question of value in the universe.
I should say that Neville doesn’t present these five questions as a comprehensive list of all the ultimate questions. Instead, they emerge naturally from his larger project, which is a deep philosophical exploration of the nature of the cosmos and what that means for us. (Did I mention that it’s ambitious?) The questions also aren’t completely distinct. Within someone’s worldview, the answers will overlap and intertwine. And they should, because our worldviews are largely built around our answers. As such, they provide fruitful points of comparison across religious traditions.
The other, deeper, point is that these questions overcome the rampant relativism in modern philosophy. All solutions to these questions are not equal. Gratitude in the face of our existence is not the same as cynicism or bitterness. That’s an incredibly bold move to build into a contemporary work of philosophy. But it’s also, most likely, what makes Ultimates so compelling – because how we answer these questions actually matters.