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Can Engaging with a Radical Religion Help Save Progressives from Self-Indulgence?

To imagine a just and sustainable world, we need not just a politics but a theology that can help us face our delusional arrogance.

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I want to articulate a conception of theology, and argue for its importance, in a way that may provoke some folks on all sides -- religious fundamentalists and relativists, as well as secular fundamentalists and relativists.

Although I have a deep contrarian streak in me, that instinct is not the motive force here. I have spent most of my 50 years studiously ignoring theological debates, which seemed annoying and irrelevant. I still often find them annoying, but I no longer feel I have the luxury of opting out of theological conversations. After a period of listening to the conversations of others, I have concluded that two important things must happen if we are to move forward. Stated provocatively, by design:

To the fundamentalists on both sides: Grow up. To the moderates on both sides: Buck up.

Both religious and secular fundamentalists tend to be convinced that they really know what they claim to know, which makes them unrealistically confident in their judgments based on those knowledge claims. These are childlike claims; respectfully, I will argue that people who make them need to grow up.

Moderates, both religious and secular, typically are less insistent about the absolute truth of what they claim to know, and as a result often are hesitant to judge. These are irresponsible positions; respectfully, I will argue that people who take them need to buck up.

Although these two "requests" are formulated in what could be seen as harsh language ("grow up" and "buck up" typically are instructions to the immature and the weak-willed), they are not meant that way. It is not difficult to understand why so many people seek certainty in a complex and confusing world, nor is it hard to understand the desire to avoid making judgments about others when one is aware of the limits of one's own knowledge. The crucial work of theology today is to help us abandon any pretense of secure knowledge, but at the same time provide the confidence and courage to judge -- and act on those judgments -- despite the inevitable risks that come with human limits.

It's time to face questions for which we have no answers, to address problems for which there may be no solutions. We have to accept the radical uncertainty of our lives, yet meet the challenges that life puts in front of us.

To help us cope, what kind of theology -- what ideas about what it means to be a human being at this moment in time -- will we need?

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Radical Politics in the Prophetic Voice, will be published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press. He also is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007).

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