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Academics turn to angels and eroticism

A NEW BREED of radical theologians is taking academia by storm with its forthright views on sex, politics and society.

Originating in Cambridge, the Radical Orthodoxy movement has rapidly taken hold in universities across Britain and the US and, although firmly rooted in a Christian socialist tradition, has elicited strong interest from Jews and Muslims.

Its proponents seek to reposition theology centre stage to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. They believe in miracles and angels and insist that unless the created order is the work of God, it is valueless and chaotic.

Their aim is to end the divides between faith and reason, body and soul, secular and sacred, and they warn that society's hankering for instant gratification is ultimately self-destructive and nihilistic.

The radically orthodox are keen to free eroticism from its associations with guilt and suspicion, as long as love for other people becomes an affirmation of a broader existence encompassing God and the beyond.

One of the movement's key figures, Graham Ward, professor of theology and ethics at Manchester University, is critical of the way sex has become "just another commodity".

The radically orthodox believe that the creation of an underclass is the inevitable result of a free-market economy. They want to cultivate a professional ethos in which people have a greater sense of the worth of what they do, because it is part of a bigger reality.

According to John Milbank, professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia, despite what Marx said, the real opium of the people is atheism.

"Increasingly, the only people who are at all politically radical ... are the fundamentalists," he said.

Modern-day evangelists are criticised for turning Christian belief into a commodity, a leisure pursuit; and, while the radically orthodox recognise the increasing interest in mysticism, they see it as fractured.

"The resurrection scene at the end of Titanic is typical of a more general search for meaning," said Mr Ward.

Although church-going is at an all-time low, interest in theology is increasing, notably among students from non-religious backgrounds. Radical Orthodoxy is attracting growing numbers of PhD students who want to study their subject within a theological perspective.

But the slow nature of change within the Church means it could be a long time, if it happens at all, before the combative stance of the new theologians takes hold.