If We’re Wrong, It’s No Big Deal [Questions That Haunt]

In Tuesday’s Questions That Haunt Christianity, Bill Dahl asked,

What if we’re wrong? What if God turns out to be multi-faceted — one head that has many faces, including the faces of The Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Jesus, as well as others?…What if religions are human constructs, not reflections of the face, heart, feet and hands of God?

As always, great comments ensued. I particularly liked this thread, because I have feelings like both Ric and Lausten,

What I don’t know about is Rob’s comment. Can someone live in nihilism? In doubt? Peter Rollins seems to abide there comfortably. Kierkegaard did. So have many others.

Doubt is part and parcel of my faith. Maybe for me it will some day abate, recede into faith, be absorbed into complete assurance. But to this point, that hasn’t happened. So I am indeed haunted by questions like Bill’s.

Before getting to the actual question, let me attempt to articulate why I believe in spite of my doubt. At this point in my life, I’d say that I do not believe because Christ makes the most sense. As Ric notes,

I do believe God is revealing Godself in all sorts of ways, including our others. I still think that Christ is the fullest revelation that God has given us. Christ is definitely one of the most challenging revelations, since the revelation of God in Christ pretty much flies in the face of every cultures’ metaphysics, ethics, politics, etc. It’s why we still talk about Christ 2000 years after the event.

I don’t believe in Christ because I have experienced Christ. I think I have experienced Christ, but not in a way so definitively that I could not reasonably account for them by describing any number of other phenomena.

Currently I believe in Christ because of the aesthetics of the Christ event. That is, the who Christ was and is — the life that Jesus led as recorded in the Gospels, the things he taught, and ultimately his death that brought and end to all primitive religious sacrifice — is so compellingly beautiful that I am caught up in it.

Like the greatest work of art ever created, the Christ-event has completely captured my imagination. It is a concept so profound that it demands everlasting unpacking and interpretation. Actually, I would call this “revelation.” In the Christ event, so much is revealed about the nature of God and the nature of humankind that its hermeneutical challenge is infinite.

This may seem like an odd reason to affirm the Christian faith, but its exactly what’s right for me. It’s the challenge that keeps me coming back. It’s interesting and compelling. Where others look for comfort, for answers, and for assurance, I hope for just the opposite.

I’m reminded of a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky (whose Brothers Karamazov I am currently rereading):

“My hosanna has passed through a great furnace of doubts.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky

But how about Bill’s question? What if we’re wrong?

To me, the possibility that we’re wrong is one of the greatest reasons to approach the Christian faith with epistemic humility (a posture that I think we find in Brian McLaren’s new book). It does not seem unreasonable to me that as a Christian I both affirm the truth of Christ and also maintain the very real possibility that I’m wrong. To be sure, that is a difficult tension to maintain, but not impossible. And that is not a weakness of faith, or a lack of faith, but a realistic faith that entertains the possibility that I am mistaken.

If we are wrong about Christ, then I doubt we’ll know it in this life. While it is conceivable that some new information would come along that would completely negate the life of Christ or the record of his life in the Gospels, that seems very, very unlikely. It might make for an interesting intellectual exercise that Christianity would be proven wrong, but I’m not very interested in trucking in hypotheticals.

So then Bill’s question gets pushed to the afterlife. What if we wake up in eternity to discover that Christianity was merely one of many ways to know God in this life — or, most radically, that Christianity was a lie and revealed nothing about the true nature of God?

Since none of us knows what we will experience in the afterlife, any consideration of this question is pure speculation (Don Piper did not go to heaven). However, if anything from this life can be extrapolated to tell us about the afterlife, then it seems unlikely that the non-exclusivity of Christianity would be a very big deal. It’s hard to imagine that God would somehow be disappointed that several billion of us put our faith in a story that includes teachings about kindness and charity and ends with new life coming from a sacrificial death. Nor does it seem likely that, standing in the presence of the Creator, we would experience embarrassment or shame that we’d committed our lives to following a peasant-rabbi who preached peace and love and who sacrificed himself.

In other words, I’m saying that Pascal was right. If you’re going to push your chips to one side of the table, I honestly cannot imagine a better side than Christ’s. And, if we’re wrong, it’s not the end of the world.

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  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    Can someone live in nihilism? In doubt? Peter Rollins seems to abide there comfortably. Kierkegaard did. So have many others.

    I think there are different ways to consider nihilism. I’m using it in a way that implies an utter meaninglessness – hopelessness – at the core of ones being. But, I honestly think that a truly experienced sense of this will only lead to depression or suicide. So, I’m not thinking in terms of a merely intellectual nihilism, but something that overtakes ones sense of existence entirely.

    We just bought a sign and put it near where we keep our liquor that says “Avoid Reality At All Costs.” I think that if we actually “get” the universe (Reality), it will lead us into utter despair. The deep sense that the universe is indifferent to my existence.

    So, that’s what I mean by claiming that no one can remain there. We all fool ourselves with inventions, illusions, delusions, fantasies that keep us going. None of these stories is “the Truth.” But, we can’t survive and thrive without them.

    The journey I am on is trying to figure out which story is the most compelling to me? Which story can I participate in that makes the most sense to me – which is the least ridiculous – AND that I can own for myself? For now, certain forms of the Christian story satisfy my need for fantasy.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      And, I think my thinking is similar to Rollins’ ideas about “existential atheism.” Maybe he would like to clarify…?

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        In case you didn’t see it, here were Pete’s responses on Twitter:

        pete: my claim is not that Xianity is a positive system that 1 can doubt, but that it is the rupture of all such systems

        To talk about intellectually doubting the Christian faith means that one takes it to be a positive system

        me: do you think it’s possible to live for any extended amt of time OUTSIDE of a “positive system”?

        pete: not outside a positive system, but rather seeing it as a reality constituted by fiction

        https://twitter.com/iamstillrob/status/259293861220843520

        • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

          I saw it. He’s really not very agreeable, is he?

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            Ha! Philosophers…

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Here’s a very similar line of thinking:
      “Existential nihilists do not regard this situation as a reason to despair or to commit suicide. Instead, given the right attitude and understanding of life, the possibility for personal meaning is still possible.”

      http://atheism.about.com/od/typesofexistentialism/a/nihilistic.htm

      • Evelyn

        Yes, many nihilists still display a good amount of ego. They identify with their nihilism. They feed off of believers but there is a symbiotic relationship whereby the believers feed off of the nihilists. The believer’s ego is defined relative to the nihilist’s ego and vice versa. Given that the nihilist still has an ego which gives them a way to feel that they are in control and a reason to live, they may not despair.

        Nihilism is not the same as the “nothingness” within which God resides.

        • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

          I feel like I should know what you’re talking about. But, I have to admit that I don’t.

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    “Like the greatest work of art ever created, the Christ-event has completely captured my imagination. It is a concept so profound that it demands everlasting unpacking and interpretation. Actually, I would call this “revelation.” In the Christ event, so much is revealed about the nature of God and the nature of humankind that its hermeneutical challenge is infinite.” YES!!! I just started reading Caputo’s The Weakness of God: Theology of the Event last night. Are you channeling him here? It’s kind of frightening but exhilirating at the same time. He talks about the sacred anarchism of the God event against the hegemonic imprisonment of the God name (I’m filling in some blanks). I would love for that to be true. I’m sick of hegemony. I’m sick of logic trumping beauty.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Caputo is good stuff.

  • Gary Bryson

    If I thought that the Bible is false (which would mean that my beliefs are false), then I would do my best to learn what the truth is. What I would not do is keep pretending to be a Christian.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Hooray for a false dichotomy and lack of nuance!

      • Scot Miller

        Ouch!

    • http://biblegateway.com RYAN

      Its a false dichotomy if you redefine what a Christian is. Otherwise Gary has struck to the heart of the matter. In that way I see his comment as greatly nuanced. Brilliant.

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        No.

      • Frank

        Me too!

  • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

    Tony says that the Christ event, “is a concept so profound that it demands everlasting unpacking and interpretation.” I think he is confusing the issues that are raised by the event with the event itself. Certainly we continue to uncover what love is, how to live peacefully, and to ask, “what is just”. The story of Roman history and how the Jews and Christianity influenced its fall contain valuable lessons. Obscuring those lessons and the facts of that history with myth and magic doesn’t help at all. Tony would have to tell me more about what he means by “unpacking and interpretation” for me to see it as worthwhile.

    • Evelyn

      I’m not sure what Tony means by “unpacking and interpretation” but I’d say that Jesus is so close to the “pinnacle” of wisdom that, as we grow, we can keep going back to Jesus and find meaning and relationship. (N.B. He didn’t become Christ until he’d been crucified and he did no teaching after the crucifixion.)

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        In my understanding – following folks like Caputo – interpretation goes “all the way down.” Interpretation is unavoidable. We must make decisions about everything, and own them. So, Jesus is not something or someone static in the past that we try to “recover” and then “apply.” To engage with him responsibly requires that we breathe new life into him, and embody him in new ways in our own lives. But, that may also lead us to move beyond Jesus…

        • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

          At the end of the book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, the prankster attempt to transcend time and space and move “beyond acid”. Their test fails, and they realize it. Acid (LSD) has an effect on the mind that can be measured and understood. Discussing prophets throughout history is less measurable, but it still has limits. There is no “beyond Jesus” that can be found through repetitive study of theology. There is just more learning, more discovering.

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            For me, moving beyond Jesus means rejecting the idea that the apex of divinity and humanity is to be found solely in ones understanding of Jesus. Not that we can ever “forget” Jesus, but that he isn’t “the last word” regarding spirituality.

        • Evelyn

          I think Jesus addresses certain issues with regard to humanity and he sets certain paradigms. For example, Genesis starts with the question of “where did we come from”, states a theory, and establishes a relationship. However, “where did we come from” is not the only question we ever ask about our lives. We also want to know where we are going, why we feel sad or happy, how we can live more fully, etc.. The Jesus narrative addresses many paradigms and deals with many questions about ourselves that still concern us today. However, I think he may have missed a few things given the complexity of our lives and psyches so I can see that going “beyond Jesus” might involve us asking questions about ourselves that are not addressed by the Gospels. One glaring question concerns our sexuality and the proper relationship between men and women which Jesus doesn’t discuss very much and I think is still evolving. I’m not sure what the other questions might be right now and, no, I don’t think we could identify them through repetitive study of Christian theology because it is a bit of a closed system.

          • Frank

            There is no confusion scripturally around our sexuality unless someone wants to be able to live the way they choose.

          • Evelyn

            Ok Frank. The next time I’m near you I’ll be sure to wear my cow bell. I wouldn’t want to startle you into believing that I was anything more than sub-human.

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            Frank,

            So your version of Christianity removes a person’s responsibility to choose?

            That’s weird.

          • Frank

            No Rob the choice is whether we follow Gods will or our own. But I suspect you knew that already.

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            “Following God’s will” is a charade that removes the human’s dignity and responsibility to make his or her own choice.

          • Evelyn

            I have to wonder how Frank ascertains God’s will. Does he hear voices in his head? I made dinner tonight without being commanded to do so. I actually wanted to make dinner too and the way I choose to live is to have dinner every night. Frank seems to think there is something wrong with this. I mean, should I just wait around until it is clear what God wants me to do? How will I know?

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            Frank – like all evangelicals – knows God’s will because evangelical theologians and pastors have told him what it is.

            And yes, Evelyn, you are sinning if you do not do God’s will exactly at all times. Good thing Jesus died so that we don’t actually have to obey God’s will! The desire to do God’s will is actually “the holy spirit” because we don’t have the capacity or ability to do anything good on our own. Because we are, in “Paul’s” words, shit.

            The best way to know God’s will is to keep reading the Bible and simply obey it – ignoring, of course, all the things that make no sense or are against our moral inclinations. Other than all of that (i.e. the majority of the Bible), it’s pretty simple. Interpretation is really just a code word for subjectivism or relativism, right?

          • Frank

            When you remove the bible as a revelation of Gods will its no surprise when you don’t know what Gods will is.

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            Frank,

            “The Bible” removes itself as “a revelation of God’s will.”

          • Evelyn

            I think I’ll use biblical bibliomancy for all of my major life decisions. Given that God’s will is so tied to the bible, that’s really the only way I think I could follow God’s will from Frank’s point of view.

            On a more serious note, I think we always do God’s will regardless of whether we think we are or not. Everything that happens is God’s will – including the sexual orientation of a person. Our awareness and acceptance of God’s will and the alignment of our own wills with the common good are what determines whether we are slaves to sin or servants of God.

            Having an issue with lust is also God’s will. I suggest you confront the objects of your lust and find ways to treat them like true friends and have respect for them instead of objectifying them and suppressing the lust. If you are successful you will become aware of the reality of human suffering, you will learn compassion, and you will extinguish your lust problem.

          • Frank

            Evelyn I suggest you slowly back away from wherever you are getting your information from and the run like hell.

          • Frank

            Thanks for proving my point Rob and Evelyn! Perfect!

          • Evelyn

            Ha ha, Frank. I’m speaking from experience. I’ve observed my world and accepted the reality as opposed to you who choose to live in fantasy-land. I can’t run from myself and I can’t run from God (although I wish I could). I suggest you back away from the 2,000-year-old bible that was written in a time when women were treated like livestock and start living in the present.

          • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

            I would propose that we’re all living in our own fantasy lands…

          • Evelyn

            I like to say that “everyone has their own version of reality”. This reality is based on how we observe our world. We can choose to alter how we respond to what we perceive – by love, compassion, and faith or by fear, hate, and bigotry. I try to choose the former as much as I can and I find that it serves me well.

          • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

            This conversation is turning into a scene from my college dorm room where all sat around and made up versions of what “life” is, including the possibility of universes existing on our fingernails.

          • Evelyn

            As a matter of fact, there are more microbes on the human body than there are cells that make it up. If microbes have minds (which we, as humans, don’t really recognize), it is possible that there are universes existing on your fingernails.

          • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

            Thanks for the flashback Evelyn. I will now return to my tiny 14.7 billion year old universe, where they ask the question, what if a tiny planet on the edge of a medium sized galaxy developed a civilization that, for most of its history, believed it was the center of everything and that everything that had ever been created was there for the purpose of their eternal happiness? Wouldn’t that be weird?

          • Evelyn

            Yes, it would be weird. The thing is, people still take that 14.7 billion year old universe and the seemingly infinite character of space and use it to ingratiate themselves. Take for example, Barbara Brown Taylor’s multiple returns to the experience of looking up at the night sky and feeling like it makes her somehow “more” than what she is in her book “An Altar in the world …” or this “creation myth” that I was just reading about on a spiritual naturalism site: http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/big-history-the-heart-of-spiritual-naturalism/
            Even scientifically-oriented skeptics will use that vastness to feed their egos.

            Strangely, I feel differently about this topic. When I was presented with the concept of geologic time and the vastness of the universe in college and in further consideration of how short our lives are, it made me feel completely insignificant as if life were meaningless. I didn’t worship it, I didn’t build an altar to it, I didn’t try to use it to make myself the center of the universe, and I didn’t fantasize about how great I was. I realized that I was completely insignificant and I asked myself where the meaning in my life could come from. The only answer was that the meaning would have to come from me – I would have to decide what I valued and live by those values and I would have to find damn good reasons for believing the way I did. This wasn’t a purely egotistical exercise since I also realized that I was a member of society and my way of being in the world would have to fit in to society in some way. Most of my values were motivated by the Golden rule and trying to align my actions with the common good – they weren’t built on some assumption that “God loves me and I’m the center of the universe”.

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  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    Tony, to make this super personal…

    How much do you think your own investment in theological education and involvement in Christian circles plays into your own commitment to holding on, despite your doubts?

    This was a huge problem for me. Long after I doubted much of what I was “supposed” to believe – and was even teaching – on staff at an evangelical church, I couldn’t simply walk away because I had spent so much time and energy on it (along with many other reasons).

    I’m sure this is still somewhat a motivation for me, though not nearly to the degree it used to be. Something within me will just not let me throw my hands in the air and say it’s all entirely bullshit. Though it very well might be.

    • Scot Miller

      I took a sociology of knowledge course with Peter Berger, who pointed out that we all have vested interests in believing what we believe. Some interests are material (i.e., you benefit financially from believing some things), but some are ideal interests (i.e., you spend time and effort believing things, which makes them difficult to change). Some days I wake up and wonder why I continue to say I’m a believer, since what I believe bears almost no family resemblance to what other believers claim. Then I remember that there are sociological and cultural forces that contribute to my belief.

      I really like what Peter Rollins and Jack Caputo and Richard Kearney do with a/theism and the weakness of God and anatheism, but I sometimes ask myself, “Why not just chuck it all?” Since I can’t seem to bring myself to become an irreligious agnostic, I’m happy to find some other folks who believe and not believe…

      • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

        Thanks for this, Scot.

  • http://www.turridesign.com Jesse Turri

    Brilliant response to this question Tony. I am in complete accordance with you on the Christ aesthetic.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • ME

    “Currently I believe in Christ because of the aesthetics of the Christ event. That is, the who Christ was and is — the life that Jesus led as recorded in the Gospels, the things he taught, and ultimately his death that brought and end to all primitive religious sacrifice — is so compellingly beautiful that I am caught up in it.”

    To me that is a tremendous statement of faith. To harbor the doubt, to realize the precariousness of your position, and then to CHOOSE to believe is amazing and wonderful.

  • http://biblegateway.com RYAN

    I’m eager to see how Tony & Co. would twist these scriptures to mean something other than what they obviously communicate–that we can be certain of the claims of Christ.

    Looking forward to your response.

    2 Cor 3:4-6
    Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
    Eph 3:12
    In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
    Heb 3:6
    But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.

    • http://biblegateway.com RYAN

      Sorry I meant to include Heb 4:16 and 10:35 too

      Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

      So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

    • Moulder

      RYAN, you assume that the bible is infallible or the ultimate source of truth pertaining to all things spiritual. What if the bible is throwing a distorted perspective (through its many copies and edits based on how religious and political leaders wanted to control people) on what Jesus, and more so what Paul is talking about? What if Paul is wrong?

      • http://biblegateway.com Ryan

        You are bringing up two points here, which are actually conflicting. By saying Paul was wrong AND church leaders altered his wrong texts to something else, how would you know that Paul was wrong in the first place? It seems that you are grasping at whatever alternatives you can to have scripture communicate what you want it to say without a proper refutation of any of them. I encourage you to go with one or the other so we can continue.

        1. The biblical text has been altered by those in power to control the masses

        If this is the case, you are going to have to cite some examples, especially because it is a known fact that copies of manuscripts were in the 1,000′s before Christianity was hierarchically organized, and if they did it at this point they would have to get all of the copies and change them, but we see no theological differences in textual tradition.

        2. Paul and the author of Hebrews (obviously different people as their Koine Greek writing style is vastly different) were wrong.

        If this is the case you are going to show how Paul’s theology of confidence is misinformed, particularly by showing how it negatively effected his ministry. It is obvious that you view the entire Bible as questionable when it comes into conflict with what you think reality is. I would encourage you to stop calling yourself a Christian if you do, you are your own god.

        • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

          Your “arguments” aren’t worthy of refutation.

          Moving on…

    • Evelyn

      I don’t mean to “twist” scripture but you seem to be misinterpreting a bit. The point that is being made by Paul is that we can approach God >with confidence< if we follow Jesus' teachings in general not that Christ is the only way through which we can approach God. This is different than saying that "we can be certain of the claims of Christ". Put another way, the system of belief that Jesus outlines is basically an "easy" and self-compassionate (confident) way to approach God but that doesn't mean there aren't any other ways to approach God that are more suitable to people who don't live in Jesus' social, political, and physical environment.

  • http://www.yeshua21.com Wayne

    Whatever conceptual scheme we attempt to package reality in will not be correct. At best, it will point beyond itself to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In that sense, I can agree with you to some degree with reference to the aesthetics of Christianity — I never cease to be amazed at the beauty and unavoidable necessity of the cross (which is *our* cross — not just Jesus’).

    God is not what we think… Christ is not what we think… I Am not what I think… “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me.” ~ Gospel of Thomas

    p.s. IMO, it is misleading to characterize Kierkegaard as a nihilist.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      I think – and I might be wrong – that Tony meant to imply that, for Kierkegaard, without (his interpretation of) the gospel, we are doomed. That without Kierkegaard’s God, we have nothing.

  • Evelyn

    Tony says: “It’s hard to imagine that God would somehow be disappointed that several billion of us put our faith in a story that includes teachings about kindness and charity and ends with new life coming from a sacrificial death. Nor does it seem likely that, standing in the presence of the Creator, we would experience embarrassment or shame that we’d committed our lives to following a peasant-rabbi who preached peace and love and who sacrificed himself.”

    The mentions of “sacrifice” in this paragraph bother me. It’s hard for me to imagine a “loving” God who would approve of someone making themselves suffer to emulate Jesus’ apparent sacrifice. I like Gandhi’s view of sacrifice: “The sacrifice which causes sorrow to the doer of the sacrifice is no sacrifice. Real sacrifice lightens the mind of the doer and gives him a sense of peace and joy.” To me, Jesus’ “sacrifice” probably didn’t seem like a sacrifice to him. He thought he was doing what was the right thing to do. Because we can’t see things from his point of view, his actions seem self-sacrificing but he probably didn’t feel that way about it.

    • http://lesbicrafty.blogspot.com Sonja Faith Lund

      That’s a really interesting point. If one sacrifices out of duty rather than out of desire, is it in the true spirit of sacrifice?

      It’s like giving something up for Lent out of a sense of obligation rather than a genuine “I am going to do this because I know I’ll benefit spiritually from it.”

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  • Ric Shewell

    I have no shame in keeping score. I was out of town last week and not paying attention. This is the first time I’m seeing this post, and I’m counting it as a win.

  • Boz

    These arguments – aesthetics and Pascals Wager – are bad reasons to accept facts.

    Is Tolkien’s mythology factually true because it has aesthetic appeal?

    • Ric Shewell

      Well, since we’re here. These are not reasons to accept facts. These are ways of interpreting the facts. Something obviously compelling happened in the Christ event. Whatever the Christ event is, it changed the world. It would be ignorant and closed-minded to imagine it didn’t happen, is unimportant, or can be explained simply and fully. Because it happened, is important, and cannot be fully explained, makes it a marvel far beyond many historical events.

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