process theologians please respond

In light of the present discussion of nihilism and the compatibility of OOO and process theology, I’d like to hear from the process theology people. This is something I know little about, and this seems like a great opportunity to get two disparate wings of philosophy to reach some kind of understanding. Here’s a question I’d like answered, and I am happy to accept links to already extant posts as responses:

What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?

[Update: After reading a post at Immanent Transcendence, I would speculate that the theological and naturalist dogs in the SR/OOO fight will inevitably be lead to an impasse over causality. It will come down to whether or not you accept the reality of final, formal, and perhaps material cause in addition to efficient (and, for Harman, vicarious) causality. The theological wing will invoke Aristotle and Peirce to talk about several forms of causality, whereas the naturalist wing sticks to efficient and vicarious (perhaps material, anyone?). Once final and formal causality are set loose, many avenues are opened up for the theological argument. It’s possible to simply deny these things, as (again) Spinoza does. Boringly, we must ‘agree to disagree’ about causality because we’re now working at the level of first principles, right?]


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37 Responses to process theologians please respond

  1. Levi says:

    To be quite honest, I’m increasingly sympathetic to the idea of final causality. The devil’s in the details. The sort of final causality I would object to is, of course, that teleology where natural entities are designed to be what they are by a divine being. I think it’s Darwin, by contrast, that gives us a naturalistic account of final causation. Darwin explains how goal directed processes arise from non-teleological phenomena. For me, so long as we have a generative account of final causes that treats them as a product of non-teleological processes (rather than the cause of entities) I really have no problem with teleology.

  2. Pingback: Nihilism, Theology, and the Limits of Blogging « Knowledge Ecology

  3. plasticbodies says:


    Yeah, if you want to read teleology that way, I can follow. Calling is a cause may not be palatable for some, but at least it’s a naturalistic view of final causality that provides an alternative to the preestablished design model. In this vein, I’m anxious about Grosz’s new book on Darwin.

  4. I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism. This essay is a good place to start:

    I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it):

    I think chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality.

  5. This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.

  6. plasticbodies says:

    It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.

    Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?

  7. Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).

    I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.

    I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.

  8. Pingback: Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism « Footnotes to Plato

  9. plasticbodies says:

    I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram

    The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.

    Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?

  10. plasticbodies says:

    Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.

  11. God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.

    Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”

    Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).

    I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”

  12. Leon says:

    Tom, and Matt,
    Have either of you read David Ray Griffin’s ‘Reenchantment without Supernaturalism’ book? Matt, I know that you would love this book; and Tom, perhaps in it you will find at least some of the answers that you are looking for.

    I feel somewhat guilty that I cannot participate in this conversation. As you might know, I am in the midst of a relocation, a trip to Maine, and various philosophical duties. But I *am* reading, with intense interest, your exchanges. Please keep things going – I enjoy productive and enlightening discourse such as yours. And Matt, your interests are amazing. Great stuff!


  13. Tim Morton says:

    I have a slightly different take again than some of the commenters, thanks for this post. Formal causation and vicarious for me are part of the same deal. That’s why “modern” science since 1500 ish has been so keen to eliminate all but efficient and material cause. But quantum theory necessitates a revisting of formal causation. When you can shoot an electron through the hole in a doughnut of electromagnetism, and it respond as if it were within the doughnut, it is probably responding to the shape, the form, the aesthetics of the field. Likewise fruit flies smell the quantum signature of molecules, not the actual volatile molecules themselves. Nonlocality implies that something very deep about our world is formal, not efficient, or material–that is, aesthetic.

    So I vote for reviving formal causation, downplaying material or even eliminating it (I think “matter” is only what a unique thing looks like when it’s being used/exploited/worked on by some other thing), and seriously downplaying efficiency, which is only an emergent property of formal relationships.

    Then unlike Levi I vote final causes off the boat altogether. If there’s no top or bottom object there just is no final cause. Once you’ve gotten down to “goal-like” rather than “actually final” you’ve lost what is special about final causes. “Goal-like” behavior is only “goal-like” for some other entity. In other words, it’s not a deep property of things.

    Thus formal cause just is vicarious, in a world without matter per se or telos. Another term for formal cause is “aesthetic dimension.”

  14. Tim Morton says:

    …and in conclusion, God for me is irrelevant. He or she just as well might or might not exist. I have no problem either way. I think OOO articulates this position, which I call non-theism to distinguish it from theism, but also from atheism, which still has some skin in the theism game.

  15. dmf says:

    pb, I don’t share Levi’s sense of Christianity(or any other such reified term, which to me is like Morton’s Nature) as an “entity”, but everything else seems spot on, some conversations have ‘natural’ limits.

  16. plasticbodies says:


    Even if you God doesn’t get things started, I hear you saying that he at least keeps things going (so to speak). Either way, the assumption seems redundant to me. My basic point is that we don’t need God to keep things going (continuous creation, that is). Of course I understand that God is playing a logical role in the picture your holding up, so I’m not speaking temporally when I ask about the metaphysical labor God is doing. As to anthropomorphism: I think by definition this is the domain of humans. Believe me, I’m perfectly happy to attribute all manner of actions and events to nonhuman entities that are typically restricted only to humans. I concede that point. Again, the idea of “secularizing God” seems to me a contradictory project: it seems that you have to destroy his divinity to secularize him. But rather, the PT people seem more interested in divinizing nature, rather than de-divinizing God. If we take the incarnation of Jesus as a paradigm (are we doing that here?), then I see what a secular God could be. But I take it that this whole project is not just a reworking of that story.

    As for atheism: I thought you were going to make an argument about how atheists *think* they have ideas, but that metaphysically this is impossible. That would have been a feat! Given the argument you do deliver, I’m perfectly fine with saying something like ideas are epiphenomenal, but I’m also with Tim in looking at meaning as something that is experienced by more than humans. Even inanimate objects share meanings among themselves. This is one way that I would want to extend the “anthropomorphic” to the nonhumans, as you suggest here. Would you follow me on this point, or is meaning something that only humans and God can have?

  17. plasticbodies says:

    Okay, so Levi’s on board with final cause; Tim with formal cause; everyone with efficient; Matt (I think) with material. Good to see all four causes alive and endorsed! Tim, we’re going to have a lot to talk about with this aesthetic dimension stuff.

  18. Leon, I have read Griffin’s book, it was a big help while writting the essay on naturalistic panentheism linked above. He is a very clear, deliberate writer (so much so that he is a bit boring in places!).

    Tim, quantum phenomena are evidence of formal causality in nature, but so is the entire biological world. Perhaps Darwin downplayed the significance of form on the species level (since form was just an artifact of natural selection), but individual living organisms cannot be understood absent some account of formal causation. As for final causes, I don’t think the “as if,” teleonomic approach is sufficient, since it leaves us right back where Kant got stuck in the CoJ: a dualism between regulative and constitutive principles. Not very realist if you ask me.

  19. Tom,

    I’ll have to think more about how to convince you that a conception of God is not redundant in cosmology. I do think that the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ, as archetypal motifs, are extremely relevant when it comes to the philosophical task of secularizing/naturalizing God.

    I think you’ve misunderstood what I’m saying in regards to atheistic naturalism/scientific materialism. I would want to argue that scientific materialists ‘think’ they have meanings and ideas, when based on their own impoverished metaphysics, this is impossible. I DO agree with you that meaning is spread throughout the non-human world. Biosemiotics ftw! I also think ideas (forms) are at work shaping the non-human world as well. I think Whitehead allows us to cosmologize in a naturalistic way about both ideas and meanings.

  20. plasticbodies says:

    Well, I, for one, would love to see a post about how materialist metaphysics cannot account for ideas and meanings! (If that’s a fair way of framing your remark above.)

  21. Matt,

    When you appeal to autopoietic theory in your post over at your blog I think you’re conflatingntwp very different senses of teleology (the premodern and the modern). In the premodern framwork the teleological cause ofman entity consists in what it is designed for by a divine being. In this framework, the species as a type or kind precedes the individual and is the goal towards which the individual develops. Maturana and Varela, by contrast, understand teleology in cybernetic terms as feedback mechanisms in an organism wherein the organism regulates itself homeostatically within a particular range. While more complex, there’s nothing markedly different here from how the thermostat functionsnin your house. The temperature at which the thermostat is set is the teleological goal or cause, and the air conditioner turning off and on is the feedback mechanism by which that state is goal is actualized. The goal itself has no causative power. It is just the basin around which actions settle. In organisms, moreover, this teleological dimension is produced through evolution, not design, and is produced out of processes that are not themselves teleological, ie, there is no goal towards which evolution is striving or tending.

    With Tom, I fail to see what Whitehead’s conception of god adds to our metaphysics. It introduces a number of highly contentious and troubling postulates (that god influences so things to produce certain aesthetic contrasts) that can neither be verified in any way and that seem deeply arbitrary. I fail to see what evolutionary and autopietic theory gains from such an approach. Your theory says that polar bears exist because they are an aesthetically pleasing contrast for god. My theory says polar bears exist because, at a particular time in natural history, climate change occurred, leading to ampolar landscape. Within this landscape there was a population of bears in which some bears had lighter coats then others. These bears had a greater advantage hunting because they blended in more, thereby got fat, were appealing to potential mates, reproduced, and passed on their genes. Within my framework I’m able to explain the existence of these bears and their qualities naturalistically without appealing to a vacuous thesis like god.

    With Tom, I’m perplexed as to why you would suggest that naturalists can have no meanings or ideas. Basically you confirm what I wrote in my original post, by arguing that for you meaning is impossible without god. First, it is simply not true that all naturalists reject the existence of formal and final causes. They just argue that formal and final causes are not the result of design or a god and rject the notion that there is some final cause that all beings are tending towards (that there’s a cosmic plan). As Tim remarks, final causes are goals that only exist within entities. There are no goals that exist outside of entities (a plan) towards which entities are being drawn. Second, it seems to me that you’re conflating naturalism with 17th and 18th century mechanism. I think this is a strawman. Third, I don’t see what God gives us by way of explanation. Saying “because of God” is really no explanation at all but is really simply an announcement of ignorance. Here I’m reminded of Hegel’s concept of “tautological ground”. A tautological ground is a ground that appears to ground a phenomenon, when it merely repeats what is to be explained. One asks “why do things fall to the ground?” and responds “because of gravity!”. It sounds like they’ve explained something, but “gravity” is just shorthand for “things falling to the ground”. At best such tautologies indicate that something needs to be explained. They don’t themselves explain. And this is exactly what your god explanation is doing. It’s just shorthand for “I don’t know”.

    Finally, fourth, it does no good to say that meaning and ideas don’t exist for naturalist when all you’re doing is providing a tautological explaation (this world exists because God finds it to be composed of aesthetically pleasing contrasts!). As Tom pointed out, there’s no qualitative difference between Lucretius’s swerve and your God. Both are equally arbitrary and without reason. By contrast, there is abundant evidence for naturalism and it grows every day. Given that meaning and thought are facts, this means naturalists are obligated to give an account of these phenomena within a naturalistic framework. The fact that this doesn’t make sense to you within your theological framework has no bearing on whether or not such an account can be given. Copernicus’s universe made no sense to the church, but that made it no less true.

  22. Levi,

    If you read the essay I linked to above (from which the bit on Varela was a small excerpt), you’ll see that I track the changes in the conception of teleology from the premodern, to the modern era. I differentiate the more Platonic doctrine of teleology as “demiurgic design” from the more Aristotelean doctrine of immanent teleology, which was later modernized by Kant into a regulative principle for judging the organization of living systems. In the last paper Varela published (excerpts of which you read above), he took up Kant’s project in the CoJ and attempted to ontologize telos (making it constitutive of the reality of organisms, rather than simply a human way of conceptualizing their activity). I don’t think Varela succeeds in the paper, but his references to Whitehead suggest he saw him as an ally in the project of grounding purposes in nature itself. I’ll continue responding to the other issues you’ve raised here in a post on my blog later this evening.

  23. Pingback: The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant « Footnotes to Plato

  24. Matt,

    Obviously reference to Whitehead does not entail that one is committed to everything Whitehead claims. People cite Whitehead all the time because of his commitment to process. That asie, you still have not responded to my arguments.

  25. Matt,

    You make the claim that without God therenwould be chaos and no order. This is a problematic claim for two reasons. First, you have repeatedly tried to claim that God isn’t supposed to explain anything, yet here you are evoking God to explain order. Second, it is unclear why 1) God is required to explain order (the fact that order exists doesn’t entail that it must have been designed), and 2) it is not clear what God would explain about this order in such an account. That is, such an “explanation” seems to refer to an empty tautologous ground as I remarked in my earlier post.

    Your rejoinders to me in the issue of autopoisis are rather silly. Yes, of course I understand that thermostats are produced by others and that they don’t produce themselves. That’s not the point of the example. The point was merely to underline how homeostatic feedback works. In the domain of living entities, what is important is that any goal directedness they have is internal to them and that they aren’t “for anything” besides themselves. There is no overarching plan or great chain of being in which they participate.

    Throughout this discussion you have repeatedly appealed to 30,000 years of human religious experience that philosophy has a duty to account for. You seem to take this experience as evidence that there must be some ontological truth to the claims of religion (ie, that God exists). Over at Knowledge Ecology’s blog I pointed out that there are at least 30,000 years of racism and sexism and that the form of your argument about God seems to commit you and Whitehead to the position that the ontological claims of racism and sexism must contain some truth. Now I suspect you wouldn’t want to make such a claim about racism and sexism, and would therefore seek some other form of explanation (sociological, ethnographic, psychological) to explain the origin of racist and sexist ways of thinking. Given the absence of any evidence for the divine an its emptiness as an explanation, why shouldn’t the same explanation be open for explaining religious belief? The point is that appeal to thirty thousand years of religious experience is either a rather thin argument (in logic we call this fallacy the appeal to tradition or the appeal to popular belief) or it commits you to some really problematic conclusions (being forced to grant that racism and sexism are based on truth).

    In your post over at footnotes2plato you make the odd claim that somehow naturalism prevents us from fighting neoliberal capitalism. This ignores the rather obvious fact that 1) Marxist thought is a naturalistic position, 2) those European countries that are most socialized are also overwhelmingly secular, and 3) religion has repeatedly sided with capitalism throughout history a provided support for forces that underly these forms of capitalism. While there have indeed been forms of religion opposed to capitalism, religion is, at best, ambivalent on these issues.

  26. Jason Hills says:


    I heed your call and will try to get some of my actual theologian friends to respond.

  27. plasticbodies says:

    Thanks, Jason. I should qualify my request by saying that I’m more interested in philosophical, rather than theological, answers. Forgive me for drawing the stark disciplinary distinction.

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  30. Jason Hills says:


    I have posted a response to this at Immanent Transcendence, .

    I believe that my post was misunderstood, as Leon dragged my musing on causality into a debate that did not inform their writing. I believe that you are right about the issue of causality, but I disagree with all your comments about it, because I think the concepts and contexts has not be adequately represented.

    Please do join me to address the misunderstanding. Also, shortly I hope to have a practicing minister and process theologian do a guest post on my blog.

  31. Dwight Welch says:

    I’ve been asked by Jason Hills to comment on the discussion of process thought, God, and causality. As a mainline pastor and former colleague of Hills at SIUC, I’ve been influenced by process and classical American pragmatism but I’ve been far enough from the field of philosophy that I apologize if my treatment of some issues is thin.

    I’m sympathetic to Whitehead’s cosmology but I don’t believe that one must adopt any particular cosmology in terms of identifying with religious faith and theism in particular. In that I agree with Rudolph Bultmann that religious faith need not tie its fortunes to one system such that one could be a Whiteheadian, a Columbian Naturalist, a Platonist, etc and still identify with and work out of, in my case, the Christian tradition.

    I myself am sympathetic to a form of naturalism that would identify God with particular features, events as found in the natural world. In particular, those events, features, etc that works in ways to relativize and humanize our existence to use Gordon Kaufman’s language or works to judge and redeem our existence in Reinhold Niebuhr’s language.

    The model that I find most helpful would be Whitehead’s idea of intensity, the greatest amount of diversity/contrasts held together. If one imagined communities which held to such a goal, one can see how difference held in community can critique our norms and sense of things while expanding those communities in transforming ways. In that I can see a model for various communities, including religious ones.

    The question of causality could be this; does God cause such vivifying contrasts? Is God an explanation behind such a thing? I’d argue not. Instead of saying that God is behind and causing events, I would say that God is to be identified with such events. That is, when we see transformation towards the better, we’ve experienced God. Not something God did but something of who God is.

    God in this case is a term we use when we encounter such events. God is not an explanation. I would presume that we would want to use all sorts of descriptive accounts, from the natural and social sciences, etc. One could go to a number of disciplines to describe what happens when life is critiqued and transformed. None need invalidate each other. They would be various descriptive routes to the same event.

    God would be an evaluative description, one which describes the quality of such events, and calls for a particular response. Such responses could be that of loyalty, ultimacy, reverence, devotion, and so forth. In any case, a commitment to what makes life move towards the better. In the west, given the history of the word, God would seem most appropriate given the nature of specific communities, including my own.

    In that I can see atheist interlocutors not describing a world with one less object, but rather prone to use different evaluative words (and given the way certain words have been tied to a certain set of actions done by religious communities and presented in ways which fly against what we know of the world, one can see the plausibility of using different words.)

    But for those of us who, given the history and meaning of God, in our communities, the word best fits when we encounter salvific events, as a response. The point is to transform our language so that it can be in conversation with, not be used over and against other descriptions what less other communities.

  32. Jason Hills says:


    As promised, I now have a guest post by Pastor Dwight Welch at . He may also join our conversation elsewhere.

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