Is Maximus Confessor’s Doctrine of the Logoi of Creation Compatible with the Emerging Field of Biomimicry?

Chris Durante
Tuesday 14 June 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion: Biomimesis & the Doctrine of the Logoi
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Recent scholarship on the Patristic theology of St. Maximus Confessor, especially amongst Orthodox Christian scholars, has suggested that Maximus’ panentheistic and logo-centric understanding of the divine presence in the natural world can be used to bring theology and science into a more robust dialogue (Louth 2013). More specifically, some scholars have suggested that Maximus’ views can be seen as convergent with, if not foreshadowing, the emerging scientific sub-discipline of biomimicry (Theokritoff 2017). Can Maximus Confessor’s theology be used to support a form of biomimesis? And, if so, what might be the precepts or principles of this biomimetic paradigm? In the discussion to come I will suggest that Maximus’ logo-centric cosmology presents us with a drastically different understanding of “natural law” than that which developed in the Medieval and Modern Western intellectual tradition, insofar as Maximus suggests that the natural law is not only accessible via our rational capacities but also involves empirical as well as spiritual dimensions. Maximus’ view of the ‘laws,’ or more accurately the divine principles or logoi, inherent within nature differ from later Western theologians and philosophers in that both our senses and psyche must be involved in discerning what precisely these ‘laws’ or principles are as well as how we, as humans, are to live.

Maximus’ cosmological theology suggests that it is through understanding the natural world that humanity comes to understand its purpose, or telos, as a species. At this point we are poised to inquire: if humanity’s purpose in this complex system of life on earth — in other words, the meaning of human life itself — actually consists of striving to understand the natural world as a means of discerning the divine wisdom within natural creation, should humanity be mimicking the precepts, principles and patterns we find within nature in our own personal behavior and social systems as a way to live a more pious life? If this is the case for Maximus, as will be suggested, it appears we are presented with an early form of ethical and psycho-spiritual biomimesis within Maximus’ writings that can be used to integrate theological and scientific inquiry and knowledge.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Maximus Confessor’s Doctrine of the Logoi

For Maximus, the logoi are the creative energies, vital powers and ordering principles that inhere within all living and existent beings. According to Maximus the logoi are related to the Logos, for it is through the Logos that all of these beings were created and hence, it is through the Logos that they beget their logoi. When the logoi are understood as both energies and ordering principles and processes, we can come to recognize that within all abiotic and biological beings and ecological systems there exists both dynamic energies as well as structural and functional design and order, which is both beautiful and which contributes to the continual processes of life regeneratively begetting life. Maximus Confessor wrote: “The Holy Spirit is not absent from any created being…The Holy Spirit is present unconditionally in all things…and vivifies the natural seeds within them” (Maximus 1995, 180). This vivifying energy is, for Maximus, the incarnation of the divine Logos in the natural world in the form of logoi, which are manifestations of the divine permeating our ecological reality. Maximus goes on to describe the divine’s presence throughout all that exists within our cosmological reality when he writes,

In His supreme goodness God has not only made the divine and incorporeal essences of noetic realities images of His unutterable glory, each in its own way reflecting, in so far as this is granted, the supra-noetic splendour of His unapproachable beauty; He also permeates with echoes of His majesty things that are sensory and far inferior to noetic essences. (Maximus 1995, 208)

Reflecting on Maximus’ cosmology, Elizabeth Theokritoff writes, “Maximus expresses this panentheism in strong terms: according to His creative and sustaining ‘procession’ into the creature, the one [divine] Logos is many logoi; according to the providential process of the ‘conversion’ of all things toward their point of origin, the many are one. The very texture of the universe is God the Word in action….” (Theokritoff 2017, 226). As Andrew Louth explains, “the created world has value, meaning, beauty, in itself: because God is the supreme craftsman, his creation is supremely lovely. The beauty and meaning is found in the logoi: so the logoi, in one sense at least, are created; they belong to the created order…So the logos of a created being means what it is, what defines its nature…the divine logoi are expressions of the divine will” (Louth 2013, 63).

2.2 Biomimicry

Biomimicry is the idea that humans can learn from the wisdom inherent within nature and thereby imitate natural principles and processes as a means of understanding the ways in which human behavior can be more concordant with the natural world (Benyus 2002).  Janine Benyus, one of the earliest proponents of biomimicry, describes the field of biomimicry as “a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems” (Benyus 2002, I). Ultimately, biomimicry, or biomimetic science, is involved in “exploring nature’s masterpieces — photosynthesis, self-assembly, natural selection, self-sustaining ecosystems, eyes and ears and skin and shells, talking neurons, natural medicines, and more — and then copying these designs and manufacturing processes… [biomimicry is] the conscious emulation of life’s genius” (Benyus 2002, 4-5).

Although biomimicry is usually discussed in the context of technological design, when we begin to reflect upon the ways in which various systems of life naturally function and flourish we may realize that we have something to learn in regards to designing our social systems and our personal conduct so that they are more conducive to cultivating human civilizational flourishing. Benyus delineates what she refers to as: “A canon of nature’s laws, strategies, and principles” (Benyus 2002, 7). This canon is based upon observations and reflections on the ways in which natural life operates and regenerates itself and consists of nine precepts, which are (Benyus 2002, 7):

  1. “Nature runs on sunlight”
  2. “Nature uses only the energy it needs”
  3. “Nature fits form to function”
  4. “Nature recycles everything”
  5. “Nature rewards cooperation”
  6. “Nature banks on diversity”
  7. “Nature demands local expertise”
  8. “Nature curbs excess from within”
  9. “Nature taps the power of limits”

Benyus’ “canon of natural laws” contains technical, social and moral aspects, and despite Benyus’ expressed intention of viewing nature as a source of inspiration for innovation — in a mostly technological sense — there are dimensions to this idea that possess ancient roots within the depths of humanity’s moral imagination. While still expressing an innovative idea, biomimicry implies an imitation of nature for inspiration on how to live, an impulse which harkens back to the Hellenistic world. The ancient Greek philosophers, and the Christian thinkers they influenced, all held a conception of physis (nature) as normative in some sense, which was lost in modernity and which the newly emerging field of biomimicry is, in some sense, attempting to recapture or revive.

3. Discussion: Biomimesis & the Doctrine of the Logoi

Describing how Maximus’ conception of the divine logoi places his theory within the Christian natural law tradition, Torstein Tollefsen writes: “The logoi therefore are the laws of the cosmos, not laws of nature in the modern sense of the word, but laws to be understood as divine efficient-formal-final causality binding together created beings horizontally and connecting them vertically with the Creator without transcending the basic differences between them” (Tollefsen 2008, 81). As Andrew Louth explains, “if human beings are created in the image of God, and if it is the Logos of God that communicates the divine nature, that displays God’s image, then this means that human beings are fashioned after the Logos of God, something manifest in the fact that human beings are logikos, the adjective from logos, usually translated as ‘rational’ but really connotating something much broader and deeper. One could say human beings, as logikos, are capable of discerning meaning…they are capable of discerning the logoi of creation, the whole depth of meaning that can be found in creation in all its manifold splendor. This understanding of the cosmos he [Maximus] calls physikê theoría, natural contemplation” (Louth 2013, 64). If used as a means of discovering and discerning the hermeneutical significance of the patterns of relationality and interdependence found within the natural order, scientific inquiry can come to occupy a significant role in a contemporary understanding of physikê theoría.  Louth continues: “Maximus sees the universe given meaning by the logoi through which creatures participate in God. Science sees the universe as governed by laws…[and given this broader and deeper understanding of logos] much of the vision of St. Maximus can be rethought in terms of current science” (Louth 2013, 70).

For Maximus, it is not only reason — in both its rational and spiritual interpretations — that has a role to play in discerning the meaning of the logoi, but also our sense perception, and to this end, our capacity for in-depth empirical observation. Elaborating on this point in her discussion of Maximus’ understanding of human knowledge, Nevena Dimitrova states,

It is reason’s task to elevate the soul to a higher level of knowledge. Otherwise, it will remain in the realm where ‘the law of sin rules’ as Maximus writes referring to Romans 8:2. Obviously, this law is opposed to the ‘natural law’ that Maximus presents in the Ambigua…we deduce the existence of God and of the creative, teleological logoi of everything that exists from our eyesight and natural law. Eyesight directs us to beautifully configured, visible things that are simultaneously in motion and motionless, while natural law leads us from visible and well-ordered beings to their creator…According to Maximus, eyesight (όφις) is the link between the sense organ and sensible beings, while natural law (φυσιχός νόμος) is composed of natural energies and activities of the soul that have their beginning in the sensory realm but are directed toward reason and the mind. (Dimitrova 2016, 60)

What we find in Maximus’ thought is that there is a role for empirical study and knowledge as well as a role for rational inquiry and spiritual insight in acquiring an understanding of Divine wisdom. Moreover, if it is the case that ‘that which is visible’ plays a role in deepening human knowledge of the Divine order, for those of us in modernity, that which is “visible” is far more immense due to our technological developments that have enabled us to perceive aspects of the material world that were imperceptible in Maximus’ time. This implies that some of our contemporary technologies may be used to help us discern the principles of nature and come to a deeper understanding of the natural law insofar as we are now capable of empirical observation on micro and macro levels that were impossible in the past.

 Yet, there is a unique and curious feature of Maximus’ doctrine of the logoi that goes beyond a purely cosmological, or ecological, understanding in that it encompasses a moral dimension whereby the natural world appears to serve as a storehouse of divine wisdom as well as an instrument of divine judgement. Maximus Confessor wrote:

From created beings we come to know their Cause; from the differences between created beings we learn about the indwelling Wisdom of creation; and from the natural activity of created beings we discern the indwelling Life of creation, the power which gives created beings their life — the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not absent from any created being…permeating all things with His power, and vivifying their inner essences in accordance with their nature. In this way He makes men aware of things done sinfully against the law of nature, and renders them capable of choosing principles which are true and in conformity with nature. (Maximus 1995, 180)

Maximus’ doctrine of the logoi expresses a panentheistic view of creation in which humans may discern aspects of Divine wisdom from the study of the natural world and from which humanity may learn how to live in accordance with the Divine will by living in a manner which conforms to the principles and patterns found within the natural order. The aforementioned passage expresses an understanding of natural law whereby, via a form of ethical biomimesis, humanity can grow closer to the Divine.

As Tollefsen observes, “In this way the logoi are logoi of providence as well, and as such they become logoi of judgement when creatures move in relation to them…” (Tollefsen 2008, 81). Tollefsen’s observation that the logoi can be logoi of judgement implies the notion that in some way the natural world renders judgement regarding the ways in which living beings act within it and that in order to live the good life humans ought to understand the natural world as a means of understanding how to live well and fulfill humanity’s purpose in the created world. Maximus argues that if we do not recognize the value of learning about the Divine from the natural world and instead remain willfully ignorant, we will become vicious as a result of allowing ourselves to be guided by pathological ideals and goals that are a result of a deluded understanding of who we are as anthropoi.

Especially in the last two hundred years, humanity has been perpetuating destructive violence toward the natural world and ourselves as we continue upon a path of ‘progress’ that is markedly avaricious, conceited, gluttonous and harmful to our physical and psychological well-being on a variety of levels. The majority of climate scientists maintain that our current ecological crisis is the result of humanity’s actions. And many Christian eco-theologians would argue that this is the result of our anthropocentric self-conceit as a species. As humanity has sought to dominate, subdue, tame and control the ‘wild’ natural world, we have glorified ourselves to the point where we not only behave in ways that harm nature but which also harm humanity.

Maximus held a deeply ecological understanding of moral epistemology and natural law, writing:

Creation is the accuser of the ungodly. For through its inherent spiritual principles creation proclaims its Creator; and through the natural laws intrinsic to each individual species it instructs us in virtue. The spiritual principles may be recognized in the unremitting continuance of each individual species, the laws in the consistency of its natural activity. If we do not ponder on these things, we remain ignorant of the cause of created being and we cling to all the passions which are contrary to nature. (Maximus 1995, 211)

This passage is rife with insights and ideas that have gone unheeded in both the East and the West for centuries. First, Maximus claims that “Creation is the accuser of the ungodly.” This is a very powerful claim for it can be used in attempts to dislodge dualistic conceptions of self in which moral judgement can, or will, only occur in some sort of ‘supernatural’ afterlife and opens the possibility that judgement for our sins can also occur within the natural realm of Creation. On such a reading, the natural world is capable of ‘accusing’ us, possibly through the planet’s physical, and hence “natural” (physis), reactions to humanity’s current and historical actions and ways of life. Some may question “how, if along with humanity, the natural world is in a fallen state can it render judgement upon humanity?” To briefly respond to such a concern, first, it is humanity’s sin (amartia) that brings Creation down, so to speak, to a fallen state and hence, one could argue that by observing nature we can become aware of the ways in which humanity causes harm to the natural world as well as itself, and in this sense the state of the natural world brings to light the ways in which our actions and behaviors have been sinful and vicious rather than godly and virtuous, revealing to humanity a form of Divine judgment through natural Creation via the logoi that inhere within nature. Secondly, despite the fact that, along with humanity, Creation may indeed be fallen, this does not necessarily imply that the natural world is sinful — as humanity is and can be due to its freedom of will. When conceptualized as amartia, sinning means “to miss the mark,” and it is only humanity, as bearer of free will, that can misunderstand its purpose — which is at least in part to seek to restore and protect the natural world as a means of partaking in the Divine processes of life’s continual renewal and regeneration — and thereby misuse the natural world for vicious ends and aims when we avariciously exploit and selfishly dominate nature causing its destruction rather than contributing to its rejuvenation. 

Expressing ideas that could have been uttered by a contemporary eco-theologian, Maximus councils his readers not to “misuse God’s creation in order to indulge the passions,” and claims that those who do misuse the natural created order have misunderstood what it means to have wisdom, writing: “They do not understand the principle of that wisdom which is revealed to all: that we should know and praise God through His creation and that by means of the visible world we should understand whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going” (Maximus 1995, 147).

Suggesting that Maximus’ understanding of nature is convergent with, or implies some form of, biomimicry, Elizabeth Theokritoff writes,

The awareness that we inhabit a meaning-filled world intended to serve as our teacher and guide rather than a pool of natural resources, is itself a powerful incentive to treat it ‘reasonably’ and with restraint. Such a reading of the world may also color our response to environmental problems. Consider the approach today called: ‘biomimicry,’ which is described as taking ‘nature as a mentor: based not on what we can extract from nature but on what we can learn from it” (Benyus, 1997). We should note that this does not involve only technologies that are sustainable, but also a process of ‘quieting’ and ‘listening’ before ‘echoing’ Nature in our actions…Using the world about us in a way that is synergistic rather than confrontational points us toward the intended synergy of humanity and the visible Creation…. (Theokritoff 2017, 232)

Reflecting on Theokritoff’s passage, one might suggest that Maximus’ views may be interpreted as a form of ethical biomimesis, whereby humans can learn how to achieve a mode of living in accordance with nature through the empirical study, spiritual contemplation, and social imitation of nature. For Maximus, humans are to live in accordance with nature and in order to do so, humans must acquire an understanding of the logoi, or the spiritual principles that inhere within, and which order, the natural world. Maximus speaks of the need for humans to engage in: practical philosophy, natural contemplation, and mystical theology.

 We may think of practical philosophy as ethical and socio-political philosophy; natural philosophy as scientific studies coupled with metaphysical and ontological inquiry; and mystical theology as an apophatic and experiential contemplative endeavor. Maximus writes, “The function of natural contemplation is to initiate the intellect into the true knowledge that is found in created things and according to which they possess existence” (Maximus 1995, 283). In our contemporary understanding of natural contemplation, we may venture to argue that humans must not only study nature scientifically (empirically) but also engage in a deeper reflection on the ethical and psycho-social meaning of what has been discovered. In this way we may come to view empirical knowledge as a preamble for cultivating a deeper onto-metaphysical comprehension of ecological and cosmic existence; which in turn helps to cultivate a proper practical philosophy, whereby we derive insights into the nature of virtue from our understanding of the natural world. In Maximus, we find theological foundations for a more biomimetic approach to natural law, and in it a way to envision a more ecological approach to natural law theorizing.

Discussing the philosophical foundations of Benyus’ work on biomimicry, Henry Dicks claims that the philosophical foundations of biomimicry rest on three principles: (1) Nature is a model for humans to imitate; (2) Nature is a measure by which humans ought to make moral judgements; and (3) Nature is a mentor from which humanity can learn (Dicks 2016, 224). Reflecting on the history of Western philosophical thought since the time of the ancient Greeks, including the Medieval Latin Christian tradition, the modern humanist paradigm, and even postmodernist thought, Dicks accuses all of the latter three of having reduced the idea of logos to rationality. This leads Dicks to claim that the philosophy of biomimicry is “radically distinct” from all three of these trajectories of thought in that, unlike all of these intellectual traditions, biomimicry holds a far more robust view of logos. While Dicks’ critique that the Western intellectual tradition is guilty of holding a reductionistic view of logos is largely correct, it does not apply to Maximus’ work. As mentioned previously, what we find in Maximus’ writings is a worldview in which Logos-logoi permeates the entirety of physis (or nature) and hence, an understanding of logos that avoids some of the anthropocentric and rationalistic pitfalls of the traditions of thought that Dicks mentions. Maximus’ view can be used to develop a much more holistic understanding of the concept of logos (as logos-logoi) that can serve as the basis of a deeply eco-theological form of ethical biomimesis for the Christian tradition.

 Dicks argues that three principles of biomimicry may be understood as: (1) the Poetic; (2) the Ethical and (3) the Epistemological (Dicks 2016, 223). Yet, he contends that on their own, these three principles do not answer the question of what nature is. In his attempt to answer this question, Dicks proposes that understanding Nature as physis may serve as the ontological principle of biomimicry (Dicks 2016, 223-243); a suggestion that resembles Maximus’ view of Nature. Where Dicks diverges from Maximus is in his suggestion that Nature as physis implies that Nature is autopoietic, or self-producing, which for Maximus is the work of the divine pneuma operative in Creation. However, the notion of autopoiesis is not necessarily contradictory to a panentheistic understanding of Creation, such as Maximus’.  Inspired by Maximus’ work, and writing from a contemporary Orthodox Christian perspective, Nikos Nissiotis claims:

Nature, regarded as creation, ktisis, is presented in Scripture as an organism undergoing renewal. This is a consequence of the basic thesis that all things have been created through the Word of God, and hence all things are subject to His work of renewal through the Holy Spirit…Creation in this case, that is nature as matter, is presented as a living organism that develops and is renewed together with man through His genuine re-creative cooperation in the creative work of God.  (Nissiotis 2013, 201)

Hence, while not all advocates of autopoiesis may endorse the idea that the natural world is divinely created, in and of itself the idea of autopoiesis does not inherently contradict either: (a) the idea of Creation as ktisis which, as Nissiotis claims, implies that the natural world is a living organism or, (b) the notion that divine energies permeate existence. This is so insofar as autopoiesis may be understood as the ability for self-reproducing, or self-regenerating — and hence, does not necessarily imply that natural beings engage in ‘self-creation’ (autoktisis) ex nihilo but rather that living organisms and abiotic biospheric processes are ‘self-making’ in the sense that they are self-regulating and self-regenerating beings and entities. If autopoiesis is understood as self-regeneration, this idea can be perfectly compatible with the belief that Nature is the Creation (Ktisis) of the Divine and that it is the Divine logoi, vivifying and ordering the natural world, that imbue them with the capacity for such self-regeneration and self-regulation.

 Building upon, yet going beyond, Benyus’ work, Dicks proposes the addition of a fourth principle to the philosophical foundations of biomimicry, namely: physis. His list of principles, and corresponding philosophical categories to which they belong, is as follows: (1) Nature as Physis (the Ontological principle); (2) Nature as Model (the Poetic principle); (3) Nature as Measure (the Ethical principle) and (4) Nature as Mentor (the Epistemological principle) (Dicks 2016, 225). These four principles are largely compatible with Maximus’ version of natural law and the deeply ecological moral epistemology embodied within his doctrine of the logoi. In addition to Dicks’ list, the Christian theologian could add: (5) Nature as ktisis, as the Metaphysical principle. Dicks’ concern with the importance of understanding nature as physis is conducive with many of the views expressed by Maximus and hence, may help serve as a stepping-stone for imagining a more eco-theological approach to ethics through a biomimetic understanding of natural law. In short, developing a biomimetic approach to natural law could simultaneously be novel, and compatible with contemporary science, while still being deeply rooted in the Patristic Christian tradition.

 At this junction some may worry that proposing a form of ethical biomimesis runs the risk of committing what the philosopher G.E. Moore referred to as the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the idea that we can derive an ought from what naturally is (Moore 1903). To assuage such concerns I would like to make a few points. It must be made clear that the type of ethical biomimesis that is being proposed does not claim that any, or every, particular natural phenomenon that does exist ought to be imitated in human moral life. In the theistic form of ethical biomimesis that I am suggesting can be developed from Maximus’ thought, the wisdom (sophia) that one ultimately discerns through the study of Nature as physis is to be found in the Divine logoi inherent within, and which guide and order, the natural world and hence, that which an eco-theological form of ethical biomimesis is suggesting is that human ethical inquiry be informed by the Divine wisdom disclosed to humanity through the proper study and contemplation of the Natural world.

Further, the type of ethical paradigm that Maximus adheres to is a teleological virtue-based approach to moral life that does not view ontology and ethics as completely separate domains of inquiry. Within a teleological virtue-based approach to ethics, all human moral considerations and ethical reflection occur within a set of circumstances so that to postulate ethical norms without first coming to an understanding of the nature of the circumstances and the beings within it would be to act imprudently for it would presuppose that who and what we are as beings living in a living natural environment has nothing to do with how we ought to live. The assertion that ‘to derive normative ideas from an analysis of what is natural is a fallacy’ is predicated upon a form of philosophical non-naturalism that creates an unbridgeable chasm between the descriptive and the normative; and, which epistemologically separates the ontological and the ethical domains of human knowledge. The rationalistic tendency of this philosophical tradition to restrict normative statements to logical abstractions is to reduce ethics to a subfield of logic and thereby robs ethical inquiry of its ability to provide us with guidance on how we ought to live in light of what the good life, or a life lived well, actually is. That which ethical biomimesis is suggesting is a more holistic and integrated paradigm in which Nature as physis is not simply reduced to a set of ‘static’ or ‘objective’ ‘facts’ or ‘data’ but a paradigm in which Nature is seen as living and dynamic and hence, the move from naturalness to normativity might not be a logical necessity per se, but may be considered wise if one’s goal is to live-well in light of who we are.

4. Conclusion

Ultimately, Maximus adopts, adapts and Christianizes the Stoic idea that humans ought to live ‘in-accordance-with-nature’ as a means of abiding by the will of God, in such a manner that humanity’s sense perception may actually serve as a means of understanding precisely what the nature of these natural laws are. Maximus’ ontological understanding of the natural world is not only permeated by logoi, but is essentially defined by the relations between the Logos and logoi as well as the logoi with one another. This could provide an opening for dialogue between Christian theology and the emerging field of biomimicry — and all of the fields of science in its purview, including ecology and biology, amongst many others. If we are to re-interpret and re-apply Maximus’ thought within a contemporary paradigm, we could imagine a model in which humanity’s comprehension of its own purpose, the meaning of the natural order, and of the Divine are understood holistically within a framework whereby our capacities for empirical observation, rational cognition and spiritual discernment, converge to provide a more robust epistemological paradigm in which scientific, theological and ethical wisdom are not seen as self-sufficient and stratified disciplines but which converge and inform one another.      

By studying different modes of flourishing found within ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole we can learn a host of principles that can be used for constructing a social system that is not only more ecologically sustainable but which also might provide moral insight for how humans ought to live in a manner in which we and our habitat can flourish.  As persons we are capable of recognizing the beauty, value and goodness inherent in nature; human persons are capable of perceiving τον Καλον — in the fullest sense of the term, which implies both Goodness and Beauty. Once we genuinely recognize our relational interdependent existence with the natural world we may then begin to cultivate an authentic sense of union with other biologically manifested forms of life as well as the humility required to recognize that we may actually have something to learn about living the good life, or living-well, from the natural world. 


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Tollefsen, Torstein. 2008. The Christocentric Cosmology of Saint Maximus the Confessor. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Cite this article

Durante, Chris. 2022. “Is Maximus Confessor’s Doctrine of the Logoi of Creation Compatible with the Emerging Field of Biomimicry?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 8).

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Chris Durante
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