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Between Beasts and God


Gilbert Meilaender


Near the beginning of the twenty–fourth and last Book of Homer’s Iliad, called by Simone Weil "the only true epic" the West possesses, even the gods—detached as they are in their bliss from all suffering—have seen enough. Achilles has become inhuman. Ignoring our animal nature, our kinship with the beasts, he neither eats nor sleeps. Indeed, since the death of his friend and comrade Patroclus the only food he wants is slaughter of the Trojans. "You talk of food?" he says to Agamemnon, who has argued that the Greek warriors must eat before they return to battle,

I have no taste for food—what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!

He has vowed, indeed, to throw twelve young Trojan warriors on the funeral pyre he will build for Patroclus—a human sacrifice to the memory of his friend. And, of course, he continues to tie the corpse of Hector to his chariot and drag it three times daily round dead Patroclus.

Achilles is inhuman. He cannot acknowledge the limits of bodily life—in particular, our mortality. He cannot acknowledge that we are less than immortal gods—and that, therefore, our actions must have limits and our lives must recognize bonds of human community across the generations. Another human being, a fellow human being, does not impose upon Achilles what Weil called "that interval of hesitation" before one who is our equal in dignity. Brilliant, proud, godlike Achilles . . . is not a man. Acknowledging no limits, acting as if he were himself more than human, he becomes in Homer’s characterizations less than human—"like some lion, going his own barbaric way," "like inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges / splinter–dry."

Apollo makes the case for putting an end to what is happening. "Achilles has lost all pity! No shame in the man." With the help of Zeus, Priam, the aged Trojan King, comes to Achilles’ tent to plead for the return of the body of his son, Hector. In one of the most famous scenes in the history of our culture, Priam puts to his lips "the hands of the man who killed my son" and reminds Achilles of the bond between the generations. "Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles."

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand
he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory
both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely
for man–killing Hector, throbbing, crouching
before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself,
now for his father, now for Patroclus once again,
and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.

The gods may live free of such sorrows, Achilles tells Priam, but "we wretched men / live on to bear such torments." The fact of human mortality undergirds the bond of human community. One generation dies that another may succeed it, though not without a sense of loss and sorrow. To be human is to be born of human parents, to have a place in the affective tie that binds together the generations of humankind.

"So come," Achilles says to Priam, "we too, old king, must think of food." Acknowledging once again his own place within society and the limits of his mortal flesh, he eats, sleeps, and takes Briseis, now restored to him, to his bed. Commenting on the poem, Bernard Knox notes that now at last Achilles occupies "man’s central position between beast and god." He is no longer "godlike" Achilles, nor "some lion, going his own barbaric way." And precisely in being neither, his true humanity—in all its nobility, dignity, and pathos—is displayed.

Likewise, at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, as the representative Israelite and therefore representative man, is depicted precisely as one who in his humanity stands between the beasts and God. Having been baptized by John and declared the beloved Son of God, Jesus is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan—the beginning of his great battle with Satan recorded in the Gospel. And, St. Mark writes, "he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him." The beasts may be mentioned simply to accentuate the loneliness of the desert as a place of testing and struggle, but more probably, as D. E. Nineham suggests, "they are thought of as subject and friendly to" Jesus, and, hence, "the passage should be understood against the background of the common Jewish idea that the beasts are subject to the righteous man." Cared for by the angelic servants of God, Jesus simultaneously exercises Adam’s dominion over the animals. He stands where one who is truly human ought to stand—between the beasts and God. He occupies an "in–between."

The story of this true man culminates in a resurrection of the body—that is, in a vindication of the creation. It teaches us to honor the trajectory of human bodily life from birth to death—from the dependence that marks our birth to the dependence that marks our aging and dying. We are mortals, not immortals. But we are mortals whose special place in creation—and whose longing for something more than this life alone can give—has been vindicated by the triumph of Christ. We must learn to honor this bodily life without asking of it more than it can be or offer.

If this is what it means to be human, it may be no surprise that bioethics—concerned as it is with Bios—should, especially at its most philosophical, focus so much attention on the beginning and end of life, on birth and death. For they are connected more profoundly than as simply the beginning and the end points of a life. To give birth to one like oneself, out of the very substance of one’s being, is, even if only unwittingly, to nod in the direction of our mortality. Anyone who has had a child will recall how the experience of becoming a parent immediately gives one a different perspective on one’s own parents. We stand in a line of succession. We give birth to those who take our place, even though they do not precisely replace us.

If we stand between the beasts and God, we occupy a distinct place within the creation—a place that is passed on from parents to children in the act of begetting. One can deny this, of course, though not without paying a certain moral cost. Thus, for example, in his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau allows himself to speculate about whether the orangutan might be "a variety of man." We lack sufficient knowledge to decide, he says. "There would, however, be a method by which, if the orangutan and others were of the human species, the crudest observers could assure themselves of it even by demonstration; but since a single generation would not suffice for this experiment, it must be considered impracticable, because it would be necessary for what is only an hypothesis to be already proved true before the experiment that was to prove it true could be tried innocently." Rousseau means, of course, that if human beings and orangutans could successfully interbreed, it would be demonstrated that they were of the same species. And we may suspect that Rousseau’s claim that the experiment could not be "tried innocently" unless it were known in advance that orangutans were themselves human may be less sincere than his playful willingness to contemplate—in the name, of course, of research—acts of bestiality that would deny any distinct place in the creation to humanity.

It should not really surprise us that Rousseau might toy with such possibilities. In his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, though doubting whether true happiness is attainable, he describes his notion of the kind of happiness appropriate to a human being as follows:

But if there is a state in which the soul finds a solid enough base to rest itself on entirely and to gather its whole being into, without needing to recall the past or encroach upon the future; in which time is nothing for it; in which the present lasts forever without, however, making its duration noticed and without any trace of time’s passage; without any other sentiment . . . except that of our existence, and having this sentiment alone fill it completely; as long as this state lasts, he who finds himself in it can call himself happy . . . with a sufficient, perfect, and full happiness which leaves the soul no emptiness it might feel a need to fill. . . . What do we enjoy in such a situation? Nothing external to ourselves, nothing if not ourselves and our own existence. As long as this state lasts, we are sufficient unto ourselves, like God.

He wants to be godlike. Desiring that, he is bound to lose the sense of our humanity—that "in–between" place that distinguishes us not only from God but also from the beasts. Desiring to be like God, he can contemplate the possibility that he might be a fit mate for an orangutan.

In our own time, as we have come to think of ourselves more and more in terms of will and choice, Hobbes’ "masterless men," we have transformed the meaning of birth. The bodily act of begetting, by which parents transmit their humanity to their children, can become an act of technical mastery over that part of nature which happens to be the human body. Here I do not bother to note the various ways in which we do this. Article after article tells the story. Nor will I give heed here to ways in which new reproductive technologies—or, should the day come, cloning—can subvert the meaning of parenthood. I will look from the other side—at what it means to be a child who is a product rather than a gift. Compare two rather different ways of picturing what it means to have a child.

We might—indeed, we have increasingly come to—picture it this way: because having children is something people want for their life to be full and complete, because having children is an important project for so many people, we ought to use our technical skills to help them achieve what they desire—a child, and, quite possibly, a child of a certain sort. Indeed, having children—and, perhaps, children of a certain sort—is an entitlement to which there can be few limits. If the suffering and disappointment that infertility brings can be relieved, if people who desire a child can live more fulfilled lives by achieving that aim, then reproductive technologies are a good thing. We rightly use our technical mastery to augment human happiness by satisfying our individual projects, our desire for a child "of one’s own." A story line of that sort increasingly dominates our thinking.

But compare that approach now to a rather different image of the child that emerges in Galway Kinnell’s poem "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps."

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come–cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies, familiar touch of the long–married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder about the mental capacity of baseball players—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other and smile
and touch arms across his little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making, sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

This is a child who is not "his own," or "her own," or even (what is a little closer to the truth) "their own." We are pressed almost to eliminate that little word "own." This child is no one’s product or project, but a gift received, a blessing love gives into our arms.

In the passion of sexual love a man and woman step out of themselves and give themselves to each other. Hence, we speak of sexual ecstasy—a word that means precisely standing outside oneself, outside one’s own will and purpose. No matter how much they may desire a child as the fruit of their love, in the act of love itself they must set aside all such projects and desires. They are not any longer making a baby of their own. They are giving themselves in love. And the child, if a child is conceived, is not then the product of their willed creation. The child is a gift and a mystery, springing from their embrace, a blessing love gives into their arms.

This makes a difference in how we understand the meaning of children. A product that we make to satisfy our own aims and projects is one whom we control—and, indeed, over whom we increasingly exercise "quality" control. A gift who springs from our embrace is one whom we can only welcome as our equal. We are not divine makers, but human begetters. And the child is not the product of our will, of any quasi–divine fiat, but, simply, one of us, who takes his or her place in the community of human generations.

Being of our being, these children are mortal. So ineluctably we find ourselves forced to think not only of birth but also of death. Here too the often admirable urge to do good all too easily becomes a desire for mastery without limits.

More than thirty years ago Paul Ramsey wrote chapter three of his Patient as Person. That chapter, titled "On (Only) Caring for the Dying," remains one of the classic essays in bioethics. Thinking self–consciously from within a Christian perspective, Ramsey noted how our desire to master death can turn in two, seemingly quite opposite, directions. We may strive to extend life as long as possible, or we may decide to aim at death when the game no longer seems worth the candle. Seemingly opposite, these two tendencies within our culture both have their root in that same fundamental desire to be master of death. We will hold it at bay as long as we can, and we will embrace it when that seems to be the only way left to assert our mastery. Neither way acknowledges the peculiarly "in–between" place that human beings occupy in the creation.

"A living dog is better than a dead lion," says Koheleth, as if the nobility of human life were to lie only in its duration. When our goal is simply to ward off death, to stay alive as long as possible, we miss an essential element in our humanity—the trajectory of bodily life that begins in dependence and moves, at the end, once again toward dependence and death. We miss our mortality. Perhaps more important still, we misdirect the longing buried at the heart of human existence.

Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine wrote, until they rest in God. That is, what the human heart desires is not, simply, more years. That offers quantity and continuance—which is more of the same—when what we desire is something qualitatively different. "Whatever has undergone no change certainly has continuance," Kierkegaard writes, "but it does not have continuity; insofar as it has continuance, it exists, but insofar as it has not won enduring continuity amid change, it cannot become contemporaneous with itself and is either happily unconscious of this misalignment or is disposed to sorrow. Only the eternal can be and become and remain contemporaneous with every age." Even were we to master aging and dying, we would not have achieved the heart’s desire; for the longing for God is not a longing for more of the same, more of this life. Were we simply another animal, our good might lie in warding off death and preserving bodily life. But we are not—and it does not. Standing between the beasts and God, our being opens us to God. The deepest chasm in our being is our need, not for more years, but for God.

Neither, however, should we embrace death—aim at it for ourselves or others—as if it were an unqualified good. "Whose life is it anyway?" I may ask. "Have I not been making decisions about this life of mine for years now? Should I not be free to end it if I wish?" Such questions come quite naturally to us, but to give them moral standing is to live a lie. We are earthly, mortal creatures whose being is, nonetheless, open to God. We are not just animals—for we are open to God. We are not gods—for we are open to God. Indeed, we are never quite the independent individuals we like to think we are, as the umbilical cord ought to remind us, and we deceive ourselves if we suppose that freedom is the sole truth of human existence. If we begin with the story of our creation, we have to say that the author of our being has authority over us. If we begin with the story of our reconciliation and say "Jesus is Lord," we have to say with St. Paul: "You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." In either case, the project of mastering death—of aiming at it for ourselves or others—is a delusion, embracing as a good what should be, simply, undergone. Edgar, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, gets the attitude about right:

Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.

Here again, the temptation to be more than human may leave us less than human. Taking control of dying, taking aim at life, through practices such as euthanasia or assisted suicide, invites us to ignore our shared humanity. Not all born of human parents, not all who share in the bond of human generations over time, will seem equal in dignity—if and when those practices become accepted among us. To be equal in dignity it will then not suffice to be a member of the human community; it will be necessary to exercise those capacities of reason and will that make mastery possible. What seems at first like an expansion of our compassion—for those who lack these capacities—very quickly becomes a restriction of the scope of human community as they become candidates for elimination. From within the human community, the full number of those who occupy that "in–between" place, a great divide erupts. Some exercise godlike mastery, others (like the beasts) are put out of their misery.

To be human, then, is to learn to live and love within limits—the limits of our embodied, mortal life, the limits of those whose being opens to God. It is to acknowledge, honor, and esteem the particular place—between the beasts and God—that we occupy in the creation. One need not, however, contemplate for long the vision of humanity I have been developing before a certain problem inescapably arises. To accept—even affirm and honor—such limits in our coming hither and our going hence is to accept suffering we might possibly relieve. It is to admit that there is good we might in our freedom accomplish which we should not attempt, because what we do counts for even more than what we accomplish. "The Fates have given mortals hearts that can endure," Apollo says, addressing the gods to argue that Achilles’ inhumanity must be stopped. Achilles must somehow come to accept the meaning of mortal life, the limits that must be endured—not because we are unable to transcend them, but because we ought not. Can it be right to accept limits even on the good we might accomplish?

One response, of course, and it is a perfectly legitimate one, is to note that we may find other, morally acceptable ways to relieve suffering and do good. To the degree this is possible in any given instance, we have every reason to be glad and no reason to oppose it. But simply to take refuge in such hopes and possibilities is to make our life far too easy. We have to reckon with the fact that honoring the limits of our "in–between" condition may mean there is good which, in our freedom, we might accomplish but which we nevertheless decline to do. Can that possibly be reasonable?

Discussing some sermons of St. Augustine (first preached probably in the year 397 but newly discovered in only 1990), Peter Brown notes that Augustine was often required to preach at festivals of the martyrs. This was a time when the cult of the martyrs was of profound importance to the average Christian, for persecution was still a very recent memory. The martyrs were the great heroes, the "muscular athletes" and "triumphant stars" of the faith. But, Brown suggests, one can see Augustine quite deliberately making the feasts of the martyrs "less dramatic, so as to stress the daily drama of God’s workings in the heart of the average Christian." For that average believer did not doubt that God’s grace had been spectacularly displayed in the courage of the martyrs. What he was likely to doubt, however, was whether such heroism could possibly be displayed in his own less dramatic and more humdrum day–to–day existence. And so, Augustine points "away from the current popular ideology of the triumph of the martyrs to the smaller pains and triumphs of daily life."

An example of how he does this is quite instructive for our purposes. "God has many martyrs in secret," Augustine tells his hearers. "Some times you shiver with fever: you are fighting. You are in bed: it is you who are the athlete." Brown comments:

Exquisite pain accompanied much late–Roman medical treatment. Furthermore, everyone, Augustine included, believed that amulets provided by skilled magicians . . . did indeed protect the sufferer—but at the cost of relying on supernatural powers other than Christ alone. They worked. To neglect them was like neglecting any other form of medicine. But the Christian must not use them. Thus, for Augustine to liken a Christian sickbed to a scene of martyrdom was not a strained comparison.

Here is a vision of life—and a rather noble one at that—for which "minimize suffering" is not the only or the primary imperative. It directs our attention not just to what we do or accomplish, but also to the kind of people we are.

A number of years ago, the philosopher J. B. Schneewind wrote an article with the seemingly puzzling title, "The Divine Corporation and the History of Ethics." In it he sketched a way of understanding an ethic—the traditional, received Christian ethic—in which one’s moral responsibilities are always limited. To be sure, Schneewind did this in part for the sake of explaining how modern moral philosophy had developed by turning away from that received ethic. But to understand it is to comprehend something of the vision of our humanity I have been unfolding.

Think of our world as a cooperative endeavor created, ordered, and governed by God. In it, as in any cooperative endeavor, participants play their roles, carry out the tasks assigned them, and in so doing join together to produce a good which none of them could have produced alone. No one participant is responsible for achieving the good of the whole or the best overall good possible; yet, the work of each is ordered toward that good. Sometimes individual agents will see more or less clearly how their tasks are related to the overall good, and in such cases they will need to take that into account and could perhaps be criticized if they simply ignored the general good while noting that they had fulfilled their assigned task. At such moments they need to act creatively in ways that are not simply given in any role.

There may be other times, however, when an individual cannot really see the larger good his assigned duty serves. In such cases, he cannot be criticized for ignoring the larger good while "minding his own business," for he simply doesn’t know that larger good. We can imagine a world in which the overall good is very important but also very complex, far too complex for any individual agent always to be sure of how his work contributes to achieving it. And we can also imagine that the supervisor in charge of this supremely important but very complex project is able to foresee problems and deal with emergencies, is fair in his supervision, and is good—"too good ever to assign any duties that would be improper from any point of view." That world, imagined as a cooperative endeavor with God as that uniquely qualified supervisor, is the Divine Corporation.

Changing from a workplace metaphor to a more literary one, we might think of these agents as characters in a play. They know the part given them, and each must play it in his own way. But none of them is the dramatist or director, and none of them knows how the plot of the play is to be satisfactorily worked out. This is our situation. We are not the author but characters in the story—under authority. C. S. Lewis put the metaphor this way:

We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. . . . That it has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely.

Whichever metaphor we prefer, it is clear that if God recedes as a governing, directing, authorial presence whose responsibility it is to see to the good of the whole or work out the plot of the play, then human responsibility correspondingly increases and intensifies. That, as Schneewind suggests, is the story of modern moral philosophy. It is common, and for certain purposes quite helpful, to contrast the approaches of Bentham and Kant, to see in them the two quite different normative paths—consequentialist and deontological—modern moral philosophy has taken. But in another way, seen against the background of the Divine Corporation, they are quite similar. Lacking either Nature or Nature’s God to supervise and direct that Divine Corporation, our moral responsibility increases. It becomes our task to determine and achieve the overall good or to find principles of action that can be willed universally.

Suppose a child is born with severe physical or mental defects. Suppose someone suffers greatly while dying. Who bears responsibility for that? Who must somehow make it good? In something like the Divine Corporation model God is finally responsible. Hence, we have centuries of reflection on theodicy. But if God, that uniquely qualified supervisor, is eliminated from the picture, either no one is to blame or we are. Either no author is at work bringing the plot of this story to a satisfactory conclusion, or we will have to sit down at the word processor and assume that divine authorial responsibility. There is no need for theodicy any longer, as if we needed assurance that God would work things out. The need, rather, is that we should see ourselves as responsible for making things work out. And so, we are tempted to step out of our "in–between" place, to forget that as we seek to be more than human we may become less than human.

We can see a practical illustration of this if we consider the widespread—indeed, now almost routine—practice of prenatal screening of infants in the womb. Suppose we decline to screen and a child is born with defects. And suppose we no longer can say with the psalmist, "Return, O Lord! How long? / Have pity on thy servants!" If we are not simply cooperators in and with a power greater than our own, we are the lifegivers, who bear responsibility for the quality of the life we give. If we merely cooperate with a power greater than our own, our task is to benefit as best we can the life this child has. When we become the lifegivers, we may be asked to decide whether it is a benefit to have such a life.

Reaching that high, we may fall into a state less than human. For in accepting such responsibility for the next generation, in allowing ourselves even to suppose that it could be a fitting role for human beings, we lose the fundamental human capacity to love—to say to our children, to the next generation, "It’s good that you exist." And once again, instead of equal human dignity for all born of human parents, we will see a fundamental divide erupt among us: some will bear a quasi–divine responsibility. Others, whose lives do not meet our standards, will be put out of their misery. Better perhaps to learn to affirm and honor our peculiar place between the beasts and God.

In accepting our limits, we accept the fact that there may be suffering which could be relieved but ought not. Ought not because there is no right way, no fittingly human way, to do so. This does not mean, however, that those who suffer do so alone. Quite the contrary. Oliver O’Donovan, noting how suffering has become almost unintelligible for us, has helpfully distinguished between compassion and sympathy. "Sympathy is the readiness to suffer with others and enter into the dark world of their griefs. Compassion is the determination to oppose suffering; it functions at arm’s length, basing itself on the rejection of suffering rather than the acceptance of it." Since we cannot imagine suffering as our own willed project, and since we have come to suppose that all moral order has its ground in our will, suffering must, by definition, be morally unintelligible. We can interpret it only as a defeat, though we may live to fight another day.

For Christians, the ills to which this mortal human life is subject, the sufferings we bear, are, as William F. May has put it, "real, but not ultimate." They are real, sometimes terrible, and we must oppose them as best we can within the limits appropriate to creatures such as we are. But we cannot possibly take their measure rightly if, as May puts it, we "cannot believe that the decisive powers in the universe could possibly do anything worthwhile in and through the suffering" we and others undergo. However deep and profound our suffering, "the Fates have given mortals hearts that can endure." That is, though suffering and dying are a great crisis of this bodily life, the very deepest problem is the isolation and abandonment they seem to bring. Hence, if we are to endure, we need from others not just compassion but sympathy—that readiness to "enter into the dark world" of the sufferer. And if we are to make sense of our humanity, of the heavy yet limited responsibility we bear, the Divine Corporation will need more than just a uniquely qualified supervisor. That supervisor might be capable of compassion, but we will need sympathy.

When, in that most famous of scenes, Priam comes to Achilles in his tent and they give way to their common grief, Achilles says:

Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.

But perhaps those are not the gods we need if we are to be fully human, for, living free of sorrows, they do not promise true sympathy. This is most strikingly apparent when Hector confronts Achilles, terrible in his power and anger, and Athena comes to Hector in the guise of his brother Deiphobus, promising to help him in the fight. "Come, let us stand our ground together—beat him back."

"Deiphobus!"—Hector, his helmet flashing, called out to her—
"dearest of all my brothers, all these warring years,
of all the sons that Priam and Hecuba produced!
Now I’m determined to praise you all the more,
you who dared—seeing me in these straits—
to venture out from the walls, all for my sake,
while the others stay inside and cling to safety."

Hector hurls his spear, but it glances off Achilles’ shield.

He stood there, cast down . . .
he had no spear in reserve. So Hector shouted out
to Deiphobus bearing his white shield—with a ringing shout
he called for a heavy lance—
but the man was nowhere near him,
yes and Hector knew the truth in his heart.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus—
he’s safe inside the walls. . . .

Rather different is the picture we find in Mark’s Gospel. In that story, it is not too strong to say that God dies outside the walls of the city, sharing the mortality that marks human life. It is of the dead man on the cross that the centurion says, in the Gospel’s climactic statement: "Truly this man was the Son of God." This God does not live free of sorrows. He accepts the mortality that marks our own "in–between" place—and is therefore also one of us. In a world governed by such a God, we can find and accept our place, we can live out the role given us in faith and hope. We can, that is, ourselves become fully human.




Gilbert Meilaender holds the Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.





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