Monday, August 06, 2012

Putting the "Is" back in "Is"

So I'll try to invite a conversation (if only this topic could attract as many readers as a post on Chick-fil-a). Earlier today I posted this status update on Facebook, 

The Spirit is being-as-possibility in its non-subsistent isomorphic ipseity. Precisely in this way is the Father freed to be the Father, the Son to be the Son, and all three themselves in their mutually coinhering circulation around the neighborhood.

Typically in Western theology, the Spirit ends up being the shared love of the Father and the Son. So the Father and the Son are "subsistent" beings, clearly identifiable as persons because of their antecedent narratives, where as the Spirit is the love between them. 

This is helpful as far as it goes, but it risks leaving little "there" there for who the Spirit actually is as a full person in the life of the Trinity.

The question is, "Where does the Spirit 'stand' to be him or herself over against the Father and the Son?" One of the best, but in my estimation, still insufficient responses, is that the Spirit is God's own liberative future.

In the East, on the other hand, the Spirit is really more independent as a person (no filioque, for example), but then all the processional and monarchical language of that tradition ends up making all three members of the Trinity more static even than in the West, since the Spirit is in a sense less free to set the other two members of the Trinity free in their particularity because the ontology in the east is more being as persistence rather than being as possibility.

Theologians wrestling with this have thus tried to find a way to speak of the Spirit as God's divine future, thus grounding the Spirit not in a developmental past but an anticipated future. And the "isomorphic" aspect of the Spirit is that it puts the "is" back in "is."

How do you in your own reflections wrestle with this?

35 comments:

  1. Clint,

    I love trinity talk, and I've written about it quite a bit over on my blog. I hate it when I take up vast amounts of space so instead I invite you to read my thoughts here:

    http://kittyaloneandi.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/green-beer-shamrock-shakes-and-the-holy-trinity/

    and here:

    http://kittyaloneandi.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/holy-holy-holy/

    Perhaps this is rather simplistic, but essentially it comes down to the Athenatian Creed for me.

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  2. I've really grown to dislike what I see as the instrumentalization of the Spirit in the Western tradition. And I think you may be right about the connection to the filioque, though I've never seen any reason why the filioque should imply anything about the subordinate personhood of the Spirit. I much prefer the filioque with the full equal person of the Spirit.

    My guess on this issue is that it has much to do with the fact that the Trinitarian disputes that gave rise to the conciliar definitions were really about the monarchy of the Father. Augustine is highly influential, but his emphasis on the Father and Son against the Arians et al is stuck on the "fact" that God is naturally Father, and only secondarily Son. We take the "Father" and "Son" language so high up into the deity, as a result of affirming that the Son is equal and of one being with the Father, that the "Father and Son" relationship now leaves no room for the Spirit. So Augustine does his level best to wedge the third person into a binary system, having so thoroughly defended the perfectly-balanced binary that he can't leave it. And then he comes up with analogies, the vestigia, that cement the problem in place. All because he can't refuse the ontological implications of Father and Son as language—because he cannot read scripture as a Jew.

    For me, the whole problem is a result of the fact that Judaism spread to the gentiles, and spread so well that it became Christianity among gentiles who had absolutely no connection the the Judeans. So you have, essentially, pagan Christians ignorant of the Judean conceptual language of scripture, stuck figuring out for themselves something that was never a problem for the Judean authors of the NT. "Father" has always been economic language used for God, and never without the fact that it is YHWH who is "father" by virtue of promise and fidelity. It takes a pagan to get the idea precisely backwards, and think that it is the Father who is "YHWH"! When, instead of God being Father and becoming Son in transcendent fulfillment of the messianic language, Father and Son become God, we're not sure what to do with the Spirit, who is more basic than either of them.

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  3. "The Spirit is being-as-possibility in its non-subsistent isomorphic ipseity."

    The more I play with this language, the more I like it. I take you to mean that we have in the Trinity three isomorphic objects (persons). Which is mathematically preferable to calling them "equal" since mathematical equality implies identity, rather than what Williams calls "coinherence." It lets the Hellenistic meaning of logos come through, by which the logos theou is that coherent and self-consistent nature that God demonstrates, which makes God the particular being-in-action that God is. The isomorphism of the persons simply is the being of God—not reductively, but simply as a fact of what it means that these three persons are coequally and consubstantially one god without there being a fourth who is truly God beyond them, or one of them that is truly God in preference to the others, or that the three were parts in some way, without any of which the whole were incomplete. So the isomorphism describes the ipseity, the ipsum esse of God as known in the persons and as constitutive of the divinity of the persons. It could be thought of in terms of an ideal fractal isomorphism, a strong infinite self-similarity which is capable of appearing in difference without being essentially different from that ipseity that makes God, God.

    It's the non-subsistence that's the problem. Or, rather, it's the non-subsistence that gives us problems understanding the Spirit. And yet the non-subsistence is also the freedom of God. The freedom to be who God is and has been in the storied subsistence of Father and Son without being bound to do only what has been done historically. There is a sense in which your language of "non-subsistent isomorphic ipseity" places the Spirit closer to the root of the divine being and personality, which frees God to be hidden precisely in revelation, in those subsistent storied realities of Father and Son, and permits the becoming of the Father and the Son to be free in ways that it so rarely is in Trinitarian dialogue on the processions and missions.

    I can accept the Spirit as divine futurity in this way only if I also posit that the Spirit is not an economic becoming in itself. We have to avoid the temporal succession of Father --> Son --> Spirit, and with it the implication that the divine futurity might become an Nth subsistent thing. We must focus on the ipseity and the isomorphism, the character of God, more than on the subsistence in and under which it hides in self-revelation.

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  4. Wow, wow. In this case the comments are even better than the original post and probably should become the post itself. Thank you, Matthew.

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  5. Nah. The comments wouldn't be any good without the idea that starts them. And the idea is yours; I'm just sitting in with my own horn. :)

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  6. My head is spinning, but I think I follow what you all are saying. May I offer a few simple comments?

    Personally, I've understood the Spirit as the "doer" of the Trinity. Our faith is rooted in Christ who saves, but the Spirit plants that faith in our hearts. Of course the Father/creator connection sets up some of the hierarchical stuff you talk about, but scriptures clearly give the Spirit clout when the Trinity speaks through the spirit (as at Jesus' baptism) or moves men and women to action through its influence. For that matter, since Gen 1 says "God" created the heavens and the earth, could it not be possible that it was through the agency of the Holy Spirit, by the Father's design in the presence of the Son that the days unfolded? Particularly as we hear of God breathing over the waters--breath being so heavily tied to spirit.

    The Father, also, seems to have no locational properties except that he "walked" with Adam in the garden and covered Moses' eyes with the "back of his hand". Yet, these seem to be human description of indescribable encounters, much like the angel of death being depicted by DeMille as a green fog, or others depicting God's voice accompanied with a bolt of blinding light, even when the text doesn't indicate a light--just a voice.

    I'm not a linguist like the two of you, but my mind does like to wrap itself around the concept of the Trinity. Hopefully I haven't bored or erred too horribly in my ramblings.

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  7. I actually object to all this language - firstly because it takes metaphorical language and seeks to address the problematic points in the metaphor by wrangling not with Scripture but with the metaphorical expression chosen. Second, speaking of God using the words "being" and "person" as attributes of the divine, at the extremely abstracted level on which this post operates, is generally a bad move. Third, speaking of separate functions within the Trinity is heresy (and from where I sit comes dangerously close to Sabellianism). I think the problem here is mostly the result of treating a doctrinally approved idea as observed and objective reality. This is probably a problematic approach to Trinitarian theology.

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  8. Why does no one talk about the Athenation Creed when talking about the Trinity? Are you afraid of it? The creed is so clear on the matter of the trinity, yet everyone looks to outward heresys rather than our catholic traditions.

    Sad.

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  9. @Erich (kittyaloneandi), this is a teachable moment, but you're not helping to make it a nice one. I will be as pleasant as I can be after your dismissive, unsubstantiated insinuation of heresy, but you should know that that's never a way to get on a theologian's good side.

    If I never hear a layperson use that h-word again, especially out of simple discomfort with the feeling of possible novelty, it'll be too soon. You are, of course, allowed to play favorites within the tradition, as are we all. That's called having taste. But I feel quite comfortable saying that both Clint and I presuppose the Athanasian creed, at least as far as its insight on the nature of the Trinity. However, its clarity there is limited to a simple (though highly redundant, to be sure) assertion of the coequality, non-identity, and consubstantiality of the persons which refuses to permit the monarchy of any single person. It does a far better job of this than the conciliar tradition, but it is not terribly useful beyond its value as a safeguard. It is not, for example, a description. It is a necessary beginning, but it is not a sufficient ending to the discussion.

    Further, the Athanasian creed is not part of the conciliar tradition. It stands off to the side of the developments flowing from Nicaea through Chalcedon. And, in point of fact, it contradicts some of the tendencies of Nicene orthodoxy, where the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers didn't quite fight the assumption that God is basically Father thoroughly enough. For that, see my first comment. I very much like the idea of a balanced triad, and I prefer it to the efforts made to wedge a third person into a balanced dyad.

    If you pay attention, by which I mean reading broadly through the Fathers, you will quickly notice that the theology of the Trinity, even in "orthodox" and catholic traditions of both East and West, is quite plural. There are heresies ruled out, to be sure, but when I tell you that there is a difference of opinion between the conciliar Fathers and the Athanasian Creed, you have to also realize that that's just the tip of the iceberg. The conciliar Fathers were never of one voice across the board, and there are lots of pre-conciliar and non-conciliar Fathers.

    Both orthodoxy and catholicity are more complicated than you think. New language does not suffice to define departure from it. Please try to be more careful in the future, and more well-read, when labeling heresies. And when you do, know exactly why, and present arguments, not accusations or insinuations. Your first move should always be to correct a suspected heresy by arguing, and to be capable of being convinced yourself—not to label and cite your personal taste in opposition. Thank you in advance for your future contributions to the field.

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  10. Gary-Andrew and RevnPadre have done much better. Not dismissive, but rather inquisitive and argumentative, noting points at which they do not wholly understand and proceeding on what they do, and noting specific heretical possibilities of the arguments.

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    1. Matthew,

      There is a great Lutheran tradition that ELCA pastors rarely take advantage of: Admonition. I accept your admonishment, and ask the forgiveness of anyone whom I have unjustly accused.

      By way of a reason, not an excuse: I wrote too quickly, and out of years of frustration. The frustration comes from decades of pastors getting into their pulpits and proclaiming "I can't really explain the Trinity..." on Trinity Sunday, from decades of pastors refusing to even discuss the Athenatian Creed. Since the Athenatian Creed is one of the creeds of the Lutheran church, and not just an historical document as in the Anglican church, it would seem that it is an appropriate place to start a discussion. I, however, was not discussing.
      Forgive me.

      Although I may be laity the level of discourse and the depth of knowledge needed to survive a conversation around my dinner table is at a much higher level than that of which I usually write. In my home if you are not well versed in Church history, and catholic (Catholic, as I use it, with a small c, includes the Orthodox church.) tradition, writings of the Church Fathers, and both the German and English Reformations, as well as, a healthy helping of mysticism and occultism from the likes of Hermes Trismegistus, Jacob Boehme, and John Dee you will not survive. It is, also not uncommon for us to throw about words like heretic, papist, and Newton (a representation of one confined by the law) but that's no excuse for me to do this in public.
      Forgive me.

      Thank you for your admonishment.

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    2. Perhaps the people whom I unjustly accused have not read my comment asking for forgiveness, but I am asking again.

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    3. This is my third request for forgiveness.

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  11. Matthew -- I cry fowl. Or duck. Or goose. I'm feisty this morning from too much grading and probably a little off...

    Too much aseity, too much timeless eternity, not enough communicatio idiomatum that engenders the whole Trinity in the first place. If you want to preserve God from history, do it in terms of the Deus absconditus, not in the Trinity.

    I'm reading into your response here but I see a worry generated by locating divine freedom in somewhere other than the resurrection of the crucified Jesus and the power of his Spirit.

    Clint's proposal, on the other hand, points in the right direction by showing the Spirit's intra and extra trinitarian role to free the other persons. I'm surprised you didn't pounce on that!

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  12. Greg, I think you've pointed in the right direction. You don't need to name various kinds of birds to accomplish it, although the Spirit as bird is a popular metaphor.

    Central to my proposal, and also central to one of my favorite theologians I'm riffing on here, Robert Jenson, is precisely that the Spirit frees the other persons to "be" who they are. Hence the title, putting the "is" back in "is."

    I'm a little surprised no one has picked up on the "circulating around the neighborhood" motif, since that is perhaps my other main point. Perhaps that is what Greg means by locating God in history.

    I certainly hope to avoid too much aseity. I think the language of perichoresis (circulating in the neighborhood), being-as-possibility, etc. helps on this point.

    On a very practical level, a few things about the Spirit have always completely enthralled me. First, the Spirit "swept over the face of the waters" in Genesis 1. I have regularly thought this verse should play a central role in Trinitarian reflections. My formulations regarding the Spirit have tried to be faithful to it.

    Similarly, that whole gig when the Spirit went outside the tent and fell on Eldad and Medad.

    Finally, the "experience" of the Spirit so many Christians share, what at least one church father called "inebriated sobriety." It intrigues me that it is precisely this kind of experience of the Spirit that is especially prevalent in the kinds of communities Greg believes the Spirit is an advocate for and with--the lowly, the nobodies, the hidden.

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  13. Friend and colleague John Stendahl wrote in response to this blog post in a Facebook venue:

    Busy vacationing and haven't had time to follow this rich conversation in detail. However, Clint's original post got me thinking and I scribbled some thoughts that I hope someone out there will find of some, at least partial, value.:

    I have no problem with "isomorphic" or "ipseity," terms which, albeit somewhat recondite, convey both the integrity and the relationally of the Spirit (as well as of the other members of the Trinity). I do have some hesitation about the adjective "non-subsistent," but that may simply because I'm not catching the point being made.

    The problem Clint points to seems a very real one. Language about the Spirit as the love between the lover and the beloved, or as the future, or freedom or possibility or even as the divine and creative breath can be, and is, theologically and philosophically helpful, but it doesn't work very well in giving us a robustly personal figure in our thinking about or worshiping God. A white pigeon doesn’t work all that well either, isomorphically speaking, while symbols like wind and fire lack ipseity. It can appear that the Holy Spirit doesn’t do so well in upholding its share of the principle of co-equality of the Trinity’s Persons.

    The problem is of course built into the nature of the Spirit: spirit rather than flesh, breath rather than body, future rather than present, possibility rather than certainty, etc. All are invisibilities, apparently immaterial. Attempt though we may to banish the old dualities in such distinctions, we still dealing with the difficulty of envisioning the unseen. (That challenge may obviously be taken to apply also to the imagining of Father and the Son, indeed with a good deal of complexity, but I think the further aggravation of the difficulty in the case of the Paraclete should be rather evident.)

    As I have thought about this the possibility has occurred to me that we can take this very problem as an entry into its solution. I find myself thinking of the image of Alexander Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity as the angelic visitants at Abrams table in Mamre and I think “Ah, for God, for the Father and for the Son,”—and please ungender the traditional language here if you can and wish, I do not wish to enter that controversy for the purpose of this conversation—“the future is so present, the divine possibility so powerful, the liberating argument so compelling that they, each of them, see it real, at table with them, as when a couple are no longer a couple but now a guest has come, or a child has been born, and so the table is no longer simply about their duality but opens outward or, by that third presence, alters the dynamic of their conversation.”

    The analogy of the child as the insistently physical and real Third One at the table interests me the more because the weird and divine thing is that we are talking about a child yet unborn, a mere idea or proposition. But this unborn one is already here for our God and our Christ. Here she sits with them , incontrovertible, the future bending the present to her will, because after all, she is the Spirit: both the Spirit of God and the Spirit by which Jesus—and we, and the whole creation—pleads to God (Romans 8) . The future, God’s future, is that real for God, that real within God. It seems to me too abstract a thing to say that the Spirit is the relationship or the love or conversation between the Father and the Son, but when I think of it as the incarnation of that relationship, as an actual third party joined to the family, breaking impasses, carrying weight, both complicating and resolving arguments, the way a child does, that no longer seems abstract at all.

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  14. As I have thought about this the possibility has occurred to me that we can take this very problem as an entry into its solution. I find myself thinking of the image of Alexander Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity as the angelic visitants at Abrams table in Mamre and I think “Ah, for God, for the Father and for the Son,”—and please ungender the traditional language here if you can and wish, I do not wish to enter that controversy for the purpose of this conversation—“the future is so present, the divine possibility so powerful, the liberating argument so compelling that they, each of them, see it real, at table with them, as when a couple are no longer a couple but now a guest has come, or a child has been born, and so the table is no longer simply about their duality but opens outward or, by that third presence, alters the dynamic of their conversation.”

    The analogy of the child as the insistently physical and real Third One at the table interests me the more because the weird and divine thing is that we are talking about a child yet unborn, a mere idea or proposition. But this unborn one is already here for our God and our Christ. Here she sits with them , incontrovertible, the future bending the present to her will, because after all, she is the Spirit: both the Spirit of God and the Spirit by which Jesus—and we, and the whole creation—pleads to God (Romans 8) . The future, God’s future, is that real for God, that real within God. It seems to me too abstract a thing to say that the Spirit is the relationship or the love or conversation between the Father and the Son, but when I think of it as the incarnation of that relationship, as an actual third party joined to the family, breaking impasses, carrying weight, both complicating and resolving arguments, the way a child does, that no longer seems abstract at all.

    Spirit literally as “breath” is of course an interesting image in the way that my breath is both me and not me, internal to and yet other than the body it animates. The Spirit is both alien to and essential to us. We have tended to think of the breath image largely, perhaps exclusively, in terms of our being inspired and enlivened, the Spirit at work in the world, the church, history, human lives, etc. But what if we think also of the Spirit as being in the same way both proper to and yet distinct from the Father who is moved by its appeal, and similarly both of Jesus and yet at work upon him?

    There is an old rabbinic midrash on the plural subject in God’s resolve to make humankind: “Let *us* make...” The plural, it says, reflects the fact that as long as the polar aspects of the divine—justice and mercy, wisdom and passion, realism and hope, etc.—are in equal balance they are deadlocked. Creation is possible only when God’s foolish hopeful merciful hand becomes stronger than the restraint of all that counsels against such risk and cost. God nudges God’s own conflicted natures and creates a future that had not been. Such I think, and believe that we may think, is the role, or one vital role, of the Spirit as the Trinity carries on its holy conversation.

    Which underlines another oft-overlooked implication of our Trinitarian discourse, namely that God is not yet complete and sufficient unto Godself. Like us, God needs God’s own Spirit to become more fully God. Trinitarian faith incorporates that need into the very nature of the God.

    And then, of course, there is the sense that the it is the Church that is the icon of the Spirit and that such is not just to be the case before the eyes of the world but before God to whom we, with Christ and in Christ, lift up the pleading of the Spirit. (Romans 8 again.)

    OK, I’m on Cape Cod for a family vacation this week and I think this may be enough rumination for now. Still, I do think the topic worth our exploration and elaboration. We Lutherans have, as noted, tended to be a bit anemic in our pneumatology.

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  15. Kathy S.11:42 AM

    This is beginning to sound like a Dove-fil-A sandwich -- in the Oval Office. Wasn't it Bill Clinton who tried to re-define "is" after the Monica Lewinsky affair? I am fine with the Athanasian Creed -- it defines the Trinity within the context of the catholic faith, and was presented to Pope Julius I. Shamrocks work for me, too.

    I know that it is summer and it is fun to play with words, but I am reminded of the famous passage from The Imitation: "What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussion concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and be thus displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that make a man holy and upright; it is a good life which maketh a man dear to God." (Translated by William Benham, in the Harvard Classics.)

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  16. ... just one more thing. Since, truthfully, it is very hard to understand what you are saying, and the subject of the Trinity is obscure at best, I would like to ask: Are your implying that the Trinity changes? That the Spirit somehow impels the Trinity to change? The teaching of the Church is that the Trinity is unchangeable and immutable. Are you trying to say that the God of the Bible could change His mind now, and that certain actions forbidden in Scripture are now OK? I hope this is not what you are saying.

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  17. Kathy, for the record, although I try to engage many other comments above, I won't respond to your questions because it wouldn't matter what I actually wrote, you would try to find something in it to further your own purposes. It's called anxiety projection. Just calling out why you won't see a response from me either now or in future queries from you.

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    1. Anonymous3:48 AM

      Kathy, I do not think that you are the one with "anxiety projection".

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    2. Your thoughts and many others on this page are a good example of why the ELCA is in free fall.

      Your quickness for name calling and removal of critical comments as well as your grandiose claims on this blog reveal a person with insecurity and fly in the face of your claims to want open conversation. Open conversation as long as you don't criticize Clint or the ELCA is not open conversation or dialogue.

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  18. Anonymous9:54 AM

    Perhaps the third essence of the Trinity frees the Father and the Son from our theology and linguistic constraints. The Spirit blows where it will implies perfect freedom. If we allow God to be God and to work in us are we not changed? Does the Spirit of God move in you? Are you freed to love unconditionally? And that is a very personal God because it affects the way we live and love one another in the world...

    In peace,
    Janet

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  19. Kathy S.11:23 AM

    I agree, Janet. Instead of trying to analyze the inner workings of the Trinity, our time would be better spent trying to define Freedom. The story of Eldad and Medad is very interesting -- it shows that the Spirit blows where it wills -- but it does not change the Law of God.

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  20. Clint -- When you say I have "anxiety projection," are you saying that I am emotionally unstable? I have never, in any of my comments, said anything personal. That would be Ad hominem. I comment on your site because I find the discussion very interesting, and it's no fun when we all agree perfectly on everything. OK? Nothing personal. Peace <><

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  21. Anonymous9:29 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  22. Anonymous3:43 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  23. I guess one is not allowed to criticize Clint or the ELCA as he removed such comments.

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  24. Yes, I will continue to remove comments that attempt to argue that somehow my thoughts on this blog represent the ELCA as a whole, caricature me, and are posted by anonymous sources. At least Kathy has the good grace to post as herself. I stand by my critique of her repeated posts (they do represent a set of anxieties independent of what most posts here are actually about). I think posting anonymously is cowardly.

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    1. Resorting to name calling is a sign of insecurity. Your anxiety is about not feeling important and a fear that some won't think your smart.

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  25. This post and many of the comments on this page are a good example of why the ELCA is in free fall.

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  26. You know me and us well, rehtul.

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    1. If by "us" you mean the ELCA, yes I do. I know the ELCA well enough to morn how hypocritical the ELCA has become. I've been an ELCA member for its entire history.

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