living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Atheism

Beyond “Rational” False Alternatives: “Who do you say that I am?”

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The problem this chapter (a list of all posts in this project is here) has aimed to address is the phenomena of faith loss among Christians whose critical ability has attained the capacity to undercut its own historical and philosophical foundations. These are those for whom historical arguments regarding the Bible and the historical Jesus have become important, but also have failed. Such people tend to also have a similar relationship to philosophical arguments for God’s existence. The heart of this chapter has been an attempt to describe in a rational mode how what is often termed a loss of faith is, in reality, a necessary element of rational development. We have shown how Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich paints a broader philosophical landscape in which to make sense of the problem and also avoids the nihilism that threatens any systematic thought that is unable to anchor itself in reality. The basic problem was shown to be a truncated conception of reason combined with the lack of recognition that reason (reflection and response) proceeds through a series of stages whereby the objectival is “lost” at each transition due to the activities of criticism and doubt. The solution was shown to be Tillich’s correlation of reflection and response and the anchoring of both these moments in a paradoxical reality and presence.

How do these ideas relate to the work of Becker and Kegan that we examined in the previous chapter? To begin, we should recall Becker’s description of humanity’s existential paradox as a creature capable of tasting the eternal, but nevertheless being bound to the limits of finitude, and most notably, being subject to death. In reality, the vast majority of human-kind experiences this paradox as an unbearable contradiction. And it was here that Becker then vigorously rubbed our noses in all the various individual and communal ways we set about denying of our existential condition. When these ideas are extended into the realm of human reason it is easy to see how criticism and doubt can be used in exactly this way to protect ourselves from potentially threatening realities and powers. In this way, critical reflection and doubting response can give up the task of truth-seeking and become merely self-protective, thus stifling growth and maturity.

But what of those who begin to experience the edges of their own ways of knowing as not mere contradiction, but as paradox? These are the ones who begin the great risk pushing the edges of their rational world. Kegan provided us with a rich framework to make sense of this moment by way of a series of mental paradigm shifts where what was previously held as subject became capable of being reflected upon as an object of thought. Likewise, Scharlemann traced for us a cultural history of this very same movement. In addition to this Kegan is also well known for moving developmental stage theory beyond an exclusively cognitive focus to include the emotional dimension of human life, and to that extent Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich again resonates strongly with Kegan’s work. This is seen clearly in Scharlemann’s classification of reason into its reflective and responsive modes. Thus, Scharlemann was able to give us a historical road map of the reflective and responsive aspects of human reason that further reinforces the analytic power of Kegan’s model.

Shattered Ice

In an effort to lessen the abstraction of this chapter we have periodically considered the doubts that the young Paul Tillich faced about the historical foundations of his faith. We will now conclude this chapter by returning once again to this problem which continues to this day in both scholarly and popular forms. It seems that scarcely a year goes by without a new slew of articles and television programs that ask us to consider “who was Jesus, really?” The implication tends always to be that the Jesus you think you know, the Jesus you pray to, and the Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next is not at all the real Jesus. Some even evidence a certain glee in this “gotcha” moment. However the question that we are here urged to consider is not unlike the one that Jesus himself asked his own followers, and we would do well to attend once again to that narrative.

Who do you say that I am?

In the introduction to this chapter we reflected on Peter’s answer to this question: declaring Jesus to be the messiah. This became a problem for Peter because, the messiah that he had in mind was roughly the functional equivalent of the “Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next.” Upon exposing Peter’s self-protective and self-aggrandizing hopes, Jesus’ reaction was intense and immediate: “Get behind me Satan!” Now, let this sink in. What does this mean for the believer and for the cultural debunkers? For the believer Jesus refuses to be a temporal security. And for this reason he embodies the criticism of the debunkers before they even have a chance to speak. To participate in salvation is, therefore, not to have one’s temporal securities vindicated (for example, by embarrassing the cultural debunkers by producing a world-renowned scholar to expose their arguments as foolishness). Instead, to participate in salvation—as Tillich eventually learned—is to mirror the paradoxical motions of Christ.

This concludes our exploration of the paradox of salvation in the dimension of human reason. In the next chapter we will view it from the perspective of spirituality and theology in the Christology of Sebastian Moore.

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

Borges and God: The Unrecognized Orthodoxy of Refusing to Speak of God

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Jorge Luis Borges, SicilyOur cultural moment has lost a classic insight. We have arrived at a place in history where we presume to know, straightforwardly, what we are talking about when we speak of God. Because of this, most Westerners think that religion is essentially a matter of whether or not we believe in this thing, the existence of God, let’s say. Combine this with the overwhelming advances in our scientific knowledge of the universe and you have a situation where most scientifically educated people see no real reason to believe in this thing, this God.

I’m one of them. That may seem odd since I’m a theologian by training. But that only demonstrates how confused the broader culture has become on this point, and therefore how confused the general meaning of “God” has become. In fact, my rejection of belief in this “God,” is not odd at all. My solidarity with the growing impulse in culture to disbelieve in this thing we call “God” is an essential feature of my discipline. We call this thing “an idol.” Forgive us for having not made this clear during the past few hundred years. Our ancient teachers, Augustine and Aquinas, have been notified of our behavior, and we have since received our due scolding.

The insight that has been lost, and which desperately needs to be recovered is as follows: God, as the eternal source of all temporal reality, is inconceivable. This is so because our conceptions follow from how we know things, and what we know is temporal reality, not, eternity. Thus, God, as eternal, is inconceivable. This has important implications for how we speak about God. Since our language represents concepts and our concepts are formed according to how we know things, this entails that our language about God will never rise to the level of what it seeks to name. There is no straightforward talk of God, which is to say that, strictly speaking, God is ineffable (That’s all straight out of Aristotle and Aquinas, in case you were curious).

An example of this confusion passed my way this morning. It was a beautiful interview with author Jorge Luis Borges on his beliefs pertaining to the transcendent and God. I found myself feeling sympathetic for him as he sought to find the right words to describe his outlook. He seemed to want very badly to speak of the divine, but felt that the way to do it was just not available to him.

In seeking to speak of the transcendent, Borges says,

I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable.

Is this heresy? Not at all. It is an essential feature of Trinitarian thought that it is inconceivable. It’s not a description of things that exist in the world. It’s an inadequate formulation using temporal concepts that points to an indescribable reality beyond them. To see the inconceivability as a flaw in the construct is to miss the point. The great father of the church, Augustine, would have enthusiastically agreed with Borges on the inconceivability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s Augustine after discussing the Trinity in “On Christian Teaching.”

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words.

A final point is worth mentioning. Borges has what much of our culture has lost: a deep intuition of transcendence. It must be stressed that the early Christian doctrines were formed out of a culture that stimulated this sense. I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on this blog, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. The early Christians were steeped in a contemplative form of life in which prayer was essentially the regular practice of ego death. The philosopher Wittgenstein came to hold a view quite similar to Aquinas in which he argued that the meaning of a word is in its use. The form of life from which the words emerge designates their meaning. It must be remembered, then, that early Christian words developed in a context of contemplative prayer that stripped the mind of all images and concepts out of a passion to love God as God is in God’s own eternity, unobstructed by the limitations of our concepts. That is why they were always careful to stress God’s ineffability. They spoke of God, but always with the recognition that their speech was inadequate, though offered in love and praise.

I have a feeling that Borges would rather like this idea. Can you imagine what the world would be like if such a language, born of such a practice, were widely adopted? Would we, all of us, together, speak the divinity we sense in all the various particularities of our life with gratitude and praise, and yet never banish each other on the basis of difference? I pray for the day when we enter a freedom born of knowing that while our particular utterances always fail to reach the mark, our hearts might still break free in a love whose voice sings beyond words.

Written by Alex

November 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

Jaques Derrida’s Religon & Thomas Merton’s Atheism: Love is a Constant Spinning

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Jaques Derrida and Thomas Merton have much in common, which is interesting because, on the face of it, they shouldn’t. One was a destabilizing atheist philosopher, while the other was an activist and Benedictine monk. The only way prevailing habits of mind are able to relate two men bearing labels such as these tends to be by imagining them behind their respective podiums, ready for another sensational debate (much like the “creation debate” I recently wrote about). “Prevailing habits of mind,” however, have much to learn from these two figures, but it’s not going to happen from a podium.

Jaques Derrida & Thomas Merton

Derrida and Merton through the Eyes of a Young Evangelical

I was among the evangelicals when I awoke to explicitly religious thought, and, like every community, there was a certain set of other groups that we were led to view as enemies. Among them were “postmodern philosophers,” the chief of whom was Jaques Derrida. The reason we worried about him was simple: Derrida’s deconstruction took away everything we possessed by faith via an endlessly destabilizing approach to truth. Rather than engage him, we just shook our heads. Whatever he was up to didn’t make any sense. He struck us as more pathetic and confused than dangerous. Normal atheists made sense. We lined up behind the mic to debate them. Derrida was a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think he would enjoy that he impressed upon us a feeling of “not understanding.”

I also remember hearing the name Thomas Merton during those years. Merton was not someone that we personally read; rather, he was someone read by some of the spiritual writers we read. We learned of him as a name reverently dropped from their lips. Something to do with “seven stories” and a mountain. In any case, it would have never occurred to me then that he and Derrida would have anything at all in common, especially something so deep as the heart of their religiosity.

The “Faith” of Deconstruction
and the “Atheism” of Faith

The other morning a friend of mine, Sara Lynn Wilhelm Garbers, drew my attention to a wonderful interview with John D. Caputo in the New York Times by Gary Gutting. Caputo is a “postmodern philosopher” and Derrida scholar. The interview was very engaging, as Gutting continually pressed Caputo with the sort of questions that an informed evangelical might ask.

In turn, Caputo did his best to show that the truth deconstruction is after is deeper than anything our settled concepts can grasp. For deconstruction, truth is always a moving target. As such, what Caputo calls Derrida’s “religion without religion” is likewise intended to be a dynamic idea rather than a settled label. The paradoxical form of this phrase immediately deconstructs itself. Whatever “yes” is stated is immediately followed by a “no.” If you try to resolve “religion without religion” into religion—“ah! So Derrida really is religious!”—then the “without religion” rushes in with its “not so fast!” The same operation occurs from the other direction if the phrase is resolved into “atheism.” Its paradoxical form is always drawing us in, but forcing open our conceptions. The goal of this operation is to foster an endless attention that is at all times actively disrupting our complacency or pretension.

A Tillichian Aside

As an aside, I can’t help but mention that this paradoxical operation is exactly that which lies at the heart of Paul Tillich’s theological rationality (something Caputo also rightly notes in the interview). Robert Sharlemann put the point well when he argued that, in Tillich’s thought, “the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.

Back to Derrida and Merton

But we have a hard time with this notion since we can’t “do anything with it.” One wants to stop attending, grab a hold of something, and get to work. But this endless spinning doesn’t seem to give us anything but negativity. To this point Gutting asked,

Is there any positive content to his view of religion or is it all just “negative theology”? Is he in any sense “making a case” for religion? Can reading Derrida lead to religious belief?

The phrase “just ‘negative theology’” is telling, but the concern behind the phrase is understandable. In response Caputo does his best to describe the elusive positivity that necessitates the negativity.

In its most condensed formulation, deconstruction is affirmation, a “yes, yes, come” to the future and also to the past, since the authentic past is also ahead of us. It leads to, it is led by, a “yes” to the transforming surprise, to the promise of what is to come in whatever we have inherited — in politics, art, science, law, reason and so on. The bottom line is “yes, come.”

Here we have the positivity that deconstruction presupposes. Deconstruction seeks the yes by way of the no. “The authentic,” the “really real” emerges, though is never grasped as a possession, by way of a constant “spinning,” a dismantling of the adequacy of our settled approach to it.

With that in mind, let us now turn to the words of Thomas Merton. Again we will see the negativity and underlying positivity in his words.

The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to disassociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”, in Raids on the Unspeakable, 61.

Merton calls this underlying positivity “God,” but it cannot be stressed strongly enough, that, for Merton, “God” is not the settled answer to the question. Merton is rightfully called an atheist to the extent that theism is construed as a settling of the question of existence with the answer “God.” God is just as much the positing of the question as the answer (a point I have tried to make clear in a previous post). This is integral to his reasons for arguing that “our task” is standing against any who presume to have settled answers. Like Caputo’s stress on the “yes” behind deconstruction, Merton also urges that the critical posture of the activist is not birthed from mere “negativity,” but from trust in the ongoing rationality that constitutes our very being. A rationality that, viewed from one angle, can never be spoken, and yet, viewed from another, underlies all speech. The “spinning” never ends, but it can be entered into faithfully, in hope, and in love.

Love Is a Constant Spinning

A few years ago in a PhD seminar, Dr. Walter Sundberg remarked to me that Paul Tillich’s book “Dynamics of Faith” is a master work of endless spinning. He keeps talking about faith, and you want to just grab him, give him a good shake and ask him, “Faith in what?” But the spinning never ends. Tillich never “lands.” I think that’s about right. (I take up this point in more detail in a later post.)

For both Derrida and Merton the situation is similar. A distrust of human pretension and complacency is the proper response to the encounter with a truth that emerges as gift rather than possession (a place we might “land”). God’s “yes” implies a “no” to any and all complacent or pretentious human attempts to claim truth solely for its own deployment. To be among “those disposed to receive it” we must live in attention, ever awaiting truth as gift. For my part, it has indeed been a gift to see at least one way that that these two ostensibly “ancient enemies” have a bit more in common than I’d once been led to believe.

Written by Alex

March 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

Breaking God Talk

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[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]

God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.

The Possibility

It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.

The Impossibility

Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.

The Paradox

Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.

From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).

Transcending Our Subjectivity?

As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).

How Can This Be Known?

To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”

In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.


A Brief Reflection on My First National Conference

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My blogging pace as been a bit off as of late. The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity (and general anxiety) surrounding a trip to Baltimore to present two papers (one at the the American Academy of Religion and the other at the North American Paul Tillich Society). Happily, the whole thing went off without a hitch, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Baltimore Inner Harbor

If you would like to see my photo set of the whole adventure, you can check out my Flicker page here.

The two papers I presented surround the cataclysmic transition in my theological thinking.

The first paper marks the “death of God” in my thought. Here, in the mode of moral ontology, I show how our ability to doubt any concrete answer to the question of moral foundations makes it impossible for God (understood as a being existing apart from us) to anchor the moral good. Such a conception cannot answer the question, “why must God exist for moral goodness to be Good?” If God is thought of as a concrete particular, then, no, God is not necessary for morality (or anything else for that matter). I’m with the atheists on this one, but then again, so is Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich. You can read the full paper here: Yes, But Only If God Does Not Exist: A Tillichian Answer to the Question of God’s Necessity for Morality

The second paper I presented situates “the death of God” within the process of spiritual awakening. Here I argue that the death of God is, in essence, a moment in the emergence of the life of the Spirit. A sort of religious and developmental paradigm shift is pointed to in this paper. As Robert Scharlemann so nicely stated, “…the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.” Awakening to this truth has salvific value, I argue, since it frees us (and those around us) from all our self-saving efforts and death denial strategies by dying to the illusion that our conceptual grasp of God, self, and world offers true security. Instead, I argue that for God to emerge in our lives a continual death to, or, relativization of, our conceptual/egoic grasp is necessary. Beyond that, a continual return to the depth of life as ever-emerging in the present moment is presented as the essence of religious encounter. You can read the full paper here: “Intimacy Through Self-loss: Intersections in the Paradoxical Soteriologies of Paul Tillich and Sebastian Moore”

In short, the conference was a very good experience. Next time, however, I think I’ll stress less, take more walks, and generally try to take more advantage of all the potentially fantastic conversations that are to be had in such a setting.

P.S. Special thanks to Spencer Moffatt, Erik Leafblad, David Stewart, John Fournelle, Kiara Jorgenson, and Paul Greene for being such a wonderful mixture of insightful, encouraging, crude, hilarious, provocative, and kind.

Written by Alex

December 5, 2013 at 9:40 am

The God Graveyard: A Theologian’s Approval

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Yesterday I saw an interesting post come up on the Patheos blog, “The Friendly Atheist.” It was about how certain college atheist groups were erecting “god graveyards” on their campuses filled with the names of the gods we no longer worship. The question they wished to provoke was basically “when will yours be next?”

As a theologian, I thought this was pretty sweet (for reasons that I will point out shortly), so I decided to tell them so.

As a Christian theologian, I support this message. It is at the heart of classical Christian theology that Yahweh, understood as a particular divine being, must have his own gravestone. The death of the Gods is precisely the truth of God who is Truth itself.

The response to this was mostly:

1. A lot of “down votes”

2. Utter confusion

3. General rudeness, or at the very least, hostility.

I’ll take responsibility for 2. I’ve rarely been applauded for my clarity of expression. But I was honestly surprised at 1. and 3. At least one of the other commentors felt similarly, lamenting:

The downvotes here depress me. Just because we disagree or find the message muddled doesn’t mean we should discourage those who want to respectfully discuss the topic at hand.

Here was one that I could speak to. He also authored a brilliant response to a sci-fi fan who was in the process of creatively taking me to task by way of a Star Trek example. I should not have such difficulty speaking to them, my critic suggested, for they were rational thinkers, not like the perplexing Tamarians. He went on,

I am reminded of the Star Trek: TNG episode Darmok, where Captain Picard encounters an alien civilization (the Tamarians) whose language is purely metaphorical. For instance, rather than saying, “I went to the store,” a Tamarian would say, “Darmok at Shaka,” which would reference a famous event of the past where a person named Darmok went to a store in the city of Shaka.

To this my ally responded:

I think the point of that episode was that Picard DID learn to communicate with the Tamarian captain once he abandoned his prejudices and began to listen in earnest (finally accepting the dagger as an offer of alliance instead of conflict, ha, I out-nerd[ed] you).

Truly brilliant, and better, to my point! In what follows I respond to him and do my best to briefly set out what my point ultimately was.

This, I love. The truth of it goes both ways and is really at the heart of what I was trying to suggest. “The gods,” in a very important sense, ARE our prejudices. They are our little securities, the ideas, habits, and patterns of life that make us feel safe in the face of the threats of existence. The trouble is that our little gods necessarily limit us. If they are the source of our security, then fear keeps us living in their power. And in their power, the gods of others can be nothing but a threat, an opportunity for conflict. This is why the graveyard is so appropriate. We are not meant to live in fear, so let the gods die. All of them, regardless of the name we give them, be it Zeus, Yahweh, Reason, Science, or Jesus…

But this leads to my deeper point. It’s not easy to describe, so please bear with me. We say that Jesus revealed God, not because he said he was God; rather, it is because he deflected every attempt by others to make him into “a god.” His divinity consisted in his freedom from “the gods,” not that he was one.

As some of you may recall, Peter wanted Jesus to be the source of his own security. Jesus, on the other hand, said he came to serve and to die. Peter, feeling his security threatened by this, freaked out and tried to stop him. Jesus’ subdued response was basically to call Peter the Lord of Darkness and to suggest that his framework was a bit narrow.

graveyard of the godsAnd that’s our basic human problem. In light of the eternal, all of our frameworks are a bit narrow. That includes my own. To live with faith in God as eternal, is exactly to live free from “the gods” of our narrowness. If we can’t manage this, we’ll cling to our own little constructions, and fear will cause us to lash out at those who pose a threat to our god. Those who have been in some way gripped by the mystery of the eternal feel no such need to defend their own ways of seeing things, for their own gods have already been crucified.

My one concern for this community is that it is not nearly atheistic enough. The rather ‘un-friendly’ reception I’ve been given does not seem to evidence freedom from the gods. Perhaps the graveyard could use a few more tombstones? 

Written by Alex

November 1, 2013 at 9:58 am