How Do We Navigate Between Opposite Extremes…and Survive?

Regarding Dualisms

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It seems that no matter where you turn in life you run into them. Dualisms. A dualism is when you find two polar opposite options to a single question that both have evidence for being correct. This is true in theology. Is Jesus God or human? Is it predestination or free will? Is reality physical or spiritual? Is God three or one? The answer to these questions seems to be “yes” but then common sense tells us that you can’t say “yes” to both options.

These dualisms are not found only in the musings of theologians. They are everywhere. Republicans vs. Democrats. Big Government vs. Free Enterprise. Conservatives vs. Liberals. American Military vs. Terrorists. I am right vs. you are wrong. The tensions between party lines are real and the way we navigate these tensions has global implications. So, this essay is not merely a mental exercise, but is motivated by seeking God’s peace in the world.

How do we navigate these tensions?

Dualisms are everywhere. Plato observed them in his experience. He looked around and saw the violence and destruction that his fellow Athenians heaped upon one another. Then he saw the very same people contemplating such things as beauty, goodness, and virtue. Which is it, he thought? He separated the two. There was, for Plato, the realm of ideals which was pure thought. This realm was where the perfect substance of what is right and good exists. Then there was the realm of the material substance which was a mere shadow of the ideals. It was in this realm were human atrocities exist and from this realm that the seeker of goodness and beauty must escape. Plato’s dualism became a canopy that spanned across most of Western culture and still casts its shadow today.

Many other dualisms have evolved throughout the course of Western history. Descartes divided the rational, objective mind of the observer from the material substance of that which is observed. Cartesian dualism gave rise to rationalism and the dominance of empirical science as the only source of knowledge in the West. Kant critiqued Descartes’ dualism and divided the noumena from the phenomena, thus giving privilege to subjective knowledge. These two forms of dualism became yet another pair of polar opposites as Objectivism, and its various iterations, fought against Subjectivism and its various subspecies. This battle dominated the academy of the 19th and 20th centuries.

There are two dualisms that are especially important for my research in Trinity and Spiritual Formation. The first dualism is the classic Trinitarian dilemma of One God vs. Three Persons. Is it one or three? The traditional answer has always been, “yes, but we have no idea how.” This mysterious duality has given rise to the dualism of Immanent Trinity vs. Economic Trinity and the various sub-species that debate has spawned. ((I must clarify the use of the term immanent. It is used in two categories within the Trinitarian conversation and each of the uses has the opposite meaning. This is very confusing.

The term immanent means near, or present within itself. Keep that in mind.

In the first use of the term—the Immanent Trinity—it refers to who God is within Godself. The substance of God is Triune, within Godself. However, the Triune substance is above, or Transcendent, from the created universe, thus completely separate from it. Therefore, the Immanent Trinity is Transcendent.

The second use of the term has to do with the difference between how God is related to the physical universe. On one hand, God is transcendent and completely separate from the universe, as described above. On the other hand, some believe that God is completely immanent, meaning God is completely within the universe. This view of God’s immanence is exactly opposite of the Immanent Trinity.

To review: The Immanent Trinity is Transcendent, and the transcendence of God is opposite of the immanence of God.

To further muddy the waters, the Economic Trinity stands in contrast to the Immanent Trinity. The Economic Trinity describes how God is immanent, or at work within the created universe, while the Immanent Trinity describes how God is within Godself outside of the created universe. see Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, 1st HarperCollins paperback ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).; Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Sacra Doctrina (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998).; Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).))

The second dualism has to do with human nature and how we relate to everything around us. Am I an individual self who is in relationship with everything else, thus giving precedence to individualism—both in its objective and subjective forms? Or, am I part of a social/ecological system that constitutes me and my individuality is just an illusion? ((This dualism takes the classic distinction between pantheism and theism. Are there two substances in the universe,or one? We will get to that later in the essay.))

Again, how do we navigate these tensions?

A Fixation with Continuums

I began my academic career in 1994 sitting in a Systematic Theology class with Dr. David Clark at Bethel Seminary. Dr. Clark loved to frame each of these pervasive dualisms in the form of a continuum. ((see David K. Clark, Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993).)) He would place one extreme view on the left hand and the polar opposite view on the right. Then he would draw a line between them and discuss the various views on the continuum between the views. The truth, it seemed, always lay somewhere in the middle. One author put it this way, “The river of truth flows between the banks of the extremes.” ((I cannot find a source for this quote.))

I fell in love with this kind of thinking and used it all the time. The truth is always in the middle, I thought. I found myself drawing continuums for every tension I encountered. I have come to call this “The Third Way.” The first time I encountered this language was, again, in a systematic theology course at Bethel. This time it was eight years later and the course was taught by LeRon Shults. He introduced me to a Third Way between the polar opposites of objective rationalism and subjective relativism, and between a theology done “from above” and theology done “from below.” ((The iconic symbols for this dichotomy are Barth—from above—and Rahner and Tillich—from below. Barth began with the transcendence of God and moved through revelation. Rahner and Tillich began with the immanence of God and moved through correlation theory and subjective, experiential knowledge.)) Shults called it the postfoundationalist task of theology ((F. LeRon Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999). This is further expounded in Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).)) and I kept encountering it throughout my doctoral studies. ((Habermas talks about navigating the waters between the Scylla of Absolutism and the Charybdis of Relativism.Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987). Gadamer called it a fusion of horizons.Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975). Farley finds a third way between Individualism and Social-ism.Edward Farley, Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). Grenz and Franke build a strong case for a Third Way of postfoundationalism between Conservatism and Liberalism. Grenz, Stanley J. and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.))

A new question has dawned for me recently that leaves me unsettled. Does the truth really flow between the banks of the extremes?

A Problem with Continuums

I discovered a problem with continuums as my theological mind continued to evolve. The best way I can describe it is by sharing a story. In 1994 Dr. Clark used the truth-in-the-middle method to demonstrate how Classical Theism is the correct worldview. He said that there are five basic world views. On one side of the continuum he placed Pantheism which believes that God and matter are one and the same thing, thus reducing the universe to pure spirit. On the other side of the continuum he placed Atheism, which believes that there is no such thing as God, thus reducing the universe to pure matter. He then placed Classic Theism in the center, which believes that God—pure spirit—exists apart from, but in relation with the universe—pure matter. It is important to note that between Theism and Pantheism he noted Panentheism ((Panentheism is the view that all matter is within God, but that God is more than the sum of material things. This is similar to the relationship of the human mind to the body. Our mind can have an other-oriented relationship with our body, yet, the mind can’t exist without the physical function of the brain.)) and between Theism and Atheism he noted Deism ((Deism is the view that God exists, outside of creation, but has no interaction with it. God is the designer, the cosmic watch maker, who created everything, wound it up, and sent it spinning on its way, governed by the mechanistic laws of Newton’s physics.))

The logic of truth-in-the-middle made it clear to me that Theism was the truth. Then something happened. Through more study I came to believe that Deism and Atheism were not actually separate world views, but were subspecies of Theism that emerged during, and as a result of, the modern era. A truer continuum, then, would be to place Pantheism—the ancient world view of Eastern Thought—on one side, and Theism—the ancient world view of Platonic dualism—on the other side. By shifting the “banks” of the river I discovered that there is a new river flowing down the middle: Panentheism.

I found myself caught in a theoretical conundrum. My belief in truth-in-the-middle logic led me to discover that Panentheism is the most logical description of reality. Yet, my conservative, theistic upbringing made me raise red flags and resist this discovery. I pushed it to the side of my consciousness for about two years, holding the tension without having the framework to discuss it. More on that in a moment.

A Different Take on the River of Truth

Another idea started percolating in my mind around the same time that I was in class with Shults. I was reading Leonard Sweet ((Leonard I. Sweet, Quantum Spirituality: A Postmodern Apologetic, 1st ed. (Dayton, OH: Whaleprints, 1991).; Leonard I. Sweet, Aquachurch (Loveland, CO: Group Pub., 1999).)) and he took a different angle on the use of continuums. ((I must acknowledge that Sweet is not a primary source in this discussion. He was writing popular literature, aimed at the local pastor, and was drawing on the work of Heideggar, Gadamer, Ricouer, et alia. I was unaware of the deeper hermeneutical discourse at that time, thus i must give credit to my lived experience of these ideas.)) He claimed that it is not that the truth flows between the banks of the two extremes, but that the truth lies in the tension of both extremes being correct, but incomplete. As illogical as this sounds, it raises a good point. The analogy of the river-between-the-banks doesn’t really work because the river is not of the same substance as the banks. It is something completely different. If the river of the third way is the truth, then it is actually just another, separate option from the two banks, thus creating a new duality. It doesn’t really address the two extremes, rather it discounts them as being wrong and finds an alternate option that is of a different substance than the two banks.

Sweet proposed that we must think of the truth as lying in the tension of both extremes being correct. This helps in that it validates the opposite viewpoints, but it leaves us with the same original problem. How can this be true? How can two opposites both be correct? He chalks it up to mystery. Perhaps that is the most honest answer we can give. However, on both counts, it leaves room for the proponents of the extreme views to discard any discussion of a Third Way. The opposing sides will view a third way as either compromise (said with disgust) or wishful, Pollyanna thinking. Thus, the battle between the extremes continues and people get hurt.

A Lesson from Sunspots

Somewhere in 2001 or 2002, while I was wrestling with Shults’ and Sweet’s metaphors, an image came to me. I was teaching an astronomy lesson to my children and we learned about sunspots. Astronomers made an interesting discovery about these dark spots on the surface of the sun. First, they almost always come in pairs. Second, the spots almost never touch each other. Third, they are always oppositely charged. One spot is positively charged and the other is negatively charged. (( (accessed July 17, 2014) )) Hmmm…a pair of polar opposites. A dualism.

Astronomers tried to figure out why these spots were always in dualistic pairs. They couldn’t figure it out until something happened. They broadened their horizons. Instead of thinking about the sunspots as marks on the surface of the sun they looked at the larger picture of the sun’s Corona and made an interesting discovery. The sun has streams of energy racing around inside of it like a jumble of spaghetti. Once in a while these streams will burst outside of the boundaries of the sun’s surface and form a loop into the sun’s corona.

Let me attempt to illustrate this. Imagine that you have a beach ball and inside the ball is a bunch of flexible plastic tubing. Now imagine that the tubing pokes out of the ball, curls around, and reenters the ball, right next to the place where it exited. The plastic tube forms a loop that is sticking outside of the ball. Can you see it? Now imagine the place where the edge of the ball meets the surface of the tube at its exit and entrance point. What shape does the intersection make? It’s a circle. If you were observing only the surface of the ball, and had no concept of the space around the ball, you would observe two circles right next to each other. But, if you back away and take in the bigger picture, you discover that you have a single tube that is coming out of the ball and going back into it.

What’s the point? When the astronomers broadened their perspective and looked at the question with a different set of tools, they realized that the seemingly disconnected and opposite spots were actually part of the very same thing and very much connected. I wonder if this metaphor can be helpful with our ubiquitous dualisms? What if we looked at our polar opposites from a broader perspective and with a different set of tools? Might we then discover that Sweet’s proposal could be correct and not just a mystery?

Some Help From Quantum Physics

There are a growing number of theologians who look to Quantum Physics as a source for grappling with our mysterious dualisms. ((Ernest L. Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).; J. C. Polkinghorne, The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010).; McIntosh in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, Blackwell Companions to Religion (Oxford ; Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005), 179-189.;)) Ernest Simmons summarizes the conversation well and proposes that Superposition and Quantum Entanglement are metaphors that may help us discuss our dualisms in a more helpful manner. Further, these metaphors may help to promote peace between the extremes without the negative connotation of compromise.

Here’s the simple version. Physicists at the turn of the twentieth century discovered a new dualism. They observed that light was both a particle and a wave. This is logically impossible, according to the conventional wisdom and logic of the day. What they discovered, upon further experimentation, was that, indeed, light is both a particle and a wave, and the thing that determines which it is at any given moment in time is the measurement used by the observer. Its physical nature is relative to the intention of the observer. This superposition of two polar opposite realities being both simultaneously true has allowed physicists to take a step back from the traditional, rationalistic, empirical methodologies of the scientific community and begin to imagine a whole new world of possibilities.

It also led to another, equally strange discovery. Quantum physicists have discovered that subatomic particles are connected to each other in a way that defies classic physical laws. They found that when the subatomic particles are physically separated from each other they are still connected across space and have physical reactions that would normally only be possible if they were touching. This strange connection between realities in called entanglement. Between superposition and entanglement, we might say that physicists discovered the tube that connects the sunspots.

Re-imagining the Trinity

Simmons, among others, uses this discovery as a helpful metaphor and attaches it to the ancient Greek term perichoresis. ((This term was used by the Greek Fathers to describe the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It means to move in and out of each other, or to dance around. It brings with it the image of a mutual, equal interpenetration and indwelling of all three persons. It, however, existed within Godself, thus was not helpful for how God related to the world.)) He finds this helpful for discussing the apparent dualisms in the theological debates about the Trinity, namely (1) is God one or three persons, and (2) is God the Immanent Trinity or the Economic Trinity? Simmons proposes that “perichoresis entanglement can be understood as the energy of the divine Trinity through which the creation is expressed. The immanent Trinity exists in superposition with the economic Trinity and evolves within the entangled life of God with the creation, thus supporting a panentheistic model of God.” ((Simmons, 144.))

Notice the term panentheistic in the last statement. There it is. That intuition which I had shelved for two years came to the forefront. Now I had language and a metaphor to help me understand that a panentheistic model of reality may be the most helpful model after all.

Simmons claims that his proposal of Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism may:

  1. Through phase entanglement and non-local relational holism provide metaphors for the perichoretic activity of the Trinity immanently and economically in sustaining and sanctifying the creation from within a scientifically consistent panentheism;
  2. Through quantum indeterminacy, affirm the freedom and openness of the creation in relation to divine self-limitation and the problem of suffering;
  3. Provide a conceptual bridge between creation and the Trinitarian character of the divine life;
  4. Contribute to the mutual understanding and interaction of theology and science;
  5. Assist interested persons in deepening their understanding and appreciation for the divine mystery of the Trinity; and
  6. Help provide a basis for interfaith dialog and cooperation as we collectively address the global issues of our time.” ((Ibid., 187-188.))

Re-imagining Personhood

Entangled Trinitarian Panentheism helps us to see the Trinity and the world in a new way that may work toward peace. I would also like to use the metaphor to address the second dualism that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It has to do with personhood, or our understanding of self in relation to community and the universe. Am I an individual, separate from everything else, or am I simply created by the environment and nothing more than the random conglomeration of biological and sociological forces, in which my individuality is just a mirage?

Here we have another continuum between two extreme options. Superposition and Quantum Entanglement help us once again. I believe this has to do with the discussion of relational ontology. ((The major voice in this conversation is Zizioulas Jean Zizioulas and Paul McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: T & T Clark, 2006).. Polkinghorne brings relational ontology into conversation with Quantum Entanglement in a helpful way in Polkinghorne.)) Ontology is the study of being itself. Is being substance, or is it relationship? The answer? “Yes.”

I am an individual, that is an observed phenomenon. However, I am also created by my environment and the relationship of all the elements of that environment. Apart from these relationships—my parents, family, society, sunlight, water, air, the basic elements, etc.—I cannot exist. This, too, is an observed phenomenon. If we think of the polar opposites in any continuum in terms of substance—being completely different entities—then we can never reconcile them. But, if we think of them as being of the same substance, but also differentiated by the intentionality and the context of the moment, then, perhaps, we can see how these two opposites can both be true and necessary.

I am both an individual and my individuality is constituted by the relationality of all things. God is both transcendent from creation and immanent within creation. There is a place for Republicans and Democrats; for Christians and Muslims; for Conservatives and Liberals. We must learn to live in the tension.

A Word from the Suburbs

As I was writing this essay, I took a break and read a recent journal entry from one of the members of our research team. This team member captures the essence of what I’m discussing in a beautiful way.

Tension is normal. Tension is good. Tension is Love. God’s love is tension.

In May my small group watched Rob Bell’s Rhythm. The gist of the short 11 minute movie is “Are our lives in tune with God’s plan for the world?” It was our last meeting as group, and I thought a good “note” to go out on. I love this film. I’ve had years of musical training myself so maybe I readily identify with the concept of being “out of tune.” Or maybe it’s just that Rob’s movie’s are so simple, yet profound asking really good questions and letting you sort out the answers (if there are ones). As I was watching the film I kept thinking of Steve’s drawing of the Trinity, the “Beloved, Lover and Loved” or “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” as he drew for this Pentecost sermon that I listened to this morning. As I was watching the film I kept thinking of us in the middle of this Trinity and if were are truly in tune with the Trinity, we would be in the middle swaying with the forces. No one force would overcome the other, keeping us upright.

Balanced tension keeps us upright.

Then fast forward to a few weeks ago. It was a Saturday and I blissfully had nothing I “had” to do for anyone but myself so I weeded for hours my very weedy garden. Gardens are awesome. They are great therapy. I highly recommend people get one. But I digress. Before I went out my 7 year old son made the statement that it looked like it was a nice day. I commented back that the weather looked “unsettled” but yes, the sun was shining (not wanting to squash his observation). He asked me what unsettled meant, so I described water and the difference between our boat sitting in the water and the “wake” our boat left after we traveled thru water (It’s all wind and waves right?;) ). All morning and afternoon, the weather was “unsettled.” It was fairly windy and dark patches of sky became more and more frequent until a rather large dark cloud (and the radar on my phone, and kindly next door neighbor) told me my weeding time was done. I gathered my tools and went into the garage, where my husband was working on our boat. After quickly helping him put things away so important things got covered, I sat in the garage, door open watching the storm pass over. My son, who is fearful of storms, had come out and I invited him to sit near me (I was way too dirty to have him on me) and showed him that storms, especially this not severe one, can be enjoyable to watch. It was nice, because in a way, it forced me also to just watch the storm. He was making comments on the wind, and the driving rain and I kept watching one large tree in particular that was really dancing in the wind and it occurred to me how much tension was in nature. Storms which are necessary and are helpful and needed in some instances (trees that only grow after a fire, nitrogen that is fixed into the soil from lightning.) In nature, the tension between the cheetah and the gazelle. Really I could go on and on. Tension is normal in nature. God created the natural world, and really how far away are we really from this tension? Ours just comes in different forms. After the storm had passed I noticed how calm the wind had become and how clear the sky was. The tension between the fronts had passed. It was a fight, or storm for a while, but it didn’t last. And in the end, things became settled again.

Tension is normal.

So What?

Why do I (we) care about these things? I said it at the beginning. This is not an exercise in esoteric philosophy, this is an attempt to bring reconciliation and peace to warring factions. Simmons writes,

“If ‘to be’ means ‘to be in relation’ at the most fundamental levels of physical existence, then we have an interrelational and communitarian understanding of existence, upon which all other emergent structures of complexity are built. Existence is community in relation. The very nature of physical existence at the micro level points to a dynamic interrelationality that human community at the macro level can also embody. Humans are not single, isolated beings that exist in self-sustaining independence from everything else. Rather, we are becomings that exist in dynamic interrelationship to others in the wider ecology of existence. In other words, identity is a process, not a possession, and environment forms identity. We are constituted by the world around us as we also help to constitute it. Since all existence is interrelated, there is a sense in which dynamic, communal relations are at the core of all existence. For human becoming, community resides in trust and in the willingness to transcend self-interest for the sake of the other. It is empowered by that around which the community gathers; indeed, what it has in ‘common’ to form the communio, the community.” ((Simmons, 184-185.))

In other words, all of the dualisms that we encounter in life are somehow intrinsically connected.

Dualisms are not bad, they are necessary. Agreement is not homogeneity, it is the mutual existence of diverse elements for the greater good of all. If God is the Entangled Trinity, as Simmons suggests, and we are created in the image of God, then our very existence is the tension of two opposing ideas being equally valid in unique moments. Wisdom is the ability to “sway in the tension of the Trinity” and discern which polarity is the wisest choice in any given moment. ((see my commentary on this (accessed July 16, 2014) based on Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Practical Wisdom the Right Way to Do the Right Thing (New York: Simon & Schuster Audio,), sound recording.)) We are called to live deeply in the Trinity each day. God’s love is tension that keeps us alive.


The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality Blackwell Companions to Religion. Oxford ; Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005.

Clark, David K. Dialogical Apologetics: A PersonCentered Approach to Christian Defense. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.

Farley, Edward. Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Churchs Ministry. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975.

Grenz, Stanley J. Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Grenz, Stanley J. and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God. 1st HarperCollins paperback ed. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Polkinghorne, J. C. The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010.

Schwartz, Barry and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom the Right Way to Do the Right Thing. sound recording. New York: Simon & Schuster Audio,, 2011

Shults, F. LeRon. The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Simmons, Ernest L. The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Sweet, Leonard I. Quantum Spirituality: A Postmodern Apologetic. 1st ed. Dayton, OH: Whaleprints, 1991.

Sweet, Leonard I. Aquachurch. Loveland, CO: Group Pub., 1999.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity Sacra Doctrina. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Zizioulas, Jean and Paul McPartlan. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.

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