Loving the Ineffable: Epistemic Humility and Interfaith Solidarity

  • Thomas A. ForsthoefelEmail author
Original Article


This paper addresses the importance of words and of surrendering words, and so will consider both the philosophical and axiological potential of ineffability, both of which imply epistemic humility. On the one hand, epistemic humility implicates surrendering ill-fitting and limited constructs; this reflects a project of unknowing, a condition for a more authentic knowing, driven less by rigid categories and argument and more by humility and love. On the other hand, epistemic humility—as an observable phenomenon in the world’s religious traditions—has axiological value and thus should be cultivated: it subverts an arrogant knowing which too often is the seed of destructive conflict.


Epistemic humility Unknowing Axiology 

Think, and again think

about the being not contained by any form

that plunges low, spreads wide, and rises high,

but after thinking and thinking,

even in the act of thinking

the being of the lord is rarely known.

--Nammalvar (Cutler 1987, p. 135)

Cast away all speech.

Our words may express it,

but cannot hold it.

The way of letters leaves no trace,

yet the teaching is revealed.

--Dogen (Hamill and Seaton 2007, p. 119)


I wish to make a case for the roles of mystics, poets, and philosophers in advancing greater interfaith solidarity in and through ineffability discourse in the world’s religions. The lines from our two poets above are instructive. On the one hand, Nammalvar, perhaps the greatest of the Shri Vaishnava poet-saints, seems both to encourage reasoned reflection on the nature and scope of the divine, yet soberly brushes up against its limitations: “even in the act of thinking the Lord is rarely known.” This is striking, especially as it comes from tradition that squarely affirms the importance of knowledge joined with devotion to gain intimacy with the ultimate reality, here understood as lord Vishnu. Other Indian traditions, notably those informed by yoga, would hold something stronger than Nammalvar’s sober assessment of the scope of theology: the very act of thinking itself invariably perpetuates the mental processes that bind one to misidentifications and hence suffering. The answer: bring to end those processes, such that the mind, no longer clouded by the concatenation of thought, becomes transparent to the transcendent, ultimately issuing in a direct realization of the Self.

We see hints of a variant of this position in Dogen’s lines, which seem to reflect a typical Buddhist sensibility; “the way of letters leaves no trace”: that is, they are empty, empty of any referent, void of substance. Empirical phenomena, and hence the words to name them, are absent singular marks or characteristics; the use of words, from an un-awakened perspective, generates fundamental cognitive flaws that invariably lead to emotional disruptions. We think that things and ourselves are separate, enduring phenomena, and when we identify ourselves and things as such, we invariably suffer when the impermanent and insubstantial nature of reality reveal itself, that is, we might say, when the tracelessness of phenomena reveals itself. There is only process, flow, change, and interconnection.

So, “Cast away all speech.” Words may “express” phenomenal realities, but they cannot “hold” them; they cannot contain or fully capture any phenomenal event. There is no trace or signature to words… and yet, “the teaching is revealed.” Indeed, words are used to get beyond words, and poetry is the artistic vehicle that is perhaps best suited to do this. A good poem, according to Hamill and Seaton, is more than a sum of its words, but instead leads the reader into an understanding of the “great unsaid” that is contained within it (p. 5). In the lines of Nammalvar and Dogen, one is a theistic poet-saint and the other is a Zen master, we gain a glimpse of the limits of language and reason with respect to the Ultimate. In this essay, I wish to reflect upon not just the philosophical importance of such limits, but their axiological significance as well. My aim here is to explore—and in the end underscore—the moral potential of ineffability. While words may fall short in our understanding of the divine, they are nonetheless important in the process of incrementally—and perhaps asymptotically—gaining a more refined and deeper understanding, a process which best unfolds slowly, patiently, and humbly. At the same time, ineffability discourse which appears cross-culturally is a valuable resource in the world’s religions to mitigate the burdens of “certainties” and the consequential—and dangerous—toxin of arrogant knowing. In a powerful documentary on Scientology, the investigative reporter Lawrence Wright spoke of the interest that motivated his research; he was intrigued by a pattern occasionally seen in religions—and he studied Jonestown and radical Islam besides Scientology—where good-hearted, idealistic people are found who are “full of a kind of crushing certainty that buries doubt” (Gibney 2015). It is the “crushing certainty” that I wish to undermine by pointing to the axiological value of ineffability. And it is proper to be remember that while Scientology has demonstrated well-documented strategies of control (and abuse) in the name of “knowledge,” it by no means is the only religion to do so.

Naturally, we need words and concepts; without basic and broad-based agreement concerning them, society would be in disarray. Even certain Buddhist traditions, while affirming a liberating state beyond conceptual construction, nonetheless affirm the relative importance of words on the very path that will ultimately transcend them. Indeed, Dogen’s poem illustrates this. And Buddha himself, while warning of the danger of “views” as raw extensions of self, nonetheless used words as skillful means to teach the path to freedom.

Such intimates the importance of words in a conventional context while also pointing to the importance of going beyond words in particular soteriological contexts; but even in mundane contexts, there is a time to let words and concepts go, or at least our presuppositions and attachments underlying them. Doing so, as exemplified in the various apophatic traditions of the world’s religions, has the potential to generate connection and solidarity in interfaith relationships. Part of the reason for this is that humility—both in its expression of intellectual virtue, as epistemic humility, and moral virtue, as selflessness—appears to characterize at least some apophatic and spiritual traditions; moreover, humility is attractive—it draws people—while arrogance tends to put off or repel others. Epistemic humility, a powerful intellectual virtue owing to its shared foundation with moral humility, namely the absence of ego, thus has the potential to counteract the polarizing tendencies of arrogant knowing; a shared appreciation of diverse communities’ quest for the Ultimate is deepened in the solidarity of interfaith recognition and practice of epistemic humility.

Notes on Method

I am well aware that all “words” are situated in complex historical, social, philosophical, rhetorical, and political contexts. Thus, the insight, content, and agenda of the writers and texts that I refer to in this essay, beginning with Nammalvar and Dogen, are, I know, keyed to quite specific and deeply complex contexts. Here, I wish to recognize this fact, but it is beyond the scope of this essay to engage each context fully. To do so in a systematic manner is worthy of a book-length project; however, while it is beyond the scope of this essay, it is also beyond its agenda, which is to consider the philosophical importance of words—and the absence of words—while arguing a normative axiological claim: ineffability traditions can implicate the virtue of epistemic humility and that virtue should be cultivated in the world’s religious traditions.

Now, in using the plural subject above, I wish also to make clear that I am by no means assuming that ineffability traditions in the history of religions are always and everywhere the same. Much of the scholarship of the last generation has taken seriously, not without contention, Steven T. Katz’s “plea for the recognition of differences” in the study of religion (Katz 1978, p. 25). His call was a useful corrective to some comparativist tendencies to conflate phenomena (in his case study, “mysticism”) into overly broad categories, draining the phenomena of their specificity and significant differences. And certainly, traditions affirming the value—and even the soteriological truth—of ineffability typically differ in philosophical assumptions, including those of metaphysics, practical methods to realize an ultimate state, and some understanding of that ultimate state, if only as significant, provisional conditions for realizing it. Indeed, we do well to remember that while ineffability indicates the limits of verbal expression regarding the ultimate state—whether construed as God, Allah, fana, nirvana, or much more—it may not preclude a “knowing beyond knowledge,” that is, a direct perception of reality that transcends subject-object dichotomies (Forsthoefel 2002). And, tellingly, the Zen word satori, while indicating awakening, also includes in its semantic valence “comprehension” or “understanding”; this also seems to suggest a certain “knowing beyond knowledge,” as well, that is, a state of awareness that transcends conceptual presuppositions and subject-object dichotomies. Rupert Gethin, drawing from earlier Abhidharma traditions, notes that upon awakening “…the mind knows this unconditioned realm directly” (Gethin 1998, p. 77). Again, such “knowing” seems to transcend conventional knowledge patterns.

I recognize that a Sri Vaishnava saint and Zen master—or any other accomplished adept from other traditions—are distinct in significant ways. And yet, while recognizing those differences—for example, in their contexts, assumptions, methods, and goals—statements, spiritual writing, or poetic verses on ineffability do appear as cross-cultural phenomena, if philosophical, in the history of religions. And, just as we can make useful comparisons, carefully designed, about any human phenomenon and gain new insight about it, so we can about philosophical notions that appear cross-culturally. Such a comparative philosophical approach has gained long traction in the Academy and is the one I used in my study of Advaita Vedanta. A paper—or book—on comparative ineffabilities is worthy, rich, and warranted. But my goal is different and more limited for now: I wish to register the axiological—and even rhetorical—value of epistemic humility that can emerge out of ineffability discourse.

Epistemic humility carries the potential to bring people together and while serving as an antidote to the repellent vice of arrogance, particularly arrogant knowing. Religions which include versions of ineffability in their traditions should emphasize it in their contemporary teachings and discourses along with its concomitant intellectual virtue, epistemic humility. Such has the potential to attenuate religious tribalism, polarization, and the virulent hostilities born from what Wright called the “crushing certainty” of conviction or what I called arrogant knowing.

Finally, one last note. Occasionally, but especially at the end of this essay, I use what one reviewer suggested might be a “first person phenomenology.” In those passages, as a thought experiment, I constructively imagine what might happen when we meet the limits of knowledge and language, and especially our hold on concepts. It is my hope that such an experiment illustrates a process whose outcome has very real potential to enhance interfaith solidarity and minimize the polarization that is evident in tribal attachments to concepts.

On Knowing the Ultimate—Or Anything

We are faced with unavoidable limitation in all our efforts to know the Ultimate; however, the Ultimate is construed. We cannot really “know” God, or the Transcendent, or the Ultimate any more than we can know, completely, anything or anyone. We only continue getting to know another. In my Hinduism course, on the first day of class, I often read an epilogue by David Knipe to encourage my students, who are often overwhelmed by the bewildering complexity of Hinduism. I assure them that it is not surprising and perhaps even predictable to be occasionally overwhelmed in one’s studies in Hinduism, and even the best-trained experts do not know everything about this rich and complex tradition.

On the wall beside my desk is a photo taken many years ago of a darkly gnarled tree. From its branches hang a half a dozen heavy burlap packages, blackened with mildew from the rains. Together they are an awesome, mysterious image. They provide no clue as to what they are, although one suspects they may either be offerings to some local deity, ancestor, or power—named or nameless to the one who took the trouble to place them there—or bundles to draw away attention of the evil eye and therefore protect the area. As for the photo, it hangs as a reminder of how much of Hinduism I do not understand (Knipe 1991, p. 152).

Knipe’s humility is instructive. Hinduism appears unfathomable—as impossible to plumb its depths completely—and while this awareness may be particularly vivid concerning Hinduism’s depth and complexity, the awareness can be applied to any phenomena. We only ever “continue to know” more fully anything, including ourselves, our avocations, our interests, our partners and friends, and much more. Our “knowledge” is never static or complete but magnifies by further conversation and contact. The best relationships continue this mutual ongoing discovery of the other as well. And as we do this, we sometimes have to recalibrate our understanding of the other, letting go of an incomplete and partial understanding in favor of a truer, more complete (but still not final), complex understanding of the other. It is an act of justice, truth, and even love to do this. Reductive interpretations of anything are problematic because they fail to address the phenomenon’s complexity, often revealing a summary or even polemical dismissal of the phenomenon. Freud’s and Marx’s interpretations of religion are classic examples of this. Similarly, reductive assessments of our personalities, especially when indicating a summary dismissal of character, also tend to be off-putting. We recoil at being reduced to simplistic notions of our identity; we want to be known in our complexity. When we suffer reductive judgments, we might feel resentful; we feel our full humanity is unrecognized, inappropriately “condensed” to meet another’s need for simplistic conclusions or unspoken agenda. We are naturally put-off because we immediately recognize that the label or concept does not (and cannot) capture the “whole” of who we are. This can be exasperating or hurtful because the person does not really “see” the other but fits the other into preconceived judgments or assumptions.

Ironically, knowing anything or anyone more thus presupposes and requires unknowing, that is, actively letting go of our tidy conclusions in favor of something truer. And doing this is an expression of intellectual and moral virtue, including direct or implicit acts of honesty, justice, truth, and love; to know another in a more complete manner requires each of those qualities and requires perhaps above all humility. We learn that simplistic notions—say, of “right and wrong” or “you” or “me”—often no longer fit; this typically is due to our life experience, where our lives reveal the complex nature of human existence with far more subtlety and nuance that we might have ever imagined. There may be some temporary existential comfort in seeing things in black and white categorical terms, but life is not black and white. Every phenomenon is complex, subject to an intriguing array of histories and contexts. To be reductive, collapsing complexity into simple categories, is wrong on moral grounds and on principle; on the one hand, it fails the virtues of honesty and justice, and on the other, it fails in principle: reductivism cannot possibly ever fully capture the mystery of persons—or of anything really. It is no wonder, for example, that a Zen master can write that the entire universe can be put on the tip of a hair (Hanh 1988, p. 16). That may seem like poetic flourish, but it underscores the Buddhist insight that everything is infinitely complex and infinitely related to everything else. Every event—that is, every person, every phenomenon—is a mystery. This is neither a problem to figure out, nor mere sentiment. Rather, mystery is an experience to be lived as fully as possible, plumbing its depths, while at the same time growing comfortable with a sense of incompletion, a sense that insight, intuition, and awareness about any particular phenomenon is not limited or final; that there is always more to discover and to understand.

This dynamic may be evident in our own understanding of the Ultimate as well. Perhaps our tried and true concepts of this reality do not hold up under the weight of reflection and lived experience, and we need a “bigger God,” as it were, one marked by a more subtle, nuanced, and true understanding. Most students in college, for example, no longer hold the concept of God they may have had as a five-year old, perhaps a vision of an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne; this change in concept owes to life experience, education, and reflection. The original concept no longer fits.

The medieval Dominican mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, famously evoked this dynamic in his “Riddance” sermon: “Man’s last and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God” (as cited in Campbell 1986, p. 67). “Leaving God” here suggests the requirement to let go of our limited or faulty conceptualizations—including our projections—which limit a truer, more nuanced, and finally more adequate understanding of God, one finally that is experienced and not conceptualized. Such a prospect appears, at least in a prima facie manner, to share powerful affinities with Buddhist teaching. Indeed, an early expression of awakening in Buddhist thought is to see reality as it is, that is, a direct perception of reality untainted by conceptual overlays and presuppositions. In fact, while Buddhist teaching naturally promotes “right views”—which of course presumes words and concepts—on the path to realization, an awakened one technically holds no view at all; a Buddha sees reality as it is.

While active methods of unknowing are found in various religious traditions—such as in classical yoga, versions of Buddhist training, and the “Cloud of Unknowing” tradition in medieval Christianity, unknowing is also a frank comment concerning the limits to our capacity for comprehending the infinite. The finite and conditioned are by definition limited. The unconditioned or ultimate is unlimited. Words emerging from conditioned reality are themselves fundamentally limited; they cannot capture in a decisive and ultimate sense unconditioned reality. The best operative stance vis a vis the unconditioned? Epistemic humility.

There is an amusing and helpful anecdote in the old BBC documentary, Footprint of the Buddha (Montagnon 1977), which tries to convey the slippery difficulty of “understanding” nirvana. A monk offered an analogy to convey this difficulty, a shoal of tadpoles trying to understand life on land. They consult a frog to gain some understanding, but are quickly stymied. No, dry land does not have any fish. No, you cannot float over it. No, fresh air is not like water. The impression upon the tadpoles, says the narrator, is that such a state seems an impossible negative nowhere. But naturally the tadpoles’ questions, categories, and conceptualizations are—and could only be—fashioned from a particular and limited frame of experience. Similarly, “nirvana”—or “Brahman,” or “God”—speaks to a state or plane of reality that transcends categories which themselves are limited to particular frames. Indeed, a classic Hindu intimation of this truth appears in the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.9.1), which speaks of the supreme Brahman as the “site” “Whence words return, along with the mind, not attaining” (Radhakrishnan 1992, p. 552). Words fall short. Our discursive, analytical minds cannot contain or capture the divine.

If we, like the tadpoles to the frog, asked parallel questions of “nirvana” or “God” or “Brahman,” we would also hear a series of negative answers: it is not this or that. This via negativa in Hinduism is affirmed of course as far back as the Upanishads, and it is a current found in other religions as well, marking an interesting shared pattern that is worthy of underscoring not just for its philosophical value but its axiological potential as well. For some mystics and philosophers, the best we can do is to say what the Ultimate is not and by that begin to gain an intuition of its scope. And if the Ultimate is indeed transcendent, then it transcends our finite categories and frames. The upshot is, to return to the story conveyed by the monk: “With earthly thought, you cannot think nirvana” (Montagnon 1977). It is beyond our ability to capture or encompass conceptually, and therefore it is, by definition, beyond the scope of conventional comprehension.

The Argument for Words

Still, without tilting at windmills entirely, we can—and need to—continue making incremental inroads into a more complete understanding of the Ultimate, asymptotically approaching it with words. Why? On the one hand, striving to gain depth of knowledge concerning one’s passion is a natural trajectory for anyone fueled by devotion to a subject, whether profession, avocation, lover, or God. Most of us are not content with a superficial understanding of the persons and things we love. We read, study, learn the histories, and complexities of the subjects of our fascination, and the “Holy,” recalling Rudolf Otto, is the ultimate mystery, at once fascinating and tremendous. Ramanuja, the great Shri Vaishnava scholar and saint, understood the connection between devotion and knowledge, namely, that love is a particular kind of knowledge (Raghavachar 1978, p. 185). How? Love cathects the devotee to the object of devotion. Love propels the knowing. The Bhagavad Gita (11.54) neatly captures this dynamic as well: “By devotion alone can I, as I really am, be known and seen and entered into, Arjuna” (Stoler Miller 1986, p. 108).

The second reason is we need to develop a gradually refined understanding of the divine is moral. Much of our presumed “knowledge” of the sacred too often becomes an extension of ego, capitulated into group ego. And a collective egotism is one of the most dangerous forces on the planet, tending to objectify or reduce the other to stereotype or, worse, dehumanize or demonize them. This worst-case scenario shows too many historical examples to enumerate—and it manifests itself in religion, too, as witnessed by militant movements in the world’s religions up to and including the contemporary era. One thinks of the marauding violence of medieval Crusaders or the torture used by Inquisition for many centuries in Europe as well as Muslim extremists of the contemporary era delivering destruction with a phrase that strikes as blasphemous in this context, “Allahu Akbar,” “God is most great.” Arrogant knowing is a seed of conflict, whether personal, social, or religious, and too often issues in tragic harm.

Sometimes, however, we see a remarkable humility in mystics, saints, seers, and poets—and sometimes even in the world’s religious texts. The Nasadiya hymn in the Rig Veda is surprising, if not startling, in this way, and its last verses bear quoting;

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—

The one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know (Doniger O’Flaherty 1981, pp. 25-26).

“Who really knows?” Often, I ask my students to consider the impact of such a hymn, affirmed and validated as sacred utterance, upon the collective unconscious of those belonging to that tradition. The poem expresses a genuine epistemic humility in the face-presumed knowledge. That this gentle skepticism is encoded in scripture is remarkable. What does it mean that an authentic “unknowing” is affirmed in the very heart of a scripture? Might it generate, at least at the level of the collective unconscious, a potential or capacity to handle uncertainty and ambiguity? If so, this is a good thing. Indeed, we might recall that Freud’s definition of neurosis was precisely the inability to tolerate ambiguity. Since religions are founded and driven by great existential questions, to which tight, easy answers are often elusive, we might say, against Freud, that religion in its best moments moves people to maturity, rather than being an expression of neurosis itself. Unfortunately, given the witness of history, religions do not always rise to these heights and instead settle for controlling dogmatism grounded in institutional self-interest.

Most scriptures are viewed, in their respective traditions, as revelation, some insight into the ultimate nature of things, often understood as unknowable by mere empirical observation. In theistic traditions, such revelation comes from an external, divine source, while in traditions that do not recognize the supreme importance of god or gods, revelation comes from within, an internal realization. But words inevitably surround revelation, no matter the tradition. This is natural and understandable for the reason I have suggested above and emphasize here. If there is an Ultimate, words are required to teach, offer methods to access that Ultimate, and provide a justification and rationale for those methods. Words drive the knowing, even if unknowing must eventually play its role. So, the words of the tradition, the conceptual maps, as it were, hence become the object of much attention, investment, and even competition. Given the human need for meaning, this is unsurprising and understandable: again, the object of our devotion propels us into deeper knowing. The problem emerges, however, when such conceptual maps become an extension of ego, capitulated into group ego. In this case, revelation careens far away from what it might be—a vehicle for liberation—instead becoming an instrument of power and domination, not truth and freedom. The worst-case scenario obtains when revelation is used to objectify, demean, and even dehumanize the non-believer leading to grotesque distortions of truth and justice. The Inquisition and the Islamic State are just two examples where “truth” becomes a cudgel to demonstrate the rightness of one and the wrongness of the other, absolutized such that murderous tactics become acceptable. In such cases, it appears that “truth” is conflated with in terms of material power and control. But humility serves as an antidote to dominant self-assertion, whether at the individual or social level. Ineffability discourse in the world’s religions, however emerging in different in contexts and with different assumptions, methods, and goals, nonetheless appears, at least in a prima facie manner, to point to the limits of knowledge of the Ultimate, at least on the conventional or relative level. Here, I wish to emphasize an axiological corollary of ineffability, one grounded in epistemic humility, which has the potential to transcend, or at least mitigate, sectarian conflict. Humility requires letting go of self-centered attachments, including attachments to power, control, and concepts. While the world’s religious traditions demonstrate negative historical models of arrogant knowing, fortunately they also demonstrate constructive examples of the power of humility from poets, saints, and seers.


“This love is beyond the range of language…,” writes Rumi (Barks 1993, p. 25). However, settling into a state beyond the range of language may require surrendering a hold on our concepts, letting go of control, our “hold” on the world as “known.” This may be frightening, perhaps intensely so, because we tend to gain a sense of comfort in our operating assumptions of the world, ourselves, others, and the Ultimate, and when these are destabilized, we might feel unmoored. If our assumptions are subverted to the extreme, we may feel profoundly at sea, tossed into a kind of mental chaos where the world (or more precisely the way we perceive the world) no longer is what it appears, and this shattering of categories can feel traumatic. When our tried and true assumptions are called into question by life, we may feel threatened, the ego then circling the wagons in defense. But the “death of ego” here really implies the surrender or letting go that is seminal and central to the process of bodily death as well. We might be stubborn or resistant in our dying, but eventually we do let go. So, too, with the ego, though stubbornness and its unhappy consequences can persist for quite some time.

Paradoxically, love both consumes our “need to know”—in categorical, controlling terms—yet propels us into deeper knowing. By that I mean, love invites us into the “cloud of unknowing,” to draw upon that powerful medieval metaphor, where our concepts, our tidy understandings of the Ultimate dissolve, but, paradoxically, we gain a deeper, felt realization, beyond that proposed by intellect. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing reminds the aspirant in fact to suppress thought, for “love may reach up to God himself even in this life—but not knowledge” (Wolters 1983, p. 73). Bede Griffiths, the great English sage, mystic and exponent of interfaith dialog, often spoke of the significance of “darkness,” darkness here reflecting a cognitive state in which our concepts and presumed knowledge of God dissolve (Swindells 1993). Even Jesus, Griffiths suggested, entered this darkness, especially on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, on this interpretation, also apparently needed to confront and surrender his various projections of God. This we might do as well as we enter more deeply into the mystery of ourselves, others, and the Ultimate, perhaps realizing the limitation or “death” of ill-fitting concepts or categories, so that something deeper and truer may emerge.

The poets and mystics of our traditions invite us to reflect soberly on our so-called “knowledge” of the Ultimate, leading us to a truer knowledge that transcends overly tight conceptual categories; this has the potential of freeing those categories from the snares of individual or group egotism. A focus on ineffability, reflected upon in philosophy and shown in poetry, can be a means to build solidarity among kindred spirits in faith while reducing, perhaps slowly, the polarization and objectification that ensues in arrogant knowing. Rather than being stymied by the limits of language, loving the ineffable—appreciating the limits to knowledge of the Ultimate by epistemic humility—can lead to deeper solidarity and greater maturity among and within our world’s religious traditions.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Religious StudiesMercyhurst UniversityErieUSA

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