The Difficult Matter of Adam and Eve

Two days ago I blogged about Bryan College and its requirement (reported on by The New York Times) that the college's faculty must now pledge its fidelity to a particular understanding of Genesis 3: namely, that God created Adam and Eve "by a special formative act, not from previously existing life forms." This position is unsupported by a number of converging sectors of modern science, and it raises once more the question of the status of Adam and Eve in Christian and specifically Catholic theology. 

It's no stretch to say that this issue—the historicity or non-historicity of Adam and Eve, or some other third way—is one of the most vexing issues in Catholic theology. In my own teaching experience, few issues confound students more than this topic. There may be no passage in Scripture that more dramatically brings forth the tensions between faith and reason, between the claims of religion and the facts of modern science.  

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How, precisely, does the Catholic Church understand the matter?

The encyclical Human Generis, issued by Pius XII in 1950, says the following:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
 

This seems to be pretty clear: Catholics must believe that an actual Adam truly existed. Moreover, and this is perhaps more challenging, Pius XII says Catholics must reject polygenism, the theory that humans descended from more than one original pair. Put another way, Pius XII seems to be requiring Catholics to embrace monogenism—i.e., that we all descended from Adam and Eve. But modern science falls squarely on the side of polygenism: see, for example, this story from NPR and this thorough article on the matter from the Biologos foundation.

Adding another layer to consider, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: "The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents."

What are we to make of this juxtaposition -- that between figurative language an actual primeval event? Is the Church meaning to say it's a historically true event captured in poetic terms? When it says "at the beginning of the history of man" and "our first parents," is this to be understood as a rejection of polygenism (per Humani Generis), or something else? 

Lots of questions, and an ideal topic for an ambitious graduate student, not to mention a new encyclical.  

In the meantime, what is a Catholic to think? Although questions remain, a number of commentators have undertaken to provide clarity on this question. I recently cited the excellent and thorough overviews of America contributor and biblical scholar John W. Martens (see here and here). You can also see David Gibson's blog entry on the matter (with a number of helpful links) from November 2011 at dotCommonweal. And not least, see the video below from Fr. Robert Barron, who says of Adam: "We're not talking about a literal figure; we're talking in theological poetry."

 

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Michael Cobbold
3 years 4 months ago
Would it be considered necessary (?) to believe in the existence of A & E, if there were not the connection with the dogma of original sin ? What importance have they for the Church, apart from that ?
Bruce Snowden
3 years 4 months ago
Regarding our First Parents. It is my theory that, at a moment chosen by God to do what he saw as already fulfilled, human measurements of no consequence, he selected from the existing gene pool a man and a woman to become our First Parents of the initial First Family of the People of God, gifted graciously as was the Blessed Virgin Mary, accommodated to their assigned missions. Through Revelation we discover that God’s Family continued its development down to the Church, which is the most perfect fulfillment of what began hrough Adam and Eve. It is my suggestion that this endowment on the human soul of Sanctifying Grace was simultaneous to wherever the application of that Divine Intent existed, in other words to wherever the human persona had migrated however it happened, thus making possible the parental linkage through Grace, to the First Parents in Grace, making all humanity eligible for membership in the developing Family of God, which as previously explained culminated in the Church, its most perfect fulfillment. Remember with God, 80,000 years, 120,000 years, 200,000 years the passage of time is meaningless. For God, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as one day. The origin of man in God's view is as if it happened yesterday. This hypothesis is offered non-credentially, simply as a contribution from a Believer trying to live by Faith, awaiting in God's time and in his way total understanding in the Land of the Living.
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
Matt, I would not accept the science presented as the final story especially coming from Biologos and NPR. Like Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story. Both Biologos and modern science assumes certain things as opposed to proving them. One is common descent. This has to be a conclusion, not an assumption and both Biologos and modern science assume it. Pseudogenes are interesting but irrelevant. Now it may be true that there is some level of common descent but whether one assumes it or believes they have proven it, in no way does it prove how this descent actually happened. Science has no proof of any mechanism or process that could produce different species. Everyone assumes that it happens via something called natural selection but the literature does not cite one specific example where there is proof that this has happened. It can cite large numbers of species appearing and disappearing and can show how they are related to each other by anatomical and genetic similarities but it can not show how each independently appeared. Years ago I thought this was a slam dunk argument but then learned the other half of the story, the one that Biologos does not want to discuss or that NPR and others will ignore. In a review of a book on Evolution by Niles Eldredge a few years ago, the reviewer made an astonishing admission. There never has been a documented instance of a new species arising by any natural means. Am I kidding? Here is the reference to a review of Eldredge's book by Alan H. Linton, emeritus professor of bacteriology, University of Bristol. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/159282.article In it Linton makes the following statement:
Despite the conciliatory comments in the final chapter, the book's title is essentially emotive and provocative. Since most theories, if proven to be false, are rejected by scientists, Eldredge claims that, after 150 years, science has failed to disprove the theory of evolution and, therefore, "evolution has triumphed". In other words, the theory of evolution rests on the failure of science to show that it is false. Nevertheless, he believes the theory can be scientifically tested. But where is the experimental evidence? None exists in the literature claiming that one species has been shown to evolve into another. Bacteria, the simplest form of independent life, are ideal for this kind of study, with generation times of 20 to 30 minutes, and populations achieved after 18 hours. But throughout 150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another, in spite of the fact that populations have been exposed to potent chemical and physical mutagens and that, uniquely, bacteria possess extrachromosomal, transmissible plasmids. Since there is no evidence for species changes between the simplest forms of unicellular life, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for evolution from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, let alone throughout the whole array of higher multicellular organisms.
One of the supposedly shining lights of evolution are something called Darwin's finches. These are a group of birds that inhabit the Galapagos islands and are offered up as evolution in action with changes taking place within a few years. But the researchers (Rosemary and Peter Grant) who have spent their life investigating these birds made a startling announcement. They are all just one species and after being on the Galapagos for 3 million years they all can inner breed with each other just as humans from all over the planet can inner breed. They also said it would take about 20 million years before a new species would arise. There is a long video on this as part of a celebration of Darwin at Stanford in 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMcVY__T3Ho Ok, we may be descended from a certain species of primate, x million of years ago but how did it happen. Biologos and NPR will not tell you how. They avoid the discussion. Oh, they say it happened by natural selection acting on normal variation that appears in the gene pool each generation. But as I just said there has never been proof that this actually does much of anything. How new species appear is a mystery of science despite Darwin's book and its title. Now to Adam and Eve. it is pretty certain they did not live 6,000 years ago but could they have been real and have been the first humans. Definitely. They would represent a bottleneck of two and in genetics that is a no-no for any chance to develop a healthy genetic population. Take any fertile male and female and send them off to an island. After a while they will have several children and these children would mate and soon the population would grow but it would not be a healthy one as there would only be limited variation in the gene pool. But genetics assumes variation in this population arising only according to natural means. In other words they assume there is no God or individual intervening. So in order to prove that Adam and Eve did not exist they have to assume there is no God, and that the only way that genetic variation arises is through normal natural means. In other words both Biologos and NPR assume there is no God or if there is one that He does nothing. That is not the God of Catholicism or Christianity. So in order to show that Adam and Even could not exist one has to deny the presence of God. I would look to the Sistine Chapel ceiling then to Biologos. And humans are incredibly different from chimps especially in the regulatory controls on the genome of humans that could not have arisen by any process known to science. So what happened on the savannas of Africa a long time ago? Something truly amazing and natural selection or any other naturalistic process cannot begin to explain it.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
J, it appears your source is out of date. There is evidence of at least one new species of bacteria forming under laboratory conditions: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/02/evolution-in-real-time/ It took over 50,000 generations in this case. Now notice that, even for mice, a generation takes on the order of 3 months, so 50,000 generations means 12,500 years for a new species of mouse. That is, playing very fast and loose here, we might expect there to have emerged one new species of mouse (with perhaps others dying out) since humans began farming. Then the question is: how many years would it take for scientists to prove common descent to your satisfaction, if it were true? Peace be with you.
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
There is evidence of at least one new species of bacteria forming under laboratory conditions
It will be interesting to see just what this new species actually is. I am familiar with the Lenski experiments in the sense that I have read reviews of his results. It is an immense and very interesting series of experiments. There is nothing published that indicates that his bacteria have actually developed anything new or that if there is a new species is it one based on the development of any systems which add a new capability. From what I understand of the new citrate capability, it does not represent a new protein system in the organism but comes about from a degrading of a current protein and some gene duplications that move a promoter closer to the system used for citrate transport through the cell wall. In other words the cells already had the ability to utilize citrate but lacked the ability to import citrate into the cell. The protein system for cell transport was also there but was not enabled because the promoter for the transport was too far away to express the proteins necessary. Now, I am not sure if the current presentation by Lenski represents any recent discoveries of new capabilities or that the so called new species is one that represents a building of anything new but rather a degradation of a current capability. There was a very cryptic phrase in the article.
In further testing to determine if the new bacteria were different enough to qualify as a new species, Lenski’s researchers found that beyond changes to the genes responsible for glucose and citrate consumption, other changes had occurred in the organism that had made it less fit to survive in a glucose-only environment, “We find they are getting less fit in the ancestral niche over time,” Lenski said. “I would argue that citrate users are — or are becoming — a new species.”
So we will have to see just what this new species really is. It is possible to create a new species in any organism by degrading it. This however, is not what the evolution debate is about. And the new species which is actually less fit than the parent is an example of descent. It is however not one that would give credence to the concept of universal common descent which means that there was substantial building of complex systems within organisms over time. That barrier has apparently not been broken. We would see massive news releases if that were so and Lenski getting ready for his Nobel prize. This may happen but the quiet nature of this presentation at Harvard and the lack of anything earth shattering in the presentation probably means he is just adding some refinements on his published studies. Let's wait and see just what this new species actually is.
Now notice that, even for mice, a generation takes on the order of 3 months, so 50,000 generations means 12,500 years for a new species of mouse.
I fail to understand what this point is about. Are you saying they know how new mouse species arose or just that new ones appeared. If so then be more specific. I would look at drosophila or beetles.. There are supposedly millions of species of these organisms. I pointed out after 3 million years that Darwin's finches are still just one species.
Then the question is: how many years would it take for scientists to prove common descent to your satisfaction, if it were true?
I am not sure what this statement means. It sounds like a put down. Some descent is possible but what is meant by the term "common descent" here. If you read my comment again, I do not rule out some descent but made a point that there is no known mechanism that can explain it. As far as "universal common descent", there is no known naturalistic process that can justify accepting it. The problem is how is all the new information created in the genome over the course of history. Nobody has a clue.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
J, please do not interpret my question as a put-down. I am sorry if I worded it in a snarky way, but I am genuinely interested if it is something you have thought about. First, let me acknowledge that I have learned a lot from following your links and doing some brief Google research to learn more about speciation. The finches example is interesting, but I suspect you are cherry-picking your sources on it: http://www.wired.com/2010/11/darwin-finch-speciation/ In any case, I've learned that there is still very much we don't understand about speciation. On the other hand, there is a lot we do know about speciation: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/speciation.html (Notice that this link actually predates your links..) So my question, rephrased, is that if you think of the most plausible theory of how speciation works that you know of, how long do you think it would take to observe the process of speciation to completion in the laboratory (using bacteria or whatever you think would be most conducive for such a study)?
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
I am genuinely interested if it is something you have thought about.
In the last 15 years I have read about 50 books on the subject by those who support some form of neo Darwinism or what is called the Modern Synthesis (usually just called the evolutionary synthesis today) to those who debunk it. I have also watched a couple hundred hours of video by people on both sides of the argument. The debunkers win hands down. The argument is not over the fact that new life forms appeared on the planet in the last 3.8 billion years, but how did they appear. If you subscribe to a naturalistic point of view, the only honest answer is it is a mystery. It all comes down to the generation of biological information. Science has no coherent answer to this issue of information generation. So yes I have thought about it. Terms like "science", "species", "life" and "evolution"are hard to pin down and there is no clear definition on each of them. Species is usually taken to be the ability to interbreed in multi-cellular organisms but that fails in many places including bacteria which are microbes since they do not interbreed. The Grants are recognized as the most knowledgeable people in the world on the Galapagos Finches. Though they are getting old but still involved. I objected to the use of Biologos as a source for scientific information on this topic. They are known to be ideologues and have a specific agenda to push. One by the way that many Catholics have bought into. As to how speciation would work in nature and the laboratory, I do not know and know that no one knows. If I did, I would be lining up for my Noble. Oh, there is one way to create a new species in the laboratory. It is called synthetic biology and involves the replacement or adding of new DNA to the genome of a current species. This happens all the time in labs around the world but it is not a naturalistic process.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
In other words, you are not willing to answer my question, which would require you to select whichever naturalistic account of speciation you find most plausible (however implausible in absolute terms) and calculate how many years it would take to observe speciation under laboratory conditions if that account were true. From my perspective, logically, if all these scientists can study this stuff for decades and be dead wrong (as you believe), it is equally likely if not more so that you could read 50 books over 15 years and still be mistaken, right?
J Cosgrove
3 years 4 months ago
In other words, you are not willing to answer my question
Interesting approach. It seems the tact is to now attack me as ignorant or confused or deliberately misleading. How can I provide an answer when there is no known answer. I said an honest person would say it is a mystery. This seems more like a trial lawyer trying to trip up a witness and from a trial lawyer who knows nothing about the topic under discussion. You would be asking different questions if you knew anything. If you ask someone who believes in naturalistic evolution (and by that I mean every single instance of a new life form arising came about from 100% naturalistic processes) the most common answer is natural selection. But natural selection represents a culling process, not a building process. By definition there will be less variation in the gene pool after natural selection than before. There is no building with natural selection. What is proposed is that there will be mutations that increase the gene pool variation and from these mutations some will help the organism survive in different environments. Often these mutations represent a lost of function as well as supposedly providing a new function. This is apparently what has happened in some of Lenski's bacteria though there were others that helped with the expression of some proteins which is really not the developement of something new. But from what I understand nothing new was built in Lenski's bacteria that was a new system. A promoter was moved closer to a coding section and then expressed the code into a protein. But the coding for the protein was already there. In other more complicated genomes over time they will accumulate non functional DNA which some believe is the origin of new systems for a population. As this non functional DNA mutates is supposedly becomes a new coding region for a protein that then becomes functional. There are a few isolated examples of this happening but none of any consequence. So how to explain all the complicated inter connected complexity of the cell and multi cellular organism. Nothing has been found which solves the information problem. As far as time, it would probably take a trillion times a trillion universes of trillions of years to get a couple functional proteins that work together let alone the tens of thousands that are needed. People have done the math and I am just making a crude summation of it. I suggest you read Stephen Meyer's Darwin's Doubt and Michael Behe's Edge of Evolution and come back. The hostile interrogation is getting a little tedious.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
I haven't intentionally been hostile, so I thank you for your patience if it has seemed that way to you. I'm disappointed that I come across as not knowing anything at all. I understand now that you find my question so absurd that you could only give a nonsense answer if you tried. I haven't heard someone defend this point of view since I saw Michael Behe explain his ideas at Rice University while I was working on my bachelors in biophysics, so I have learned a lot, and I appreciate your explanations. Happy feast of the Ascension!
Michael Barberi
3 years 4 months ago
Whether one views Genesis as mysticism or poetic theology, does not answer a few questions that are important to the understanding of Christian theology. 1. If Adam and Eve were real persons and our first parents, how do we answer the issue that most of the people of the world today never heard of Jesus or the Christian faith? If all of us evolved or descended from our first parents, A & E, are all of us children of God? If so, how are we all be redeemed and inherit everlasting life in accordance with the Catholic Faith if many of people of the world never heard of it? 2. Did God choose a particular sub-set of the world's population to be His people? That is what the Jewish religion teaches. What about all other other people of the world? What is their final destiny, especially those who live by the tenants of their non-Catholic, Christian faith? Is the answer: everlasting life for all of us is based on the mercy and grace of God? 3. I was born into Catholicism. I did not choose it. I am a faithful Catholic and I believe in the fundamentals of my faith. Was I chosen to be a child of God and blessed to be a member of the Catholic faith? Where those born into a Buddhist culture, not chosen to be God's children and not blessed by the salvation that Jesus taught? 4. Can non-Catholic, Christian people, who live faithfully by their religions, gain everlasting life if they don't believe that certain acts are immoral and sinful as proclaimed by the Catholic Church? What about the final destiny of Catholics who do not receive certain teachings of the Catholic magisterium (e.g., contraception)? I don't let these questions, or the lack of adequate answers keep me up at night. However, they are legitimate questions and relevant to the conversation and Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and Salvation.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
Michael, have you read the relevant sections of the Catholic Catechism? Read paragraphs 839-856 and see if you still have questions: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p3.htm (Also, on your question 4, be sure to check out the section of the Catechism on sin: www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm The truth is that if a person doesn't understand that something is immoral, it is not a mortal sin. The person is still doing harm and so it would be much better for them to come to see the truth, but the God of Jesus is hardly going to hold guilt over their heads when "they know not what they do," even if that thing amounts to murder. Praise God!)
Michael Barberi
3 years 4 months ago
Tim, Thanks for your comments. I will review them. I posited these questions for a number of reasons that were not clear. Hence, I will take responsibility for that. Let me try again. I find some aspects of the Catechism similar to scapegoating. For example, if a Catholic in good conscience disagrees with a magisterium teaching, they are classified as invincible ignorant, misguided, or inflected with some type of secular evil that prevents them from recognizing, understanding and living the truth. In such cases, the magisterium says they sin but they are not fully accountable for their guilt, or their guilt is mostly or completely negated because they do not know what they are doing. I was taught in Catholic elementary school that Protestants were misguided and they did not possess fullness of truth that Catholics have. It sounded like the spiritual journey of Protestants were much more difficult, and less certain, than the Catholic journey. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then we can say the same about the people of other religions. I continue to be perplexed why God did not bring the message of salvation in Jesus to all the peoples of the world. Like I said, I do not let such questions keep me up at night. They are a mystery to me. I am focused on striving to become the man God wishes me to be. Most of the answers to these questions will not be known with certainty until we get to heaven, God willing.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
Dear Michael, Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I connect (I think) with the pain you describe at the way you perceive scapegoating in the Catechism. I do indeed have a better sense of where your questions were coming from. I just want to offer a brief thought. In the words of Alison: "He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” Knowing perfectly well that the texts of the law can be made to say many things, Jesus asks the lawyer not only what the text says, but also how he interprets the law." It may sound like I am being sneaky or something by saying it is important to read the Catechism for mercy, not sacrifice, as if I am trying to twist the words to say something they don't really mean. But remember that it's not just a cliche to say that Satan can quote even Scripture (and even more so the Catechism). Both Matthew and Luke found it sufficiently important to recount Satan doing so even in their rather brief accounts of the Good News. And the way Satan interprets things can often enough ring true to our death-bound ears. Thus we need to learn to somewhat mistrust our sense of "of course that's what that means" and listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, praying for the guidance of the Spirit. What I'm getting at is that it is important to remember that our elementary school teachers (and whoever else has taught us these topics) are weak sinners like us, and they may not have successfully taught the true fullness of the Catholic faith. Without a doubt, many parts of the Catechism can be read as a form of scapegoating, and it is often tempting to do so because it can feel so satisfying for an audience, which any teacher desperately wants to win over. Note that the same section I linked to in my earlier comment acknowledges that "men of both sides were to blame" for the division that has arisen between Catholics and Protestants. It continues, "...one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church." ...Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation..." Of course, there are also statements to the effect that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, which any sensible religious group aims for. (If a group didn't think their beliefs were the truth, they ought to modify their beliefs.) Finally, I just want to clearly affirm that God *is* bringing the message of salvation in Jesus to all the peoples of the world. (And there are multiple places in which the Catechism clearly states this, if you are interested.) It hasn't happened fully yet, and that is largely because of the weakness and failings of we Christians, feeble waiters. And if the Catholic journey is indeed easier and more sure, then I am certain God wants it for all. (If not, not.)
Michael Barberi
3 years 4 months ago
Tim, Thanks for your further thoughts. I do not disagree with you. I do believe that God will bring all His people to the joy of His salvation, regardless if one has heard or witnessed his Gospel. I respect all people of faith, including Buddhists. I do not believe in violence in any manner and certainly not in the name of God. Our journey in life is a human journey and even the Crusades were a questionable judgment, as are most wars. I purchased Alison's course and will be starting my journey in his philosophy tomorrow. As for the subject we were talking about, I don't let it prevent me from my relationship with Christ or my love of neighbor. I do try to understand fully both sides of an argument (e.g., about certain moral teachings) before I make any type of judgment of conscience. When I do, and it is in tension with the magisterium, it is a temporary judgment because I remain open to further education, as I believe we all should. I am moved and excited by the focus that Pope Francis is asking of us, and I am also intrigued by the philosophy of Alison. Let's pray that the pastoral applications of many moral norms are changed so that the doors of salvation are open to all who seek Christ, in particular the divorced and remarried, those born with a same sex orientation, those who responsibly practice contraception in a marriage with children and want no more good reasons (e.g., they do not have a anti-life attitude...meaning if a child is born by accident, e.g., contraception fails, the couple will welcome the child into their families with unconditional love). In the end, no pun intended, I rely on the mercy, grace and justice of God. Mercy and justice are not two independent virtues or aspects of God, but one. When we both get to heaven, God willing, we will both know the truth.
Tim Huegerich
3 years 4 months ago
Beautiful.
Michael Barberi
3 years 4 months ago
Tim, I read the links, in particular the first one. I understand that all the people of the world are God's children and they are all being called to God in many different ways. Unfortunately or fortunately, many Catholics have left the Church to seek God in another Church that to them offer a better understanding of the message of God's forgivingness and salvation. Other Catholics remain in the Church but work to move the conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth, especially with respect to certain moral teachings. They are faithful Catholics, not dissenters. The Catholic Church has always been in conflict throughout the centuries over disagreements about faith and moral. The issues in dispute today are different than in the past, but the debates no less tenacious. Today we live in a divided Church and in a crisis in truth. This has both negative and positive implications. I continue to believe that the Holy Spirit guides its Church, the People of God, in both agreement and disagreement. In the realm of things, such disagreements are not very important to the call of Jesus to love God and neighbor as He wills it. Thanks again for your thoughts and educational links.
Matt Emerson
3 years 4 months ago

Thank you to everyone who has offered a comment or a response. I really appreciate your reading and your willingness to contribute to this discussion. 

Anono Miss
2 years 10 months ago
Hello Michael, I read the dialogue between you and Tim after reading this article. There is something I wish to share with you but prefer not to openly post. If you are interested my email address is [email protected] (My first name is Susan) :)

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