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Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

I believe in an ultimate divine unity that encompasses all things–humans, gods, the universe–and is also beyond all things. Because it is everything and more, it is at once like all things individually and like nothing else in the universe. It can be intimately known in the smallest, simplest facet of the world at the same time as it can never be known because it is utterly unknowable: to know a flower, a song, a human touch, a thunderstorm, or a Ford Mustang is both to know it completely and to not know it at all. To touch the smallest thing is to touch the face of God. We cannot work to grow closer to God because being close to God is meaningless: we are always close to God because we are God.

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Here it is, the summer solstice, one of the most significant pagan holidays, and I’m just not sure how to celebrate it at all. I’m still kind of stumbling about with regards to how to express my newfound faith. I have been developing a fairly close relationship with my gods, and that has brought a lot to me spiritually, but I still am looking for some kind of practice that will tie my spiritual life together more fully. And I am still convinced that an exclusive devotion to Hellenismos just is not the right answer for me. I have more to say on that than I said in that earlier post, but it is a bit off-topic at the moment, so it will have to wait.

I have an attraction to Druidry, and I have continued to think hard about the Ancient Order of Druids in America, but that path doesn’t seem to have quite clicked yet. Part of that is pure laziness on my part and chaos in my life (annual training with the National Guard, studying for the bar exam), but a lot of it is pure stalling and hesitation or a lack of a clear beginning, a point at which I commit myself and say “okay, I am actually going to do this, starting today. I’m not really sure what is holding me back.

But in any case, I’m sitting here on the longest day of the year, feeling like it should be somehow both festive and spiritually significant, but feeling that it is in fact neither. And I’m not sure what to do about it. I kind of wish I had some like-minded pagans to celebrate and worship with. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I’ve been looking into the ADF: they have a grove (relatively) nearby, with even a group of Hellenic druids who get together to worship separately.

Any ideas?

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I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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One of the major issues I perpetually grapple with as I figure out what I believe is a concept I have come to call “boxed religion.” By boxed religion, I mean religion where all the pieces are handed to you as if you have bought it in a complete set, with everything included in the box. The religion gives you a holy book, a way to understand it, a set of appropriate spiritual practices, a set of answers for all of your questions, a definable bunch of things you are supposed to be doing, thinking, and feeling as a member. Mormonism is a paradigmatic example of boxed religion: it is a complete package, with a program for everything, and a clearly-defined path of spiritual progression for the new convert as well as the longtime member, clear expectations, and a limited set of practices and doctrines, all made legitimate by the stamp of approval of the regulating hierarchy.

There’s something simple about boxed religion. You can throw yourself right into it headfirst; you don’t have to think about whether some doctrine or practice is appropriate for you, or if it fits, or if it brings you closer to god. If they seem wrong or unproductive, it’s you who is the problem, and needs to be brought into line.

Most major world religions aren’t as boxed as this, I think. But there’s a spectrum with coercive hierarchical NRMs like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses at one end, and the spiritual-but-not-religious dude who pretty much does whatever seems right to him at the other.

It may seem obvious to most people that religion-in-a-box isn’t going to work for everyone. But here’s the thing: I was raised with boxed religion. For me, boxed religion–something that probably seems extreme to most people–is the norm, and departures from the model of boxed religion feel less legitimate and less valid. I’m used to being told what I am supposed to do, spiritually speaking. Without a checklist of things I am supposed to be going to be right with God, I flounder. I don’t know what to do. I don’t do anything, actually. And then I blog about how confused I am.

At the same time, I have been seriously burned by boxed religion and I have had to face the fact that boxed religion, as much as I feel like I can’t function without it, is never going to work for me. When I start to embrace religion that comes more or less out of a box, I start to feel foolish, like I am playacting or LARPing. Only boxed religion seems like it should be valid and legitimate, but boxed religion feels horribly, horribly wrong. I inevitably wind up submitting too much, and trying to change my beliefs to bring them in line with what comes out of the box in an exercise of trained deference to religious hierarchy, no matter how shaky its authoritative claim on me is. And then I feel like I have compromised myself, and I wind up really uncomfortable with the corner I have painted myself into spiritually.

And when it comes down to it, I have a hard time keeping myself from looking for boxed religion. What do I do when I have some spiritual experiences with Greek gods? Decide that I am going to practice Hellenismos, and let my religion be wholly dictated to me by ancient Greek people and modern people who want to emulate them. And it feels wrong. So I run away from it, and almost run away from the gods altogether, after I have finally had the kind of spiritual experiences I have been yearning for.

What’s the answer here? Honestly, I think I have to deal with my issues here. My gut wants to look to other people to lend legitimacy to my spiritual life. But there’s something broken about that. The fact that some dude thinks I should be doing X has nothing to do with whether doing X will really bring me closer to the divine.

On the other hand, I have a nagging feeling that there actually is something to submitting yourself to something greater, and I think tradition should not be lightly thrown away, even if I don’t give it the total, supreme deference that I used to feel like I should give Revelation From God Through His Living Prophet. The problem with that attitude in paganism generally, however, is that–all wishful fiction aside–there isn’t really much in the way of tradition to fall back on.

I need spiritual practices and a source for something like beliefs and theology, I need to feel like my spiritual life is valid and legitimate, and I think that submission to something outside of yourself–even if it is nothing but the will of the divine–is actually an important part of religious life. But boxed religion, which gives me all of those things, inevitably fails meet my spiritual needs. So what do I do?

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I absolutely love Christmas.  I love the music, the decorations, the cookies, the shopping, the presents, the smiles, and the colored lights. The commercialism of Christmas just doesn’t bother me.  It’s fun, and its only once a year (commercialism the rest of the year bothers me).

I can remember each Christmas distinctly going back to when I was six years old, and I have hazy memories of Christmases before that.  These memories are some of my favorite memories, some of the best and most important times I have shared with my family.  Christmas for me is the true mark of the turning of the year and the passage of time.

The spiritual side of Christmas has always seemed incredibly important as well.  The religious side—the birth of Jesus and all it means for the world.  It is amazing to me.  Of all Christmas carols, I like the sacred ones the most.  While I love the glitz and the sparkle and the watered-down-TV-special stuff, the things about Christmas that are really meaningful to me—really meaningful, are the baby in the manger, no room in the inn, shepherds watching their flocks by night, a new star in the sky, angels proclaiming the birth, and the three wise men.  All that Christmas means, explicitly and symbolically, is precious to me.  For most of my life, the sacred meaning of Christmas has been enough to hold me to Christianity even when my faith was weak and other options seemed more interesting.

Because of my attachment to the sacred core of the holiday, last Christmas was hard for me.  It was the first Christmas in my life where I had serious doubts about whether or not I was a Christian, and so I was not sure what to think or feel about Christmas.  We weren’t going to church at the time, so there were no Christmas services.  I just wasn’t sure what to make of Christmas, and it made the holiday confusing and even a little bit painful for me.  If I am not a Christian, then what is the point of Christmas?  And Christmas has been so important and valuable to me, that losing it—or even losing just its sacred core, is something I don’t really know how to cope with.

So here I am, a year later, and not really any closer to figuring out what I believe—or what I want to believe.  I can’t call myself a Christian and feel honest about it, and so I don’t know what to make of Christmas.  But there’s something in that sacred core of the holy day that I yearn for.  What do I do?

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I was going to continue this series of posts, but it stopped seeming as important after awhile.  In the itnerests of continuity, I will publish the rest of my notes on the parts I didn’t finish.  Forthe record, I am writing this in April 2009, in the process of going back and filling in the blanks in this here blog o’ mine.

These notes are incomplete, and probably really vague in spots, but they were only meant to be an outline. Maybe they make sense in this context; I’m not sure. Anyway, here they are.

III. Religious Choices and their Values

So to recap, at this point in my life I am more interested in religion as a pathway to a source of objective morality than I have previously been. Objective morality is not the only factor I am considering—many of the elements in my thought process can’t properly be described as “factors” or things that I am “considering” at all. More than anything else, I am drawn to particular faiths or aspects of faiths because I find them compelling on some level. But once I feel that draw, I have to evaluate the faith somehow, and right now a faith’s access to a source of objective values is extremely important to me.

A. Christianity

In terms of objective morality, Christianity seems at first to be relatively unproblematic. This should not be entirely surprising since my rubric for evaluating values is largely informed by C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist. This may indeed mean that I have made an a priori decision in favor of Christianity and thus this entire inquiry is a sham, unless of course I am willing to reject my ideas about morality, which I am unwilling to do. If that is so, then this is indeed only a phase in my development as a Christian, an important reassessment of what is important to me.

However, I do not think that this is necessarily the case. While Christianity generally comes down on the side of objective values, there are enough significant exceptions in areas of Christianity that are formative or important to me that the conclusion is not foregone. Furthermore, Christianity certainly is not the only faith or point of view that asserts an objective source for Ought. Additionally, there is enough of the pagan in C. S. Lewis to admit paganism as a distinct possibility, even under C. S. Lewis’s own ostensibly Christian rubric.

In any case, Christianity as I understand it and—as I would believe if I am already a Christian or am to become one—posits a God that is the source of all creation, a self-existent being that is the source of all light, truth, and meaning. In terms of sources for Ought statements, the Christian God is the ultimate Ought.

Unfortunately, I think too many Christians don’t actually have a very good handle on just what God’s moral principles are. The Bible and traditional Christianity are so full of prohibitions and admonitions ranging from the general to the hyper-specific that it is entirely possible to get lost in the details and miss the forest for the trees. If God is the ultimate source for Ought, then by Ought we have to actually be talking about the principles that lie behind the specific commandments, not the commandments themselves.

Christianity’s obvious source
The problem with most Xians
Emerging Xity
Liberal Xity
Latitudinarianism in Anglicanism
Mormonism’s radically different outlook
Atonement
Not fully explored elsewhere

Asatru and values
Nine Noble
Asatru: old but new
The source of values?
Implied in the Lore
If Jesus is a virtue ethicist, Xians should do this
But they get confused by the commandments.

Druidry
Recon vs. revival druidry (no values prob with recon, but not interested in it)
Revival druidry’s values
Pluralism and liberalism?
Enviromentalism
Utilitarianism as an explanation: same problem
Other approaches to Environmentalism?
Theological—stewardship
Pantheism? Paganism?
Still, why?
Assertions about what it good for humans
Might be wrong—see the social sciences
What to fill Revival Druidry with?
A theology as source of value?
If so, it has to be one that supports Druidry.
What theology then?
Paganism? What kind?
No hard poly!
Neopaganism? Liberal/plural problem.
Brahmanism? Maybe. That’s good stuff.
Christianity? Then why be a druid?

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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One of the biggest obstacles preventing me from simply embracing Christianity is that I am not entirely sure what it means to be a Christian.  Specifically, I can not wrap my head around what it means to actually believe in Jesus, to the extent that belief becomes faith.  By any reading of the New Testament, faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely fundamental to Christianity.  But what does it really mean, and how do you know when you have it?

I have no problem with a purely intellectual belief in Jesus Christ.  By this I mean that I can see myself thinking that statements like “Jesus existed,” “Jesus died and came back to life,” and even “Jesus was uniquely one with God” are true.  But is that all there is to it?  If I happen to think that Jesus is God, then I’m a Christian, and I have faith?  If I think it a lot?  If I think it really strongly?  What?

Is the difference between faith and mere belief simply a difference of quantity, or altogether a difference of quality?  I don’t know, but my intuition seems to be that it is the latter.  Really believing in Jesus has to mean more than simply concluding that Jesus is true.  So what is it?  It can’t just be thoughts that translate into action, either (i.e., thinking it enough so that I try to change my life), because any thought can lead to action.  If I think Borders has the book I want in stock, then I will go to Borders and buy this book.  That can’t be the same thing as faith in Jesus Christ, can it?

Similarly, faith can’t just mean thinking something is true even though you do not have proof enough to be sure, since “proof enough to be sure” is basically impossible anyway.  You can never be one hundred percent sure about anything–it could always be the case that your perceived reality is a complex delusion and nothing is really what you think it is, like the Matrix or something.  So if thinking that Jesus rose form the dead even though I wasn’t there to see it happen is faith, then I also have faith by thinking that I am typing at my computer right now, since I can never be really sure.  And that means again that faith in Jesus is really just the same thing as thinking that Jesus is true–mere belief–and not substantively different from any other thing I think.

The problem with mere belief is that mere belief is subject to change for a myriad of reasons.  What I think about anything today may or may not be the same as what I think about it tomorrow, depending on a variety of factors.  If thinking that Jesus is true is enough, then what happens when tomorrow I change my mind and decide that Jesus is not as plausible as I thought he was yesterday?  Does intellectual honesty somehow prevent me from having faith in Jesus?  If so, I’m not interested.

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In the past I have almost been panicked about religion, but I think that has changed. While I’m no more committed to any one religious direction than I was, say, a year ago—and I am likewise not committed to “no direction” or any given assortment of directions—I am no longer stressed out about the idea of picking a religion. Instead, I am simply more aware of the factors that influence my decision, and I am better situated to pull apart religion and my brain to see what the real issues are and to better evaluate my choices.

My beautiful and sexy wife commented to me in the car the other day that it seemed to her that I used to be trying to figure out what religion is true, but now I am trying to figure out which religion I can believe in, and that the difference is subtle but powerful. I would add a paradoxical qualification to her assessment: I used to be trying to figure out which religion was true in a completely subjective sense, and now I am trying to figure out which religion I can believe in objectively.

Whether that actually is a paradox or whether it even makes sense is not really all that important. What is important is that given the recent upset in my commitment to Christianity, I am once again evaluating my options, spiritually speaking. This may be a genuine crossroads in my spiritual development, and it may just be a lull in my development as a Christian, i.e., a phase that I will pass through. I don’t know which one it is. In any event, I am aware that my thinking over he past year has changed dramatically, and so my rubric for evaluating religion is now considerably different, although I am basically considering the same set of religious options that I have been for some time.

In the next set of posts, I want to pull together all of the strands of my current spot in the quest for truth, and express my evaluation of my various religious options with respect to my evolving way of thinking about faith, truth, and religion. As I add those posts, I will also index them here. My intention is also to hopefully articulate more clearly some of the things I have been trying to say in the past several posts. In any case, stay tuned.

Part I: C. S. Lewis’s Model Of Moral Reasoning

Part II: The Problem With Pluralism

Unfinished Notes on Part III: Religious Choices And Their Values

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I would like Christianity to be true. I’m just not really sure if I believe it. I decided last year, after reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, that I believe in God. The exact nature and extent of that belief is properly the subject of another post, but it is sufficient here to say that it isn’t rock-solid, and it isn’t even enough to be what I call faith.

This summer, in the midst of reading most everything C. S. Lewis ever wrote, I decided that I wanted to be a Christian. As a Christian, I strongly identify with 1) everything C. S. Lewis ever wrote, 2) the Episcopal Church, and 3) Christmas. I find Christianity compelling. I find the liturgy of the Episcopal Church meaningful and compelling. I find the traditions and the institutions of Christianity compelling. And I find Christmas in its sacred aspect so compelling as to be almost hypnotic. I like the ideas of Christianity. But I have no faith, I have very little belief, and I don’t know what to do about that. I realize that “faith in Jesus Christ” is nowhere on my list of Christian assets. I’m not sure what to do with that. I tried to rationalize and make do with a hybrid kind of faith that had more to do with 1) an intellectual conclusion that the Resurrection probably happened and 2) a decision to recognize Jesus as the King of Kings, and thus to pledge loyalty and fealty to Him. But those don’t seem to be doing the trick. They’re not generating anything I can recognize as faith.  I’m no sure I even know what faith means, or what faith looks like.  I’m certainly not sure I know what it means to have faith in Jesus, or how to get it.

I have been struggling with how to move forward as a Christian, how to progress spiritually, even what I actually have to do to be a Christian (it’s so much easier in a religion like Mormonism where there is essentially a program laid out for you to follow). I’ve felt like a car with wheels stuck in snow or mud, spinning and getting nowhere, because I’m not even sure where I’m going.

Now, surprise, surprise, I find myself wondering what I’m even doing here. I find myself questioning again whether Christianity is the right thing for me, or if it even makes sense, and I find myself once again attracted by things like Ásatrú, Druidry, and Paganism. But then if Christianity isn’t the way for me, then I don’t know what do do with things like Christmas, C. S. Lewis, and the Episcopal Church, all of which are still so compelling, even if I really have no faith in Jesus whatsoever.

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I am actually writing this post from… the future!

Seriously, in going back and assembling my list of high points along the journey, I realized that there are a couple of spots where important things happened, I didn’t blog about them, and I didn’t go back and explain what happened either. This is one of those spots, so I will try to recap for the sake of historical continuity.  So I am actually writing this post on April 2, 2009 to go back and fill in the blanks, and I am inserting it timewise into the summer of 2008.

In the spring of 2008, I headed east, spiritually speaking. I read a lot of the Baghavad Gita, I watched a lot of Heroes, and my daughter was born. For awhile, I thought that a kind of quasi-Dharmic Hinduism was going to be the path for me. I even went and started a new blog called “Dharma Bum” which I subsequently deleted (after bringing the important posts back here, so they wouldn’t be lost).

My brother came to visit with his wife in April, and he brought a bunch of books about Zen Buddhism, which I had never really considered seriously before. In particular, the book Hardcore Zen struck me as relevant and important. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that Zen Buddhism was the right path for me–the truths that it espoused were, for the most part, things that I believed to be self-evident truths about the universe. I had some semantic concerns about distinguishing the Hindu Atman from the Buddhist Anatman, but that was more the kind of thing that could produce long, quirky debates later on. Important was the Zen universe was a universe I believed in, and Zen meditation seemed rally helpful to me.

But there was still a nagging feeling that this wasn’t really the right thing for me. Maybe it was jsut my fear of spiritual commitment, I don’t know. But it seemed to me that the problem with Zen was not that i thought it was untrue, but that it did not provide me with things I wanted and needed, spiritually speaking: a culturally relevant context with ritual, compelling mythological framework, professional clergy, etcetera. Although I couldn’t make myself believe that Christianity was true, I still felt an attraction to the Episcopal Church that in my opinion contradicted my Zen inklings.

My brother’s advice was just to pick one, go with it, and see what happens. And eventually that’s what I did.

While studying for final exams last April, I read C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy, which is an amazing book. I was surprised to see how unconventional Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was, and in the end, I started to feel like the Episcopal Church really was the place for me–a place to be, in fact, even if I was not sure about my belief in Christianity.

So when we moved to New York for the summer, we started attending an Episcopal Church in the Village, and I even went to services at Trinity during my lunch hour downtown. It was meaningful and important to me, but there was some critical quality that was just elusive. I read every C. S. Lewis book I could get my hands on, I prayed and did devotions, and I thought of myself as a Christian, a Protestant, and an Anglican.

Maybe the biggest problem was that, concurrent to all of this, I spiralled into what might have been the worst depression I have ever been in. I can’t even describe it beyond saying that it was an absolute nightmare, and finally getting help and eventually climbing out of it has saved my life. My beautiful and sexy wife was there for me in my darkest hours, even when things got scary and that means so much to me. But in a lot of ways, God was distant, and I couldn’t figure out why. I literally cried out to Jesus to deliver me, but things just kept getting darker.

My love affair with Christianity started to enter a period of uncertainty when we came back to Maryland, partly because I was just plain more interested in Led Zeppelin than I was in religion. I still kept Episcopal Christianity in my head as a spiritual placeholder, but even then I wasn’t sure anymore–not because Christianity hadn’t pulled me out of my depression, because for all I know things might have been a lot worse without prayer and devotion, but just because my interest was fading. Again, fear of spiritual commitment? Maybe. But also Christianity honestly just wasn’t punching all of the spiritual buttons I needed to have punched.

Incidentally, I haven’t really felt the need or desire to go back to Zen. It is interesting, and probably, in retrospect, the religion whose truth-claims are the closest to matching reality, but despite being true, it is so stripped down that it actually lacks Truth.

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