16 April 2017
Easter is one of the central religious holidays of the Christian calendar — if not the central religious holiday of Christianity — and thus one of the central symbols of Christian civilization. In the period of a single week we pass from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his betrayal, trial, execution, entombment, and eventual resurrection, which, by any measure, must be something of an emotional roller-coaster for those who celebrate the holiday in a participatory spirit, that is to say, for those who engage in the prescribed rituals as a means of participating in the myth, as when pilgrims travel to Jerusalem and walk the Via Dolorosa, commemorating the Stations of the Cross.
I have often cited Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is the opportunity to participate in a myth, so that all rituals are, in a sense, participatory forms of faith. Rituals are also what J. L. Austin called performatives, i.e., that very act of ritual participation is a religious observance; religious value is inherent in the act of participation.
For the Christian, the ultimate performative is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, a practice that in medieval Christendom was called imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. In the hope of resurrection and the life everlasting the individual Christian also hopes to extend the imitatio Christi to the next world; the resurrection of Christ is the model for the resurrection of the believer in Christ. The Christian believer, too, can experience resurrection, and this destiny of the individual soul is understood to be a function of salvation.
Recently I have been thinking about the relationship between soteriology and eschatology in the Christian tradition. It strikes me that soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in Christianity — more tightly-coupled than in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, and much more tightly-coupled that the non-Abrahamic faiths. The events and the symbolism of Easter embody this tightly-coupled Christian tradition of soteriology and eschatology. Though tightly-coupled, there is, however, an asymmetry: soteriology is voluntaristic, but eschatology is not; we will all be judged, but we will not all be saved.
In Christianity, salvation is salvation from death, and the substitution of a life eternal in Christ for a worldly fate of dissolution and personal extinction. Compare this, for example, to the Hindu tradition, in which the transmigration of souls is a central doctrine. Superficially, the eternal life of the transmigrating soul can be compared to the eternal soul of the Christian tradition, but this is misleading. The transmigrating soul casts off bodies like a snake casting off its skin, while the resurrection guarantees the believing Christian not only an eternal life in Christ, but even the possession of the body that the soul seems to cast off upon death.
If soteriology and eschatology are tightly-coupled in the Christian tradition and loosely-coupled in other religious traditions, what are the limits on the possible relations between the two? To what extent are soteriology and eschatology ideally separable from each other? Is it possible to have soteriology in isolation from eschatology, and eschatology in isolation from soteriology? It is arguable that the practical faiths that have focused on human actions in this world, with little or no reference to a life beyond death or a world beyond this world, are soteriological in essence without a significant eschatological element. Judaism is like this to a certain extent, and Confucianism to a much greater extent. When asked by a disciple about life after death, Confucius was supposed to have said, “We have not yet learned to know life. How can we know death?” That the question was asked points to the human preoccupation with death, and that it was dismissed in the way that it was dismissed, points to the distinctive Confucian response to the human condition.
There is another possibility. I can’t think of any existing religious tradition that embodies this approach, but it is equally possible that a system of belief might focus on a grand scheme of cosmological eschatology and be more or less indifferent to soteriology. Indeed, if contemporary science were a religion, or even a religious surrogate (some would argue that it is the latter; I would not so argue), it would perfectly fit the bill in this respect. The Copernican principle is frequently invoked as a punishment of human pride, demonstrating our insignificance before the universe. Human salvation here is unimportant, and so left unaddressed. Positivists, in general, are satisfied with this state-of-affairs, but most human beings are not. One cause for anti-scientific sentiment among the general public is precisely this scientific indifference to the human condition.
If a naturalistic soteriology could be joined to the naturalistic eschatology of the scientific worldview, this would be a powerful combination. It might even be possible to advance toward a civilization with science as a central project, or some central project derived from science, such as the exploration of the cosmos, if some soteriology were emergent from science. But I cannot think of any ideas derived from science that could adequately serve this function. There is the idea of humanity as one — the ultimate unity of the species — and the idea of mere humanity — a quasi-religious sense of human exceptionalism — or even humanity’s responsibility for itself as a moral imperative. However, I don’t see any of these as effective substitutes for soteriology.
The distinctive characteristic of Axial Age belief systems is the discovery of a universal human nature, the definition of the human condition in terms of this human nature, and the identification of a particular destiny for humanity in virtue of human nature and the human condition. The tribal gods, appropriate to tribal chiefdoms but falling short of the needs of large-scale social organization, were content to be worshiped as a god among gods, and made no special claim to a privileged knowledge of the human heart. The gods of the Axial Age surpassed these tribal gods, and they demanded more in turn. It wasn’t enough simply to build a civilization, to erect great monuments, to foster bustling cities and their commerce, to conquer the cities of rival powers, in other words, the ordinary business of life was not enough. Something more was called for. This something more turned out to be a sacrifice demanded in exchange for salvation.
Christianity could be said to belong to the second generation of Axial Age faiths, descended with modification from the Axial Age innovations of Mesopotamia, if we distinguish a sequence of the original Axial Age faiths, the second generation of faiths that grew out of the original Axial Age faiths, and the third generation of faiths that grew from the earlier two. Each later generation of Axial Age faiths evolved under the selection pressure of the earlier generation of Axial Age faiths, and of the societies that these earlier Axial Age faiths shaped. Part of this evolution became the individual taking personal responsibility for their salvation, but also being the beneficiary of personal salvation. The earlier Axial Age faiths had focused much more on the social whole, but Christianity raised the stakes and introduced a dialectic between the individual and the community. The individual was given new importance, but was also expected to act on behalf of the brotherhood of mankind, selflessly if necessary.
The the survival of early civilizations was at stake in religiously-constructed communal identities, as I noted in All Believers are Brothers, where I wrote:
“Religion facilitates the construction of indefinitely expandable kin networks far more extensive than any exclusively biological kin network. A society that originates as a biological kin network can transcend the natural limitation that checks the growth of a biological kin network through displacing its biological culture into a religious framework. There is, then, no absolute distinction between kin selection and group selection among human beings, because what begins as kin selection can be extended to group selection through an in-group identity rooted in biological origins but later extended to individuals not within the immediate (biological) kin network.”
This principled conflation of differences was the foundation of an identity that made large-scale civilizations, and so already looked beyond the regional civilizations of the Axial Age, in a way not unlike how the regional civilizations looked beyond the tribal chiefdoms they supplanted. This is an example of the continual self-transcendence of civilization that I have remarked on elsewhere. The particular Christian solution to the problem of communal identity was to have tightly-coupled eschatology and soteriology, and it is at least arguable that this tightly-coupled sense of destiny and salvation persists in a secularized form today. But the secularized form is a bastardized theology, and we would do better, for the future of our civilization, if we could find a scientific soteriology to couple with our scientific eschatology, rather to than to continue play out the limited options of a theology that no longer knows itself to be such. The survival of our civilization is no less at stake today than it was during the Axial Age.
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8 April 2012
Easter is, at bottom, a holiday that is about ideas. That is one reason that I am fascinated by Easter, and why over the past few years I’ve written many posts about Easter and the Lenten season, including:
And, most recently…
I have been at pains to point out in earlier posts that spring celebrations of the renewal of life seem to be as old has our species, and with this in mind it sounds more than a little odd that I should say that Easter is about ideas, except that Easter has become about ideas because it has been so repeatedly exapted throughout human history. As ideas are the currency of human interaction within civilization, the exaptation of Easter since the advent of civilization has meant the construction of an ideological exaptation mechanism of sufficient power to displace earlier celebrations with their established institutions.
It was necessary to overlay a Christian idea on a Pagan idea, and the Pagan idea was overlain on an even more ancient idea — if we take the stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization (which I recently discussed in Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization) as our model for the development of the forms by which we conceptualize life, we can see the Christian idea as an idea of medieval European civilization, the Greco-Roman idea that was exapted by Christianity as an idea of the civilization of classical antiquity, the earlier idea exapted by greco-Roman civilization as an idea of barbarism, and the earlier idea exapted by the barbaric idea as the savage idea — and now we have made it all the way back to “the savage mind” of Levi-Strauss.
In Christian civilization (i.e., Western civilization), Christmas and Thanksgiving have become more-or-less easily assimilated to the family gatherings that have become identified with these holidays, but Easter does not involve the kind of travel season that we find at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Perhaps this is because everyone has just had their Spring Break and is not in a position to travel again immediately for a holiday family gathering.
At Thanksgiving there is the preparation and consumption of a large meal, while at Christmas there is the trimming of the tree and gift exchange. In a large family these can be undertakings of significant proportions. While from a devotional standpoint these family-based rituals are not central to the holiday, from a sociological standpoint these features are in fact very central to the holidays, and if we could quantify that amount of time people spent thinking about, planning, and preparing for the practical consequences of Thanksgiving and Christmas and compare this to the time spent thinking about, planning, and preparing for the devotional significance of these holidays, it would probably be pretty obvious what concerns dominated the holidays.
In such cases as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we could say that holidays become exapted by the infrastructure of celebration. The infrastructure of familial celebration can, in turn, become exapted by the practical demands seemingly imposed by major holidays. In one of my least-read posts, Personal Dystopias, I tried to show how these socio-familial concerns can get out of hand and reduce or entirely eliminate any joy felt in the holiday or celebrated event. I believe that this is more common than is generally recognized.
This is, of course, the Protestant in me speaking: for those of a Protestant temperament, the “real” celebration is rigorously defined in devotional terms, and anything that detracts from the intensity of devotional observations is an impiety and indeed an impurity of the will. But knowing that Easter (like most holidays) has layer upon layer of sedimented meaning, and that the ideational content of devotional observance may well be the most superficial “meaning” of the holiday, compels us to respect the oldest and most continuous meaning of the celebration, which is the celebration itself. This recognition, however, of a continuity to the celebration that transcends the changing meanings that have been associated with the holiday is itself an idea — another perspective that one might bring to the celebration.
The history of Easter is the history of the exaptations of a holiday continuously celebrated since human beings have been celebrating holidays, and as civilization has added to the complexity of the forms by which we conceptualize life, the history of the exaptations of Easter has become a history of the exaptation of ideas.
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Happy Easter… whatever it happens to mean to you!
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1 April 2012
How often does Palm Sunday fall on April Fools’ Day? It must happen with a certain (predictable) regularity, I would guess, since April Fools’ Day falls within what we might call the parameters of Easter. No doubt someone, somewhere, has made the calculation and can give a definite answer to the question. Since Easter is a moveable feast, and it carries all of Passiontide with it, including Palm Sunday and Good Friday, all these days move around the Gregorian calender like wanderers seeking a place to rest.
Easter must be calculated, since it falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. And Easter is the still point in the turning world of moveable feasts in the Christian calendar, because all the other moveable feasts are calculated in number of days before or after Easter. The calculation of the date of Easter is an astronomical task that requires some expertise. Copernicus was among the few in early modern Europe who possessed the expertise to arrive at a better calculation.
The accumulating errors of the Julian calendar had, over the centuries, contributed to confusion and unnecessary complexity in the calculation of dates. It was possible to continue with the old system, but the whole process could be streamlined by a root-and-branch rethinking. This is what Copernicus provided. He did not limit himself to local and parochial concerns, but attempted to get the cosmology right so that it agreed with astronomical observations, and this in turn could bring the calendar into accord with both cosmology and astronomy.
Copernicus, like Darwin, long delayed the publication of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium not least because he was, like Darwin, concerned about the reaction it would cause. The story is that Copernicus received a copy of the first printed edition of his book on his death bed, roused himself from a stroke-induced torpor long enough to recognize this life work, and then passed away. The fears of both men were justified.
Copernicus’ calendar reform had some unintended consequences. This is perhaps the ultimate April Fools’ joke. While it is true that Copernicus himself completed only the first step from geocentric cosmology to heliocentric cosmology, and that we have since gone far beyond heliocentric cosmology even to the point that today any center of the world at all is questionable, it is probably also true that Copernicus’ reform extended as far as cosmological knowledge extended in his time. In its context, the Copernican revolution was radical and complete.
Now we know that neither earth nor sun nor galaxy nor galactic cluster nor super cluster nor the universe itself is the center of anything. There is no center — or, rather, everywhere is the center, which amounts to the same thing, and this coincides with the perennial insights of mysticism and mythology.
The Copernican revolution is still unfolding. The slow, gradual, cumulative process of attaining Copernican conceptions continues today. It is worth noting that the revolution began at the rarefied intellectual level of cosmology, so that a Copernican conception of cosmology itself preceded a Copernican conception of any of the special sciences. Indeed, in Eo-, Exo-, Astro- I recently argued that we are only now able to formulate Copernican conceptions of the sciences, which have, to date, received mostly geocentric formulations.
The calculation of the date of Easter turned out to be one of the truly deconstructive episodes in Western history, when the unraveling of what had seemed to be a single intellectual thread eventually meant the unraveling of a world entire. Copernicus was the first deconstructionist.
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4 April 2010
Theses on the Occasion of Easter Sunday
A Theoretical Account of Ritualized Celebration
1. Distinctions must be made among myth, ritual, and celebration.
1.1 Myth, ritual, and celebration, though distinct, are logically related.
1.11 A celebration is an occasion for a ritual,
A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth,
Therefore a celebration is an occasion in which to participate in a myth.
Q. E. D.
1.2 Rituals of burial are older than agricultural rituals of life-death-rebirth, even extending to other species (Neanderthals, now extinct), and may well be the origin of life-death-rebirth rituals.
2. Among the most ancient of continually observed celebrations is that of the life-death-resurrection of the Year-God, eniautos daimon.
2.1 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, is at least as old as settled, agrarian society.
2.11 Agriculture and the written word together produced settled, historical civilization.
2.12 Settled historical civilization has defined the norm of human history from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution.
2.2 Settled agrarian society coincides with the origins of civilization.
2.21 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, coincides with the origins of civilization.
3. Once the breakthrough to history has been made by way of the written word, it is the nature of historical civilization to commemorate nodal points of the year, whether with solemnities, festivities, or both.
3.1 Historical civilization is predicated upon the presumed value of the history that brings that civilization into being.
3.2 Nodal points of the year celebrated in historical civilizations are observed as validation of their historicity through the performance of rituals.
3.21 In a temperate climate, summer and winter solstices and spring and fall equinoxes are nodal points of the year.
4. The mythology of a settled, agricultural civilization emerges from the same regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.
4.1 The calendrics of celebration emerges from the regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.
4.11 The mythology and calendar of celebrations of settled, agricultural civilizations come from the same source.
4.2 Celebrations are the points of contact between the two parallel orders of mythological events and the actual historical calendar.
4.21 A civilization validates its mythology by establishing a correspondence between mythological events and historical events.
4.3 Enacting a myth in historical time, by way of a ritual, makes that myth literal truth by giving to it a concrete embodiment.
5. Easter is one species of the genus of life-death-rebirth celebrations.
5.1 The particular features of the Easter celebration are the result of the adaptive radiation of the dialectic of sacrifice and resurrection.
6. Easter is that species of life-death-rebirth celebration specific to Christendom.
6.1 Christendom was primarily a construction of the Middle Ages.
6.11 Christendom was the legacy of Medieval Europe that disappeared with the passing of medieval civilization but which, like the Roman Empire before it, is with us still and remains a touchstone of the Western tradition.
6.12 Christendom was an empire of the spirit and of the cross as Rome was an empire of the will and of the sword.
6.13 To have once been Roman, and then to have been Christian, and finally to have become modern, is the condition of Western man.
6.2 Easter is a celebration specific to civilization, the civilized celebration par excellence.
7. The naturalistic civilization that is emerging from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution represents the first significant change in the social structure of human society since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.
7.1 With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have ceased to be an agrarian society.
7.2 For the first time in history, life-death-rebirth celebrations face interpretation by a non-agrarian society.
7.21 Not only should we not hesitate to find new meanings in ancient celebrations, of which Easter represents the latest adaptive radiation, but rather we should actively and consciously seek meanings relevant to the present in such celebrations.
8. As the painters of the renaissance drew upon the traditions of pagan antiquity already at that time a thousand years out of date, so too the post-Christian Western civilization will draw upon the traditions of Christendom for hundreds if not thousands of years to come.
8.1 The period of time that we have come to call the modern era — roughly the past five hundred years — has not been the modern era proper but rather has been the period of the formation of modernity.
8.2 Modernity simpliciter has but begun.
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3 April 2010
Holy Saturday is the inspiration for some of the most fascinating medieval art that I have seen. Christ throwing open the gates of Hell and delivering the Patriarchs from these eternal fires of torment casts Christ, if only briefly, in a heroic role. The Hazing or Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday gave artists accustomed to most frequently depicting the sufferings of Christ an unusual opportunity to depict a heroic, triumphant Christ even while remaining entirely orthodox. And yet, as I observed last year in Sabbatum Sanctum, Holy Saturday is, today, little observed.
It is impossible to resist speculating the that decline (i.e., the long term decline from the Middle Ages to the present) in the observance of Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell is related to the general discomfort with the idea of Hell in the contemporary world. While there are still to be sure enthusiasts of the idea of Hell, for the most part people from the modern, industrialized parts of what was once Christendom are very uncomfortable with hell.
I have remarked on this in my Variations on the Theme of Life as well as in some Twitter posts. Today the idea of eternal torment as a just judgment upon individuals for what today seem like mere trifles is an image that invokes not gloating satisfaction but pity and sympathy.
People today are also very uncomfortable with the idea of the condemnation of unbaptized infants to Hell. Some contemporary theologians deny outright that the established church ever held this position. I have personally known people who have left the Christian denomination in which they were raised for the express reason of seeking a Christian denomination that would explicitly deny that unbaptized infants go to Hell. It stands to reason that the kind of people who would be uncomfortable with the notion that unbaptized infants go to Hell would also be the kind of people who would wonder why upright Patriarchs would be condemned to Hell temporarily until freed by Christ. Thus the neglect of Holy Saturday may be connected to the decline of Hell in recent history.
Nothing I have written so far today is especially surprising and controversial, but to hazard an explanation for the neglect of Holy Saturday and the decline in enthusiasm for Hell could well take us into controversial claims about history. Most especially, we could describe this evolution of Christian society as “progress” — and everyone today knows that claiming that history demonstrates progress is a fool’s errand (perhaps appropriate for a Holy Week that spans All Fool’s Day).
Perhaps the historical path that has taken us from the world of the early modern period in which torture was a public spectacle, and in which the taunting of the condemned was part of the proceedings (cf. especially Part One of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), to the world of the present in which torture is hidden away behind locked doors, practiced in shame and secrecy, could be described not as progress but as a mere increase in squeamishness. Yet their are other elements in the contemporary world that lead me to believe that we can meaningfully define progress in history, even moral progress, though this is a large task I have reserved for an inchoate manuscript.
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5 April 2009
A Naturalistic Sermon
The Stories that We Tell
Today is Palm Sunday. What does Palm Sunday mean, or what ought Palm Sunday to mean, from a naturalistic perspective? Perhaps even to ask the question sounds odd. Let me try to explain.
Recently when I was working on Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and Fear of the Future in which I discussed several science fiction films and television series, I found that I was asking myself, “Why are these stories meaningful for us?” and “What do these stories mean to us?” The answer to the question is not immediately apparent. Clearly, the stories are told, and clearly also they resonate with the public; their popularity tells us this much.
There is a sense in which the effort to elaborately place a story in a context utterly distinct from the world that we know alienates us from the story. But the same could be said for the world of fairy tales, in which animals talk and men are transformed into stone, and the like. And yet we understand immediately the relation of the world of the fairy tale to the world in which we actually live.
Similar considerations apply with stories from the distant past, and Bible stories that have become institutionalized as holidays are stories from the distant past that are, in some respects, so different from the world we know today that their relevance is open to question. On the other hand, we again immediately recognize our world and ourselves in the world of the past. Because we recognize our world in the world of the past, we can, at least to some degree, identify with the past, and because we can identify with the past it becomes meaningful for us.
The Meanings of Palm Sunday
A story such as that told of Palm Sunday has many layers, and therefore many meanings. A Google search on “Palm Sunday” returns several obvious resources, including a nice summary on Wikipedia and an entry from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The latter opens not with the story itself, but by situating the holiday in the context of the ecclesiastical calendar, the Christian liturgical year, as follows: “The sixth and last Sunday of Lent and beginning of Holy Week, a Sunday of the highest rank, not even a commemoration of any kind being permitted in the Mass.” This is a rather formal evocation of Palm Sunday, and notably lacks the human interest of the narrative core of the holiday.
The core of the story from a narrative standpoint is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A triumph is itself a many-layered and manifoldly meaningful symbol. The Wikipedia article cites Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, and other sources use this language as well; however, Christ did not enter Jerusalem on the back of a white charger, but rather on the back of a borrowed donkey, and he was honored by readily available palm fronds and not by conspicuous luxuries.
In Roman antiquity, a Triumph was a special procession through Rome awarded to a victorious general, and came, in later Christian usage, to be called a pompa diaboli, that is to say, the devil’s procession. In the eyes of the earliest Christians, the official pomp, splendor, and spectacle of the Roman Empire was diabolical. Thus to call Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a “Triumph” would have been, in Christ’s own day, very much a “loaded” description of the event. Nevertheless, Christ did enter into Jerusalem, and was celebrated and honored by the people of the city; Palm Sunday was a triumph, and it was not a triumph. The symbolism, to borrow the language of Tillich, contains an element of self-negation.
The name of the holiday — Palm Sunday — references not the narrative of the holiday, but its most prominent symbol: the palm frond. In Christianity’s spread to temperate climes, palm fronds became difficult to find, and many different forms of greenery were substituted. If it is to be understood that the essence of the story is retained even while yew, box, and willow were substituted for palms, then, by the same token, we might speculate that the ancient pagan rituals inevitably involving seasonal display of greenery (an ancient custom throughout Europe), also in a sense retain their essence even when the story of Christ is substituted for the pre-Christian stories that were the occasion of spring festivals across the Old World.
A Lesson for Palm Sunday
If the stories that we find meaningful demonstrate for us, with a palpable immediacy, the presentness of the past, and make it possible for us to feel that the men who inhabit these stories and the situations that they faced are, in essence, like our own, one lesson we ought to take from this is the corollary to the presentness of past: the pastness of the present. Now, this is admittedly an awkward term. Probably it would be better to find a more elegant formulation, but for the moment this will do.
If we can feel the relevancy of meaningful events from the past for today, we ought also to be able to, by way of the a priori imagination, feel the relevancy of the meaningful events of the present for the past. History works in one direction, and while the men of the past cannot learn from what we have experienced, but we can learn in both directions — past to present and present to past — an in doing so we can extend our understanding beyond conventional categories.
The exercise of the intellect is the highest calling of man. Today, perhaps contrary to expectation, it is little cultivated. Why contrary to expectation? One might suppose that, given the near universality of literacy and the availability of information resources that there is no excuse not to cultivate the intellect, but what we find instead is the tiresome repetition of the false, the misleading and the conventional.
We can do better than this — much better. And one way that we can do better is to push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.
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