ND   Jacques Maritain Center : Religion, Agnosticism, Education / by J.L. Spalding

III. Agnosticism -- (continued).

O brother, 'mid far sands,
The palm-tree-cinctured city stands,
Bright white beneath, as heaven, bright blue
Leans o'er it, while the years pursue
Their course, unable to abate
Its paradisal laugh at fate.


THE tendency of philosophic speculation, since Kant, is largely toward agnosticism and intellectual nihilism. It is maintained that we cannot know what anything is, for the reason that we know and can know only our impressions; whether they have a cause or what that cause is we cannot know. In all perception we perceive merely a condition of ourselves; and all knowledge therefore is a knowledge of ourselves. Nor can we know this self, even, for we are conscious only of its transitory moods and affections. We do not, in fact, know that we know: we merely believe that we know. We do not know that things really are, but we suppose them to be. Truth, therefore, is not a harmony of ideas with things, but a correspondence of thought with thought. The critical philosophy, in denying the validity of inference from the subjective to the objective, denies that knowledge has any real value. We are forever shut up within our own self-consciousness, impotent to know whether there is an external world or whether we ourselves are anything. This criticism of knowledge, so far as it affects our views of the material universe, is simply ignored as senseless hair-splitting; but when it is applied to the spiritual universe, to God and the soul, many take it seriously and doubt whether it is not destructive of the very foundations of religious belief. It is impossible to persuade them that they do not know what matter is, but they accept, without much hesitation, a system of hopeless nescience as to everything which deeply and everlastingly interests the human mind and heart. They are ready to believe that criticism shatters all the priceless things to which men have clung -- "The idols of metaphysics and the idols of religion, the idols of the imagination and the idols of history;" that it makes everything a lie: truth, honor, and justice, hope, faith, and love, freedom, duty, and conscience. Much of the current scientific speculation leads in the same direction. It assumes that matter alone is real; that the power behind and within all phenomena is simply the unknowable, that is, the non-existent, since intelligibility is co-extensive with being; that there is nothing but force and motion; that the universe is a machine which runs itself -- it is, and the hypothesis of God is not needed to explain either its existence or its operation. According to this school, force and motion and their modifications are the sum and substance of all reality; hence human action is controlled by the same physical laws which keep the stars in the heavens, and a noble thought or a generous emotion is not more admirable or more praiseworthy than the feats of an acrobat. "The worst man," says Nietzsche, "is perhaps the best; for he is indispensable to the keeping alive of instincts and tendencies without which mankind had long since fallen into lethargy and decay. Hate, envy, ambition, and whatever else is called wicked, preserve the race, how ever prodigal and foolish the means. Whatever, in fact, man may do or omit, he is probably a benefactor of the race." As knowledge is meaningless, virtue is worthless. Necessity is the only God, and unreason is deified. In such a world life's true worth is lost. They who no longer have the power to believe in the living, loving God, lose faith in themselves. The only real thing left to them is matter, and possession is the supreme good: money and self-indulgence are the highest aims. Apart from this, they are mere mental vagrants, who drift idly among all the great and vital problems. They are, indeed, still haunted by the Unseen, and hence it pleases them to listen to those who pass with an irreverent and mocking spirit, through the sanctities and infinities, from which the noblest minds and hearts have drawn hope and strength. In matters of the best and highest, the absolute and eternally real, they have neither faith nor knowledge; but, at the most, some sort of opinions, which they hold lightly, as being, in all probability, neither truer nor falser than innumerable other opinions which have been and yet shall be current. The existence of God, the reality of the self, the intimations of consciences are interesting as questions of debate, as stimulants of thought, but not as subjects about which it is possible to know anything with certainty. They incline to believe that God is only a concept, an abstraction, just as truth, honor, duty, love, goodness, mercy, justice, science, progress are abstractions. Thus the divine and infinite becomes for them a world of shadows. Their highest aim is to transform matter in every way. They think it a godlike thing to move rapidly, to live in splendid houses, to eat delicious food, to dwell in populous cities, to possess millions of money. They strive for a state of things in which they imagine happiness may be found: not understanding that happiness or blessedness, does not consist in any possible static condition, in the possession of any conceivable thing, but in a ceaseless striving for the best, for truth and love. Righteousness, not abundance, is life. Fine clothes do not make the body strong and healthy; rich possessions do not make the soul great and free. The highest type of man, says Aristotle, finds his pleasures in the noblest things. Of such things money can never be the symbol or equivalent. It is a means, not an end. As thought and love unfold, we perceive that they are more precious than all else; and thus we are led to understand that personal worth is the measure of all worth. What our Lord said of the Sabbath is true of all things. They are for man, not man for them. They are good and useful because they are helps to right human life. Man is made for truth and love, the avenues that lead to God, and the measure of the worth of all institutions, political, educational, and religious, is their power to bring men to the knowledge of truth and the practice of love. This is the measure of the value of every kind of human labor, the principle underlying all our social problems. The best climate, even, is not that in which we are most comfortable, but that which is most favorable to the exercise of our noblest faculties; and the laborer is most fortunate not where he receives the highest pay, but where his work contributes most effectively to the development of character. Faith itself is not final; it is a means, not an end. When it is superseded by knowledge there is gain, not loss. Knowledge and love are final, because they are the highest conceivable modes of union with the eternal and infinite.

The misery of our age is the consciousness that what we live for is not God's truth, and that what it is easiest to turn to is still less His truth. We live without hope, not knowing, in the universal whirl, what to choose. We know that our way of life is not the best, that the things we chiefly desire are more or less worthless, and that we desire them only because we ourselves are poor and miserable. But this insight is looked upon with suspicion; we turn from it as from an evil suggestion, and plunge again into the world of appearance and show; for we have neither a mind nor a heart to know and love God's real world of truth and goodness. Those who have lost faith in God have no faith in ideals. But idealism is conscientiousness, and an age which does not believe in ideals is fatally driven to seek money and indulgence as the highest good. Hence our one virtue is thrift. The thrifty succeed; they gain wealth and honor. What matter if they make themselves unintelligent and incapable of the rational enjoyment of life? The free life of God, says Aristotle, is such as are our brief best moments. Hence the end of life is the high and free enjoyment of the faculties which make us human, and the chief end of labor is to fit us for a noble repose and leisure in which the soul may play at ease amid the realms of truth, goodness, and beauty. How far above us, with our inner poverty and vulgar show, our knowledge not for itself, but for politics and trade, this pagan philosopher rises, sitting there where we dare not soar! To men who are not serious students, who are not seeking after truth, to whom hunger and thirst for righteousness is meaningless verbiage, who, having lost faith in the reality of the whole spiritual world, hang helpless in the network of material aims and desires, a frivolous and mocking critic and demolisher, like Colonel Ingersoll, comes with a charm and persuasiveness equal to that of poets and orators. When we deliberately walk in lower ways it is pleasant to think that no man knows whether there be higher. After hearing him, they say to themselves: "No one can know anything of God, the soul, freedom of the will, and human responsibility. The only thing we are certain of, is that we see and taste and touch. Let us get money and enjoy ourselves." In humoring their religious doubt and indifference, he helps to confirm them in philistinism and secularism. In losing faith in God and in their own godlike nature, they lose the mightiest impulse to high and heroic life. "An immense moral, and probably intellectual degeneration," says Renan, in his latest book, "would follow the disappearance of religion from the world. You can get much less from a humanity which disbelieves in the immortality of the soul than from one which believes." Everything depends on what we really believe and love. He who prefers alcohol to honor and duty is what this preference makes him. An infinite faith and hope have lived and still live in the world. These have been and are the wings whereon men have risen toward the highest and the best. To persuade them that their divinest and holiest thoughts and moods spring from mere delusion is to discourage and degrade them. The soul believes that it lives in God and with God. To destroy this belief and to make it feel that it is wedded only to matter, to what is beneath it, is to sadden and bewilder, to drive it forth from its true home into a desert where it can commune only with the senseless wilderness and beasts of prey. The union of the higher with the lower produces the lower. . . . mulatto, the octoroon, even, is still a negro. --> He who would help men must help them to believe that the beginning and end of all things is life, not matter. Of the dead as utterly separate from the living we can have no conception, for by the very law of our being, we associate matter with sensation, and sensation with life. Life, then, is within and around, beneath and above all things. Our notions of matter are all permeated with thought and feeling, consequently with life. Force, size, hardness, and whatever other ideas enter into our views of the material world, have meaning only when blended with what lives and thinks. Nature is instinct with mind, and if there were no Supreme Mind there would be no universe. In the universe, there is a tendency from chaos to cosmos, from the dead to the live, from the outward to the inward, and this movement is Nature's revelation of God. Life, conscious of itself, is aware of its own immortality, for the highest consciousness is of that which, like truth and love, is eternal.

Whoever seeks to persuade men to lower views of life is a frivolous thinker, and his influence is fatally immoral. Only a great moral purpose can sustain a great soul, and a great moral purpose rests finally on faith in God. If there is no God, all that is is meaningless and vain. If He is, I fear no evil; if He is not, I hope for no good. Plato's precept is, learn to die; Spinoza's, learn to live; Christ's, learn to know God. Death shows the vanity of life: true life shows the impotence of death to do hurt to those who love God. He reveals Himself within the will of man as within his mind. We cannot even desire that anything but the Infinite Best should satisfy us, and if we acted with full consciousness, we should understand that in all things we pursue, we seek God, however blindly: we should know that we can be made blessed, not by the possession of anything, not even by a virtuous condition of soul, but only by the living view of God's presence in the world. Whatever state we attain to we value as a means to something better. Shall we not, then, at last reach the best? Or shall we believe that life is but a sickly dream? It is God who whispers within the human conscience, which is but a phase of consciousness; it is He who puts morality in the nature of things; who makes a high and honorable mode of life, followed with perseverance, become, in time, a pleasant kind of life; while the immoral pursuit of power, or pleasure, or money leads to misery. It is He who causes noble and virtuous sentiments to give delight and courage to those by whom they are genuinely felt, whereas, low passions make wretches and cowards. It is He who makes virtue self-preservative; vice self-destructive.

If the eye were not sunlike, how could it behold the light? If the soul were not godlike, why should it forever yearn for God, seeking Him behind all that it follows and loves? Our highest aspirations reveal our deepest needs. Religion, then, is the greatest and holiest within us. "The thing a man does practically believe," says Carlyle; "the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain concerning his vital relations to this mysterious universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest." To believe in God, which in the past has been the highest wisdom, will in the future also continue to be the highest wisdom, though man should fail to fathom the mystery of being and to read nature's secret; and as we more and more realize that God is highest truth, perfect holiness, and infinite love, we shall evolve, not a new religious creed, but new and fairer manifestations of the healing, strengthening, and ennobling power of religion -- of that religion which is embodied in the life and teachings of Christ. In the midst of all our feeble and bewildering skepticism, we see more clearly than men have ever seen before the hopeless disappointment and disgust which sensual indulgence involves. The thing has been analyzed, and we hold our breath. The ideals of money and place, the intelligent now recognize to be also unsatisfactory; and we begin to understand that to be famous, even, is to survive only as an impersonal influence, to outlive ourselves in something which is not ourselves. What remains to us, then, but to be Buddhists or Christians, to aim either to cease to be, or to live with the Eternal, who is truth and love? I find fault with Colonel Ingersoll, not because his faith and opinions are not mine, but because he approaches the most vital and sacred subjects which the mind of man can consider, in a frivolous and mocking spirit; because he discusses the most momentous and solemn of all questions without reverence, which is the highest feeling known to man. "Look for a people entirely destitute of religion," says Hume, "and if you find them at all, be assured they are but a few degrees removed from brutes." This is the testimony of the most skeptical mind whose thought has found a permanent place in literature. Religion of some kind interpenetrates all thought, love, and aspiration; is part of all human nobleness and excellence, of all struggles for truth and justice, of all solace in wretchedness, of all hope in the presence of death; hence it follows that to combat it, in its highest form, with shameless assertion, sarcasm, and ridicule, is to sin against human nature itself. "Ridicule is," to quote Carlyle again, "intrinsically a small faculty. It is directly opposed to thought, to knowledge, properly so called; its nourishment and essence is denial, which hovers only on the surface, while knowledge dwells far below. Moreover, it is by nature selfish and morally trivial; it cherishes nothing but our vanity, which may in general be left safely enough to shift for itself. . . . It is not by derision or denial, but by far deeper, more earnest, diviner means, that aught truly great has been effected for mankind; that the fabric of man's life has been reared, through long centuries, to its present height." As it takes a hero to understand a hero, a poet to love a poet, so only a reverent and religious mind can rightly deal with questions of religion. We are offended less by what Colonel Ingersoll says than by the spirit in which it is said. Marcus Aurelius, in the midst of dissolving paganism, is bewildered. He does not attempt to conceal his doubts as to whether there are gods; but he is always serious and earnest, and hence his thoughts are precious to all who think and feel, whatever their faith or lack of faith may be. We are aware that he is a man with men, who treats reverently whatever mankind have held to be high and sacred. Socrates drank hemlock because he was found guilty of blaspheming the gods of Athens; but the noble and religious spirit which breathes in all his utterances, makes him not only the father of philosophy, but the brother of prophets and saints. For Voltaire himself, it may be possible to find excuse, for he was by nature a persifleur, a man born to take a light and superficial view of all things, and to mock, therefore, at himself and mankind. Besides, he lived in an age when religion had become associated with inveterate and intolerable abuses. And then, he had wit and style, and not the mere faculty of caricature.

Fichte, the least orthodox of men, accused even of atheism, is always earnest and noble in his treatment of religion. What worlds lie between Colonel Ingersoll and him, who wrote these words: "Even to the end of time all wise and reverent men must bow themselves before this Jesus of Nazareth; and the more wise, intelligent, and noble they themselves are, the more humbly will they recognize the exceeding nobleness of this great and glorious manifestation of the Divine Life." Richter, I suppose, was not a Christian, but this is what he writes: "Christ was the holiest among the mighty, and the mightiest among the holy. He lifted, with his pierced hands, empires off their hinges; he turned the stream of history, and he still governs the ages."

Colonel Ingersoll forgets that religion is not, in any proper sense at all, a subject for verbal fence, a question to be settled by a debating club. It is our very human life, our highest aspiration, our deepest need. It is a life to live, an attitude toward God and His Universe to be ceaselessly held; and only in a very minor way and chiefly for those who have lost the sense of its real import, is it a matter for controversy and logic-chopping. As the faith of healthful minds in the reality of the external world is not disturbed by metaphysical theories, so belief in God and the soul rides triumphant over the arguments of materialists and atheists. Difficulties there are, many and possibly insuperable; but whatever line of thought we take, the moment we attempt to descend to the ultimate cause and essence of things, reason seems to become involved in hopeless contradictions. A universal unconscious principle from which all things proceed is as incomprehensible as an Infinite Being who thinks and loves. The religious do not claim that they have a clear view of the object of their adoration. Their insistence upon the virtue and necessity of faith is evidence of this. They recognize that what is plain is the exception and that mystery is everywhere. In the limitless expanse a few stars twinkle: all else is darkness. "There is a chain in the hand of God," says von Müller, "which holds together all the beings of the universe, even to the smallest grain of sand. Here and there we discover its links, but, for the most part, it is hidden from our sight." Whatever our solution of the enigma of being and of life, we accept it on faith. No man can know that the unconscious can create consciousness. The atheist believes in his dogma, as the theist believes in God. The one holds that the Infinite Power which all dimly discern is mere matter: the other is certain that it is life and truth and love and beauty. If the atheist ask, How could God create such a world? the theist replies with the question: How could matter create a soul which thinks and loves, which is nourished by deathless hope and uplifted by infinite aspiration? To those who affirm that the Almighty is blind and senseless, great human hearts will forever reply, with their cry of faith, that the infinitely strong is also the infinitely wise and good. If the materialist were right, those who believe in God would still have the better part. It is a higher human thing and a mightier to trust the larger hope. We cannot but believe that the highest is more nearly akin to what in us is high than to what in us is low. The ship of faith is a Columbus ship. Believers have been world-compellers and world-revealers. They have conquered with Paul, they have founded empires with Charlemagne, they have written epics with Dante and Milton, they have read the secret of the stars with Copernicus and Kepler, they have sailed the sea of darkness with Columbus, they have cleared the wilderness for the people's rule, with the Puritans. Life's current has welled within them in a clear, perennially fresh-flowing stream; and they have hugged Death himself, believing that he unlocks the door, through which we pass to God, by whose throne flows life's full tide. They live the life, and the doctrine whereby it is expressed is for them nowise uncertain. The objector they find to be something of a trifler. He is not wholly in earnest about anything, else he would find less time to argue and dispute. This verbalism, after all, settles nothing that is worth settling. He who tells us what difficulties and doubts he has, and what difficulties and doubts the faith of others suggests to him, renders us no real service; and he is besides as uninteresting and tiresome to a self-active mind as one who complains and laments. Let those who seek pretexts for doing nothing or doing ill, listen to him; but they who feel that life is eternity's seed-time dwell in worlds where all this phrase-mongering is as unprofitable as the discussions of schoolboys or as a politician's zeal for the country's welfare. Why should the good and wise care to see a man pull even the most wretched thatched hovel about the heads of its inmates? Show them how and where they may find a nobler dwelling, and they will leave the hovel. Be a builder, not a destroyer; a creator, not an objector.

Colonel Ingersoll's method of criticism is one which cultivated men have long since thrown aside. The critic's function, as scholars now hold, is not to point out faults, but to discover and make known what is true, excellent, and beautiful. What is trivial and hideous any one may understand and see, but to learn to know and appreciate the best that has been thought and said, we all need the instruction and guidance of those who are wiser and more sensitive than ourselves. If he who teaches me a new truth, however disagreeable, is my benefactor, so is he who helps me to see what is fair and true in life and literature; but he who criticizes the Bible -- of which Kant said that a single one of its lines had consoled him more than all the books he had read -- in the mood and temper of a mocker and coarse humorist, is to me like the bull with hay on its horn, mentioned by Horace. He is as interesting as Voltaire when he declares that Shakespeare has not the smallest spark of good taste or the smallest acquaintance with the rules. Colonel Ingersoll's controversial method is as unsatisfactory as is his critical. He is a polemical guerilla. He does not attempt to lay formal siege to the fortress of religious truth, but he lies in wait for some sleepy sentinel or band of marauders, and when he has fired his blunderbuss, chuckles with delight, as though he had gained a victory. No well-read man will claim that he says anything new. The significance of what he says lies in the emphasis with which he says it. Emphasis is bad style. It is the attempt to make poverty look like riches, to give to platitudes the semblance of original thought. His secret is that of the rhetorician who, when he has made a thing appear ridiculous, would have us believe there is nothing more to say. But even those who do not think deeply feel, when they have read him, that there is infinitely more in the religion of Christ than any words of his will ever reveal. Sane men will never believe that life is a comedy, a mere freak of nature, and consequently they can never be persuaded that religion is a delusion. As time lengthens, thought widens; but the larger view does not annul the truth there is in the faith of those whose world was narrower. To think otherwise is to be a philistine; is to imagine, for instance, that the classical languages are dead languages, whereas, in truth, they are the living mother tongues of all who think and aspire nobly. In them there breathes the spirit of our intellectual ancestors, of the masters who first showed the world how to use the mind; who gave form and direction to philosophy, science, poetry, and eloquence; who relive in the idioms of all cultivated peoples, and still have a power to develop and inspire, which is found neither in the knowledge of nature nor in the experience of life. The fundamental conception of Christianity is that of progress in the knowledge of God and His universe. The increasing intelligence of mankind is the gradual revelation of the Divine Mind. To deny this is to deny God and reason. All real progress, indeed, is the growing manifestation of the Infinite Being, who lives and loves within the whole. He fulfils Himself in many ways, and the more we bring all our endowments into actuality, the more like unto Him do we grow. The lack of the sense for historical perspective is Colonel Ingersoll's great defect. He projects our modern consciousness into the past, and finds fault with his great-grandfather because he did not know what it was impossible for him to know. He is like one who should treat Columbus with contempt because he sailed for Cipango, and not for America, whose very existence was unknown to the Europe of his day. He imagines the Copernican system is an argument against inspiration. He assumes that the Bible is a book of science, and then points the finger of scorn at it because it does not teach the Newtonian theories. He throws himself into the primitive and barbarous life of the wandering tribes of Israel, and is scandalized because their moral code is not wholly comparable to that of a highly developed and complex social organism like our own. There was a time when feudalism was a blessing; for us it would be a curse. There has been a time when a people could save itself only by expelling foreign and unfriendly elements; in the modern age this may be neither necessary nor desirable.

Colonel Ingersoll believes in the theory of evolution, yet he treats Christianity as though development did not exist. He makes humanitarianism the supreme and only saving truth, and refuses to recognize the fact that the Christian religion has created the conditions that have made such faith possible. He exalts the worth of woman, yet fails to see that the power that made her man's equal before God thereby set her feet in the way of larger and nobler life. He extols freedom, but forgets that the germ of our modern liberties lies in the apostolic appeal from man to God, from emperors and mobs to conscience, issuing in that separation of the spiritual and temporal powers, which distinguishes Christian civilization from all other. He is eloquent in the praise of true marriage and of homes consecrated by the heart's devotion, yet he has only words of scorn for the Church, which has ever set its face against polygamy, and has fostered with ceaseless care the virtue of chastity, which is the mother of pure love, and a woman's crown. He is filled with horror at the thought of wars and massacres in which religious passions have played a part, but he has no words of commendation for the army of Christian men and women who in every age have walked in the ways of peace, have quelled strife, have spread good-will, have redeemed captives, have watched by the deathbeds of the forsaken, have moved like ministering angels in the midst of the victims of pestilence and famine, have stooped to breathe words of hope into the ears of the most abandoned criminals. The only immedicable ill, says George Eliot, is that which falls upon a mind debased. But Christ has taught us that the disease even of a degraded nature is medicable, that the germ of the divine life is never wholly extinguished even in the most perverted soul.

I have reason to believe that Colonel Ingersoll is a generous and kind-hearted man. Let him turn from persecutions and inquisitions, from total depravity and infant damnation, since nothing of this is, in any true sense, Christianity, to the religion of infinite hope and love, of gentleness and peace, of mercy and forgiveness, of purity and perfectness through suffering, which the Blessed Saviour taught. Let him think of that charity which enters the darkest recesses of vice and misery to bring light and healing, which weakens the barriers that separate class from class and nation from nation, which carries into war itself the spirit of pity and humanity. Let him think of the tender thought which watches over childhood even in the mother's womb, which has made every true man and every good woman the lovers and helpers of the little ones, those who keep the world young and fresh, whom Christ took into his arms and blessed, of whom he said that their angels see God's face in heaven. Let him think of that wide sympathy which embraces all tribes and peoples, all ages and conditions; which while it seems to concern only the perfection of individual man, becomes the vital principle of civilization, giving new meaning to life, new strength to morality, new vigor to the nations; which introduces into history a higher conception of God and of man, and of man's duty to God and to his fellow-man, issuing in a purer and nobler worship, and slowly flowering into the fuller consciousness of the brotherhood of the whole race, into which the spirit of nationalism shall at length, as generous hearts believe, be absorbed. This religion of Christ has conquered where philosophies have failed; it has ennobled where arts have degraded; it has wrought for larger and purer life where republics have perished in sensuality and lawlessness. Its chronic vigor is so indefectible that the very diseases which find a nidus in its constitution seem to grow immortal.

"We understand ourselves to be risking no new assertion," says Carlyle, "but simply reporting what is already the conviction of the greatest of our age, when we say -- that cheerfully recognizing, gratefully appropriating whatever Voltaire has proved or any other man has proved or shall prove, the Christian religion, once here, cannot again pass away: that, in one or the other form, it will endure through all time; that, as in scripture, so also in the heart of man is written, 'The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.' . . . It was a height to which the human species were fated and enabled to attain; and from which having once attained it, they can never retrograde."

The world, indeed, is still far from the perfect knowledge and love of the Divine Life, which is revealed in Christ. We are all still misled by error and passion; but when we look back we see that progress has been made. In the spiritual as in the material world, great and far-reaching changes take place in long lapses of time. The enthusiast expects to accomplish in a generation what God takes centuries to bring about; he lacks insight. The wise will learn patience and look less to what makes an immediate impression than to what leads to truth and permanent results. The important thing is to keep clear within the mind and the conscience true distinctions between right and wrong. We readily admit that untruthfulness, cruelty, and dishonesty are vices, but we are slow to believe in the guilt of the indifferent and unbelieving. It is the fashion, even, to make doubt a virtue as though one could have the right to rest unresolved where vital interests are at stake, as though we did not live in a world where faith alone makes action possible.

"Belief or unbelief
Bears upon life, determines its whole course."

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