The War Against Reason
by John MacArthur
True discernment has
suffered a horrible setback in the past few decades because reason itself
has been under attack within the church. As Francis Schaeffer warned
nearly thirty years ago in The God Who Is There, the church is
following the irrationality of secular philosophy. Consequently, reckless
faith has overrun the evangelical community. Many are discarding doctrine
in favor of personal experience. Others say they are willing to disregard
crucial biblical distinctives in order to achieve external unity among all
professing Christians. True Christianity marked by intelligent, biblical
faith seems to be declining even among the most conservative evangelicals.
THE ABANDONMENT OF OBJECTIVE TRUTH
The visible church in our generation has become astonishingly tolerant of aberrant teaching and outlandish ideas—and frighteningly intolerant of sound teaching. The popular evangelical conception of "truth" has become almost completely subjective. Truth is viewed as fluid, always relative, never absolute. To suggest that any objective criterion might be used to distinguish truth from error is to be egregiously out of step with the spirit of the age. In some circles, Scripture itself has been ruled out as a reliable test of truth. After all, the Bible can be interpreted in so many different ways—who can say which interpretation is right? And many believe there is truth beyond the Bible.
All this relativity has had disastrous effects on the typical Christian's ability to discern truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil. The plainest teachings of the Bible are being questioned among people who declare themselves believers in the Bible. For example, some Christians are no longer certain whether homosexuality should be classed as a sin. Others argue that the feminist agenda is compatible with biblical Christianity. "Christian" television, radio, books, and magazines serve up a preposterous smorgasbord of ideas from the merely capricious to the downright dangerous—and the average Christian is woefully ill-equipped to sort out the lies from the truth.
Even to suggest that a sorting between lies and truth is necessary is viewed by many as perilously intolerant. There is a notion abroad that any dispute over doctrine is inherently evil. Concern for orthodoxy is regarded as incompatible with Christian unity. Doctrine itself is labeled divisive and those who make doctrine an issue are branded uncharitable. No one is permitted to criticize anyone else's beliefs, no matter how unbiblical those beliefs seem to be. A recent article in Christianity Today exemplifies the trend. The article, titled "Hunting for Heresy," profiled two well-known Christian leaders who had "come under withering attack for controversial writings."1
One is a popular speaker on the college lecture circuit and a bestselling author. He wrote a book in which he encouraged homosexuals to establish permanent live-together relationships (albeit celibate ones). He suggests the evangelical community suffers from "homophobia." He is convinced that permanent living arrangements between homosexuals are the only alternative to loneliness for people he believes are "born with a homosexual orientation." This man's wife has published an article in a homosexual magazine in which she enthusiastically affirms" monogamous sexual relationships between homosexuals. The speaker-author says he has a "very, very strong" disagreement with his wife's approval of homosexual sex, but his own view seems to allow homosexuals to engage in other kinds of physical intimacy short of actual intercourse.
The other Christian leader profiled in the Christianity Today article is a woman who, with her husband, is a featured speaker for a popular, nationally-syndicated radio and television ministry. Their ministry is not a weird offshoot from some fringe cult, but an established, well-respected mainstay from the evangelical heartland. She also serves as chairperson of one of the largest evangelical student organizations in the world. This woman has written a book in which she chronicles some rather peculiar spiritual experiences. She dedicates the book to her male alter ego, an imaginary person named "Eddie Bishop" who romances her in her dreams. This woman says she also has visions of "the Christ child that is within" her. He appears to her as a drooling, emaciated, barefoot "idiot child" in a torn undershirt—"its head totally bald and lolled to one side." The woman has engaged the services of a Catholic nun who serves as her "spiritual director," helping to interpret her dreams and fantasies. The book mingles mysticism, Jungian psychology, out-of-body experiences, feminist ideas, subjective religious experience, and this woman's romantic fantasies into an extraordinary amalgam. The book is frankly so bizarre that it is disturbing to read.
The remarkable thing about the Christianity Today article is that the story was not written to expose the aberrant ideas being taught by these two leading evangelicals. Instead, what the magazine's editors deemed newsworthy was the fact that these people were under attack for their views.
In the world of modern evangelicalism, it is allowable to advocate the most unconventional, unbiblical doctrines—as long as you afford everyone else the same privilege. About the only thing that is taboo nowadays is the intolerance of those who dare to point out others' errors. Anyone today who is bold enough to suggest that someone else's ideas or doctrines are unsound or unbiblical is dismissed at once as contentious, divisive, unloving, or unchristian. It is all right to espouse any view you wish, but it is not all right to criticize another person's views—no matter how patently unbiblical those views may be.
When tolerance is valued over truth, the cause of truth always suffers. Church history shows this to be so. Only when the people of God have mounted a hardy defense of truth and sound doctrine has the church flourished and grown strong. The Reformation, the Puritan era, and the Great Awakenings are all examples of this. The times of decline in the history of the church have always been marked by an undue emphasis on tolerance—which leads inevitably to carelessness, worldliness, doctrinal compromise, and great confusion in the church.
ADRIFT ON A SEA OF SUBJECTIVITY
That the church would lose her moorings in this particular age, however, poses greater dangers than ever. For in the past hundred years or so, the world has changed in a dramatic and very frightening way. People no longer look at truth the way they used to. In fact, we live under a prevailing philosophy that has become hostile to the very idea of absolute truth.
From the beginning of recorded history until late last century, virtually all human philosophy assumed the necessity of absolute truth. Truth was universally understood as that which is true, not false; factual, not erroneous; correct, not incorrect; moral, not immoral; just, not unjust; right, not wrong. Practically all philosophers since the time of Plato assumed the objectivity of truth. Philosophy itself was a quest for the highest understanding of truth. Such a pursuit was presumed to be possible, even necessary, because truth was understood to be the same for every person. This did not mean that everyone agreed what truth was, of course. But virtually all agreed that whatever was true was true for everyone.
That all changed in the nineteenth century with the birth of existentialism. Existentialism defies precise definition, but it includes the concept that the highest truth is subjective (having its source in the individual's mind) rather than objective (something that actually exists outside the individual). Existentialism elevates individual experience and personal choice, minimizing or ruling out absolute standards of truth, goodness, morality, and such things. We might accurately characterize existentialism as the abandonment of objectivity. Existentialism is inherently anti-intellectual, against reason, irrational.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard first used the term "existential." Kierkegaard's life and philosophy revolved around his experiences with Christianity. Christian ideas and biblical terminology reverberate in many of his writings. He wrote much about faith and certainly regarded himself as a Christian. Many of his ideas began as a legitimate reaction against the stale formalism of the Danish Lutheran state church. He was rightly offended at the barren ritualism of the church, properly outraged that people who had no love for God called themselves Christians just because they happened to be born in a "Christian" nation.
But in his reaction against the lifeless state church, Kierkegaard set up a false antithesis. He decided that objectivity and truth were incompatible. To counter the passionless ritualism and lifeless doctrinal formulas he saw in Danish Lutheranism, Kierkegaard devised an approach to religion that was pure passion, altogether subjective. Faith, he suggested, means the rejection of reason and the exaltation of feeling and personal experience. It was Kierkegaard who coined the expression "leap of faith." Faith to him was an irrational experience, above all a personal choice. He recorded these words in his journal on August 1, 1835: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."2
Clearly, Kierkegaard had already rejected as inherently worthless the belief that truth is objective. His journal continues with these words:
Having repudiated the objectivity of truth, Kierkegaard was left longing for an existential experience, which he believed would bring him a sense of personal fulfillment. He stood on the precipice, preparing to make his leap of faith. Ultimately, the idea he chose to live and die for was Christianity, but it was a characteristically subjective brand of Christianity that he embraced.
Though Kierkegaard was virtually unknown during his lifetime, his writings have endured and have deeply influenced all subsequent philosophy. His idea of "truth that is true for me" infiltrated popular thought and set the tone for our generations radical rejection of all objective standards.
Kierkegaard knew how to make irrationalism sound profound. "God does not exist; He is eternal," he wrote. He believed Christianity was full of "existential paradoxes," which he regarded as actual contradictions, proof that truth is irrational.
Using the example of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19), Kierkegaard suggested that God called Abraham to violate moral law in slaying his son. For Kierkegaard, Abraham's willingness to "suspend" his ethical convictions epitomized the leap of faith that is demanded of everyone. Kierkegaard believed the incident proved that "the single individual [Abraham] is higher than the universal [moral law]."4 Building on that conclusion, the Danish philosopher offered this observation: "Abraham represents faith.... He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely [by virtue of] the absurd that he as the single individual is higher than the universal."5 "[I] cannot understand Abraham," Kierkegaard declared, "even though in a certain demented sense I admire him more than all others."6
It is not difficult to see how such thinking thrusts all truth into the realm of pure subjectivity—even to the point of absurdity or dementia. Everything becomes relative. Absolutes dematerialize. The difference between truth and nonsense becomes meaningless. All that matters is personal experience.
And one person's experience is as valid as another's—even if everyone's experiences lead to contradictory conceptions of truth. "Truth that is true for me" might be different from someone else's truth. In fact, our beliefs might be obviously contradictory, yet another person's "truth" in no way invalidates mine. Because "truth"
is authenticated by personal experience, its only relevance is for the individual who makes the leap of faith. That is existentialism.
Existentialism caught on in a big way in secular philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, also rejected reason and emphasized the will of the individual. Nietzsche probably knew nothing of Kierkegaard's works, but their ideas paralleled at the key points. Unlike Kierkegaard, however, Nietzsche never made the leap of faith to Christianity. Instead, he leapt to the conclusion that God is dead. The truth that was "true for him," it seems, turned out to be the opposite of the truth Kierkegaard chose. But their epistemology (the way they arrived at their ideas) was exactly the same.
Later existentialists, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, refined Kierkegaard's ideas while following the atheism of Nietzsche. Heidegger and Sartre both believed that reason is futile and life basically meaningless. Those ideas have been a powerful force in twentieth-century thought. As the world continues to grow more atheistic, more secular, and more irrational, it helps to understand that it is being propelled in that direction by strong existentialist influences.
EXISTENTIALISM INVADES THE CHURCH But don't get the idea that existentialism's influence is limited to the secular world. From the moment Kierkegaard wedded existentialist ideas with Christianity, neo-orthodox theology was the inevitable outcome.
Neo-orthodoxy is the term used to identify an existentialist variety of Christianity. Because it denies the essential objective basis of truth—the absolute truth and authority of Scripture—neo-orthodoxy must be understood as pseudo-Christianity. Its heyday came in the middle of the twentieth century with the writings of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Those men echoed the language and the thinking of Kierkegaard, speaking of the primacy of "personal authenticity," while downplaying or denying the significance of objective truth. Barth, the father of neo-orthodoxy, explicitly acknowledged his debt to Kierkegaard.7
Neo-orthodoxy's attitude toward Scripture is a microcosm of the entire existentialist philosophy: the Bible itself is not objectively the Word of God, but it becomes the Word of God when it speaks to me individually. In neo-orthodoxy, that same subjectivism is imposed on all the doctrines of historic Christianity. Familiar terms are used, but are redefined or employed in a way that is purposely vague—not to convey objective meaning, but to communicate a subjective symbolism. After all, any "truth" theological terms convey is unique to the person who exercises faith. What the Bible means becomes unimportant. What it means to me is the relevant issue. All of this resoundingly echoes Kierkegaard's concept of "truth that is true for me."
Thus while neo-orthodox theologians often sound as if they are affirming traditional beliefs, their actual system differs radically from the historic understanding of the Christian faith. By denying the objectivity of truth, they relegate all theology to the realm of subjective relativism. It is a theology perfectly suited for the age in which we live.
And that is precisely why it is so deadly.
Francis Schaeffer's 1968 work The God Who Is There included a perceptive analysis of Kierkegaard's influence on modern thought and modern theology.8 Schaeffer named the boundary between rationality and irrationality "the line of despair." He noted that existentialism pushed secular thought below the line of despair sometime in the nineteenth century. Religious neo-orthodoxy was simply a johnny-come-lately response of theologians who were jumping on the existentialist bandwagon, following secular art, music, and general culture: "Neo-orthodoxy gave no new answer. What existential philosophy had already said in secular language, it now said in theological language.... [With the advent of neo-orthodoxy,] theology too has gone below the line of despair."9
Schaeffer went on to analyze how neo-orthodoxy ultimately gives way to radical mysticism:
Such a system, Schaeffer points out, has no integrity. Those who espouse it cannot live with the repercussions of their own illogic. "In practice a man cannot totally reject [rationality], however much his system leads him to it, unless he experiences ... some form of mental breakdown." Thus people have been forced to an even deeper level of despair: "a level of mysticism with nothing there."11
MYSTICISM: IRRATIONALITY GONE TO SEED
Mysticism is the idea that spiritual reality is found by looking inward. Mysticism is perfectly suited for religious existentialism; indeed, it is its inevitable consequence. The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means. Objective truth becomes practically superfluous. Mystical experiences are therefore self-authenticating; that is, they are not subject to any form of objective verification. They are unique to the person who experiences them. Since they do not arise from or depend upon any rational process, they are invulnerable to any refutation by rational means.
Arthur L. Johnson writes,
Mysticism is therefore antithetical to discernment. It is an extreme form of reckless faith.
Mysticism is the great melting pot into which neo-orthodoxy, the charismatic movement, anti-intellectual evangelicals, and even some segments of Roman Catholicism have been synthesized. It has produced movements like the Third Wave (a neo-charismatic movement with excessive emphasis on signs, wonders, and personal prophecies); Renovaré (an organization that blends teachings from monasticism, ancient Catholic mysticism, Eastern religion, and other mystical traditions); the spiritual warfare movement (which seeks to engage demonic powers in direct confrontation); and the modern prophecy movement (which encourages believers to seek private, extrabiblical revelation directly ftom God). The influx of mysticism has also opened evangelicalism to New-Age concepts like subliminal thought- control, inner healing, communication with angels, channeling, dream analysis, positive confession, and a host of other therapies and
practices coming directly from occult and Eastern religions. The face of evangelicalism has changed so dramatically in the past twenty years that what is called evangelicalism today is beginning to resemble what used to be called neo-orthodoxy. If anything, some segments of contemporary evangelicalism are even more subjective in their approach to truth than neo-orthodoxy ever was.
It could be argued that evangelicalism never successfully resisted neo-orthodoxy. Twenty years ago evangelicals took a heroic stand against neo-orthodox influences on the issue of biblical inerrancy. But whatever victory was gained in that battle is now being sacrificed on the altar of mysticism. Mysticism renders biblical inerrancy irrelevant. After all, if the highest truth is subjective and comes from within us, then it doesn't ultimately matter if the specifics of Scripture are true or not. If the content of faith is not the real issue, what does it really matter if the Bible has errors or not?
In other words, neo-orthodoxy attacked the objective inspiration of Scripture. Evangelical mysticism attacks the objective interpretation of Scripture. The practical effect is the same. By embracing existential relativism, evangelicals are forfeiting the very riches they fought so hard to protect. If we can gain meaningful guidance from characters who appear in our fantasies, why should we bother ourselves with what the Bible says? If we are going to disregard or even reject the biblical verdict against homosexuality, what difference does it make if the historical and factual matter revealed in Scripture is accurate or inaccurate? If personal prophecies, visions, dreams, and angelic beings are available to give us up-to-the-minute spiritual direction—"fresh revelation" as it is often called—who cares if Scripture is without error in the whole or in the parts?
Mysticism further nullifies Scripture by pointing people away from the sure Word of God as the only reliable object of faith. Warning of the dangers of mysticism, Schaeffer wrote,
The faith of mysticism is an illusion. "Truth that is true for me" is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith.
MEANWHILE, AT THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM...
Mysticism, however, is not the only form of reckless faith that threatens the contemporary church. A new movement has been gaining strength lately. Evangelicals are leaving the fold and moving into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and liturgical high-church Protestantism. Rejecting the ever-changing subjectivism of a free- wheeling existential Protestantism, they seek a religion with historical roots. Turned off by the shallow silliness that has overrun the evangelical movement, they desire a more magisterial approach. Perhaps sensing the dangers of a religion that points people inward, they choose instead a religion that emphasizes external ceremonies and dogmatic hierarchical authority.
I listened to the taped testimony of one of these converts to Roman Catholicism, a former Protestant minister. He said he had graduated with highest honors from a leading Protestant seminary. He told his audience that as a student he was rabidly anti-Catholic and fully committed to Protestant Reformed doctrine (although he refuted this himself by admitting he had already rejected the crucial doctrine of justification by faith). After college he began to read Roman Catholic writings and found himself drawn to Catholic theology and liturgy. He described his initial resistance to the doctrines of purgatory, the perpetual virginity of Mary, transubstantiation, and prayers to Mary and the saints. All of those doctrines are easily disproved by the Bible.14 But this man—acknowledging that he could find no warrant anywhere in Scripture for praying to Mary—nevertheless completely changed his outlook on such matters after he tried praying the rosary and received an answer to a very specific prayer. He concluded that it must have been Mary who answered his prayer and immediately began praying regularly to her. Ultimately, he decided the Bible alone was not a sufficient rule of faith for believers, and he put his faith in papal authority and church tradition.
That man's leap of faith may not have been of the existential variety, but it was a blind leap nonetheless. He chose the other extreme of reckless faith, the kind that makes extrabiblical religious tradition the object of one's faith.
This kind of faith is reckless because it subjugates the written Word of God to oral tradition, church authority, or some other human criterion. It is an uncritical trust in an earthly religious authority—the pope, tradition, a self-styled prophet like David Koresh, or whatever. Such faith rarely jettisons Scripture altogether—but by forcing God's Word into the mold of religious tradition, it invalidates the Word of God and renders it of no effect (cf. Matt. 15:6).
The man whose taped testimony I heard is now an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church. He speaks to Catholic congregations and tells them how to counter biblical arguments against Catholicism. At the end of his testimony tape, he deals briefly with the official Catholic attitude toward Scripture. He is eager to assure his listeners that the modern Roman Catholic Church has no objection if Catholic people want to read Scripture for themselves. Even personal Bible study is all right, he says—but then hastens to add that it is not necessary to go overboard. "A verse or two a day is enough." This man, a seminary graduate, surely should be aware that a comment like that seriously understates the importance of the written Word of God. We are commanded to meditate on Scripture day and night (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). We are to let it fill our hearts at all times (Deut. 6:6-9). We must study it diligently and handle it rightly (2 Tim. 2:15). The Bible alone is able to give us the wisdom that leads to salvation, then adequately equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
Discernment depends on a knowledge of Scripture. Those who are content to listen gullibly to some voice of human authority rather than hearing God's Word and letting it speak for itself cannot be discerning. Theirs is a reckless, irrational faith.
We identified the inward-looking extreme of reckless faith as mysticism. We could call this other variety rote tradition. In Isaiah 29:13, that is precisely how God Himself characterized it: "This people their lip service, but draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (emphasis added).
Scripture has nothing but condemnation for rote tradition. Barren religious ritual, sacerdotal formalism, or liturgy out of a book are not the same as worship. Real worship, like faith, must engage the mind. Jesus said, "The true worshipers ... worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers" (John 4:23).
Did you realize that rote tradition was the very error for which Jesus condemned the Pharisees? He told them,
Rote tradition is not unlike mysticism in that it also bypasses the mind. Paul said this of the Jews who were so absorbed in their empty religious traditions:
Their problem was not a lack of zeal. It was not that they were short on enthusiasm, emotionally flat, or slothful about religious observances. The issue was that the zeal they displayed was rote tradition, "not in accordance with knowledge." They were not sufficiently discerning, and therefore their faith itself was deficient.
Paul is specific in stating that their ignorance lay in trying to establish their own righteousness rather than submitting to the righteousness of God. This passage comes at the culmination of Paul's doctrinal discussion in Romans. In context it is very clear that he was talking about the doctrine ofjustification by faith. He had thoroughly expounded this subject beginning in chapter 3. He said we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (3:24). Justification is "by faith apart from works of the Law" (v.28). "God reckons righteousness apart from works" (Rom. 4:6).
But instead of seeking the perfect righteousness of Christ, which God reckons to those who believe, the unbelieving Jews had set out to try to establish a righteousness of their own through works. That is where rote tradition always leads. It is a religion of works. Thus the ritualistic, unbelieving Pharisees are an exact parallel to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and most forms of ritual-laden Protestantism. All of them deny justification by faith.
If the Pharisees or their followers had used the Scriptures as their standard of truth rather than rabbinical tradition, they would have known that God justifies sinners by faith. Repeatedly, Jesus said things to them like "Did you never read in the Scriptures . . . ?" (Matt. 21:42); "You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God" (22:29); and, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?" (John 3:10). What He continually chided them for was their ignorance of the Scriptures. They had set rote tradition in place of the written Word of God (Matt. 15:6), and they were condemned for it.
Contrast the way Luke commended the Bereans for their noblemindedness: "For they received the word [the New Testament gospel from the apostles] with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures [the Old Testament books] daily, to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:1 1). What made the Bereans worthy of commendation? Their eagerness to be discerning. They rightly refused to blindly accept anyone's teaching (even that of the apostles) without clear warrant from God's Word.
Spiritual discernment is, I believe, the only antidote to the existentialism of our age. Until'Christians regain the will to test everything by the rule of Scripture, reject what is false, and hold fast to what is true, the church will struggle and falter, and our testimony to a world in sin will be impaired.
But if the church will rise up and stand for the truth of God's Word against all the lies of this evil world, then we will begin to see the power of truth that sets people free (John 8:32).
1. John W. Kennedy, "Hunting for Heresy," Christianity Today (16 May 1994).
2. Robert Bretall, cd., A Kierkegaard Anthology (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1946), 5 (emphasis in original).
4. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, trans. (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 55.
6. Ibid., 57.
7. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, Edwyn C. Hoskyns, trans. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933). Barth cites Kierkegaard repeatedly in this, one of his earliest works.
8. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume I (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1982).
9. Ibid., 53.
10. Ibid., 55.
11. Ibid., 58.
12. Arthur L. Johnson, Faith Misguided: Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 31-32.
13. Schaeffer, 64-65, emphasis added.
14. Purgatory: Luke 23:42-43 and 2 Cor. 5:8 indicate that believers go immediately to be with Christ at death. Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Matt. 1:25 states that Joseph kept Mary a virgin only until Jesus' birth, and John 2:12 and Acts 1:14 reveal that Jesus had brothers. Transubstantiation: Heb. 7:27 and 10:12 teach that Christ made one sacrifice for sins forever; there is no need for the daily sacrifice of the Mass. Prayers to Mary and the saints: prayers, adoration, and spiritual veneration offered to anyone but God is expressly forbidden by the first commandment and elsewhere throughout Scripture (Ex. 20:3; Matt. 4:10; Acts 10:25-26; Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:8-9).
Excerpt from Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern, © 1994 by John MacArthur.
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