Witness to an ancient truth
Published on Friday 20 April 1962 in Time Magazine
On a hill outside Jerusalem, a carpenter from Nazareth, condemned by the Roman Procurator of Judea and the high priest of the Jews, died upon a cross. Four historians of the time soberly reported that he was buried, and that on the third day the carpenter, Jesus, rose from the dead. Since that first Easter, his followers have defied all reason to proclaim that the Jew of Nazareth was the Son of God, who, by dying for man's sin, reconciled the world to its Creator and returned to life in his glory. Christianity has always been content to stand or fall by this paradox, this mystery, this unfathomable truth. "If Christ has not been raised," wrote St. Paul to the young church of Corinth, "then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins."
In the 20th century, no man has been a stronger witness to the continuing significance of Christ's death and Christ's return than the world's ranking Protestant theologian, Swiss-born Karl Barth (rhymes with heart). Barth knows that the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are not coherent, but he refuses to make the mystery more palatable to human reason by suggesting—as did the great 19th century Theologian D. F. Strauss in his Life of Jesus—that the story of the crucifixion is a "myth." Instead, Barth argues that the subject of this unique event is God, not man; and only God can know the full truth of his own history. Man's only road to understanding of this divine history is through faith—faith in the reality and truth of what the Evangelists so incoherently describe.
"Do you want to believe in the living Christ?" says Barth. "We may believe in him only if we believe in his corporeal resurrection. This is the content of the New Testament. We are always free to reject it, but not to modify it, nor to pretend that the New Testament tells something else. We may accept or refuse the message, but we may not change it."
Love & Scorn
Last week, at the age of 75, the author of this challenge to modern skepticism was enjoying his first visit to the U.S.—a country whose history he loves and whose way of life he professes to scorn. Arriving in Chicago, Barth quickly found time to check theatrical versions of that life, saw performances of two plays by Edward Albee, and the current review of the iconoclastic troupe that performs in a coffeehouse-nightclub called The Second City. Among Protestant theologians, Barth's arrival has caused as much stir as would a visit by the Pope to a Jesuit convention. At the University of Chicago, Barth will receive an honorary doctorate of divinity, deliver five lectures on evangelical theology. Busloads of theologians and ministers are coming from as far as New Mexico and California in hopes of hearing him. A week later Barth will repeat the lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. Oddly enough, Barth is as interested in seeing battlefields as debating with his fellow theologians. An amateur expert on the Civil War, he has insisted that his travels include a stop at Gettysburg.
Barth has been variously damned as a heretic, a narrow-minded Biblicist, and an atheist in disguise—and praised as the most creative Protestant theologian since John Calvin. President James McCord of Princeton Theological says that "he bestrides the theological world like a colossus." Harvard's German-born Paul Tillich, the contemporary religious thinker whose stature most nearly rivals Barth's, has often disagreed with Barth —"shouting at each other over a glass of wine" —but calls him, "the most monumental appearance in our period." Roman Catholic theologians, notably in Europe, have praised his thinking in terms they usually reserve for St. Thomas Aquinas. Once, upon hearing that Pius XII had paid tribute to his work, Barth smiled and said, "This proves the infallibility of the Pope." More seriously, he insists that the best critical work on his works—over 500 titles so far —has been done by such Catholic thinkers as French Jesuit Henri Bouillard and Father Hans Urs von Balthasar of Basel.
By contrast, Reinhold Niebuhr regards Barth as a "man of infinite imagination and irresponsibility" writing "irrelevant theology to America. I don't read Barth any more," he says. And Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary speaks for a host of U.S. fundamentalists in charging that "Barthianism is even more hostile to the theology of Luther and Calvin than Romanism."
Barth is a theologian's theologian, whose work in "that beautiful science" by which man seeks to know God is the yardstick that measures what other men do. His treatment of Christian dogma has soared across denominational boundaries, affecting the thought of Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians as well as his own Reformed Church. Preachers read him, and his thought probably affects a good share of the sermons spoken in U.S. churches any given Sunday, but laymen hardly know his name. He has far fewer disciples in the U.S. than either Niebuhr or Tillich; and even in Germany, young theologians find more impact in the Christian existentialism of Rudolf Bultmann (TIME, April 14, 1961). All this is fine with Barth himself, who dis owns the idea of a school — "except for my two sons" — meaning Markus, 46, a New Testament scholar at the University of Chicago, and Christoph, 44, who teach es Old Testament in Djakarta.
In a way, this lack of a following is a tribute to the originality and individuality of Barth's accomplishments. His kind of God-thinking has been commonly called "neo-orthodoxy" and "theology of crisis" — labels that Barth rejects, since they scarcely define it at all. Essentially, Barth is a Christological theologian, whose uniquely modern thought centers around ancient realities: faith, the Bible, the church. He has a philosopher's knowledge of philosophy, but unlike such contemporaries as Tillich or Bultmann, Barth is wary of restating the dogmas of the church in nontraditional language. His thought is complex, but he nonetheless writes of doctrine in prose that is not far removed from that of the pulpit. Above all he writes of the mysterious history of Christ. Knowledge of God is knowledge of God through Christ. Faith is faith in Christ; the church is the Church of Christ; the Bible is the witness of Christ. Theologian Hans Frei of Yale calls him "a Christ-intoxicated man."
Dogmatist Greets Dog
In person, Barth looks like a Hollywood type-cast of a German professor, right down to his scholar's stoop and his thick, dark-rimmed glasses planted far down on his nose. His conservative suits are usually rumpled and flecked with tobacco from the pipe that seldom is out of his mouth. Barth is a Calvinist, but not a gloomy one; at home he speaks kindly to large dogs and small children (in guttural Swiss-German), displays a mellow, Dutch-uncle patience with puzzled students. In conversation Barth is full of wisecracks—some pleasantly pixy, some theologian-arch. Once, asked by a stranger on the trolley car if he knew the great Karl Barth, he replied: "Know him? I shave him every morning!"
It was no surprise that Barth came to spend his life in the service of God's Word; theology was as much a part of his family background as history was to the Schlesingers of Harvard. In Switzerland, there have been Pastor Barths since the early 19th century. One of them was Karl's father, Fritz Barth, an earnest, rigorous New Testament scholar who gave up the pastorate to teach Scripture at a seminary at Basel, where Karl, the eldest of five children, was born.
Karl began his theological studies at the University of Bern, but soon found the orthodox Calvinism taught there too old-fashioned for his own taste. He persuaded his father to send him to the University of Berlin, where he could study under the best known of Protestant church historians, Adolf von Harnack. For an embryonic scholar of 20, it was a heady, exhilarating experience. "I was so enthusiastic about him," Barth remembers, "that I missed going to concerts and museums. In the midst of Berlin, I saw little of the city, doing only my work."
Von Harnack was Barth's cicerone to theological liberalism, the intellectual wind prevailing in German religious thought after the turn of the century. By then, Protestantism had come a long, hard way from Luther and Calvin. During the 17th and 18th centuries, at the hands of their followers, the creative insights of the great reformers had been hardened into rigid dogmatisms—such as a literal acceptance of Biblical miracles—that were left shattered by the rational attacks of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of natural sciences. By 1850, Protestant thinkers had begun to construct a new and liberal religious synthesis that attempted to reconcile Christianity with man's empirical knowledge.
Instead of starting with a defense of dogma, liberal theology stressed the need for man to respond emotionally to the Jesus of history. Liberalism believed that religion was an expression of man's noblest impulses and that man himself had the freedom to shape his life and his world in accordance with the divine will. Faith in God was made to seem perfectly compatible with an industrial civilization's faith in science, progress and democracy; church and state would work hand in hand for man's final victory over nature, and the eventual establishment of the Kingdom of God on Barth. Liberalism also accepted scientific study of the Bible, even when it tended to challenge orthodox views of the divinity of Christ. Von Harnack's own major contribution to this "higher criticism" was a historical examination of church dogmas; his aim was to cut through the formulas of faith created by churchmen, reach back to the simple message of love that Jesus had actually taught. The New Testament in liberal hands became not so much a record of God's unique intervention in human history as an "inspiration" to Christians on how to live a good life.
Barth spent a year grappling with Von Harnack's historicism. absorbed more liberal theology at the universities of Tubingen and Marburg before being ordained in 1908 by his father at the Reformed cathedral of Bern. He served his ecclesiastical apprenticeship as an assistant pastor in a French-speaking parish near Geneva. Then, in 1911, he was called to the Reformed Church of Safenwil, a small mill town in northern Switzerland, where he married a sprightly young violinist named Nelly Hoffman.
Faced with the problem of how to give meaningful sermons. Barth as a minister discovered that the liberal theology of the universities held out no real message to people. He also found that expression of Christian belief, in the minds of his rich parishioners, was perfectly compatible with economic exploitation. Shocked by the low wages paid to Safenwil's textile workers, Barth became an active socialist, earned the nickname of "the Red pastor" for his role in organizing unions, and for such deadpan japes as passing out free frankfurters to rich and poor alike one Christmas morning at church.
An even more severe test of Barth's theological assumptions was World War I, which ended man's cocky dream of inevitable progress toward a reign of universal peace. Barth, who disapproved of Switzerland's vacillating neutralist politics, was shocked when the church in Germany approved the war policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II; not one of his theological teachers protested. Barth's contempt for this display of their social thinking led him to a reappraisal of their theology. In company with another disillusioned liberal pastor, Eduard Thurneysen, Barth went back over all his past theological and philosophical reading, finally returning to the Bible—a book, he discovered, which contained "divine thoughts about men, not human thoughts about God." He found some of the text of those divine thoughts in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, began work on a commentary that would bring that letter alive to modern man.
Bomb on the Playground
Published in 1918 and rewritten completely for the second edition in 1921. Barth's Epistle to the Romans, as Karl Adam, a Roman Catholic put it, "felt like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians." Barth attacked the liberal assumption that the Bible expressed man's religious experience of God; instead, he said, it contains God's Word to man. This God—the real God of revelation—is a being "wholly other" than man, a God who shouts a divine No to all of man's efforts to reach him through inner emotion or reason.
There is, as the great Dane Sören Kierkegaard wrote, "an infinite qualitative difference" between time and eternity, between man and God. The only bridge to God is the one that God provides—the bridge of faith that can come to man only after he has recognized the futility of his own efforts to meet his Creator.
Barth granted the service that liberal theology performed in emphasizing the genuine humanity of Jesus, but charged that in the process it had all but forgotten Christ's divinity. So, too, in speaking of the dignity and natural goodness of man, it had all but eliminated from Christianity the sense of sin. He also challenged the liberal suggestion that there was a natural alliance between God and the men who were building Western civilization—not because Barth opposed culture, but because man had no right to "domesticate" God in the name of progress.
Awakening the Town
In his Epistle, Barth wrote a declaration of independence on behalf of the God who stands in judgment over all human culture; the message made an immediate hit. Barth later compared his experience to that of a man who climbs the church tower at night and grabs a rope for support, only to discover that he has struck the church bell and awakened the whole town. "I did not know," he says "that it was so great a bell." On the strength of the book's success, Barth accepted a chair in Reformed theology at the University of Gottingen in 1921. There, besides teaching, he helped to edit a new magazine that continued his onslaught on liberalism; among the contributors were such rising young theologians as Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann.
As a teacher, Barth found that theology needed reconstruction as well as criticism, and during professorships at the universities of Münister and Bonn he began to study the writings of the church fathers and the Reformation confessions. Totally absorbed in the Word of God, Barth had little time for the word of man. Politics, he wrote then, was "essentially a game," and "fundamentally uninteresting."
Politics suddenly became interesting for Barth in 1933, after Adolf Hitler established the Third Reich. Barth spoke out in anger against Naziism when it attempted to create new "German Christian" churches in which National Socialist political theories were given the same sanctity as theological dogma. "This was a nationalist heresy,"he says, "confusion between God and the spirit of the German nation." He launched a new magazine to attack the "heresy" and in 1934 wrote nearly all of the Barmen Declaration—an anti-Nazi protest that claimed the autonomy of the church from all temporal power. The declaration was signed by 200 leaders of Germany's Lutheran, Reformed and Evangelical Unionist churches.
As a professor at the University of Bonn, Barth was technically a civil servant. But he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Führer or open his classes with the Nazi salute. It would be bad taste, he told them, "to begin a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount with Heil Hitler." At the end of 1934, Barth was brought before a Nazi court, found guilty of "seducing the minds" of German students. For his defense. Barth pulled a copy of Plato's Apology from his pocket, read Socrates' argument to the court of Athens that he should be given a pension for his services to the city's youth rather than be condemned to death. Something like that, Barth suggested, ought to be done for him. "It seemed like a good idea before going into court," he says sadly, "but it made no impression on the judges."
In 1935 the German Minister of Education decreed that there was no place in the new Germany for Barth. He accepted a professorship of theology at the Uni versity of Basel. Later he tried once more to speak in Germany and was arrested and deported by the Gestapo. After the out break of World War II, Barth issued a flurry of powerful, evangelical epistles opposing Naziism. "The enterprise of Adolf Hitler," he wrote, "with all its clatter and fireworks, and all its cunning and dynamic energy, is the enterprise of an evil spirit, which is apparently allowed its freedom for a time in order to test our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ."
In World War II Barth volunteered at the age of 54 for the Swiss army, spent much of the duration guarding a bridge on the German frontier. Barth cheerfully ad mits that, despite his lifelong hobby of military strategy, he showed no aptitude for leadership. Placed in command of a squad patrolling a mountain pass one cold winter night, he distributed his troops, soon found that they had all deserted to a hut for the warmth of a fire and hot coffee. "That," he says, "was the crash of my ambition to be a corporal."
Summa of the Century
After the war, Barth lectured on theology among the bombed-out ruins of his old university in Bonn for a semester, then returned to Basel to carry on with the intellectual job that has preoccupied him since 1932: the writing of Church Dogmatics. Now 9,000 pages and twelve fat volumes long, Dogmatics is Barth's major effort to ex plain what it is that God has revealed. Dogmatics, in Barth's definition, is the critical examination of the Christian mes sage in light of what the Scriptures say. Barth's own examination of this message is garrulous, eye-wearying, and studded with trackless deserts of scholarly foot notes. "Barth is just about the most gabby person that ever hit Christendom," grumbles Robert Hannen of Berkeley Baptist Divinity School. But Dogmatics is also wreathed with a knowledge of 1,900 years of Christian writing, and stands as the century's only equivalent to the summa of the medieval scholastics.
The dogmatic Barth, in many respects, is "wholly other" than the angry evangelist who wrote the Epistle to the Romans after World War I. In that early work, Barth says, "I had to show that the Bible dealt with an encounter between God and Man. I thought only of the apartness of God. What I had to learn after that was the togetherness of Man and God — a union of two totally different kinds of beings." In place of the divine No uttered by God, Barth in Dogmatics writes about the divine Yes spoken to those who accept God's revelation in faith.
What Theology Is
The foundation of Dogmatics is the faith held by the Christian churches: faith in the God who revealed himself through the Scriptures in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith, Barth says, is not an idea about God; it is man's humble, total acceptance of God brought on by God— "the consequences in man of the action of God himself." He flatly rejects all "natural theology," meaning man's systematic efforts to know God through the use of reason alone by speculating on natural mysteries—the "God is in the stars" theory. Barth insists that natural theology can only understand God as a First Cause or a Great Designer or some similar abstract idea that in reality is a product of man's own thinking processes. But God is not an idea dreamed of by man. He is the Supreme Being, who is only known through a specific revelation of himself. Therefore Barth does not try to "prove" the existence of God in his Dogmatics; he starts with the reality of the God of revelation.
To Barth, theology cannot be free speculation ; it is correct only when it is obedient to what God says. Hence there can be no theology apart from prayer, and no theology apart from God's revelation. The revelation of God is a continuous act: God still speaks to man through the words preached by his church to those who accept Christ. Since this revelation continues within the body of those who witness to God, there can be no theology apart from the church and what it believes. Barth, of course, is appalled at the divisions of Christendom; yet he thinks that most of those differences are the result not of heresies but of "particular errors"in doctrine. Barth's dogmatic theology, which freely ranges across denominational lines despite its basic Calvinist orientation, seeks to correct those errors by analyzing doctrinal interpretations in the light of what the Bible says.
The Divine Address
Barth accepts and welcomes scholarly criticism of the Bible, even when it shows the Scriptures to be full of errors and inconsistencies. He does not consider the Bible infallible, and he deplores orthodox Protestants who make it into "a paper Pope." Nevertheless, the Bible testifies to God's Word, which is revealed to man through human speech. The words that the Biblical writers use may not always be the appropriate ones, but they must be accepted as words elected by God. There can be, in Barth's view, no question of "disproving" the authority of the Scriptures, for the church today must take the "risk" of accepting the witness of the early Christians who established the canon of the Scriptures, and the Reformation fathers who revised it. God still speaks within the Bible; in the light of faith, the church and her theologians must listen and undertake the ever-unfinished task of finding out what He is saying.
The decisive center of the Bible is its witness of Jesus Christ—the Son who became man, and by the humiliation of his death reconciled the sinful created world to the father. For Barth the Word of God came to man in the person of Christ, and Dogmatics is a Christocentric exploration of that word. Since Christ is man's only contact with God, Barth hammers every article of Christian faith into a firm relationship to Christ himself. He defines creation, for example, as the establishment of a place where grace would operate, and argues that God's creation of the universe cannot be considered apart from Christ's redemption of it.
A Joyful Message
This emphasis upon the awesome mystery of the Redemption makes Dogmatics, for all its forbidding size, a joyful and optimistic work. By Christ's reconciling act. Barth says, the Kingdom of God has already been established, although it is held out to man as a promise rather than a visible reality. Man, in Luther's phrase, is simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful). He is still besieged by evil and capable of sin himself, but he also knows that Christ has already conquered the forces of darkness, and that in St. Paul's words "death hath no more dominion over him." Says Yale's Theologian Frei: "What emerges from Barth's theology is a breathtaking, daring vision of a universe in which tragedy, demonic evil and chaos have been met and defeated in the figure of Jesus Christ."
Barth feels free to reject the writings of the church fathers where he feels they may have mistaken the meaning of God's Word; even his admitted master, John Calvin, is not exempt. Once, when someone questioned the unorthodox way in which he was commenting on Calvin, Barth retorted: "Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright."
One orthodox dogma that Barth has tried to set aright—much to the dismay of other theologians in the Reformed Church —is the best-known and gloomiest of Calvinist tenets: predestination. In his Institutes, Calvin argued that God has already determined both those who will be saved at the Last Judgment and those who will suffer the eternal pangs of Hell. Barth says that this belief does not pay sufficient heed to the fact that Christ's death was intended for all men: Man's ultimate fate is shrouded in mystery, but Barth believes that Christ, the loving Judge, could indeed reconcile all the world to the Father. "I do not preach universal salvation," Barth insists. "What I say is that I cannot exclude the possibility that God would save all men at the Judgment."
Plenty of Critics
Barth's Dogmatics, says Langdon Gilkey of Vanderbilt University's divinity school, "is the most impressive and most complete statement of the Christian faith in this century." Other theologians complain that if anyone tried to read all that Barth says about the Word of God he would have no time to read the Word of God itself. Barth's interpretation of that Word has plenty of critics. Both Niebuhr and Tillich think that he is too critical of the cultural disciplines, such as philosophy and anthropology, which attempt to give man an insight into life's meaning. Princeton's best-known systematic theologian, Presbyterian George Stuart Hendry, says Barth's Christocentric approach forces many church doctrines into an artificial mold. Wilhelm Pauck of Union Theological Seminary thinks Barth pays insufficient attention to the history of how Christian dogma developed.
Quiet on Communism
A different category of criticism of Barth attacks his enigmatic political views. During World War II, Barth urged the church to stand up and be counted in the "holy war" against Hitler; in the cold war against Communism, he has urged ministers behind the Iron Curtain to live peacefully with Red regimes. In 1956 Barth was perhaps the only important Western theologian who refused to condemn publicly the Communist repression in Hungary.
Barth thinks that Marx sincerely tried to correct injustice in industrial society, but he has no desire to live under a totalitarian government. He argues that Naziism attempted to defeat the church by perverting its doctrines with cultural heresies, whereas Communism is an atheistic political system based upon philosophical ideas that must be countered with other ideas. And God, Barth insists, is not an idea, "not a banner for human ideas and intentions. For many people Christianity is a kind of moral, religious and political idea, against what they call an atheistic idea." To Barth, the capitalist West is as materialistic as the Communist East—and represents a serious temptation to the church, since it tries to cloak its political ambitions in religious and moral terms.
He has asked the West to give up nuclear weapons unilaterally; such a gesture would help the West regain the "confidence" of the Soviet Union, and start it on the road toward a peaceful democratic regime. The vast majority of U.S. theologians regard such views as politically naive at best and irresponsible at worst. Says an old friend and theological colleague, Emil Brunner of Zurich: "If President Kennedy were to adopt Barth's pacifist doctrines, the United States would soon be swallowed by the Soviet Union. A Communist regime would make short shrift of men like Barth."
In Other Days
Barth would undoubtedly have hit back at such criticism with a barrage of satire, scorn and scriptural learning. "I was hard then," he says. "Now that I am older, I am softer." This older, mellower Barth seems eager only to get on with the fourth section of Volume IV of Dogmatics. At his stucco house on Basel's Bruderholzallee, day begins around 8, when Barth's wife, or his longtime secretary. Charlotte von Kirschbaum, tiptoes to the phonograph and puts on a record. The music that serves as his alarm clock is always by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose work Barth describes as a "constant of my existence." "When the angels praise God in Heaven," Barth once wrote, "I am sure they play Bach. However, en famille they play Mozart, and then God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them."
He usually retires early, lying awake to read military history or detective stories, from which he first learned English at the age of 40. Says he: "My friends claim that I have a criminal vocabulary." Barth has little taste for modern novels, poetry or art. "What I object to," he says, "is the disappearance of the object. In art, as in theology, it is the object that counts, not the subject."
For many years, Barth's only preaching has consisted of occasional sermons to the prisoners in the Basel jail. He takes great pride in this spiritual work, writing out the prayers for the service and choosing hymns for the prisoners. "When I come before these men," he says, "I do not have to explain that we are all sinners. They have committed every sin there is. All I have to tell them is that I, too, am a sinner."
"God Is For You"
Does Barthian theology have anything to tell a world in which persistent doubt seems to be man's real condition? Because of its roots in an unchallengeable faith and its reliance upon the truth of a book that many men now regard as a volume of interesting poetry rather than a divine revelation, his theology has been described—by Reinhold Niebuhr—as "designed for the church of the catacombs." Barth himself believes his work contains "a missionary call." It provides no easy, immediate, specific answers to man's daily worries—but summons him to learn that all questions are ultimately theological, and that the ultimate theological answer has been given. Translated into elementary pulpit talk, Karl Barth's rich and complex theology might appear to resemble the exhortations issued by many contemporary preachers; actually his thought is far more subtly attuned to the psychology of modern man. "To the man in the street," sums up Dr. Robert McAfee Brown, of Union Theological Seminary, "Barth's message is 'God is for you.' You're not trapped in overwhelming guilt and anxiety. In these terribly perplexing modern times, there is hope in the Gospel, for God has involved himself in the human situation through Jesus Christ."
Majesty & Love
But Barth's greatest service has been to those who are most likely to listen to him: the committed believers. His Dogmatics is the most exhaustive compendium of what a Christian must believe, and why he believes it, that Protestantism has had in more than a century. Barth's insistence on the supreme majesty of God and His supreme love in Christ has forced Christian thought to reconsider its basic focus. His demand that theology is necessarily church theology has caused Protestantism to take a new look at the confessions it stands by, and has thereby contributed mightily to today's worldwide ecumenical dialogue. Barth has always insisted that dogma is important, that theology is not philosophy, that Christianity is not the spiritual side of politics. The mysteries of God's Word are hard ones—but they cannot be made more palatable to nonbelievers or to the lukewarm faithful by hiding them in the language formed by man's own wishful thinking. God speaks; man must listen. And Barth summons Goethe to warn the church:
Long, long ago the Truth was found, A company of men it bound. Grasp firmly then—that ancient Truth!
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