Providence and Public History
Wiles (Maurice)
Source: Wiles, Maurice - God's Action in the World, Chapter 5
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  1. The suggestion I have offered so far is that we should see the gradual emergence of our world as a single divine act. In other words it is a purposeful occurrence, whose disparate features are held together by a unity of intention. We cannot claim to grasp that purpose fully, but we need to be able to give some indication of its nature. We may perhaps speak of it provisionally as maximizing the growth of personal freedom and creativity within relationships of love both at the human level and between human beings and God.
  2. The starting point for any discussion of providence must be the affirmation that such a purpose is in some measure reflected in the world as we know it. However important eschatology may be for faith, the Christian God is no deus ex machina who comes in at the end and simply reverses the direction in which everything had been moving up to that point. Thus John Macquarrie writes of creativity as ‘an ordered movement into ever fuller and richer kinds of being' and goes on: ‘Faith in providence asserts this definite movement in the creation, an overcoming of deficiencies and distortions and a fuller realizing of potentialities.’ If that were all there were to be said, the doctrine of providence would take on the same purely phenomenological character that I have argued is appropriate with relation to the doctrine of original sin. Providence would simply be a name for that overall creativity or tendency towards growth and development which is characteristic of the way the world goes. But theologians are less willing to spell out the doctrine exclusively in such terms in the case of providence than they are in the case of original sin. Macquarrie goes on to express doubts about the adequacy of his initial statement. He wants to be able to distinguish providence from fate or from ‘a self-righting mechanism'. He expresses himself anxious to do more justice to the kind of understanding of providence reflected in the biblical story. The possibility of doing precisely that is at the heart of our enquiry too. How Macquarrie sees himself able to do it is therefore of particular interest. What he proposes is offered only as a tentative analogy; it is ‘the analogy of a strong chess player who, whatever move his opponent will make, can still bring the game around to the way he intends it to go'. John Lucas suggests a similar analogy in response to the same problem. His is the picture of Persian rugmakers, where father and children work simultaneously at the two ends of the rug; whatever mistakes the inexperienced children may make at their end, the experienced father is able to incorporate them within a continually revised but wholly satisfying pattern by the weaving he himself does at the other end of the rug. These analogies are instructive. In rejecting the more general, mechanical account that fails to do justice to traditional teaching, they offer an alternative which certainly does not (as some accounts do) ride roughshod over the reality of human freedom. The analogies depict God's actions as clearly distinguishable from the actions of at least some human agents. But that leaves the nature and location of God's action highly problematic. How and where does God make his moves in the game of chess? Which are the threads that are of his weaving? These questions remain, and are not easy to answer.
  3. Do we need to answer them? Is it incumbent on us, if we are to go on affirming a traditional view of providence along the lines that Macquarrie proposes, to be able to indicate how and where God's moves are being made? There is certainly no difficulty in general principle with the idea of there being both a theological and a physical account of the emergence of the world. We have noted earlier how we can give two accounts of the same happening (a car swerving off the road and going over a cliff), one in terms of the observed physical phenomena and the other in terms of an intended human action. Similarly we are well used to the idea of different scientific disciplines each giving its own account of the same occurrence. We might, for example, want to describe a breakdown in the functioning of a human body in biochemical and in psychological terms. Where we do have difficulty in such cases is in our attempts to describe how those different accounts are related to one another. It is a difficulty of that kind that we cannot avoid in our present discussion. For the doctrine of providence has been understood to involve more than a general relation of the world as a whole to a divine purpose. It has spoken of God determining the way the world goes at particular points in its emergence and more emphatically at particular points in human history. God makes specific moves in the chess-game of life. It is the intelligibility of that concept, one which will not allow the theological account to float free of the physical and historical accounts, that we a seeking to probe.
  4. How is such an enquiry to be conducted? It is important not to set out on the task with unreasonable expectations of what needed to justify the affirmation of God's providential activity. We are not looking for a divine causation1 that can be neatly fitted in as a missing factor within our existing historical or physical accounts; that would be to treat God as just one more causal agent alongside others in the world. Nor should we expect God's activity to be directly or immediately observable; ancient tradition and modern sensitivity alike have stressed the hidden nature of God's providence. But if it is altogether hidden, how can we justify our affirmation of it? Here two contrasting strategies seem to be open to us.
  5. Charles Wood tackles the issue in a recent article with the help of categories we have already employed. He asks how at the human level we distinguish between ‘act' and ‘accident' or mere ‘occurrence'. We do so, he argues, either by inference or by the agent's own account. Either the driver of the car which swerved off the road tells us what happened, if he or she survives to tell the tale, or the road accident investigator has to infer which it was on the basis of his or her experience of similar cases in the past. But, Wood argues, divine agency is so unique in character that the way of inference is closed off for us. The only way of identifying God's acts is the way of the agent's self-disclosure. It is only through the Word of God that the Identification and interpretation of God's acts is made possible for us. But, as Wood readily and rightly acknowledges, God's Word ‘is also hidden to the undiscerning eye or ear'. It is therefore hard to see how it can fulfil the role ascribed to it. 'God's Word,' and I quote Wood again, 'is God's act.’ It too, therefore, needs to be identified and interpreted. So we appear to have embarked upon an infinite regress, unless at some point we can tread the path of inference. It is that path, therefore, that I shall try to pursue.
  6. A useful account of how this second strategy may be pursued is given in another recent article by David Galilee and Brian Hebblethwaite. In a description of Austin Farrer's work they write as follows:
      The divine Spirit ‘radiates' upon his creation, superimposing higher levels of organization and drawing the various threads of evolution2, history and individual life-stories into the providential patterns we observe. The modality3 of the divine Spirit's operation may be unknown, the hand of God perfectly hidden, but the effects of the divine agency in the emergence of man, in salvation-history, and in the lives of Christ and the saints are not hidden at all. Moreover they are particular effects requiring us to postulate particular action, even if that action is mediated through the whole field of creaturely interaction. Once again the clearest example is the experience of grace, where a man's conversion, forgiveness, inspiration or enlightenment must be represented as an act of God, however mediated by secondary causes.
  7. That passage claims that the emergence of man, salvation-history and the lives of Christ and of the saints are not merely consistent with but require us to affirm particular acts of God in history. I have already questioned that judgment in relation to the emergence of the human race. I argued earlier that while it may very well lead us to affirm the whole process of creation as God's act, it does not by itself require us to speak of particular divine actions within that process. The life of Christ and experience of grace, which Galilee and Hebblethwaite regard as the most compelling evidence, will concern us in subsequent chapters. It is the intermediate area of so-called ‘salvation history' that I want to consider in the remainder of this chapter.
  8. The idea of history as under the providential direction of God has always been, as we saw much earlier, a distinctive feature both Judaism and Christianity. The sense of themselves as a specially chosen people was at the heart of Jewish religious faith. The story of the Exodus, which was seen as the originating and paradigmatic experience of that national faith, depicts God as calling the people of Israel out of Egypt, so that they could serve him in a promised land. But it was not a faith that was easily established or maintained. It was tried and refined in the fires of national adversity. The fall of Jerusalem might have seemed to negate any claim of God's providential care of Israel. It could well have been taken to imply that God had abandoned and repudiated his people. But the prophets came to see it as an act of judgment, falling within a credible interpretation of providence. The Assyrian conqueror was ‘the rod of God's anger' (Isa. 10.5). And Jeremiah was able to go further and see it also in more positive terms as freeing the way for a less narrowly based and more deeply personal form of faith in the new covenant of the future. So too the Christian church refused to see the crucifixion as implying God's repudiation of Jesus, but came to interpret it as fully consonant with God's providential concern for the salvation of humankind.
  9. As Christianity developed its own specific understanding of God's providence, the primary emphasis was on a vision of history as leading up to the coming of Christ. The idea of a convergence of history on to the figure of Christ took a variety of forms. Its most obvious form was Christ as the fulfilment of prophecy. The concept of prophecy was not restricted to the foretelling of particular occurrences. Though it certainly included that, it also embraced various forms of typology, whereby the pattern of earlier lives and of past events was seen as foreshadowing the pattern of Christ's life, and especially his death and resurrection. Nor was the idea of God's providential preparation for the coming of Christ confined to its Jewish antecedents. As Eusebius, the first church historian, looked back three hundred years later on that originating event of Christian faith, he envisaged an even wider panorama of God's providential care. He expressed it in these words:
      No one who reflects upon the matter can fail to be convinced that it was no mere human accident that the majority of the nations of the world never came under the unifying rule of Rome until the time of Jesus. For his wonderful visitation of humankind coincided with Rome's attainment of the acme of power ... And no one can deny that it was not without God's help that this should have happened at the very same time that the teaching about our Saviour took its rise. Consider the difficulties involved in the disciples' journeying, had the nations been under separate governments and therefore not having any dealings with one another. But with those separate governments abolished, the disciples could accomplish their projects in safety. The supreme God had smoothed the way before them, controlling the animosities of those hostile to true religion through fear of a strong central government.
  10. Nor indeed did that providence cease with the coming of Christ. As one who had been an active participant in the process of the transformation of the Roman empire from persecutor to upholder of the church, Eusebius could hardly help but see the continuation of God's hand at work there. He describes the great events of his own lifetime in these terms:
      Then the divine and heavenly grace showed how favourably and propitiously it watched over us, and even our rulers, the very people who had been waging war against us for so long, changed their attitude in the most remarkable way. They issued a recantation and, with merciful edicts and humane ordinances, they quenched the fire of persecution that had blazed so furiously against us. But this was not due to a human agency; it was not a result of anything that could be described as pity or humanity on the part of the rulers .. . It was divine providence itself, which became reconciled to the church and at the same time attacked the perpetrator of the evils ... A divinely-sent punishment, I say, executed vengeance upon him beginning with his flesh and going on to the soul." (I will spare my readers, as Eusebius does not spare his, the grisly details of Galerius' fatal illness.)
  11. One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive affirmation of the providentially directed character of human history than that. And something along those lines has remained throughout human history as the underlying assumption, the basil framework within which all particular Christian doctrines have been seen and understood. Most Christians today would be reluctant to express themselves in the same confident and detailed way that Eusebius does, but the strongly historical character of Christian faith holds them back from abandoning his general picture altogether. But how are we to envisage so vast and complex a direction of what happens in the world being exercised? Can we continue today to affirm some such version of the Christian story, without having to re-introduce an unacceptable notion of God the absolute controller?
  12. In trying to answer these questions I want to look in turn at three aspects of such an account of the providential guidance of history. Many of the events through which God's providential activity is understood to have been carried out were done through the agency of pagan empires and emperors. What I want to consider first, therefore, is the vital role apparently played by human agents with no awareness of any kind that they might be fulfilling a role in the purposes of God. Austin Farrer argued strongly for the intelligibility of the conception of what he called ‘double agency', even in those cases where the intended meanings of the two agents, divine and human, were utterly different from one another. But he acknowledged that no account of the connection between the two was possible, because of our ignorance of ‘the modality4 of the divine action'. John Lucas has recently been credited by Vincent Brummer with offering an analysis which is a ‘distinct advance' on Farrer's, precisely on the grounds that ‘Farrer fails to provide an explanation of exactly how, on his theory, God's agency is related to that of man'. The example that Brummer quotes from Lucas as an illustration of this improved account is the building of Solomon's temple. We can perfectly well say that Solomon built the temple and that his stonemason built it. This is indeed a clear illustration of the fact that there is no difficulty in principle in ascribing a single event to two agents. Nor is such a way of speaking invalidated by the fact that they may have had very different motives for what they did. Solomon may have built the temple to God's glory (or his own); the stonemason may have built it to earn a living or to escape the unpleasant consequences of evading the draft. But the analogy does not help us in our search for an intelligible account of how we can properly speak of God acting providentially through the varied activities of Assyrian, Persian and Roman emperors and warlords. Nor indeed does Lucas ever suggest that it could fulfil that particular role. We can only use the language we do in the case of Solomon and the stonemason because there is an evident link between the two. Solomon issues an edict and the stonemason acts, whether willingly or reluctantly, because of it. It is the absence of any parallel to that element in the analogy that must give us pause before we accept it too readily as meeting our difficulty. Let us take the example of Cyrus. He is spoken of by the prophet as God's shepherd to carry out all God's purpose for Israel, although (as the prophet explicitly declares) he does not know God (Isa. 44.28; 45.4). So the restoration of Israel after the exile is both Cyrus' doing and God's doing. Cyrus' political ambitions lead him to bring about certain results that coincide with God's will for his people. But that by itself does not justify us in speaking of it as a particular action of God in human history. To do that, we would need to be able to specify at least what kind of link there might between the two, between the divine intention and the bringing about of the result. And with a Cyrus who does not know God and is bent on military conquest, it is difficult to see even in the most formal terms what kind of link there could be — unless were some hidden manipulation of Cyrus' deliberative processes. But that leads us back to the all-controlling God who does not respect the freedom of the world he has created. And that God we have already seen good reason to repudiate. So too does John Lucas. That is made clear when he does consider a case comparable to those with which we are concerned. He discuss Hitler's ‘providential' holding back of his panzers at the time Dunkirk, and comments as follows:
      God's influence is to be seen not in an arbitrary interference with Hitler's free-will, but in having made men as he has made them, with the grain of human nature such that God's purposes tend to be fulfilled, and that those who would frustrate them are frustrated.
  13. Reflection on what is involved in cases of this kind, which are so integral to the traditional understanding of God's providential direction of history, inescapably leads us back to general statements about the kind of world God has created rather than to claims about particular, specifiable acts of God in history.
  14. The second feature of the providential account of Christian history which I want to consider is its understanding of the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of prophecy. In the New Testament this prophetic fulfilment is often affirmed in a highly specific form. The soldiers involved in the crucifixion of Jesus cast lots for his tunic instead of tearing it because that was what the Psalmist had foretold (John 19.23-24; Ps. 22.18), and one of them pierced his side with a lance because a piercing had been predicted by Zechariah (John 19.34-37; Zech. 13.10). There has been much debate as to whether prediction of this sort, grounded in a belief in the omniscience of God, is or is not consistent with human freedom. The Boethian defence of omniscience as not strictly foreknowledge but rather a timeless knowing, even if valid in other contexts, will not help us here. For prediction implies foreknowledge, and that is logically incompatible with the understanding of creation for which I have argued. The point is well made by Brian Hebblethwaite, who writes:
      God has so made the world, with its temporal structure and open future, that the task of constructing a specific future has been given to the creature. God's omniscience, like his omnipotence, is self-limited by the nature of what he has made. In each case the limitation is logical, given the actual nature of God's creation. He cannot determine the future without destroying his creatures' freedom. He cannot know the future precisely, if his creatures are indeed free.
  15. Certainly the sort of fulfilment of prediction implied by the scriptural texts cited seems inconceivable apart from a manipulative control of human action that is wholly unacceptable. But it is not only difficult to conceive; it would in any case he religiously trivial. There is a predictive element within the Old Testament tradition, but it is not the heart or substance of Old Testament prophecy. Moreover, it has been claimed that even the New Testament writers did not intend their words to be taken so literally, but saw the instances they quoted not so much as individual fulfilments of significance in themselves, but rather as pointers to a wider pattern of fulfilment. The case is overstated, but certainly a highly specific form of prediction was never central to a seriously argued Christian case. The early Christians had their own war to wage against fatalism and determinism. Moreover, however such links may have been originally intended, they very often came to be seen as primarily literary links of words or images helping us to grasp imaginatively broader similarities of a typological kind. Yet even when the main stress was laid on typological interpretations of that sort, they were not normally understood to exclude the predictive altogether. But whatever may or may not have been done in the past, there is certainly a strong case now for understanding them in that exclusive way. A revised understanding along such lines would open the way to a conception of the links between the life of Christ and the past, which would cut away the difficulties concerning God's action and human freedom implicit in the idea of prediction and at the same time make possible a religiously more profound appreciation of the historical process leading up to Christ.
  16. Such a revised account would see the crucifixion as archetypal example of a conflict between the purposes of God and the self-interest of men and women. Conflict of that kind had already been glimpsed and partially embodied at earlier points in history, but in Christ it is enacted in its purest form. For such an approach perhaps one of the best ‘prophecies' of the crucifixion would be the words of the godless men in Wisdom 2.10-24, as they plot against the just man who ‘styles himself the servant of the Lord' and ‘is a living condemnation of all our ideas'. But it is wholly consonant also with more traditional ‘prophetic' passages, such as Isaiah 53. A view of this kind is to be commended both for its compatibility with human freedom and for the quality of its religious insight. But it must be recognized that it involves no divine providence, in the sense of a specific divine foreseeing and overruling of events. The links between the life of Christ and what led up to it have rather the character of retrovidence - the seeing of significant patterns in anterior history after the event. Any prophetic foreseeing of the future can be accounted for by insight into human nature, giving rise by extrapolation to true vision of how things may be in the future. Understood in this way, no particular divine action is required to account for this aspect of the providential direction of history.
  17. In traditional Christian teaching prophecy has frequently been twinned with miracle as the two primary pointers to that most important of all particular divine actions, the incarnation. However much accounts of the Christian story have emphasized God's working through the ordinary events of history, miracle has always had a part to play and it is to that theme that I wish now to turn. The early Christians did not find it difficult to offer a reasoned defence of the concept of miracle. Since creation itself, including the apparent regularities of nature, was entirely dependent on the will of God, there was nothing absurd in the idea that God might will things to happen in unaccustomed ways on some particular occasions. There was no ultimate conflict between the normal and abnormal occurrence, for both were equally dependent upon and expressive of the will of God. Even Aquinas for all his stress on secondary causation5 could allow that sometimes God, as primary cause, might act directly without any form of secondary causation6, since secondary causes derive from God ‘not out of a necessity of nature but by decision of his will'. The conceivability of miracle continues to be the subject of much philosophical debate. Certainly the notion of miracle cannot simply be ruled out on scientific grounds as logically impossible, since the world we know is not a closed, deterministically ordered system. But that does not take us very far. There are many things that are not logically inconceivable, but that for all practical purposes we do regard as inconceivable. There is nothing logically inconceivable in the idea that every reader of this book may lay it down precisely at this point and read no further, but, if it is not complacent to say so, I do not, as I pen these words, regard it as a conceivable eventuality. So the conflict with the understanding of the world which underlies the work of both science and history, though not a logical conflict, is real and weighs heavily against acceptance of the possibility of miracle. But for the theist there is a counter-argument in support of the notion based on the human experience of personal agency. On the analogy of what are designated basic actions, it can be argued that ‘just as a human agent does not violate natural law by deciding to raise his arm, so God does not violate natural law by deciding to move the wind in order to dry up the sea'. Or, if one holds a contra-causal view of human freedom, it can be claimed that ‘it would be rather surprising if God did not possess the same kind of freedom to act without causal restraint within the world'. The more general question of the value and limitations of such arguments by analogy from persons in the world to the transcendent God is something I shall be discussing in the next chapter. The aim of this particular analogy is to take the theist, before he studies the evidence for against particular miracles, beyond the point of accepting their conceivability and encourage him to regard them probable. But there are obvious and important differences between the human and the divine cases. However difficult it may be to give an account of human action, and of the relation between the human mind and the physical causal system that it appears to entail, it is something of which we have straightforward and immediate experience. In the case of the purported direct divine actions that we call miracles, the evidence for most of us at least is much less direct or inescapable. That difference seems to me sufficiently great to make the argument less than compelling.
  18. But whatever the outcome of such philosophical debate, the concept has also to face serious religious difficulties. If the direct action of God, independent of secondary causation7, is an intelligible concept, then it would appear to have been sparingly and strangely used. Miracles must by definition be relatively infrequent or else the whole idea of laws of nature, even of a broadly statistical sort, would be undermined, and ordered life as we know it an impossibility. Yet even so it would seem strange that no miraculous intervention prevented Auschwitz or Hiroshima, while the purposes apparently forwarded by some of the miracles acclaimed in traditional Christian faith seem trivial by comparison. Thus to acknowledge even the possibility of miracle raises acute problems for theodicy. But can that possibility be denied? John Lucas says firmly that it cannot. ‘No theist,' he writes, ‘would deny that God is omnipotent, and that he could intervene to prevent any particular event's occurring. It is perhaps somewhat rash to assert what no theist would deny — unless the assertion be regarded as one that is true by definition, in the sense that to deny the possibility of miracle would render someone a deist rather than a theist. But Brian Hebblethwaite, who is certain no deist, puts the point very differently. He does not deny the conceivability of miracle on philosophical grounds, but the actuality of miracle is for him another matter. For the direct Intervention of God, however rare the occasions of it, would in his view have disastrous implications for our understanding of the problem of evil.
      To suppose that he does so [i.e., God acts in the world by direct intervention] just occasionally would be to raise all the problems which perplex the believer as he reflects on the problem of evil, about why God does not intervene more often. It would also prevent him from appealing to the God-given structures of creation, and their necessary role in setting creatures at a distance from their creator and providing a stable environment for their lives, as an explanation for the physical ills which can afflict God's creatures.
  19. I have already argued that however incomplete that explanation may be, we cannot afford to do without it. And since we have already allowed that ‘God's ... omnipotence is self-limited (logically) by the nature of what he has made', must not that logical self-limitation include also the possibility of direct divine intervention? The account of God's relation to his creation that I have been developing does not seem to have room for such a notion, for reasons that are as much religious as philosophical.
  20. If we were to abandon the concept of miracle as a distinct form of direct divine causation8, would that imply a wholly negative attitude towards the tradition of miracle in Christian history? Or could there be a revised way of understanding it, parallel to that which I have been suggesting in the case of prophecy, whereby the religious significance of the tradition could be preserved or even enhanced? Certainly miracle has always been seen as more than wonder. The religious meaning of the acclaimed miracle has been regarded as more important than the bare fact of direct divine causation9; where no religious meaning can be apprehended we speak not of miracle but of coincidence. The accounts of the gospel miracles themselves, especially in the Johannine record, lay more stress on their spiritual significance than on the outward happening. And this emphasis is strongly developed in early Christian teaching. Origen, for all his allegorizing, did not doubt the factuality of Jesus' miracles; but he insists that the conversion and spiritual transformation of human lives are ‘greater works than the physical miracles which Jesus did' — the ‘greater works' that Jesus promised to his disciples (John 14.12). So there is nothing untraditional in Mary Hesse's claim that ‘for scientific mind, the miracle stories would not lose their religious depth or effectiveness by such a reinterpretation — rather the reverse'. But even if more important, may not the spiritual meaning be dependent on the miracle literally understood? Religious response, we may allow, is not infrequently set in motion by some event of remarkable or unexpected character. A traveller lost in the desert and rescued in the nick of time by the unlikely and unforeseen arrival of some other traveller may come to see the rest of his or her life as lived on borrowed time, Such a response may be genuinely transformative for good of a person's life, whether that person sees the rescue as fortuitous or as strictly ‘providential' — whether indeed it was in fact fortuitous or strictly ‘providential'. And what I have described in terms of an individual's experience may also be true of more public events that shape the self-consciousness10 or destiny of a nation. The Exodus story has frequently been interpreted in just such a way. A fortunate escape from Egypt, combined with the impressive phenomena of Mount Sinai, is seen from the outset as God's great act of deliverance and evokes a lasting and profound commitment of the people of Israel to Yahweh. Literary analysis supports the contention that the more strictly ‘miraculous' elements in the story of the crossing of the Red Sea are secondary elements in the development of the tradition. They are the result rather than the cause of its being seen as an act of God. Such a rationalizing account of an ancient saga is dangerously speculative. It is safer to say that the nature of the original happening that first gave rise to such a tradition is lost to us, except in terms of the most tentative reconstruction. But to say that is already to say that much in the miracle tradition has always functioned, and could continue to function, in a way that does not depend on the reality of miracle as a form of direct divine action.
  21. Two questions remain. First, even if it be accepted that there are no compelling reasons for the Christian believer to affirm any form of direct divine intervention in the natural order (indeed that there are good reasons for his or her not doing so), what are we to say of the spiritual concomitants of the miracle tradition, which, it is being suggested, are not merely preserved but even enhanced in their significance? What of the conversions and spiritual transformations of human life that are said to be greater works than the miracles of Jesus? Are they not to be seen as particular acts of God? In the programmatic analysis of Galilee and Hebblethwaite that I have been following, it is claimed that ‘the clearest example' of what we are looking for ‘is the experience of grace, where a man's conversion, forgiveness, inspiration or enlightenment must be represented as an act of God. That question I shall be taking up in the next chapter. The second question concerns the person of Christ. Even if the radically revised account that I have offered of God's providential guidance of the world might be acceptable in relation to the history that led up to the coming of Christ, will such an approach, if carried through consistently, allow us to say what Christians need to say about Christ himself? To that question I shall turn in chapter 7.


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