Crystal Ball Catholicism: Welcome to the Wacko World of New Age Theology

As part of today’s religious revival, a so-called “New Age” movement is flourishing at the point where superstition, pop-psychology, and scientific speculation intersect. Factual reports about it tend to sound exaggerated if not apocalyptic. Evangelical Christian critics like Constance Cumbey and Dave Hunt think it signals the coming of the Anti-Christ. Carl Raschke of the Institute for Humanities at the University of Denver calls it the spiritual equivalent of AIDS. A 1986 Vatican report on cults mentioned it generically as “esoteric and human potential sects.” On the whole, though, American Catholic and main-line Protestant leaders seem to see it as a fad of no more concern than pet rocks or mood rings.

Media voices seldom criticize New Age political stands as they do those of the Religious Right, no doubt because the most familiar items on the New Age political agenda are routine secular pieties: environmental protectionism, feminism, nuclear disarmament, and global understanding. Indeed, since everyone deplores war, pollution, poverty and hunger, some New Age goals are widely shared. Less noted is the movement’s general zeal for abortion, population control, heterosexual and homosexual permissiveness, and Third World revolutions of the left, or its utopian ambition to establish a “new world order.”

Under its own name, the New Age movement is usually associated with lunatic-fringe enthusiasms. Here are the revived “earth religions” of ancient (and recent feminist) mythology, worshipping the planet as Gaia, a living Mother Goddess. Here are witchcraft, shamanism, Tarot, ESP, UFO and Edgar Cayce cultists, crystals for “balancing energies,” and decorative pyramids in which to retune and display one’s crystals. Theosophy is back as a strong strain in the movement, complete with reincarnation, “occult wisdom,” “spirit guides,” and “ascended masters.” The profitable activity called “channeling” closely resembles the old séance, except that the spirits contacted are not deceased family members but 35,000-year-old strangers. For those who want them, the movement offers “out-of-body” travel, the “higher self,” “past life regression,” chakras, and tantric sex. Until they were irretrievably discredited, it also offered Charles Manson, the Reverend Jim Jones, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Middle-Class Respectability

Those real but peripheral expressions of New Age ideas are not the whole story on this religious phenomenon, however. The New Age movement is not a centrally directed cult like the Unification Church, but an esoteric socio-religious worldview shared by many loosely affiliated autonomous groups on different intellectual and cultural levels, which at first glance seem to bear little resemblance to each other. Its central premise animates an incoming philosophical tide that reaches far beyond the local Psychic Fair.

In her instructive introduction to the New Age movement, The Aquarian Conspiracy (J.P. Tarcher, 1980), Marilyn Ferguson, publisher of Brain/Mind Bulletin and a New Age “participant observer,” described it as an “open conspiracy” of “spiritual subversives” ready to lead mankind from impending doom into an era of fulfillment. Adherents expect an imminent “quantum leap” in spiritual evolution when a “critical mass” of the human race comes to recognize “the god within” and realize that “All is One.” To speed the process, they are trying to invent a new religious mythology. They see themselves as prototypes of the higher species that will build a “planetary society” glorious in unspecified ways.

Lately, under such labels as “feminist spirituality,” “creation spirituality,” “the human potential movement,” humanistic or “transpersonal” psychology, whole brain, confluent, planetary, global or holistic education, medicine or what-have-you, that thesis turns up in unexpected places, adorned with middle-class respectability. For example, in 1922, theosophist Alice Bailey founded the Lucifer Publishing Company; she saw the fallen angel as a “bringer of light.” But today the Lucifer Company lives on as Lucis Trust, whose World Goodwill division is affiliated with the United Nations as a non-governmental organization and holds frequent forums with representatives of Planetary Citizens, the World Future Society, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and American Friends Service Committee, to mention a few.

New Age ideas have acquired credibility by association with prominent names. Joseph Campbell, the late scholar of mythology, endorsed the movement’s implicit assumptions in his popular PBS interview series, “The Power of Myth.” Nobel laureate physicist Fritjof Capra and social scientist Willis Harman of the Stanford Research Institute, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and Carl Rogers, the late founding father of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, have contributed to an appearance of scientific validity.

New Age thinking has filtered into American Catholicism, too, under the sponsorship of such figures as Father Thomas Berry, the Passionist “geologian,” and Father Matthew Fox, 0.P., of the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS). The self-defined witch Starhawk, who teaches ritual at Fox’s ICCS, has been dotingly featured in the National Catholic Reporter, and even reviewed respectfully by the more mainstream New York Times. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag, H.M., are among the many feminist theologians who promote versions of the same notions. “Futurist” Hazel Henderson was a “resource person” for the ambitious Catholic Education Futures Project. “Sacred psychologist” Jean Houston is a frequent speaker at education conferences, including those of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). Former United Nations bureaucrat Robert Muller, now chancellor of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, whose name appears ubiquitously on New Age letterheads, has also addressed the NCEA. Some of these people identify themselves as New Agers. Others reject such classification, and even disagree about details, but their works are prominently included in New Age bibliographies and catalogues.

The linkage between more and less plausible expressions of New Age thought is apparent in their common vocabulary and symbology, and in the common pool of prophets, heroes, teachers, activists, and authors whose names keep turning up on each other’s boards of advisors and speaker’s platforms. The central theme of all New Age groups is the depiction of God as a limited, changing, and impersonal force, co-extensive with the created universe. God is not seen as a transcendent Trinity of Persons, partially known because He has revealed Himself and because His glory is reflected in His creation. Instead He is held to be the immanent consciousness of the evolving universe, which we can all know by direct experience, because we are part of it. Teilhard de Chardin, the controversial Jesuit whom many New Agers regard as a prophet, called it “the soul of the world.” Fritjof Capra terms it the “cosmic dance of energy”; Jean Houston calls it the “emerging evolutionary process.” Matthew Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ speaks of “the divine `I am’ in every person and creature,” and “the Cosmic Christ who will usher in an era when the whole notion of private salvation has gone the way of Newtonianism.”

Strange Gods

In New Age exhortations, everything points inward, to the self. As Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, puts it, “Authority and guidance are not ‘out there,’ in someone else. . . . Rather, the ultimate source of wisdom is within.”

From seeing the self as one with the divine essence to seeing oneself as a divine being is a short step. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: Shirley MacLaine worshipping the god within her turns out ultimately to mean that she worships Shirley. New Agers frequently exult “I am God,” which is immodest, at least.

If man is god, why does evil persist? Because too few have so far been “illuminated.” Once man recognizes his “godself,” New Agers believe his limitless potential can be “empowered” by mystical techniques. Such aims were identified as gnostic by political philosopher Eric Voegelin in his 1960 essay, “Ersatz Religion.”

Knowledge — gnosis— of the method of altering being is the central concern of the Gnostic . . . All Gnostic movements are involved in the project of abolishing the constitution of being, with its origin in divine, transcendental being, and replacing it with a world-immanent order of being, the perfection of which lies in the realm of human action.

This neo-Gnosticism ends in the presumption that the self creates its own reality. The notion that the material is illusion — very old in Eastern philosophy — seems utterly incompatible with Western science. Yet Stanford neuroscientist Karl Pribram suggests that the world may be a holographic illusion projected by the mind, subject to alteration by the right kind of thinking.

The study of subatomic particles led Fritjof Capra to conclude in The Turning Point that “the electron does not have objective properties independent of my mind.” In the same vein, “Ultimately, in a radical ontological sense . . . the world is a creation of the mind,” says Roger Walsh. Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy states that “events are affected by what we imagine, what we visualize. An image held in a transcendental state may be made real.” Transpersonal psychology — the theology, so to speak, of the “godself” — makes the same claim. It is a belief inevitably headed for disappointment.

A New World Religion

In public, New Age spokesmen often profess impartial benevolence toward rival religions, though they hint that all of them will be spontaneously replaced or reinterpreted into monist syncretism in the new order. “In our lifetime we will see the rise of essentially a New World Religion,” Jean Houston predicts. “I believe a new spiritual system will emerge.”

Some, like Edgar Mitchell, frankly express the hostility for Christianity that is inherent in New Age logic. Mitchell sneers at “grapevine” religions, based on “somebody else’s experience of divine reality,” and mistakenly teaching “that we’re guilty, sinful, need to be saved.”

Religions, including Christianity, “are actually roadmaps for the induction of transcendent states of consciousness,” Roger Walsh told the 1988 conference of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Walsh praised the New Age re-education program A Course in Miracles, which, he reported, was “channeled” through psychologist Helen Schucman during the 1960s by a spirit voice telling her “Christianity is in need of correction” because it has suppressed the Gnostic wisdom that would have made it “consistent with the mystical forms of other major religions.” In Gnostic writings, Walsh said, “the picture of Jesus is not of someone claiming to be forever unique or in any way ontologically set apart from the rest of mankind,” but simply one who “has arrived at a state that is latent within us all.”

Revisionist Catholic theologians like Paul Knitter, Monika Hellwig, and Raimundo Pannikar provide some support for such opinions with their “non-normative christology.” Knitter’s 1986 book, No Other Name? (Orbis) reports their doubts about whether God really became man in Jesus Christ, whether Jesus is in fact the sole “savior figure,” or whether, perhaps, that notion is a too literal understanding of the mythic language early Christians used to express their sense that Jesus was their place of “radical encounter with God.”• These conjectures are particularly useful to the New Age movement because of the three, only Pannikar has been identified with neo-Gnosticism.

A Search for Meaning

Why do these odd people have a following? It has often been remarked that American secularists lived for several generations on the dwindling spiritual capital of their ancestors. By the 1960s, that capital was much depleted. When disillusioned materialists began to search for a new spirituality to give meaning to their lives, they fell into the old pantheist error: they assumed that God exists only within his creation, that the Creator is not distinct in any sense from what He has made. C.S. Lewis observed that pantheism “is almost as old as we are. It may be the most primitive of all religions. . . . the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself.”

However understandable it may be that spiritual waifs should look for God in the wrong place, it is stunning if not inexplicable that educated Catholics —who already know where to find Him —should not only fail to light the way for their lost sisters and brothers, but set off down the same false trail. For a believing Catholic to enlist in a movement intended to replace Christianity is patently inconsistent. Yet today, absurd as it seems, many Catholic religious professionals—especially women educators —are involved in the new religious movement through “goddess feminism,” “Cosmic Christ” mysticism, or the human potential movement. Either they do not understand what they are doing or they have lost their Catholic faith.

Doubtless a large segment consists of the credulous who swallowed neo-Gnosticism without checking the label; even among the educated, many echo fashionable jargon without assimilating it. Others may be uncritical listeners who feel at home wherever they hear familiar words like “spiritual,” “peace,” “love,” and “light.” New Age rhetoric frequently uses Christian terms, invested with new meanings. Its “spirit” is not the indwelling Third Person of the Blessed Trinity; its “Cosmic Christ” is not Jesus of Nazareth. But some deluded Catholics may assume so.

Not all those involved are innocents misled, however. A tragic proportion, having ceased to believe in God, believe not in nothing but in anything, just as Chesterton predicted. Some know exactly what they are doing. Frequently their new faith is not spiritual at all, but political. Having abandoned both faith and ethics, they pull simpler souls behind them into

Feminist Goddess

Of the three neo-Gnostic subgroups where Catholics are likely to be found, goddess feminism looks least like a New Age form. In fact, it looks unclassifiable, little more than political theater aimed at attracting attention to its hatred for patriarchy. But a growing number of feminist theologians, including Mary Jo Weaver and Sister Anne Carr, BVM, urge women to interpret goddess feminism from the immanentist perspective of process theology. And the middle-aged women grotesquely engaged in the spiral dance are not simply worshipping Yahweh as a Mother. When they chant, “We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return, like drops of rain flowing to the ocean,” they are singing of “the goddess within,” a feminist version of “All is One.” In “empowerment” rituals, the dancers assure each other “I am goddess; you are goddess.”

Like other ideologies, feminism sees religion as a human construct and is engaged in designing one more compatible with its aims than Christianity. Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag puts it baldly in her book, Lost in the Land of Oz: “Our civilization’s idolatry of the abstract, omnipotent God has clouded our vision and our capacity for divinization.” Kolbenschlag and her peers have, nevertheless, “over the period of a lifetime shed our notions of God like so many worn-out husks or snake skins.” Kolbenschlag sees “possibilities for personal and social transformation” among the women who “are today forging their own authentic spirituality” as part of “the reconstruction of a God myth through the lens of their own experience.” Her experience, she reports, “opened me to myself, to my reality as a woman, and to the Holy within me . . . I met the Holy in the revelation of my own being and She was loving, a verb.” Kolbenschlag’s book is full of such nonsense, a noun.

Pioneer feminist theologian Carol Christ, in Womenspirit Rising, explained why a new religion is needed. “Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected; they must be replaced,” she wrote. “Where there is not any replacement, the mind will revert to familiar structures at times of crisis.” Witch Starhawk (nee Miriam Simos) says she invents myths and rituals as “seed crystals of new patterns that can eventually reshape culture around them.” It seems safe to conclude that goddess feminism is simply the New Age project in a feminist translation.

Matthew Fox, 0.P., is the most prominent apostle of a new mysticism that looks and sounds like the old pantheism. He has persuaded many credulous nuns, priests, and journalists that “creation spirituality” represents a theological breakthrough of cosmic proportions, although, in light of Genesis 1:3, it would scarcely seem to be news to Christians or Jews that creation is good. More troubling than Fox’s ambiguous “panentheism” is his ranting against “Christolatry” and his virulent antipathy toward the institutional Church. Only audiences seething with the same fury would be apt to find this attractive. Perhaps Fox’s followers transfer to the cosmos —as he interprets it —the religious passion theme once directed toward Jesus Christ.

Fox, under fire for his bizarre views, lists in his latest book (The Coming of the Cosmic Christ) “New Ageism” among current “pseudo-mysticisms.” Its interpretation of “past life experiences” is “excessively literal,” he complains. From time to time in his magazine Creation, he has similarly attempted to distance “creation spirituality” from the New Age movement. It is a relief to suppose that first communion classes will not be trying “past life regression” at his suggestion.

But a reading of Cosmic Christ reveals multiple parallels between Fox’s thought and New Age ideas. The magazine Creation, as well as catalogues for ICCS and Bear and Company, the publishing house Fox founded, show faculty, speakers, and topics clearly affiliated with the New Age movement. Besides Starhawk, there is Charlene Spretnak, who wrote Green Politics with Fritjof Capra, and is also the author of The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. Spretnak serves on Creation’s editorial board, along with self- proclaimed New Agers Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme. In the pages of Fox’s magazine, readers find Thomas Berry, Hazel Henderson, Patricia Mische of Global Education Associates, and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. ICCS faculty members include “transformation instructor” Shaja Kirstann, a Sufi teacher and the founder of the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and Yoruba voodoo priestess Luisah Teish. Bear and Company lists both Jose Arguelles, the art historian who arranged the 1987 Harmonic Convergence —it was supposed to effect the “quantum leap” into the global New Age —and Chris Griscom, the Light Institute guru who introduced Shirley MacLaine to her higher self.

The “Cosmic Masses” with which Fox and his associates scandalize orthodox Catholics in Oakland are adaptations of a liturgical form introduced in 1975 at New York’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine by Pir Vilayat Khan, world leader of Nizami Chistiyya Sufism. As the Pir’s “Mass” ended, he chanted: “I am the One I love, there is but One. One in All. All in One.”

Sufism is an heterodox Islamic mystical sect, brought to the United States early in this century by Pir Vilayat’s father. His mother was Ora Ray Baker, sister of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Dance Network News, the journal of the Sufi “Center for the Dances of Universal Peace,” carried Matthew Fox’s diatribe against the Vatican in its October-November 1988 issue, with a plea for “positive” letters to Cardinal Ratzinger. An editorial note added that “the Dances are at the core of Fox’s ICCS graduate program.”

Et Tu, NCEA?

Those infected with the spiritual viruses of goddess feminism or creation spirituality made some kind of conscious choice to expose themselves. It has become sadly evident in recent years that others, entirely innocent, risk exposure to neo-Gnosticism at National Catholic Education Association conventions. Has the NCEA now been drawn into the New Age vortex?

No one evangelizes for the New Age “transformation of consciousness” with more clarity or drama than Jean Houston, one-time Catholic, director of the Foundation for Mind Research, past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, and the leading voice of the “human potential movement.” The persistence of evil demonstrates a terminal breakdown in the old Western world view, she says, but simultaneously, improved communication technologies, the “global” women’s movement, and new discoveries in physics and “psychotechnologies” present unprecedented opportunities for a “revolution in consciousness.” If the unenlightened masses can be persuaded to accept illumination from those already transformed, they too can be “godded,” and so launched on the development of their previously submerged potential. Houston, an early LSD experimenter, is also considered an expert on non-pharmacological techniques for altering consciousness.

In her standard presentation, she tells educators that the chief responsibility for “global transformation” is in their hands. “You people right now are among the most important people alive. You are the weavers of the future . . . midwives of souls. All cultures thought that their culture was it. They were wrong. This is it, right now; this time in history!” she told the 1989 national conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). “Everything is in place to make the leap —but the juice is not on.” Stimulating the “juice” that will bring in the new global age is a duty educators must accept, she said. “You are the ones who are creating the whole system transition.”

For unexplained reasons, Houston was invited to address NCEA conventions in 1982, 1984, and 1989. Protesters may deserve credit for her decision this year to speak, atypically, about St. Francis as a model of transformation. The saint has been appropriated by New Agers as he was by 1960s hippies; one pop singer is rumored to believe himself a reincarnation of Francis.

In 1985, when Houston did not appear, the NCEA had Robert Muller as a major speaker. Muller credits Houston with having launched his writing career. They often appear at the same conferences; Muller too spoke at this year’s ASCD conference.

Muller is associated with “The Robert Muller School of Ageless Wisdom” in Arlington, Texas. An accredited private institution “certified” as a “U.N. Associated School,” it uses a relentlessly New Age “World Core Curriculum” designed by Muller and promoted internationally by Gordon Cawelti, executive director of ASCD. It is designed to instruct students from birth (“Balanced Beginnings”) through high school.

The school’s 1988 Resource Catalogue offers 28 breathtaking items—curriculum materials, lesson plans, books, and computer diskettes —on such matters as “The Forces of Light,” “Education in the New Age,” “Toward a World Religion for the New Age,” “Teaching the Gaia Hypothesis,” “Visions of Peace,” and “Whole Brain” teaching. Four are books by Alice Bailey; four are from Helena Roerich and the Agni Yoga Society; one is a tape of Muller’s address at the 1982 World Goodwill seminar.

In conjunction with the U.N. University for Peace, the school co-sponsored an April 1988 conference featuring among its “Leading Lights” Muller himself; Ted Turner, president of Cable News Network; Barbara Meister-Vitale, author of Unicorns are Real; Willis Harman, president of the Institute for Noetic Sciences at Stanford University; and New Age personality Jose Arguelles.

Convention speakers are not the only New Age channel to the NCEA. Further evidence of its influence showed up in reports on a “Catholic Education Futures Project” in which the NCEA participated between 1985 and 1988, along with 20 other Catholic education agencies associated with NCEA or the United States Catholic Conference. It was summarized in the NCEA’s glossy journal, Momentum (September 1988), and discussed at two workshops at this year’s convention.

Two accompanying articles by project “resource persons” are worth special notice. Sister Sarah Fahy wrote about the importance of creation-centered spirituality in education for global citizenship. Hazel Henderson, described in the report as an “independent self-employed futurist,” wrote briefly about “our responsibility for co-creating positive futures” in an ecumenical spirit. Her name appears often on New Age advisory boards, and she has the distinction —surely dubious —of being the only woman Madonna Kolbenschlag praised by name in Oz as representative of the way “women’s spirituality . . . is building a kind of chrysalis of the future” out of which the “new world order” will emerge. The 16 books in the “Planning Phase” bibliography include one by Henderson, two by Thomas Berry, one by Fritjof Capra, one by Raimundo Pannikar, and one by Patricia Mische.

Simple prudence would recommend that educators plan for future needs; there is nothing inherently alarming about that. But one must wonder whether authentically Catholic education is likely to grow out of this project.

Intellectual Embarrassment

Whether or not the NCEA means to take Catholic education into the New Age, it is clearly paying serious attention ‘to the “human potential” theories of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Yet those ideas are not taken seriously by recognized academic and professional psychologists. A leading graduate level text by Salvatore R. Maddi, Personality Theories: A Comparative Analysis (Dorsey Press, 1989), includes no references to Jean Houston or to transpersonal psychology.

“Among academic psychologists, transpersonal psychology is almost unheard of,” said Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University. “Even humanistic psychology, which moved into many of those ideas, is considered to be outside the academic world. In the universities, transpersonal psychology is essentially associated with Shirley MacLaine. No transpersonal psychology is taught in our department. But at Sierra Junior College, if there is such a place, who knows what’s going on? Somebody there may be teaching a course in transpersonal psychology.”

Why does a professional organization like the NCEA focus so strongly on ideas viewed with disdain by legitimate psychologists? “The world of education is an intellectual vacuum filled with everything from Carl Rogers to Values Clarification—which is the vaporization of any moral position —to Jean Houston,” Vitz said. “It’s a sign of the pathological condition of most of our educators that they would buy this stuff. It’s Shirley MacLaine in textbook form. It’s embarrassing.”

Marshall Fightlin, a psychologist who practices in Duluth, Minnesota, said he did not know of Jean Houston, but is painfully aware that “humanistic psychology has been the source of many of those strange ideas: that you can just follow your instincts and I can follow my instincts and somehow it will work out that we’re both right! It’s saying that you don’t have to grow up; you can just continue to function like an infant and be the center of the universe. But an adult has a lot more power to do harm than an infant has.” Fightlin says he worries about the social consequences: “There is no doubt that those attitudes contribute to the breaking up of the family. It’s a menace, a cancer in terms of family and social stability.”

Neither a residual sense of the ridiculous nor a fear of consequences has yet slowed the extraordinary surge of neo-gnosticism. In its numerous disguises it is thriving among post-Christians. It is not altogether uncommon among academics and corporate executives, booming among Unitarians and public school educators, epidemic among feminists, ecological absolutists, pacifists, and vegetarians. Anxious about personal or social problems, intrigued by the mysteries of nature and the mind, hungry for spiritual meaning, many of them might have turned for answers to authentic Catholic principles, which are relevant because they are true.

But sadly, many of those in Catholic academia, bureaucracy, and religious orders failed to offer those principles because, when they encountered the well-known “spirit of Vatican II,” they assumed they were supposed to embrace the zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist is the spirit of the New Age movement, promising spiritual superiority, a comprehensive understanding of reality and knowledge of the means to manipulate it, unrestricted by objective moral law. The promises are as old as Eden.

These neo-Gnostics think they are constructing “America’s emerging culture.” They may be right. On the other hand, a religious movement led by exploiters and populated by the deluded could well prove to be as ephemeral as a soap bubble. Those who stumbled into it in the course of a genuine spiritual search may be open to Christ when the counterfeit fails —if the Church will preach with conviction. Catholic dissidents present more difficult pastoral problems, but appeasement will not move them to repentance. (Early retirement might; at least it would protect the innocent from contagion.)

There is little practical reason for optimism, but the knowledge that Christ is with us sustains Christian hope. Unlikely as it appears on a natural level, He has the power to restore His disintegrating American Church to undeserved health. There is some comfort in recalling the recently evaporated arrogance of the “scientific” materialists. Mercifully, history is full of surprises, and, as one pope put it, all struggle against our true nature is in vain.

By

Donna Steichen’s first book, "Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism,"(Ignatius Press), stirred up a storm among feminists when it was published in 1991. Her most recent book is "Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-Three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard" (Ignatius Press, 2009).

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