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Nature, Grace, and the Prevenience of the Apocalypse

The whole issue of nature and grace continues to come up in conversations of late. This is, of course, derivative of other long-standing conversations largely between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic communion regarding the severity of the effect of fallenness on creation.  The conflict between Barth and Pryzwara over the analogia entis remains a paradigmatic case of this sort of discussion and the deep-rooted divergence within Christianity over the extent of sin and the nature of the continuity and discontinuity between creation and redemption.

I tend to fall instinctively on the Barthian-Protestant side of this whole issue on the basis of the descriptions of redemption in the New Testament, particularly its apocalyptic texts in which the picture painted is one of total inversion, radical disruption, and climactic new creation in which the old creation dies and is resurrected as a new reality. I am very resistant to notions of nature which posit some sort of potentiality pregnant within nature for redemption. There is no more inherent propensity in nature for redemption than there is in the dead, cold body of Jesus for resurrection.  The redemption of nature comes, not from any inherent being-toward-redemption that lies within, but entirely from outside itself, being manifested in the apocalyptic intrusion of God into the world in Christ.

However, the radical apocalypticism of the New Testament, the radical novum of resurrection life should not lead us to some sort of Žižekian ontology of the void in which the concept of rupture simply becomes the reigning philosophical category.  We must posit, as Alan Lewis does in his theology of Holy Saturday, a “resumption beyond rupture” in which the radical inversion of the crooked cosmos rent by sin is not merely torn further asunder by grace. The violent rending of the Temple veil in the hour of the cross did not occur merely as an iconoclastic event of condemnation, though it was not less than that.  Rather it was the event of redemption.  The rending of the veil of alienation occurred so that all alienation might end.  The veil is not merely torn, we are reconciled in one body through cross.  The apocalyptic rupture that Christ brings to the world is the intrusion of freedom.  The freedom in which all things to be reconstituted in the future of the resurrected Jesus, and thus through him reconciled to the Father in the Spirit.

We must find a way to properly articulate the prevenience of God’s apocalyptic grace that neither imbues nature as such with a potentiality for redemption nor leaves us stumbling about in a dizzying fog of rupture without resumption, of apocalypse without new creation. Marcionism is not an option for faithful Christian theology.  The radical apocalypticism of the New Testament must never be tamed, but neither must we interpret redemption as some sort of alien abduction.  What is needed is neither a Žižekian sort of philosophy of rupture nor a seamless nature-redemption unity which skirts away from the radicality of the apocalypse of God in Christ.  Still less needed is some sort of middle ground. Rather, what is needed is deeper penetration into the nature of Christ’s apocalypse on the basis of the messianic theology of the Old and New Testaments.

What I suggest is that a canonical reading of the Christian Scriptures will reveal a prevenience of the apocalypse that is witnessed to in the messianic speech and ministry of the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The radical inversion of the cosmos that is culminated in Christ’s resurrection, while a complete novum is what it is within the framework of God’s whole economy of recapitulation. The coming of Christ in newness of life is truly new, truly unprecedented, truly irreducible, and radically singular in its significance.  And it is such precisely in that it recapitulates, enfolds, purges, and enlivens all created history.  Christ is the concrete universal who, in his resurrection, disrupts creation-under-sin in a way so radical as to annihilate all forms of death and sin even as he consummate, redeems, transfigures, recreates creation in a way unanticipated, even by any primal natural harmony.  What we have in redemption is neither the obliteration of the first creation, nor merely its restoration, but an apocalyptic transcendence of the first creation which fulfills it precisely in superseding it.

What we need to bear in mind in understanding the radicality of the nature of apocalyptic grace is the whole eschatological economy of recapitulation that it consummates, as Douglas Knight has admirably shown in his recent book.  The apocalypse is an utter novum, but it is not without any antecedent in the Trinitarian history of God and God’s people.  Rather the apocalypse is prevenient in all movements of divine generosity and love as seen in the whole history of Israel and the nations.  In short, the radical inversion of Christ’s apocalypse is the culmination of God’s eschatological economy of recapitulation, transfiguration, and new creation.  We remain ever and again disrupted by the sheer novum of Christ’s apocalypse precisely as we continue to venture down the path of the holy pilgrims of Israel and the church, remaining on the way towards the New Jerusalem within which all things find their coherence, fulfillment, and transformation.

37 Comments

  1. Ben George wrote:

    I think about creation groaning as in labor, and I think about Sara who laughed. I think about Zacharias and Elizabeth, well stricken with years. I think about Mary, “How can this be since I know not man?”

    I think about a dead man living, a dead branch blooming.

    Good post.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Thanks. Part of what I was trying to do in this post is offer a statement about nature and grace that can at least be somewhat satisfying to a more Catholic sensibility and preserve the radical singularity of grace. Hopefully I’ve come close.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Great stuff Halden… can’t wait to unpack this. I’ve only skimmed it, but you’ve so far succeeded in “somewhat satisfying [my] more Catholic sensibility.” There is definitely a middle ground between bad Neo-thomist natural theology and apophatic rupturism.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    Just one quick thing which came to mind that Ben has already mentioned. While I understand the motivation for being “resistant to notions of nature which posit some sort of potentiality pregnant within nature for redemption,” it is fact that case that there IS a potentiality pregnant within nature for redemption, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” That isn’t to contradict what you’ve said here, but just to point out that there are certain interpretations of that verse which one ought to resist, it is in fact true in some sense. I think this has a lot to do with how we understand Christ’s redemptive act temporally, it clearly would be naive to suggest that it only applies to the history of humanity that follows it. I think there may be some sense in which the radical redemptive event of Christ’s incarnation, passion, death and resurrection has already happened, even for Adam and Eve. That’s obviously a very complex issue to try to unravel, but I have a feeling it may be very important to these sorts of discussions.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    And by middle ground, I don’t mean some kind of triangulation, but a third way, perhaps would be a better way of putting it.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    I keep thinking of things as I attempt to work and return to your post. Also worth considering is the contingent character of apocalypse itself. What for us fallen creatures is “apocalypse” is ultimately just God’s continued act of being God, which is to saying continuously regiving the gift of himself in the face of every rejection. When that intersects with the sinful creation, “apocalypse” is the result. That is why I would be somewhat hesitant to place it rigorously at the center of theology. That isn’t to say that anything you’ve said is misdirected or wrong. Just that “apocalypse” and “rupture” are not categories or characteristics proper to God. They are simply our phenomenological experience, as sinful, incomplete creatures, of God’s unfailing and infinite love.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I’m going to feel guilty if I get you fired, man! And yes, I would say that the apocalpyse is God’s being-in-act as it is given to us in this world. Thus, we cannot talk about apocalypse without talking at length about the Trinitarian life of God. And here, I think, is a convergence with Hart.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Another way of putting what I’ve said is that Christ’s Apocalypse is simply his Advent. And that what to sin appears as a rupture and a sundering is in fact the opposite, the harmonization and enfolding of created being into the triune life.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  9. Chris wrote:

    How is prevenience not a middle ground? Of bringing the continuity/discontinuity question to rest? Given the apocalyptic vision, are we not then given a retrospective continuity?

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Chris, I’d say its not a middle ground because the generosity/grace of the triune God displayed throughout the economy of salvation, which creates the context for the advent of Christ is apocalyptic and disruptive throughout. God’s act of liberation for Israel in the exodus for example.

    What I’m concerned with here is most centrally Marcionism, and only secondarily how that relates to the nature-grace issue.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    By “middle ground” I took Halden to mean a kind of negotiated truce of equal parts one and the other, which is why I modified what I said to the idea of a “third way” which implies something with it’s own conceptual integrity. I think it’s largely a rhetorical thing. Middle ground could also be taken to mean “a solution that avoids the pitfalls of a prior dichotomy” but that doesn’t quite fit with the metaphor.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Yes, by “middle ground” I meant a sort of synthesis. The whole “a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B” approach that assumes that truth is always some sort of combination of two opposing views. That sort of “Anglican temptation” is something I desperately want to avoid.

    What I am seeking is a third way that is a radical alternative to both other possibilities.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  13. Tim F. wrote:

    Hi, Halden,

    I truly appreciate this post, and I find myself at least sympathetic, if not in always in agreement.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to think through this in a better way, since we’ve already exchanged on this a bit on Ben’s blog.

    In my intro to theology class (which is at a Catholic university by the way!), I teach my freshmen a short and lovely chapter from Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline: “Faith as Knowledge.” Here Barth says that faith is not arational, suprarational, or the like, but rational in the proper sense. I’m wondering how you interpret this sort of claim from the latter Barth. I know that’s an open question, but I think you see what I’m trying to get at using one of your favorite thinkers. This little chapter might even be good to use as fodder in another post or something; I don’t know.

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I have been meaning to revisit Dogmatics in Outline for some time. I’ll have to look at that.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  15. Tim F. wrote:

    One more thing, Halden, and I don’t mean this as a critique in itself; it’s just something I wonder about, because others have brought it up to me about myself in the past ,and I continue to wrestle with it. My female colleagues tell me it’s quite “male” as well. :-)

    Why does everything have to be so radical or “extreme”? While I agree that the “both/and” as an apriori methodical rule is asinine in every sense, that doesn’t make it always false or never helpful. There are times when it is the proper course, I think.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    You’re right, and I don’t exclude the possibility that at times the truth might lie “in the middle.” I suppose I have an acquired distaste for the fact that the assumption that the “middle way” is always right. Newman was right in pointing out that Arianism was the middle way at Nicea. I think there’s something to that.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  17. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    I think you have provided a very strong and coherent statement of what I consider the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament. I have tried to work with such a vision in relation to the question of continuity, discontinuity and supersession vis a vis Israel in an article, “Paul and Israel: An Apocalyptic Reading” in Pro Ecclesia 16:4 (2007). I have also been working recently on the fiery apocalypse of 2 Peter 3, in which a rather extreme apocalyptic discontinuity is dominant. In that regard, Bulgakov’s eschatology in The Bride of the Lamb (pp. 382-428) is illuminating, especially the section on “The Transfiguration of Creation,” in which he writes: “the world will undergo a catastrophic transcensus: on the one hand, it will perish in a cosmic fire; on the other hand it will be transformed inwardly… This place [earth] must conform to its purpose: It must be worthy of meeting the Lord in glory. For, in its present state, the world cannot encompass the parousia. The world catches fire from the approach of the parousia, melts in its fire. In this sense, the present world will not see the coming Lord; His coming in consuming glory will not occur on this earth. The parousia must first occur inside the world itself. The world will be illuminated by the lightning of the parousia, which will blaze out from the east to the west. The world will not remain in a state indifferent to the approach of the coming Lord; all of creation trembles at His coming. And this trembling of creation will be its burning” (417-418). Bulgakov is of course aware of the highly symbolic character of his language here, but he has surely found a brilliant way to speak of the coming of God — the “trinitarian epiphany” which purifies, glorifies and transfigures all creation.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    That is an incredible quote, Doug. That excites me as Bulgakov is on my to-read list for my contribution to an upcoming blog conference on Bulgakov. Thanks for sharing that.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  19. Chris Green wrote:

    Halden,

    Thanks for this; I think it’s one of your best posts. And I second Tim’s call for you to revisit Dogmatics in Outline and to post about it. I like that “latter Barth” best, as you might imagine.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  20. Ben Myers wrote:

    Excellent post, Halden! This is exactly what worries me as well: how to conceptualise a “rupture” in a way that resists both Marcionism on the one hand and a Zizekian ontology of the void on the other.

    I’m not sure you’ve quite convinced me that recapitulation is the way to go, although I’ll have to revisit this question after reading Douglas Knight’s book. My own instinct is to look for something like the retroactivity of God’s apocalypse — i.e., continuities that are set up in reverse. I suppose this could still leave room for a kind of recapitulation, but it would be working the other way round: Israel’s history becomes a “recapitulation” of what takes place (preveniently!) in Jesus’ resurrection.

    On the other hand, a more Barthian resolution of this whole problem would lie in the concept of election: election as God’s prevenient, self-constituting action which is always-already directed towards the event of resurrection. There’s still the possibility here for something like retroactivity: God eternally is what he is precisely because of his determination towards (and thus determination by) a specific future event. And I guess recapitulation could also enter the picture here: because God is eternally determined towards this apocalyptic event, the entire history of God-with-humanity is also structured by that same event, so that Israel’s history is recapitulating-in-advance what happens (with absolute singularity, and therefore eternally) in Jesus’ resurrection.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  21. I have to admit that I haven’t read Knight’s book, but Ben, you describe with retroactivity something of a Metzian line of memory, dangerous memory. And whats interesting for us now, is that we have a memory not only of the past, but also of the future — like Israel post exodus awaiting the messiah. And that I can really get behind, particularly since it is dangerous. With a Metzian reading, I think retroactivity can really come to life (ha!). Then again, maybe I’m just catching a whiff of a Metzian influence?

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  22. Tim F. wrote:

    Ben,

    I love your idea here about retroactive recapitulation. I wonder if Jenson’s theology of time could help in this discussion, particularly his pre-existent Jesus as Israel.

    Actually, some early church Fathers (specifically I have in mind Irenaeus but there are others) could be interpreted this way insofar as they are quite explicit about Abraham, Moses, etc, knowing Jesus, and they use “Jesus” or “Christ” not “logos.”

    Is something like this, what you had in mind or at least consonant with it?

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 5:24 am | Permalink
  23. Teresita wrote:

    Faith as Knowledge.” Here Barth says that faith is not arational, suprarational, or the like, but rational in the proper sense.

    If so, then faith will have informational content, rather than emotional content. If faith is rational, then it will come to us as a revelation with truths divinely imparted to us. But we have been conditioned to view faith as an assurance of the truth of previously published revelations. And we are told that this faith is necessary for salvation, but since it holds no informational content (such as evidence of the death of our Lord), the object of our faith turns around and latches onto itself. We allow a faith in our own faith to flourish, rather than a faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. We say, “I firmly believe that I am saved” and that belief itself is said to be salvific.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    I love the idea of retroactivity, Ben. How Pannenbergian of you! I think we’re building some good conceptual architecture here to theologically articulate the message of the New Testament about the identity of God and the nature of eschatological salvation.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  25. Hill wrote:

    I find the retroactivity trope very compelling as well, but I think it’s important to note it’s a kind of provisional human concept, as it would be impossible for “retroactivity” to apply in any meaningful sense to God. In the sense that we were never not redeemed in some ontological sense, even before the historical event of Christ’s life among us. Of course you crazy Jungelians may have something else to say about that.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  26. Chris wrote:

    Sorry, Halden, I just don’t see wholesale or monolithic apocalypticism in the New Testamen. I see it, to be sure; but that’s not all I see. I see a climax and a disruption in the resurrection of the son of David.

    It does seem to teeter on Marcionism at times. What, for example, do you do with the return of the nation from exile and the installment of the king, Zerubbabel?

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    Chris, I’m unsure how exactly you see anything I’ve said as teetering on Marcionism. Nor do I understand how the issue of the return from exile is germane to the point. In the post I try to show how the whole history of Israel’s messianic expectation is, in a sense, recapitulated and consummated, even as it is disrupted in Christ’s resurrection. Or to use Ben’s phraseology, the history of Israel is retroactively determined, shaped, and given coherence and being by Christ’s apocalypse.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  28. Doug Harink wrote:

    Just to follow up on Halden’s last remark here, and Ben’s ideas which Halden appropriates: I would say that their understanding as outlined in their comments is precisely what enables us to avoid any kind of Marcionism. Only because Israel is retroactively anticipated, sustained, judged, redeemed and consummated in the Christ apocalypse, can Israel never be abandoned to the past nor replaced by the church. Israel is always co-present (in its own way) with the church in Christ.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  29. Tim F. wrote:

    I’ve been talking about some our discussion with a colleague, and he pointed out that apocalypse primarily means an unveiling as opposed to nearly complete disruption/death and resurrection. This seems like a basic and insignificant claim, but there seems to be an important difference between unveiling and disruption. This is not to deny disruption occurs in the unveiling, but it does change the emphasis and how we conceptualize it.

    What say you all?

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  30. Disruption, or interruption, occurs quite quickly after the unveiling if one takes the notion that the eschatological reality ought to be lived out in the now, as the christological reality was and continues to be lived out. N.T. Wright commonly uses the term in-breaking, which works as well. Much is this comes from kingdom theology, however, there is also simply the notion that the loving revelation of God enters into fallen creation. For grace to enter the world is to counter un-grace or sin. This is inherently disruptive. Simply, disruption or interruption is not a very far leap when one understands that God and God’s revelation is salvific. In fact, not to see salvific as interruptive would I think miss the point of salvation and salvation’s complexity.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  31. Ben Myers wrote:

    Hey Tim, regarding the term “apocalypse”, we’re using it here as elucidated in the work of the Paul scholar J. Louis Martyn: see, e.g., his commentary on Galatians, pp. 97-105; and for a brilliant theological account, see Doug Harink’s Paul among the Postliberals, chapter 2.

    Martyn convincingly argues that the usual translation of apocalypsis as “unveiling” or “revelation” is a misreading of Paul’s theology. Instead, he argues that Paul uses the word apocalypsis to designate God’s action in invading the present order with the power of the new creation.

    To quote Martyn: “Paul thus explicates the verb apokalypto with the verbs erchomai, “to come [on the scene],” and exapostello, “to send [into the scene]“. That is a linguistic turn inadequately represented by the usual translation of apokalypto as “to reveal”, “to unveil”; for it shows that in Galatians Paul’s apocalyptic is not focused on God’s unveiling something that was previously hidden, as though it has been eternally standing behind a curtain. The genesis of Paul’s apocalyptic … lies in the apostle’s certainty that God has invaded the present evil age by sending Christ and his Spirit into it” (Martyn, Galatians, p. 99).

    I hope that helps to clarify where we’re coming from!

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  32. Tim F. wrote:

    Thanks, Ben; that’s VERY helpful. I’ve seen Martyn’s name used by you and in some essays I’ve read, but did not know any specifics. Admittedly and shamefully, my knowledge of contemporary exegesis is quite limited. I usually have my nose buried in a patrisitic commentary, which is some consolation, at least I like to think :-)

    Which causes me to ask, Do you know of any interpretative precedent for this reading, especially prior to the Reformation? I know that Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and Theodore of Mopsuestia wrote commentaries on Galations, but I have not read them.

    I also want to emphasize that I was not (and am not) advocating a seamless transition from old to new.

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  33. Chris wrote:

    Halden, “utter novum”? I see that it’s qualified, but your enthusiasm for apocalypse, it seems to me, undermines the notion of continuity within the narrative.

    From a canonical perspective, the installment of Zerubbabel is the beginning of the new covenant. Gushing over apocalypticism to the point of suggesting that it serves as a good catchword for some kind of “New Testament theology” is to my mind suspect if due consideration is not given first to redemptive history, i.e., the unfurling of God’s purposes for creation. So that’s where I get nervous and wonder about the ghost of Marcion. Ben’s phraseology of retroactivity makes sense to me; it’s patristic and nothing new.

    And if Doug Harink’s (and Ben’s) comment does indeed encapsulate what you’re getting at, then it appears I’ve misunderstood you. Mea culpa.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  34. Chris Green wrote:

    Hill,

    You said:

    What for us fallen creatures is “apocalypse” is ultimately just God’s continued act of being God, which is to saying continuously regiving the gift of himself in the face of every rejection. When that intersects with the sinful creation, “apocalypse” is the result.

    Halden (rightly) identified the Hartian overtones. But I think this misses the basic point. God isn’t merely gifting himself in “the face of rejection,” and it is not the clash of God’s gift and humanity’s rebellion that explodes in apocalypse. Instead, apocalypse is that which comes from God inhabiting the rejection itself, entering, as Moltmann has it, into godforsakenness, and drawn up from its depths by the love that is stronger than death.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  35. Hill wrote:

    I don’t disagree with you at all, Chris. I think you’ve just put a finer point on what I was getting at. My point is the general one that we have to be careful about “institutionalizing” rupture, as it were, as the primary essence of Christianity. There is something that one might identify as rupture associated with the redemptive work of Christ, but it is not, properly speaking, a part of God’s nature to rupture things. He is rupturing nothing (sin and death), in a very real sense. It is just that both sin and death have become something to us, which may be at the core of what it means to be “fallen.”

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  36. Halden wrote:

    Chris (not Green), I don’t think your cannonical reading really holds up under any serious scrutiny. The New Covenant begins with the Last Supper, but that’s neither here nor there.

    Ben, Doug, and I are, I think very much on the same page regarding these issues.

    Also I don’t think that referring to the resurrection as a utter novum means some sort of narrative disintegration. The radical rupture of the resurrection is also the climax of the narrative. But we shouldn’t back down on the newness of the resurrection: what happened to Jesus is completely unprecedented, singular, and radical. That’s why it is our salvation.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  37. Tim F. wrote:

    Halden,

    Not to nit-pick here, but it confirms what I tend to worry about in your position.

    The resurrection is not our salvation, because it’s “unprecedented, singular and radical,” which you seem to imply. It’s our salvation simply because it happened to Jesus (and who is as the 2nd person of the Trinity).

    In other words, I worry that “newness” and “rupture” take on a substantive meaning without relationship to Jesus and the incarnation. I know this something you want to avoid, especially since you detest natural theology, but I still wonder. Perhaps I’m asking, “How do you understand the relationship between the incarnation and the resurrection?”

    Let me know if I misunderstood you here.

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

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