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The Protestant Era by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<

Chapter 13: The Protestant Message and the Man of Today

I. The Man of Today

The man of today, with whom this discussion is concerned, is not simply the man who happens to be a member of our generation but rather the man whose whole outlook is molded by the present cultural situation and who, in turn, determines, preserves, or transforms it. If we wish to characterize him in a very general way, we may describe him as the man who, on a Christian background that has been qualified by Protestantism, has built an autonomous culture and lives in it, influencing it and being influenced by it. He is the man who consciously carries within himself humanism and the Renaissance, idealism and romanticism, realism and expressionism, as elements of his own intellectual character. This man is, even if he may by actual count be in the minority, the decisive spiritual type of our day. The tensions of his life represent a creative energy that is active in all the spheres of life.

If we look closer to determine his particular characteristics, we must say: he is the autonomous man who has become insecure in his autonomy. A symptom of this insecurity is that the man of today no longer possesses a world view in the sense of a body of assured convictions about God, the world, and himself. The feeling of security in a system of theoretical and practical ideas about the meaning of his life and of life in general has gone. Even as recently as two decades ago, our literature was full of discussions concerning the modern world view or dealing with the conflicts between the various tendencies within it. Nothing more of this is to be seen. Only the pieces of former world views are to be found now. Idealism, for instance, concentrates on questions concerning education and has become embodied in movements like neohumanism. But none of the neohumanists has developed a philosophy which, in comparison with German classical idealism, could be called an integrated world view or even a convincing interpretation of human life. Neohumanism has remained a quest without fulfillment. While neither Marx himself nor the main representatives of Marxism accepted metaphysical materialism (Marx attacked it in his Theses against Feuerbach as a bourgeois ideology), popular Marxism has largely confused the so-called "historical materialism" with a materialistic world view. But nobody who would deserve to be called a "man of today" accepts such a metaphysics.

It would be inadequate to call certain other attempts to penetrate into the riddle of existence "world views." I refer to the so-called "philosophy of life" whose most brilliant representative was Nietzsche and which has a large group of adherents in Germany and France; or to the philosophy of the unconscious, initiated by Freud, whose influence is growing daily; or to the philosophical and theological movements determined by the rediscovery of Kierkegaard. They all contribute to the destruction of the old world views more than to the building of a new one. They are powerful just because they are not world views. Modern man is without a world view, and just because of this he has the feeling of having come closer to reality and of having confronted the problematic aspects of his existence more profoundly than is possible for the man who conceals these problematic aspects of life by means of a world view.

Obviously, the man of today takes the same attitude toward the message of the churches as he takes toward the autonomous philosophies. He opposes it though, not as the representative of one world view attempting to overcome another one; he sees in it problems and solutions that are in part outmoded but in part significant even for our day. He treats the religious doctrines neither worse nor better than he does the interpretations of the world and life from which he takes his spiritual descent and which he has left behind him—perhaps rather better than worse, for he finds in them more recognition of the mystery of life than he does in much autonomous philosophy. But he is not yet ready to abandon autonomy. He still stands in the autonomous tradition of recent centuries. But his situation is different from that of former generations in that he no longer possesses an autonomy in which he is self-assured and creative; rather he possesses one that leaves him disturbed, frustrated, and often in despair. It is understandable that some churches have used this situation for an appeal to the people of today to return to the authority and the tradition of the churches. This is especially true of the Roman Catholic church; in this view the last act of autonomy should be self-surrender to heteronomy.

II. The Catholic Church and the Man of Today

In such a situation the Catholic church is naturally in a favored position, for it alone is consistently heteronomous. It alone has an unbroken tradition and authority. Consequently, the Catholic church has a great attraction for the man of our day; and it has also a strong sense of triumph in the face of his broken autonomy. This is due not only to the fact that autonomy is shattered but also to a sense of the spiritual "substance" resident in tradition and authority. When the individual possesses free decision concerning things and occurrences around him, he loses his immediate connection with their meaning. The gift of freedom, including religious freedom, is paid for by a loss in living substance. The loss of spiritual substance since the end of the Middle Ages, both intellectual and religious, has been tremendous; and some day the substance might become completely exhausted. Few are the springs of life that are left and that are uncontested. The springs of the past are almost exhausted—the substance has almost wasted away.

The Catholic church, however, has manifestly been able to preserve a genuine substance that continues to exist, although it is encased within an ever hardening crust. But whenever the hardness and crust are broken through and the substance becomes visible, it exercises a peculiar fascination; then we see what was once the life-substance and inheritance of us all and what we have now lost, and a deep yearning awakens in us for the departed youth of our culture.

It is not surprising that the Catholic church exercises a powerful influence upon the modern man, since it both provides an emancipation from the burden of autonomous responsibility and offers to the man of today the age-old life-substance that was once his. Much more striking is the fact that this influence is not more powerful, that the church’s sense of triumph is not more clearly borne out by the facts, and that, instead, the number of conversions to Protestantism is always on the increase rather than on the decrease. It is especially surprising that the spokesmen for modern man, on the whole withstand so well the temptation to sacrifice an autonomy that has become feeble and hollow. One cannot dismiss this situation with the explanation that the petrifying of the Catholic church and the mechanizing of her hierarchical apparatus obstruct access to her. But, if these structures were recognized as valuable and necessary, they would be an inducement to men of creative power to break away the crust. Nor does the explanation suffice that the strongly Latin coloration of Catholicism weakens its appeal to the Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic north. In Latin countries the opposition to it is usually stronger than in the northern countries. The situation is rather that the man who enjoys autonomy— however feeble and empty it may be—has experienced something that he cannot easily surrender even if he wished to respond to the appeal of the Catholic church. This "something" which unites the Protestants and those who live in secular autonomy must be examined and understood. Upon it depends the religious and also the intellectual integrity of our day.

III. The Human "Boundary-Situation"

It is the awareness of the human "boundary-situation" or of the ultimate threat to human existence that prevents the modern man from surrendering to heteronomy. The first element in Protestantism is and must always be the proclaiming of the human boundary-situation, of the ultimate threat confronting human existence. And the modern man is ready, in the brokenness of his autonomy, to give heed to this message and to reaffirm it in the face of the temptation of many offers of religious or nonreligious safety.

In speaking here of the Protestant element in Protestantism we mean to imply that this is not the only element in Protestantism. Protestantism is not only Protestantism, it is also—and first of all— Christianity. It is also and above all the bearer and mediator of the "New Being" manifest in Jesus as the Christ. It is also imbued with a spiritual substance, discernible by everyone who knows genuine Protestant piety and unbroken Protestant Christianity. It is a reality that flows through the veins of all the peoples nurtured by Protestantism, although it is mixed with much other blood. Even if the idea of a church that actually determines the morals and world view of the whole nation is only a hope (or an empty claim), this influence is present and working among the Protestant peoples, and it ought not to be overlooked, as it so often is. Almost all creations of modern autonomous culture show traces of the Protestant spirit. As we have said, Protestantism is, above all, Christianity. It has never wished to be anything else, and (in Germany) the Protestant churches prefer to call themselves "Evangelical" rather than Protestant. But the name "Protestantism" has, nevertheless, remained and has been transformed from a political into a religious concept. It represents the characteristic element of this manifestation of the Christian substance.

The Protestant element in Protestantism is the radical proclamation of the human border-situation and the protest against all attempts, through religious expedients, to evade it, even though this evasion be accomplished with the aid of all the richness and depth and breadth of mystical and sacramental piety.

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith. This idea is strange to the man of today and even to Protestant people in the churches; indeed, as I have over and over again had the opportunity to learn, it is so strange to the modern man that there is scarcely any way of making it intelligible to him. And yet this doctrine of justification by faith has divided the old unity of Christendom; has torn asunder Europe, and especially Germany; has made innumerable martyrs; has kindled the bloodiest and most terrible wars of the past; and has deeply affected European history and with it the history of humanity. This whole complex of ideas which for more than a century—not so very long ago—was discussed in every household and workshop, in every market and country inn of Germany, is now scarcely understandable even to our most intelligent scholars. We have here a breaking-down of tradition that has few parallels. And we should not imagine that it will be possible in some simple fashion to leap over this gulf and resume our connection with the Reformation again. It seems to me that the theological attempts which have been made in this direction and which we may subsume under the slogan "the Luther Renaissance," have more significance in their academic aspects than in their effect upon the contemporary religious situation. There is in the educated groups a complete alienation from Luther and in the proletariat a determined hostility to him. Hence, what we should do is to discover anew the reality which was apprehended in that earlier day and which is the same today, and then present it in new terms to the man of today. For this reason, then, we speak of the boundary-situation of man and assert that those struggles which at one time split a continent in two, so far from being struggles about backwoods problems, as Nietzsche says of Luther’s efforts, were struggles bearing upon the human problem in general, the problem of the human boundary-situation.

The human boundary-situation is encountered when human possibility reaches its limit, when human existence is confronted by an ultimate threat. This is not the case in death. Death may, to be sure, point toward the boundary-situation; but it does not do so necessarily, and death is not itself the boundary-situation. This is the reason that we feel death cannot give release from despair. The spiritual cleavage that is experienced in despair is not eliminated with the cessation of bodily existence. The boundary-situation that is encountered in despair, threatens man on another level than that of bodily existence. Anyone who knows the threat that lurks in the roots of his own being knows that the idea of death brings no relief. He knows that he may, so to speak, take despair into death with him. This is true, regardless of how he thinks about "after death" or regardless of whether he thinks of it at all.

The border-situation of man is possible because he is not identical with his vital existence. It is possible because man as man stands above his vital existence, because he has in a sense broken away from his vital existence. To be a man involves this transcending of vital existence, the freedom from himself, the freedom to say "Yes" or "No" to his vital existence. This freedom, which is an essential part of him and from which he cannot escape, carries with it the fact that he is radically threatened. Man is in a genuine sense the threatened creature because he is not bound to his vital existence, because he can say "Yes" and "No" to it. This is manifest in the fact that man can raise the question of the true and that he can demand the fulfillment of the good. Anyone who raises a question about true reality is in some way separated from reality; whoever makes a demand upon reality presupposes that it is not at hand. Man must raise the question, however, and must make the demand; he cannot escape this fate, that is, the fate of being man. If he did not wish to raise the question, his not doing it would itself be an answer to the question. If he did not choose to make a demand, his not making it would be obedience to a demand. Man always acts, even when inaction is the content of his action. And man always makes his decisions in the exercise of his freedom, even when the escape from freedom is the content of his decision. This inevitability of freedom, of having to make decisions, creates the deep restlessness of our existence; through it our existence is threatened.

The inescapable element in freedom would not be a threat to us if it ultimately made no difference for our existence which way we decide. To live in freedom, however, means that it is not a matter of indifference; it means that we must accept the unconditional demand to realize the true and to actualize the good. If this demand is not fulfilled—and it is not—our existence is driven into discord, into the hidden agony that infects all life, and even death cannot free us from it. Wherever this situation is experienced in its unconditional and inescapable character, the human border-situation is encountered. The point at which not-being in the ultimate sense threatens us is the boundary line of all human possibility, the human border-situation.

The seriousness of the human situation can, to be sure, be covered over or weakened by our relying upon truth that we have already achieved or upon demands already fulfilled, thus evading the unconditional threat. This is a possibility that is always present; in one way or another all of us try to make this escape. Absolute seriousness can be attributed only to the man who scorns this possibility of escape, who views his whole existence from the point of view of the border-situation, and who knows, therefore, that his existence can at no time and in no way be made secure, neither through his submerging himself in the vital life-process, through intellectual or spiritual activity, through sacraments, through mysticism and asceticism, through right belief or strenuous piety, nor through anything that belongs to the mundane substance of religion. The seriousness and force of Old Protestantism is evident from the fact that it did not try through priests and church and sacraments to evade the ultimate threat of the border-situation. In contrast to this, mystical-sacramental religion easily gives the impression of lacking seriousness, of presuming to possess a human guaranty against the ultimate threat to everything human. The lesser importance which the Protestant attributes to the church, to the service of worship, and to the religious sphere in general is at bottom bound up with this awareness of living on the boundary, a boundary that involves the limit not only of secular but also of all religious possibilities. Because religion and the church are in themselves no guaranty to the Protestant and must not be allowed to become such, he confronts them with the same independence with which he confronts every other human possibility, not with the proud independence of one who makes himself superior to everything else but rather with the independence of one who finds himself in a situation in which he shares the lot of everything human to be subject to the ultimate threat of not-being. It is not a question of convictions or of the opposition between individual and common conviction; it is rather a question of being and not-being on the deepest level of man’s existence. Perhaps Catholicism is right in thinking that the religious substance is better preserved in an authoritarian community. But certainly Catholicism is wrong in thinking that Protestantism is to be explained as an attempt of the individual to become himself the bearer of the religious substance. It is rather the boundary-situation that is involved, a situation in which the religious substance with all its richness and depth and traditional wisdom is recognized as inadequate if it is supposed to provide security in face of the ultimate threat. On this plane alone is the opposition between the two Christian confessions to be understood, not on the basis of the clash between subjectivism and ecclesiastical allegiance. The choice lies between either the radical acceptance of the boundary-situation or the attempt by means of church and sacrament to secure man against the unconditioned threat.

IV. The Protestant Church and the Human Boundary-Situation

It is clear that a church that stands in this place, or rather at this border line of any and every place, must be something quite different from the churches that refuse to be disturbed in their spiritual possession. Such a church must subject itself to a radical criticism and eliminate everything that diminishes the weight of the border-situation— the sacrament that works magically and thus circumvents the ultimate threat; the mysticism that is supposed to effect immediate unity with the unconditional and thus escape the ultimate threat; the priest-craft that purports to transmit a spiritual guaranty that is not subject to the insecurity of man’s existence; the ecclesiastical authority that claims to be in possession of a truth that no longer stands under the threat of error; the cultus that gives ecstatic fulfillment and veils over the unfulfilled character of the divine demand. It is clear that a church that stands in this position, where not an inch of self-provided security remains, should inevitably tend to become empty of substance, impotent in its social reality, secular because of its surrender of all places, things, men, and actions supposed to be holy in themselves. It is clear that such a church has the tendency in itself to become nothing more than an almost amorphous group of men, of secular men without sacramental quality, through whom from generation to generation the consciousness of the human boundary-situation is transmitted. It is clear that such a church would abandon its own character if it should imitate the sacramental type of churches either in cultus or in priestly authority, in doctrine or in spiritual direction. Where it yields to this temptation, it becomes only a weak imitation of those powerful creations. Its power lies elsewhere. It is the power whose symbol has in the past been the cross, for in the cross humanity experienced the human boundary-situation as never before and never after. In this power—indeed, in this impotence and poverty—the Protestant church will stand so long as it is aware of the meaning of its own existence.

The Protestant church is always in danger of forgetting its meaning. Its greatest downfall has been its claim that it has, by virtue of "pure doctrine," become the invulnerable possessor of the truth. It has not understood that to stand at the boundary means to stand not only in unrighteousness but also in error. It has imagined that it held the truth as though it were a possession encased in the letter of Scripture and properly dispensed in the doctrine of the church. In claiming unambiguously to possess the truth and the pure doctrine, it has denied the boundary-situation and thereby its own meaning and power. And then it came about that, just when it no longer questioned itself, it was questioned from the outside radically and destructively. The autonomous culture has, piece by piece, broken down the assumedly untouchable possession of the church, and the church has been forced into a movement of retreat, in which everything that had seemed to be certain has had to be surrendered. The present situation of the church is such that no part of its old possession is any longer secure. But in this very situation some people in the church have come to realize that its task is not the defense of a religious domain but the proclamation of the boundary-situation in which every secular and religious domain is put in question. The attitude of defense has been abandoned. Attack takes the place of defense; but not with the aim of winning back the lost possession, not in the attitude of a hierarchical will to power (as the talk about "the century of the church" suggests), but rather with the aim of driving to the boundary-situation everything that makes an ultimate claim, cultures as well as religions. The Protestant church does not have the mission to fight in the arena of struggling world views. It must fight from above this level to bring everything under judgment and promise.

If what we have said at the outset is true, namely, that the man of today has an understanding of the ultimate threat to the human situation, he should be able to comprehend the message of the Protestant church, provided that it is presented with reference to this situation. This obviously forbids that the message should be set forth in the terminology of the Reformation or in the ways prevailing in the Protestant church today.

Indeed, the biblical terminology itself, including the term "justification," may become more understandable out of the experience of the boundary-situation. "Righteousness" was the Old Testament word that Paul, and after him Luther, used in order to express the unconditional demand that stands over man as man. Righteousness is something that everyone who has stood in the boundary-situation knows he does not have. He knows that human freedom inescapably involves him in human ambiguity, in that mixture of truth and falsehood, of righteousness and unrighteousness, which all human life exhibits. Luther, the young monk, stood in the depth of this boundary-situation and dared to reject all safeguards that piety and the church wished to extend to him. He remained in it and learned in it that just this and only this is the situation in which the divine "Yes" over the whole of human existence can be received; for this "Yes" is not founded on any human achievement, it is an unconditional and free sovereign judgment from above human possibilities.

This experience of the boundary-situation has been expressed with the help of rabbinical, Roman, and scholastic concepts. The "justification of the unrighteous or of the unbeliever," the "pardon of the guilty," "the absolution of the condemned," "justification without works through faith alone"—these are metaphors, partly questionable and partly no longer intelligible. As more or less adequate terms they do not concern us. But the thing itself which they referred to and which is always real does concern us: the threat to human existence and the "Yes" over it where this threat is recognized.

The man of today is aware of the human ambiguity of which we have spoken. He is aware of the confusion of his inner life, the cleavage in his behavior, the demonic forces in his psychic and social existence. And he senses that not only his being but also his knowing is thrown into confusion, that he lacks ultimate truth, and that he faces, especially in the social life of our day, a conscious, almost demonic, distortion of truth. In this situation in which most of the traditional values and forms of life are disintegrating, he often is driven to the abyss of complete meaninglessness, which is full of both horror and fascination. He also knows that this situation is not the result of a mechanical necessity but of a destiny which implies freedom and guilt. In being aware of all this, the man of today is near the boundary-situation that Protestantism proclaims.

V. The Protestant Message

Now it can be said what the Protestant message for the man of today must be and what it cannot be.

The Protestant message cannot be a direct proclamation of religious truths as they are given in the Bible and in tradition, for the situation of the modern man of today is precisely one of doubt about all this and about the Protestant church itself. The Christian doctrines, even the most central ones—God and Christ, church and revelation—are radically questioned and offer occasion for a continuous fight among theologians as well as among nontheologians. They cannot in this form be the message of the church to our time. So long as the genuine representatives of the Protestant message do not understand this, their work is entirely hopeless in the widest circles and especially among the proletarian masses. It cannot be required of the man of today that he first accept theological truths, even though they should be God and Christ. Wherever the church in its message makes this a primary demand, it does not take seriously the situation of the man of today and has no effective defense against the challenge of many thoughtful men of our day who reject the message of the church as of no concern for them. The modern man might well say to the church, using her own language: "God does not demand that man, in order to experience the unconditional judgment, the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ from above himself, shall first accept a religious tenet about God or shall overcome all doubt concerning him." This sort of legalism lays upon man no less heavy a burden than legalism in morals. The one, like the other, is broken through by the radically conceived doctrine of justification. The profoundest aspect of justification, in our situation and for the man of today, is that we can discern God at the very moment when all known assertions about "God" have lost their power.

The message of the Protestant church must take a threefold form. First, it must insist upon the radical experience of the boundary-situation; it must destroy the secret reservations harbored by the modern man which prevent him from accepting resolutely the limits of his human existence. Among these reservations are the residues of the shattered world views, idealistic and materialistic. The recognition of our situation as indicated by the word "ideology" should alone be a sufficient warning against these doubtful securities. We have learned that philosophical systems often represent the working of subconscious powers, psychological or sociological, which drive in a direction quite different from their conscious meaning. This judgment applies also to the unbroken belief in scientific method as the certain way to truth, which is usually not the attitude of the great scientists but of their half-philosophical popularizers. (Science itself is quite conscious of the crisis of its foundations, in mathematics as well as in physics, in biology as well as in psychology.) This judgment applies also to the pedagogical claim to transform society and to shape personalities. It has become abundantly clear that education as a method presupposes a content, a spiritual substance, to which it must introduce people but which it cannot itself create. The judgment applies to the political creeds, whether they glorify a past tradition or a coming utopia, whether they believe in revolution or reaction or progress. The old traditions have disintegrated; the process has been replaced by horrible relapses; and the utopias have created continuous mass disappointments. The judgment applies to the nationalistic ideologies whose demonic implications have become more and more visible, and it applies to the cosmopolitan superstructure which is envisaged either by pacifistic idealism or by imperialistic will to power. It applies to the recent attempts of all forms of therapeutic psychology to form secure personalities by technical methods which, in spite of their profundity and revolutionary power, are unable to give a spiritual center and ultimate meaning to life. It applies to the widespread activistic flight into job, profession, economic competition, humanitarian activity, as means of escaping the threat of the boundary-situation. The judgment applies to the neoreligious movements offering spiritual security, such as the new forms of mysticism and occultism, will-therapy, etc., which, whatever their merits may be, tend to hide the seriousness of the boundary-situation and to create fanaticism and arrogance. And, finally, the Protestant message should unveil the last, most refined, and most intellectual security of the modern man when he aesthetically dramatizes his shattered state; when, Narcissus-like, he contemplates himself in this situation as in a mirror, sometimes tragically; when he, thus, artfully but self-destructively protects himself from the experience of the boundary-situation. Against all this stands the Protestant message; this is its first function.

Second, the Protestant church must pronounce the "Yes" that comes to man in the boundary-situation when he takes it upon himself in its ultimate seriousness. Protestantism must proclaim the judgment that brings assurance by depriving us of all security; the judgment that declares us whole in the disintegration and cleavage of soul and community; the judgment that affirms our having truth in the very absence of truth (even of religious truth); the judgment that reveals the meaning of our life in the situation in which all the meaning of life has disappeared. This is the pith and essence of the Protestant message, and it must be guarded as such; it ought not to be changed into a new doctrine or devotional method or become a scheme that is used in every sermon; it should not be made into a new form of security—a form that would be an especially disastrous one. It must remain the depth and background of all our pronouncements; it must be the quality that gives to the message its truth and power.

Third, Protestantism must witness to the "New Being" through which alone it is able to say its word in power, and it must do this without making this witness again the basis of a wrong security. The New Being, which for Christian faith is manifest in Jesus as the Christ, is effective in the life of the individual personality as well as in the life of the community, and it is not even excluded from nature, as is indicated by the sacraments. To live out of the power of this New Being is the richness of Protestantism which is the correlate to its poverty; for, just because the Protestant principle, the message of the boundary-situation, breaks down all absolute boundaries before the judgment to which everything is subject, Protestantism can be open for everything, religious and secular, past and future, individual and social. All these differences are transcended through the power of the New Being, which works in all of them, breaking through their exclusiveness and separation. Culture is not subjected to religion, nor is religion dissolved in culture. Protestantism neither devaluates nor idealizes culture. It tries to understand its religious substance, its spiritual foundation, its "theonomous" nature. And Protestantism neither idealizes nor devaluates religion. It tries to interpret religion as the direct, intentional expression of the spiritual substance which in the cultural forms is presented indirectly and unintentionally. In this way the Protestant principle denies to the church a holy sphere as its separate possession, and it denies to culture a secular sphere that can escape the judgment of the boundary-situation.

This attitude of Protestantism toward church and culture implies the answer to the questions: Where is Protestantism to be found? Who proclaims the Protestant principle? The answer is: Protestantism lives wherever, in the power of the New Being, the boundary-situation is preached, its "No" and "Yes" are proclaimed. It is there and nowhere else. Protestantism may live in the organized Protestant churches. But it is not bound to them. Perhaps more men of today have experienced the boundary-situation outside than inside the churches. The Protestant principle may be proclaimed by movements that are neither ecclesiastical nor secular but belong to both spheres, by groups and individuals who, with or without Christian and Protestant symbols, express the true human situation in face of the ultimate and unconditional. If they do it better and with more authority than the official churches, then they and not the churches represent Protestantism for the man of today.

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