The Problem of Pietism

We must overcome an overemphasis on religion as orthodoxy assenting to true doctrines while also resisting the reduction of our religion to feelings and activism.

(Image: thom masat |

Working recently on some issues in Mariology and Christology, I was struck by how little about Mary and Jesus Christ I’m hearing nowadays from Catholics, whether from ranking clergy through the media, or on the ground in my circles. We’re preoccupied with politics in Church and State and cultural issues as well. Seldom am I hearing straight talk about God and his economy of salvation (the homilies the priests at my parish deliver being a good exception). Maybe it’s my inner Augustinian, but it seems our souls are being weighed down by the concerns of earth when they ought to be focused on the things of heaven.

Orthodoxy, pietism, and liberalism

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s as if contemporary Catholic concerns for the things of earth—establishing a just order; advocating for peace and the dignity of the person; being the leaven and salt that makes life in this valley of tears a little more bearable for our fellow men and women; but sometimes also the skulduggery of ecclesial politics and our relationship to political and economic power—is following a pattern other Christian bodies progressed through in modernity: the pattern of orthodoxy, pietism, and liberalism.

Coming out of the confessional struggles of the Reformation, many bodies focused on doctrine and defined themselves by orthodoxy, here understood as right beliefs about God. Religion was thought to concern right doctrine, and so Confessions were written (like the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Reformed First and Second Helvetic Confessions, or the Schleitheim Confession of the radical wing of the Reformation—“Anabaptist” is now a term out of favor) and catechisms issued (like Luther’s Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Roman Catechism). Various bodies proclaimed their doctrines in Confessions, and taught that doctrine to their people (especially children) in catechisms.

The effect was to make religion a matter of the head, as doctrine-as-cognitive-propositional-content defined western European versions of the Christian faith. The risk is that the faith becomes a mere matter of intellectual assent to verbal formulations of Christian teaching, and if one simply assents to doctrines as statements divorced from the rest of life, one can be left in the position of the demons, who also assent to the proposition that God is one (James 2:19).

Are there people who affirm the truths of some version of Christian faith but for whom those truths make little difference? In my experience, yes. Some extreme examples would include some of my Christian friends in high school who engaged in immoral and dissolute acts and told me it was OK because they believed Jesus was Lord, and that’s all it took to be a Christian. In a less extreme manner, we could think about how our actions and interior lives may not perfectly reflect what we affirm each week by our participation in Holy Mass and our recitation of the Nicene Creed.

Back to history: another effect of orthodoxy was interconfessional polemics and, all too frequently, violence. Often we think of the post-Reformation period in a binary way, with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other, but those who study the history know that Lutherans, Calvinists, and members of the Radical Reformation also defined themselves over and against each other with extreme polemical vigor. Luther had no time for those, like Ulrich Zwingli, who disagreed with him on important matters like the Lord’s Supper. (Upon hearing of Zwingli’s death, Luther opined that he was likely in Hell.) Later Lutherans in Calvinist Geneva weren’t permitted to have a church building there until 1766 (apparently German Lutheran merchants’ love of dancing, drinking, and cards proved a serious issue in the eyes of then-sober Calvinists). And Christians of the Radical Reformation were often drowned by Protestant Christian authorities in mockery of their practice of adult baptism.

The Pietist movement

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a reaction against this view of religion as confessional orthodoxy in the Lutheran world in the form of the Pietist movement. Led by Philipp Jakob Spener, the “Father of Pietism,” author of Pia desideria (“Pious Desires”), and founder of the University of Halle, the Pietists emphasized personal devotion, morality, and religious experience. Whereas orthodox Lutheranism followed Luther’s lead in severing justification and sanctification, with the result that efforts at personal prayer and morality are seen as efforts and thus vain attempts at the self-justification of works-righteousness, the pietists originally sought unity of doctrine and practice, head and heart.

The Pietists were no fringe fundamentalists, but real players in European life, from religion to politics to culture (and given how European societies generally don’t operate with a separation of Church and State, it’s not surprising). And they have left an enduring legacy in biblical studies, in education, in the practice of the Christian religion, and in history in general, as many credit their focus on the individual (with its roots in Luther) for generating and furthering the Enlightenment—Immanuel Kant was raised a strict pietist, after all.

It’s hard to hold head and heart together, however, and reactions often lose the center they’re trying to hold as they overcorrect. And so pietism devolved into liberalism; the recovery of the heart came at the expense of the head—or, better, the focus on experience came to dominate doctrine, and in the situation of the Enlightenment that meant later Protestant theologians felt free to use the category of experience and new critical methods of biblical studies to recast historic Christian doctrine. The truth became flexible.

The great example of this is the pietist theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, an intellectual luminary of the early nineteenth century. Schleiermacher (whose name means “veil-maker,” something Nietzsche thought rather funny) famously relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix and questioned its relevance for modern Christians. Why? For Schleiermacher, the essence of religion consists in God-consciousness, a “feeling of absolute dependence” on God, and Jesus differed from us only in degree, not kind: he had the highest amount of God-consciousness and dependence ever found among mortals. Whereas St. Augustine speculated the Trinity might be traced in the human mind, Schleiermacher maintained that the Trinity, even if it were the truth of God’s nature, would not have any point of purchase in consciousness.

From pietism to liberalism

And so pietism paves the way for liberalism. Once doctrine becomes secondary and malleable, experience and culture come to the fore as categories for grounding theological reflection. Liberal theology is grounded in human experience and seeks accommodation to the dominant culture. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries liberal theology was happy to present a Jesus teaching ethics congenial to modern European interests, hence Albert Schweitzer’s famous line that when writing books on Jesus a lot of scholars and historians were merely looking down the well of history and seeing their own reflection there. In our own day liberal theology constructs an image of God based on the experiences and cultures of various identity groups (as womanist, queer, and postcolonialist theologians happily affirm).

I think American fundamentalists progressed through this pattern in the twentieth century. In the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the fundamentalists doubled down on cognitive propositional doctrine and used the Bible as their catechism, while being largely estranged from the dominant American culture and the halls of power. But during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, many fundamentalists morphed into evangelicals as they sought to engage culture and sought more experiential expressions of faith, such as in the charismatic and pentecostal movements. Bible studies became youth groups, and Scripture was often replaced with good times.

In short, fundamentalists who became evangelicals became pietists. Jimmy Carter, an evangelical, got elected president, while politically conservative evangelicals rallied to pro-life, pro-family causes with the Moral Majority and similar movements. In either case came a major reengagement with politics and culture. Here too, however, pietism can be seen devolving into liberalism in our own day, as surveys and stories reveal younger evangelicals are much more progressive than their parents on issues of sexual morality and social justice with little knowledge of or concern for historic doctrine.

Something similar happens in the Catholic world, as the prewar Catholic Church took its cues from Trent, and as American Catholics were taught from the Baltimore Catechism. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, experience came to the fore, as much religious education surrendered traditional catechetics for engagement of students’ experiences of their particular encounters with what might be divine. And of course many Catholic theologians are proud progressives, rooting their work not in objective revelation mediated in Scripture and Tradition but in culture and experience.

Now pietism isn’t merely a historical movement, but also now a philosophy of religion. And it is a problem. In starting from experience, it can sell short the objective truths of the Catholic Faith, and at best estranges pastoral practice from doctrine while at worst seeing even God as subject to change. That’s why we are encountering calls in the Western Church to change our understanding and practice regarding holy orders, of human sexuality, and myriad other things. (Exhibit A, from Germany.)

As such, pietism can be overly utilitarian and pragmatic. In seeking accommodation to culture—that is, to the ways and wisdom of the world—it loses sight of God’s Truth and sees other truths as determinant. Having determined its goods and goals on contemporary grounds, it then seeks the most practical, useful ways to meet those goals. Pietism becomes liberalism: a matter of process seeking change in the churches in accord with the changing goods of society.

Another problem is that Christians have different personalities. Not all are given over to outward expressions of heartfelt piety even while they have deep faith and knowledge of God. Karl Rahner—who I suppose could be considered a pietist, even though he regarded pietism as exclusively Protestant—once said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or simply will not be.” That’s certainly within the spirit of pietism, but the problem is that mysticism is difficult for many. We should all attempt to engage in meditative and contemplative prayer, but different personalities gravitate towards different spiritualities. Carmelites are not Benedictines, and Dominicans are not Jesuits, and Franciscans are not Augustinians. Mysticism, above all, is a divine gift, and as such shouldn’t be expected of all.

The inadequacy of pietism

Pietism, then, is too truncated to serve as an adequate philosophy of religion for Catholics. The solution is to recover the Catholic Faith and the unity of the Faith and Catholic practice, to have a more adequate, more capacious philosophy of religion. Put another way, Catholicism itself determines our philosophy of religion. That means overcoming an overemphasis on religion as orthodoxy assenting to true doctrines (where that still exists), but it also means resisting the reduction of our religion to feelings and activism and instead rooting it in the Triune God. Here we might note that it’s ironic that liberals who would distance doctrine and pastoral practice have the same crabbed checkbox mentality as the caricature of the orthodox they disdain.

As head of the CDF, in 1998 Joseph Ratzinger published a piece concerning the situation of the divorced and remarried. He closed with these words: “A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth. In the end, only the truth can be pastoral. ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32).” Those who would separate doctrine and pastoral care or somehow subvert orthodoxy to orthopraxy have an impoverished view of each. For in Catholicism, knowledge and love are intrinsically related, as the God who is love is to be known and loved. The Prologue to the Catechism (25) draws on the old Roman Catechism in putting it this way:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love.

Later, the Catechism (356) returns to the pairing of knowledge and love:

Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator” [Gaudiem et spes 12.3]. He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” [Gaudiem et spes 24.3], and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity[.]

Our love of God will drive us to know him better, and our knowledge of God will drive us to love him better. Rooted head and heart in the Triune God, we will then be in a proper position to do what the Church is called to do: to love and serve our neighbors, truly, in Truth.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).


  1. An intellectual Journey into Pietism. “Pietists emphasized personal devotion, morality, and religious experience”, which as starting point is fine. Difficulty becomes distancing “head from heart”. Since that distancing good premises devolved into Liberalism finally what I perceive as Sentimentalism. The latter in Catholicism is evident in Josef Fuchs SJ differentiating “Soteriological love of the Redeemer from the Natural Law of the Creator Word” (Fuchs in Natural Law). Here “Heart is separate from head”. And evident in Pope Francis’ denial of Eternal Hell, because “God is not a torturer”. Many myself included, Bishop Robert Barron have difficulty with Eternal excruciating punishment. The good Bishop wonders aloud “If God’s mercy could somehow seep its way into Hell” words to that effect. I wake at night anxiously and turn to prayer for conversions. Is that Sentimentalism? How can I fully comprehend the immensity of sin compared to the infinite good that is God and subsequent fury of Divine Justice? I can’t and rely on faith to compliment my understanding. And sentiment (the closer we approach God the more rational certain truths appear). My question to Dr Huizenga is the why to the distancing of “heart from head” in Lutheran Pietism. Ratzinger as quoted apparently had it right since “In Catholicism, knowledge and love are intrinsically related, as the God who is love is to be known and loved” (CCC). Apparently Lutheranism never firmly established that nexus and thru the centuries unable to accommodate reality turned to sentiment. Kierkegaard and religious existentialism. Finally the author who began the Journey with why Catholics rarely mention Mary (or Jesus) offers a solution, that love of God enables us to know him better and visa versa. I prefer Saint Anselm’s prayer, “Lord help me to love you that I may know you and to know you that I may love you”. The reason is the invocation of prayer made in humility and faith clearly acknowledges the source of both (probably implied by author Huizenga).

  2. A great follow up article might be titled “The Problem of Apostasy.” This is where we are now. And not just in matters of sexual morality and marriage.

    Catholics have polled poorly with regard to the Real Presence. How would they poll in 2019 with regard to belief in the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, heaven and hell? If God wills. not simply according to His permissive will, the diversity of religions…it makes sense now why the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was “boring” and had to go and not just “go” but be disparaged, attacked and even mocked and laughed at. Jesuits and others would then read von Balthazar in the original linguistically challenging German and be enlivened by his “hits” on St. Thomas, St. Augustine etc. and his fondness for Origen…he had so much more to offer the average Catholic? or more to offer bored Jesuits? than a dry catechism with a simplified Thomistic base. Wasn’t that fair though since St. Thomas dished out his own “hits?” Well, the Saint’s were pretty fair ones. There’s not enough time here but ironically really and more of a “hit man” than Aristotle on Plato and others, The Straw Man Arguments Award goes to Hans Urs von Balthazar…even when he KNOWS the target does not believe or teach X, Y or Z. Google it! This explains his popularity (or I dare say his more portable “application”) in circles where straw man arguments are de rigueur…all these “rigid Catholics” and “Too much talk about abortion from the pulpits..” You can’t make this stuff up.

    Here, my friends, is catering to the intellectual, spiritual tastes of high IQ priests and religious in positions of authority and in formation that NEVER got or gets labeled as “clericalism” or “elitism” or “careerism” but sold as ultimately “progressive” and “pastoral.” We can talk about ‘the problem with pietism.” But how about within that same discussion (more devotees) “the problem with phenomenology?” We haven’t even started on “social justice.”

    What is being lost in all of this? The homosexual scandal? No. There is too little talk about the money the greedy traitors of the Church starting at the top and across the world are being given, yes, just like Judas, to set up a false church serving a purely secularist, globalist agenda..Antichrist…where “salvation” is being every day disregarded, redefined.

    And yes, the facilitation of this starts at the top, not just in the “social programs” and concerns about “open borders” in the American USCBB or in increasingly post-European Europe or the “merciful” yet “pay-the-tax” German State Catholic Church, Inc. or recent “deals with China” starts right at the top with Bergoglio.

    Most of the hierarchy does not care about “making converts,” the “Great Commission,” the number of vocations or even filling the pews…it’s about getting “funding.”

    Where would most of the hierarchy sustain the same kind of provided-for, traveling-around-the-world with photo ops style of living? In what other job context would most if not all of these “progressive” members of the hierarchy be taken with a sort of default “seriously?”

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

  3. This is the study which I’ve needed to read: about the reconciliation of the head and the heart in light of faithful Catholicism today. I’ve been trying to formulate these ideas for myself, but haven’t been able to express them because I don’t have theological training or thorough knowledge of the historical context. I will take notes and work with the essay until I’ve made it entirely accessible in my thoughts. Thank God, and thank you, Dr. Huizenga!

  4. It seems like you are saying that religion became ‘a matter of the head’ as an immediate consequence of the Reformation, but I don’t see how this squares with the next fact you cite — that Western Europeans spent the next 200 or so years killing each other because of disagreements about doctrine. How does something that is simply a matter of the head inspire centuries of mutual persecution and war?

    Are you perhaps reading the modern prejudice against war (and violence in general) backward into history here? Something like this: War is evil, and these men fought wars ostensibly for religious motivations, but that’s a contradiction in terms, therefore they weren’t really religious in any meaningful sense of the word… but they obviously made a big deal about orthodoxy and doctrine; therefore religion was purely a matter of the head for them.

    This only makes sense if war and religious persecution are indeed evil, plain and simple–but I suspect the men of the 16th and 17th centuries were still pre-modern enough in their sensibilities to think otherwise.

    • Ben, the simple answer to your question is that people kill and die for ideas, for convictions. So maybe it’s ironic that many (say) Lutherans would kill and die for Luther’s theology, when it didn’t always make a difference in how they lived. I don’t see that as hard to see in history as such and theological history in particular.

  5. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

    We can too easily reduce “the problem of pietism” to a “heart and mind” balancing act. This is the contemporary corporate workshop where “Work/Life Balance” is discussed or various articles in Psychology Today, the health segment on local news.

    The real “problem of pietism” is that it is essentially a voluntarist position the trajectory of which is not simply “liberalism” but on a sunny day various declarations and validations of “anonymous Christianity” (Rahner) and not simply “liberalism” but functional if not outright atheism (check out historically Protestant Europe).

    I would dare say Bergoglio is a voluntarist and a pietist…on a sunny day.

  6. This isn’t an article, it is a course. Thank you for this contribution – very illuminating and much appreciated.
    What caught my attention was the initial statement “…how little about Mary and Jesus Christ I’m hearing nowadays…” Locally I can say this has been in place for quite some time, although during the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict not globally. There was a decidedly Christocentric orientation with both of them.
    During the Bergoglian captivity it has become nothing less than bizarre. There are the pious asides, the soccer balls at St. Mary Major, the Untier of Knots fetish, the sleepy St. Joseph… I can’t recall anything of significance he has uttered about Christ except in his social justice disorientation.
    But what is most troubling outside of the Bergoglian context is how commonly when our Lord is referred to, He is simply referred to as simply as Jesus [nothing wrong there when uttered with profound respect, with devotion for a professed Christian] – but “Jesus Christ” and “Christ” have almost fallen into disuse, as has “our Lord.” This is symptomatic of a crumbling of perennial Christology and ultimately its abandonment. As a boy we were taught to always capitalize the first letter of a pronoun when referring to God the Father, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit. How often does one ever see a capital “H” when referring to Him anymore – even in scriptural translations, catechetical works, theological writings? Who would have thought we would be where we are today sixty years ago, even twenty?
    We are witnessing the systematic deconstruction of Catholicism, and indeed of all Christian expression at the hands of those entrusted with the Christian proclamation. Bergoglio is only one of the legion. Our problem goes way beyond the current headlines, it might best be described as the absorption academic nihilism by conciliar Catholicism following in ecumenical sympathy the current of the other Christian confessions. We simply have to cast aside our self-deception and recognize that an enormous proportion of the episcopate, the clergy class, those in religious profession and in academic theology have abandoned supernatural faith. Catholicism has become for them a step, historically and personally, into the realization of a homogenized global think tank with some transcendental and ethical concerns. It’s the new paradigm characterized accurately by Thomas Rosica’s estimation of Pope Bergoglio who, “…breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’ Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”
    Licentiousness is not the problem, it is the merely one of the symptoms of the abandonment of the perennial Magisterium of Christ’s Church – Catholicism – which is the penultimate expression of God’s only revelation, first to the Jewish people, then the world in Jesus Christ, the Messianic promise fulfilled. There is no other supernatural revelation, no other Theophany.

  7. If I understood Dr. Huizenga’s argument correctly: due to the orthodox battles during the Protestant and Catholic debates of the 1500s and 1600s, which resulted in the publications of various catechisms, the reaction was Pietism – emphasizing the heart against the head, out of which flowed liberalism – subjectivism.
    If that is correct, the article overly simplifies the problem and makes some false statements. Finally, I would contend that the answer is not too much orthodoxy but rather just the opposite it is heterodoxy which is the opposite of orthodoxy.

    One of the errors of modern Catholics is to equate mysticism with a certain spirituality; however, that is not mysticism in the tradition of the Church in the East or West as evidenced in the first 1000 years. (for example the Benedictines and later the Cistercians never saw themselves as developing a certain spirituality; and for that matter neither did St. Francis). The various spiritualities, those listed and many others, are distinct from the Liturgy which is the Prayer of the Church and is the most real and authentic Mysticism – the Liturgy is Mystical Prayer.

    In the first thousand years of the Church whether in the East or the West – mysticism is rooted in the very word – mystery. The objective of life is to participate in the Life of God. That is true mysticism. It is a universal call and every baptized person is able to experience the life of the Triune God. The place of that experience is first and foremost in the Liturgy, itself which is not a spirituality. One of the great errors of the various spiritualities that have entered in the life of the Church over the last five to six hundred years, especially with the Jesuits and those congregations that formed after the Council of Trent is to atomize the spiritual life of the Church. One of the noble endeavors of the Liturgical Movement before the Second Vatican Council was to remind the Faithful that each baptized person is called to participate in the very life of God, the Kingdom and new creation. That is authentic Mysticism and the Liturgy is the closest one gets to that experience on earth because the earthly liturgy is a participation in the one eternal Liturgy. The Liturgy itself culminates in the reception of Holy Communion – the holy, mystical union between God and His Church!

    Finally a comment about the quote: “That means overcoming an overemphasis on religion as orthodoxy assenting to true doctrines (where that still exists), but it also means resisting the reduction of our religion to feelings and activism and instead rooting it in the Triune God.”

    The truth be told, one cannot be too orthodox. Someone either thinks rightly about God, the Trinity, the Incarnation or he does not – at which point one falls into heresy. The false dichotomy between ortho-doxy and ortho-praxy – head and heart – or what Benedict XVI described as too many Christians living as atheists, is rooted in a rejection of an orthodox teaching of the Faith, whether it is Arianism, Nestorianism. Adoptionism, Monotheletism, Docetism, Pelagianism etc. There are no new heresies, they only have new names to paraphrase Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.

    The problem IS the downplaying or removal of orthodox thinking. How one thinks about God: the Father, Son and Holy will shape the Liturgy and how one thinks about God and worships the One and Triune God will shape his or her daily actions.
    Father Marc

    • Yup Fr. Marc, Your last few lines explains the crisis in the Church exceedingly well, me thinks.

      TO WIT: “The truth be told, one cannot be too orthodox. Someone either thinks rightly about God, the Trinity, the Incarnation or he does not – at which point one falls into heresy. The problem IS the downplaying or removal of orthodox thinking.”

      Very, very, very well put.

  8. Let us remember that Piety is a gift that comes from the Holy Ghost. It is a gift that places us in the right disposition to learn of God and to love Him. I learned this as a Traditionalist. What we see today is a sort of tower of Babal, everyone thinks his own way, and his way is of course always the right way. This is the condemned Modernist Heresy a heresy that has so permeated the Church. It can truly be called, as others have called it, a trainwreck. Today the leader of the trainwreck is Francis and there is nothing we can do because Francis holds the title of Pope. That title he uses for his mental destructive disorder. He has so attacked Traditionalists because he knows they are the cradle of Truth, something he seems to dislike very much. If Francis were a Bishop the Church would have already taken him and done away with him and his heresies along with his schisms. May the true Piety of Catholics grow and bear much fruit.

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