Christos Yannaras: Did God Choose to Exist?

“Man has been endowed by God with the gift of being a person, with personhood, which is to exist in the same mode in which God exists” (Elements of Faith, p. 58). At first glance this statement seems uncontroversial. Personalism of one sort or another has dominated Western philosophy and theology for decades and in some circles for centuries (see, e.g., Hans Urs von Balthasar, “On the Concept of Person“; Thomas Williams, “What is Thomistic Personalism?“; Wolfhart Pannenberg’s encyclopedia article on “person”; and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). One could argue that the divine personhood reassumed center stage in the Western Church five hundred years ago in the preaching and commentaries of Martin Luther. Eschewing the metaphysical categories of the schoolmen, Luther vividly declared the living God who speaks, promises, judges, and elects. The human being does not exist as self-contained substance but as the Imago Dei dialogically constituted by the eternal Word. Or as Robert W. Jenson puts it: “Because God speaks with us, we know he is personal. As we answer him, we too are personal” (Systematic Theology, II:95).

It’s difficult to know where to place Christos Yannaras within this tradition (but see “The Early Development of the Thought of Christos Yannaras” and R. D. Williams, “The Theology of Personhood“). We may also question Yannaras’s contention, relying on John Zizioulas’s reading of the Cappadocians, that he is merely articulating in contemporary idiom the personalism of the Church Fathers. A growing number of patristic scholars have vigorously criticized Zizioulas and others on this point (see, e.g., John Behr, “Personal Being and Freedom“; Lucian Turcescu, “‘Person’ versus ‘Individual’“; also see Michel Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology” and “DeRegnon Reconsidered“). But while Yannaras should probably be considered very much a modern philosopher, this in no way diminishes his importance, nor should it lead us to overlook his proposal. We must reflect a bit more on his claim that to be person is to exist in a divine mode:

God is God since he is a Person, that is since his Existence does not depend on anything, not even his Nature or Essence. As a Person—that is freely—he constitutes His Essence or Nature; it is not his Nature or Essence which makes his Existence obligatory. He exists, since he freely wills to exist, and this willing is actualized as love, as a triadic communion. Therefore, God is love (1 Jn 4.16), his own Being is love.

And God has imprinted this same possibility of personal existence on human nature. Human nature is created, a given; it is not the personal freedom of man which constitutes his being, which makes up his essence or nature. But this created nature exists only as a personal hypostasis of life; each one is a personal existence which can hypostasize life as love, that is as freedom from the limitations of his created nature, as freedom from every necessity—just like the uncreated God.

Still more schematically: God is a Nature and three Persons; man is a nature and “innumerable” persons. God is consubstantial and in three hypostases, man is consubstantial and in innumerable hypostases. The difference of natures, the difference of uncreated and created, can be transcended at the level of the common mode of existence, the mode of personal existence—and this truth has been revealed to us by the incarnation of God, by the Person of Jesus Christ. For man to be an image of God means that each one can realize his existence as Christ realizes life as love, as freedom and not as natural necessity. Each can realize his existence as a person, like the Persons of the triadic Divinity. Consequently, man can realize his existence as eternity and incorruptibility, just as the divine life of triadic co-inherence and communion is eternal and incorruptible. (p. 59)

Question: Is Yannaras attributing the word “person” univocally to God and humanity? Yes, I think he is. Does “person” mean the same thing when applied to God as when applied to mankind? Yes, I think for Yannaras it does. I have yet to come across a passage which expresses an apophatic or analogical qualification of the word. Why is this important? Because if it is being used univocally, then it comprehends divinity and human beings within a single category or class. I do not know if this is significant or not—some would suggest that it compromises the divine transcendence and reduces God to a being—but it does entail the oddity that on this point St Thomas Aquinas ends up being more apophatic than a Greek Orthodox philosopher. I’m confident that Aquinas would identify the attribution of personhood to the Creator as a form of analogical, not univocal, speech. We appropriately call God “good,” “loving,” “wise,” “just”; but we do not presently know what these words mean when applied to God. We will only achieve understanding when we come to share in the divine self-knowledge in the beatific vision (see Gregory Rocca, Speaking the Incomprehensible God). But perhaps one might argue that the iconicity of humanity authorizes the univocity of our language for God, at least as it pertains to personhood.

In its philosophical form, classical theism has typically taken as its starting point the cosmological contuition of deity: if the world is finite and radically contingent, then how should we characterize the One who brought it into being? On this basis it deduces the divine attributes—self-existence, incomprehensibility, immutability, aseity, infinitude, simplicity, omnipotence, and so forth. Yannaras, on the other hand, begins with the foundational biblical-doxological-ecclesial apprehension of God as personal: because God is person, he is God. Personhood is divinity. The divine attributes are thus ways of speaking of the divine personality: God is self-existent because he freely wills himself to exist. God is eternal because he “constitutes the beginning and end (purpose) of his Being” (p. 35). God is uncreated because he is “an Ego of existential self-consciousness free from any predetermination” (p. 35). God is infinite because “the personal mode of his existence is the continuous community of love” that freely wills to communicate itself in “uninterrupted closeness” (pp. 35-36).

Yannaras’s existential approach has an immediate attractiveness and plausibility. It connects us to the biblical narrative and the trinitarian experience of the Church. But I stumble when he talks about God choosing to exist. I have no idea what this means. I understand why his commitment to absolute freedom within his personalist framework compels Yannaras to make this claim—its negation would imply that God is trapped in an existence from which he cannot liberate himself—but it still feels to me like a misstep flowing from his rejection of the older metaphysical tradition. Did any of the Church Fathers say such a thing?

(Go to “The Fall of Humanity“)

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19 Responses to Christos Yannaras: Did God Choose to Exist?

  1. Okay, here’s my question…if God can choose to exist, what would happen if he chose not to exist?

    Perhaps I should stop reading your articles from now on until I’ve taken my metaphysics class.


  2. tryphonas says:

    Did any of the Church Fathers say such a thing? I wish I knew the answer to that. Does Yannaras anywhere say that God (the Father) chooses to exist of Himself? Or does he only say that the Father wills the Son and Spirit–yet He wills them outside of time/from eternity.

    To put it a different way, I don’t think that Yannaras makes the claim that the Father chooses to exist and at another point chooses to hypostasize his essence into the Son and Spirit. Rather, the Father, in freedom, from before all time, begets the Son and makes the Spirit to proceed. And this is how Yannaras defines God as love in the above excerpt. God is love because he is Trinity. I’ve had a difficult time wrapping my head around what Yannaras means by God’s freedom. I think he uses the language of freedom to describe God’s existence because he places it in opposition to any kind of necessary determination of God’s being. If we reject the idea that God is subject to necessity, then how else might we approach describing God’s being?

    And as for his univocal application of the term “person” to God and humanity, I just want to point something out. Yannaras defines apophaticsim as “the denial that we can exhaust the truth in its expression, a denial that we can identify the knowledge of truth simply with an understanding of its declamatory logic” (Orthodoxy and the West, p. 25). He also says, “the language of ecclesial communion merely signifies empirical knowledge. It refers to it; it does not replace it. The understanding of the signifiers does not also entail knowledge of what is signified” (Against Religion, p. 38). I’m not sure if this differs from Aquinas’ definition of apophaticism, which I’m sure you are much more familiar with than I am.

    So it seems to me that Yannaras may employ the word “person” univocally in reference to humans and God not necessarily because he is breaking with Orthodox apophatic tradition, but because apophaticism, according to Yannaras, is a method of coming to know the truth empirically, or through experience that is shared in and verified by a community. And within the communion of the Church, especially in the liturgy, we come to know/experience God as “person.” At least, I think is what Yannaras might say. I’m still processing all this, so I hope what I’ve said makes sense.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, tryphonas. Welcome.

      Take a look at the first paragraph of the long citation. You’ll see that Yannaras explicitly states: “As a Person—that is freely—he constitutes His Essence or Nature; it is not his Nature or Essence which makes his Existence obligatory. He exists, since he freely wills to exist, and this willing is actualized as love, as a triadic communion.” Earlier in the book he writes: “God is not obliged by his Essence to be God; he is not subject to the necessity of his existence” (p. 35). Assuming that the translator has accurately rendered the original Greek, it sure sounds to me that Yannaras is saying that God “chooses” to exist (in this context I mean “choose” as synonymous to “will”). I imagine that Yannaras does not want us to understand this as a temporal choice; but once we invoke this apophatic qualification (which I cannot recall him doing), I’m still stuck trying to understand what it means. Of course, that I do not or cannot understand what it means is neither here nor there (there are lots of stuff I don’t understand which are nonetheless true); but I still find it odd.

      Consider, on the other hand, this statement from David B. Hart:

      Another venerable way of formulating the difference between God’s being from ours is to say that, whereas our being is wholly contingent, his is “necessary.” … In the simplest sense, what this means is that God’s nature is such that he quite simply cannot not be; his being does not admit of the possibility of nonbeing, as ours must, but transcends that distinction between potentiality and actuality that grants us our finite identities. He is not just something actual, but actuality itself, the uncaused source and ground by which finite actuality and finite potentiality alike are created and sustained (for, without him, nothing is even possible. (The Experience of God, pp. 109-110).

      I find this a more satisfactory and helpful way of talking about God, even though Yannaras would reject it outright. I do not see why we cannot “think” the metaphysical and personalist approaches together.


  3. Karen says:

    I have an easier time with Hart’s language as well, though I do appreciate that he puts “necessity” in quotes. It seems to me the language of necessity needs to be seriously qualified with regard to God, Who is not bound by any “necessity” outside of Himself. It seems to me neither the language of “necessity” nor that of “choice” conveys the reality of God’s kind of existence without significant qualification. For one thing, I always think of “choice” as connoting making a determination between two or more options, whereas God’s will is One and He exists in perfect freedom to do as He wills).

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  4. john burnett says:

    Tryphonas: Does Yannaras “say that the Father wills the Son and Spirit–yet He wills them outside of time/from eternity”?

    I can’t give you chapter and verse, but that’s not something Y would say. The Son and the Spirit don’t exist because the Father ‘willed’ them. Existence by God’s will is called ‘creation’. The uncreated Son and Spirit are, respectively, ‘begotten’ and ‘breathed’. That speaks of their relationship, but the actual manner of their origin is, as Dionysios would say, hyper-ineffable.

    That’s why we also can’t really say God ‘chooses’ to exist. The manner of his existence is ineffable. If we were to say he ‘chooses’ to exist, that could be correct only in the sense of a poetic inscription of apophatic ineffability onto a cataphatic view of God.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, John. I have to disagree with you. That the Father wills his trinitarian existence is precisely what Yannaras does say and given his personalist construal of being, probably must say. He is not alone here. Zizioulas talks at length about this in his essay “The Father as Cause” in Communion & Otherness.”


  5. Jonathan says:

    I, too, have difficulty understanding how it can make sense to say “God chooses to exist.” From what sort of existence does God make such a choice? This is a situation where we have to refrain from applying the existential verb to God — unless we’re going to qualify it with a statement about analogia entis more sophisticated than I can make.

    What’s more, I can’t conceive of choice outside some sort of temporal scheme, even if not the one normally sensible to us in this life. Hart’s point seems to be more that God is necessity than that he is necessary — note the scare quotes. He wants to remind us that with God, unlike with us, there is no movement from potentiality to actuality. At the end of that paragraph he writes, “Necessity [. . .] is a unique logical designation of what God is, even who God is; it is, so to speak, one of his proper names; ‘I am that I am’.”

    Finally, it’s maybe important to note that saying God “chooses to exist from all time” discounts the possibility of his ever choosing not to exist, since his choice to exist (from the point of view of our temporality) is always already made. I think that before we talk about God doing this or that in or outside time, we need at least as nuanced an understanding of time as the physicists possess.

    Perhaps it’s important that Yannaras was writing in the previous generation and conceived his adversary as Western metaphysics, ontotheology or what have you. Whereas David B Hart, in that book, is writing in the present for (or better say, against) an audience ignorant of any theological concepts, whether Western or any other provenance. Context shapes the argumentative tactics of each.


  6. brian says:

    I think Jonathan’s provisos regarding context are useful. Tryphonas’ reflections generally seem helpful to me as well. My sense is that Yannaras uses provocative language to unsettle a particular Western audience. If one construes the person as a radical freedom that cannot be freedom if it is constrained by a nature, whether that nature be finite and created or infinite and uncreated, Yannaras’ assertions follow. It seems to me that one is embroiled in the same kind of difficulties that surround Bulgakov’s discussion of a separation between Hypostases and divine nature. I am not sure there is an easy resolution, but I am unwilling to simply dismiss Yannaras or Bulgakov, even though Hart’s language is more comfortable and non-controversial.

    If one limits choice to time or limits freedom to a libertarian choosing between various options, one will not leave sufficient room for God to act in freedom. Freedom, personhood, time, eternity, all simple concepts . . . not. Most western discussions of freedom are grossly inadequate, btw.

    Father, as I read Yannaras, God’s Personhood is a flourishing reality. Human personhood is a project. We are not yet fully personal and we won’t know what it means to be a person until theosis is achieved. In any event, that is my view. While I believe it is important to affirm that there is a kind of metaphysical baseline of personhood that is true for all human beings, from the child in the womb to the individual who is impaired in some manner, including a vegetative state, it is a mistake to think that we have a comprehensive notion of what it means to be a person or that we all simply begin as fully manifest persons. Personhood is a task and a mission that has to be actualized.

    Given the above, one could still argue for an analogy between the Personhood of God and that of human being with the understanding that a fully developed human personhood is only realized in the God-Manhood of Christ.


    • Jonathan says:


      I hope I didn’t inadvertently suggest an idea of choice as a choosing between options. That sort of choice is aptly called libertarian, or what one might style consumerist. But it is difficult for me to conceptualize choice as something other than event, and events require temporality, or at least some sort of movement within being — I almost want to say displacement. Is there a way to figure choice without potentiality? What would you say are some loci classici, outside Yannaras’ work, regarding divine choice? (Forgive the basic question: I’m not formally educated with respect to theology and philosophy, but have had to pick it up piecemeal in the course of a literary education.) I happen to be just beginning to wrestle with Yannaras (Person and Eros) at the moment. It’s tough, but exciting.


      • brian says:

        Sorry Jonathan,

        I was importing an element of Karen’s comments into a global post.

        Most of my background is literary as well, btw, and the theology courses I took in grad school were generally dull as dishwater. So, my theological and philosophical perspectives are mainly the result of a personal search and individual reading.

        Hans Urs von Balthasar remains a decisive influence on my more recondite theological opinions. His five volume Theo-drama is a good place to look. I’ve heard that Aidan Nichol’s Key to Balthasar is a good summary of his thought, but I haven’t read it myself. In any event, Balthasar is controversial for various reasons, but one of them is his view that there is a kind of “Supertime” in God’s eternity. What he basically wants to do is clear a conceptual space for “event,” “discovery,” “surprise,” etc. within the Godhead. Otherwise, it would appear that creaturely existence has a good that God does not possess, whereas it makes better sense that any good we know is a finite participation in God’s flourishing reality.


        • Jonathan says:

          Thanks, brian. I’ve always wanted to dip into Balthasar, but have been put off by the immensity of his Theo-drama. Apparently I only read massive works if they’re written by eccentric novels or even more eccentric historians, but it could be time to branch out a bit. “Supertime” might finally get me to Balthasar. Just by the looks of “supertime,” I should wonder why it would continue to cause scandal. Temporality has been up for grabs for at least century now, whether one is looking in the direction of relativistic physics or of Bergson and Proust, et al. I don’t find it hard to fathom the interweaving of time and space, for example how we might be said to exist in a “Supertime” relative to the temporality of a black hole. So speaking analogically about process or some kind of mutability in the Godhead shouldn’t give me too much pause. . . except that God is supposed to be absolute, really transcendent, not just another dimension of the created universe. Even an analogical treatment of God’s experience of time or consciousness or whatever at some point has to break down. I recently tried reading Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis (Eerdmans 2014, trans. Hart & Bentz) to see if he could set me straight on analogical language. His set up of “ever greater dissimilarity” is helpful, but I didn’t finish the book, as it was beastly difficult and I became distracted. But I should return to it. I know that in the back half of the volume Przywara engages the existentialist and personalist philosophy that was gaining steam in his day.


          • brian says:

            Hi Jonathan,

            I also like long eccentric novels. Trying to write one myself, but at the current rate, I need to live to be 200 or something.

            Przywara and deLubac were significant influences on Balthasar.

            As you probably surmise, the sticking point with Supertime is how one would square it with impassibility and the notion that God is fully actualized. How could there be the possibility of surprise or some idea of gift that would involve novelty if God is infinite being with no unrealized potentiality? Some of Balthasar’s smaller monographs on the Holy Spirit are good on this, but Theo-Drama is still the first place to go in my view.

            When I really get flummoxed, I more or less opt for the both-and side of whatever the question is. I realize that some thinkers just think one is taking an easy way out by referring to mystery and paradox (Rowan Williams is good at keeping one from just evading difficult thought,) but when it comes down to it, I just assume that if there are real goods that I cannot conceptually synthesize, the fault is with my intellect or imagination. What I always refuse to do is surrender one of the goods.

            So, in short, whatever is good in time must be part of eternity. I suppose in the end I have a kind of child-like confidence in that. I like Thomas Traherne for that sensibility, the sense that we are made for “some great Thing” that lures even while it evades our attempts at capture.


          • Jonathan says:

            brian, Thomas Traherne is wonderful. I mean that as literally as possible. The Centuries of Meditations is tantamount to prophecy.

            What you write reminds me of this:

            Despise the world; despise nothing;
            Despise yourself; despise despising yourself;
            These are four good things.

            Apparently by the Abbess Herrad of Hohenburg. I know the lines as the epigraph to a volume of poetry by James McMichael. It may be the best part of the volume.


  7. tgbelt says:

    When Yannaras (or Zizioulas) argue the relationship between freedom and love they sound positively ‘open theistic’ (had to throw that in).

    I much prefer Hart’s way of expressing things. I don’t have any trouble ascribing necessity to God’s existence. I think Zizioulas and Yannaras falsely conclude that such necessity implies God is somehow obligated to exist by some force latent within his own nature. But that’s never been what theistic philosophers have meant by it. At the same time, I can’t make sense of the claim that God “chooses to exist.” It’s self-contradictory. Papanikolaou addressed this weakness of Zizioulas’ notion of divine freedom. I find myself agreeing with what Zizy and Yannaras ‘deny’ (viz., that God is obligated by his nature to exist or be personal) but disagreeing with what they ‘assert’ (viz., that since God isn’t obligated by his nature to exist it must be that he freely chooses to exist). I rather think this the difficult we are bound to face trying to unpack in our terms what must be metaphysically unique in God’s case, namely, that his essence and existence are convertible. For example, Yannaras says, “He exists since…” and there’s the problem right there. There is no “since” to which God’s existence is a response—whether by ‘nature’ or ‘free choice’, because God’s existence isn’t a “response” to anything, whether of choice or of nature. It makes no sense to seek to attribute God’s existence to one of these over the other.


  8. Ignatius says:

    Of course, I’m way out of my depth here, but I think I might get it.

    Who is offering God the choice? Only God. How does God choose? According to Who He Is. Could God choose not to exist? Both yes and no, since He is under no external necessity at all, so can do whatever He wants; however, because of Who He Is, He never would want to not exist. Questions of what God “can” do, do not make sense, because there are no external restrictions, even with which to make sense of whatever “internal restrictions” He might place on Himself.

    So saying God is primarily Person above Essence, is saying God is free even of the structures of essence we know. For us, essence is given, but to God… Well, God’s essence is entirely different. He ‘constitutes’ “It” Himself. If I understand, God’s willing to exist, is God’s existing, i.e. God’s existence is God’s will to exist. And this Will that is God, is love, and so is actualized in the Holy Trinity. God’s Will to exist, is God’s love, is God’s existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I believe He is using ‘person’ univocally (which seems necessary to me since Jesus is one person), but I would suggest that this reflects our already practically apophatic idea of freedom. I have found no satisfactory explanation of freedom, and concluded that it is an unfathomable mystery. Every explanation of freedom seems to me, a denial of freedom. (Especially considering freedom in terms of creativity, or perhaps sub-creativity, with true creativity distinguished from joining objects together and merely finding a new function. The creation here send to me, almost ex nihilo.)

    I would also add, that Classical Theism should (recently did to me, and it seems to me, has for Yannaras too) lead to God being a person, as otherwise He is not free, and so can perhaps be “harnessed” (as when pantheists (I think) talk about “life force”, “universe energy” etc.).

    To say that God’s Person constitutes His essence, seems to me necessary to saying that God is His Person at all, rather than His personhood being necessarily derived from some necessary essence.

    Wow, I really need to read this book.
    Thank you so much


  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Let me toss the following citation from Zizioulas into the mix:

    Since his existence is not a given thing, God is not obliged to choose whether to say “yes” or “no” to it. For him, there is only one way to exercise freedom, and that is affirmatively. What is there for him to say “no” to? God has the freedom to say “yes.” The Father’s freedom is expressed in saying “yes” to the Son, and the freedom of the Son is expressed in saying “yes” to the Father. This is the “yes” and “yes” again, that the Apostle Paul says (2 Cor 1:10) has come to us in Christ. Since for God nothing is given, there is nothing which he has to refuse. For God, the exercise of freedom does not take the form of a choice, but it is exercised voluntarily, in the form of love, expressed in his trinitarian life. (Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 74)

    This passage was discussed two years ago in the comments section. See especially Michael Liccione’s criticisms.


  10. tryphonas says:

    David B. Hart is expressing truths about God that any Christian believer is necessarily bound to assent to. If one believes that God exists and is the creator of the universe ex nihilo, then of course “without him, nothing is even possible.”

    I feel that Yannaras and Hart are talking about completely different things. Yannaras’ point here (and elsewhere) is that in the Church, we have the possibility to exist as God exists: free from the limitations of/necessity imposed by createdness/creaturliness. What does this mean? It’s hard for me to say but I think it has to do with transcending existence as an individual and coming to exist as a person in relationship. Yannaras defines “person” as Samn! noted in the comments section you linked to in the same way (or at least a similar way) Zizioulas does. He defines “person” (prosopon) in opposition to “individual” (atomon). Maybe this is a problem in that it conflicts with usage of “atomon” in John of Damascus and other fathers, but I don’t read Greek or Arabic so I have no idea on this point.

    tgbelt claims that it makes no sense to attribute God’s existence to nature or free choice. I think he(?) has a point. Can we really claim knowledge of where God comes from besides “from everlasting to everlasting”?

    Though Yannaras’ (and Zizioulas’) implication that God wills/chooses to exist creates all kinds of problems that are really hard to figure out, what really interests me here is Yannaras’ oft-repeated point (that’s also hard for me to figure out) that the Church is a social event of a mode of relations of communion wherein human individuals may transcend createdness/individuality/existence as one of the animal species with instincts toward self-preservation–I can’t remember if he makes this point in The Freedom of Morality, but I know he does elsewhere.

    In fact, he makes this point in his book Against Religion, where he calls the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” linguistic signifiers chosen by the Church to signify that the existence of the three hypostases of the Trinity is chiefly characterized by the fact of their loving relation to one another. This claim is qualified with his apophatic denial that knowledge of the signifiers are able to do anything more than point toward the signified reality, which may be truly known only by direct experience. And since God exists in the mode of loving relation, and we have the potentiality to do so ourselves, we may come to know God only through experience. I think this is why Yannaras stresses so much the preference for person before essence/nature.


    • brian says:

      The distinction between individual and person is important. Zizioulas and Maritain, actually, in his own way, make the same distinction.

      In various posts in this thread and elsewhere, I have been trying to make similar points. The person is ultimately an eschatological reality that our ontic, individualized selves cannot really imaginatively or conceptually grasp. I do think there is a way to approach it imaginatively somewhat, but one has to be careful.

      My earliest sense of this, btw, was prior to any philosophical or theological reading. I picked up something of it from reading Charles Williams as a youth. I think his notion of Coinherence is helpful.


  11. brian says:

    Thanks for that, Jonathan. Really good. Speaking of Charles Williams, he also had a pithy saying that is apt.

    “This is Thou, neither is this Thou.”

    Traherne inspires the right kind of imaginative thinking. Some people read him superficially and sentimentally, but read well, what he is saying fits in with the theme of this conversation.


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