Terry Eagleton and Tragic Spirituality

Terry Eagleton.  Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.  pp. xii, 185.  $25.00.

Terry Eagleton in the 1970s stood at the cutting edge of Marxist literary criticism, but his recent book, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate — an expansion of his 2008 Yale Terry Lectures — is not at the cutting edge, really, of anything.  In positive terms, with respect to content, it would scarcely be worth the space of a review.  This judgment pertains to content.  In a negative sense, with respect especially to context, the book does have important things to tell us.  By context, I refer to responses of specific class constituencies to Eagleton’s reflections on the God debate; and, more broadly, to the impact of religion’s global resurgence on the labor and radical left in America.  Since the two terms (content and context) will be used reciprocally I need to begin with the first in order to finish at the latter.

I.  Content

The content of Eagleton’s book consists mainly in bad-mouthing the so-called “New Atheists” — Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens — whose best-selling assaults on religion triggered the God Debate (2004-7) referred to in his title.  In an earlier era one might have expected a Marxist scholar, mellowed by successful publications and tenure at Oxford, to have welcomed a critique of religion by a fellow scholar, albeit not a fellow Marxist, since from their consensus on religion might have stemmed other ideologically significant exchanges.  Not so for Eagleton.  When The God Delusion (2006), authored by his Oxford colleague, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, climbed to a top spot on the (U.S.) bestseller list, Eagleton responded with proprietary anger.  His counter-attack, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” (London Review of Books, October, 2006), opened with the following sentence: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on Theology.”  To Eagleton, clearly, it felt painful, so he retaliated by playing the theology card: “What, one wonders, are Dawkin’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?  Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?”  Then the inevitable putdown, “Has he even heard of them?”

This same confrontation appears in the new book (49), thus summarizing Eagleton’s main argument, that unredeemed physicalists like Dawkins have no business treating religion simply as a runaway hypothesis in search of validation.  Such barbarous misconceptions, he tells us, went down the drain with positivism.  On the contrary, from Augustine through Aquinas to Kierkegaard, Christian theology demonstrates that valid understanding of religion must work its way up through intuitive, subjective levels of rational intelligence.  Eagleton reaffirms Anselm: “I believe in order to understand” (120).  Grounding one’s case in Christian theology may seem a problematic stance for a Marxist critic.  James Wood, who writes on “Books” for The New Yorker (August 31, 2009), described Eagleton as “a Marxist Catholic” (my emphasis) — adding that Eagleton’s Catholicism “used to be obscured by his Marxism, but as he has aged, his religiousness, like a limp, has become more pronounced.”  James Wood, as it happens, is English-born and also a commercial traveler from Oxford, thus perhaps possessed of insights into the intricacies of class and religious identity in Terry Eagleton’s ideological firmament that would not be readily available to most American reviewers.

Wood’s review calls attention to one of the distinguishing oddities of this book.  Eagleton is examining an American episode — the God Debate — in which five atheists (author’s selection) played leading roles.  Two of his five are British.  For reasons unexplained in the text, Eagleton fixes his gaze on his two fellow countrymen, virtually ignoring the other three.  The result is a “monologue” (Eagleton’s), in which three of “us-Brits” are discussing intimate matters from which “those-Americans” are largely excluded.  After penetrating this far into the inner circle, I think it important to make one further move that will bring us (almost) to the analyst’s easy-chair.  In preparing strategy for this book, Eagleton opted for a rhetorical device that to some American reviewers (especially Stanley Fish, New York Times, 05/03/09) seemed exquisitely comic: that is, he combined his ideological opponents — the two Brits, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens — into a single composite character named Ditchkins, whom he could then lambaste at will for theological illiteracy and aesthetic elephantiasis, without having to waste much time on actual citations.  For this tactic to work would have required keeping the two halves of the composite character equally obnoxious.  But for Eagleton that remained ideologically (or psychologically?) out of reach.  I think anyone reading his book will agree that he consistently targets Dawkins as whipping boy, whereas Hitchens generally gets off rather lightly.

Why?  We find some clues in the text.  Thus at the very beginning (2-3), Eagleton explains that before conflating Hitchens and Dawkins “too peremptorily,” he needs to differentiate the “splendidly impassioned, compulsively readable quality” of Hitchens’ writings from the “doctrinal ferocity” that has begun to “eat into [Dawkins’] prose style.”  The contrast calls up a recollection that perhaps touches the heart of the matter: ” . . . when Christopher Hitchens was still a humble Chris, he and I were comrades in the same far-left political outfit.”  As Marxist radicals at Oxford, that is, he and Hitchens shared the experience of being ghetto-ized in left field, whereas the cold-blooded, elitist, tunnel-visioned Richard Dawkins continued to dine at high-table.  As to class status, it is not clear Dawkins ranks higher than Hitchens.  But, for Eagleton, the key differential (at this point) was not class but the difference between science and literature.  I quote a sequence in which Eagleton attempts to levitate himself in one jump from the miniscule annoyances of his rhetorical apparatus to a full scale rendering of our grief-laden Ultima Thule:

Transcendence . . . did not simply go away. . . .  The less plausibly religion seemed to answer to the human desire for a realm beyond science, material welfare, democratic politics and economic utility [i.e., as secularism advanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries], the more robustly literature, the arts, culture, the humanities, psychoanalysis, and (the most recent candidate) ecology have sought to install themselves in that vacant spot.  If the arts have accrued an extraordinary significance in a modern era for which they are, practically speaking, just another kind of commodity, it is because they provide an ersatz sort of transcendence in a world in which spiritual values have been largely banished.  This, I imagine, is one reason why Christopher Hitchens is not only a crusading atheist but a professor of literature at an American university. . . .  [L]iterature represents one of the last sanctuaries of the human spirit. . . .  It is a name for how even the most pious of rationalists does not live by reason alone, but by an abiding faith in a certain unfathomable creativity.  I myself have been teaching literature for forty-five years and I would wager that I love the stuff as dearly as Hitchens does.  (83)

So Eagleton holds kind feelings for Hitchens because Hitchens loves literature, and literature in our disenchanted world provides the last sanctuary for “spiritual values”; whereas that “most pious of rationalists,” Richard Dawkins, allows no room whatever for spiritual values.

Yet, oddly, in the morass of contemporary politics, it was Dawkins who sided with Eagleton in opposing the Iraq War and rejecting Bush and Blair’s globalizing strategies.  Hitchens, by contrast, had put himself early on at the service of the Bush administration and cultivated close links with its neo-conservative braintrusters (66-7, 125).  I have no doubt of Eagleton’s sincere opposition to the Iraq War; but how at the same time he could condone Hitchens’ opportunistic, self-serving, essentially sociopathic behavior boggles rational (and/or moral) understanding.

What results from these (and other) incongruities is a hodgepodge of a script.  Indeed, the title used earlier to convey contempt for Dawkins — “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” — would serve accurately enough to describe his own book.  Having first chastised the New Atheists from the standpoint of high Christian theology, Eagleton makes an abrupt u-turn to a romantic, lumpen/beatnik reprise of early Christianity.  Christ comes on stage as a hybrid between Jack Kerouac and the Communist Manifesto‘s ultimate proletarian.  Both might conceivably be described as nihilist rebels — a notion Eagleton uses to ridicule New Atheists (Dawkins especially) for their bourgeois lifestyles and allegedly stodgy conservatism.  Although doubtless aware of non-sequiturs in his scenario, Eagleton seems unable to get beyond them.  “I guess I am still searching,” he told the London Times (December 21, 2007).  When the Times interviewer asks him to explain “What was Christ was up to?”  Eagleton replies, “Well, in a way which is far more radical than the secular Left he’s saying it’s all over. . . .  [S]omething new, something unimaginable is striking into this place.”  So what does that mean?  Eagleton “tails off in a way that makes his fabled powers of exegesis look either frustratingly fallible, or [as the interviewer kindly added] reassuringly human.”

Tailing off — in the book, as in the interview — serves to get Eagleton conveniently out of firing range at the point where his lumpen-proletarian Christ is dragging him into an absurdly non-historical account of early Christianity.  None of us (Eagleton included) knows much about the life of Christ, or even if there was such a life; but we know a lot about early Christians.  They resembled Weber’s Protestant workaholics more than 1950s beatniks or world-liberating proletarians.  They tended to be shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen for the Roman Empire’s burgeoning commercial networks.  Thus they furnished a more viable base for imperial bureaucracy than the perishing aristocracies of old city states.  That’s why Constantine went for them and they for Constantine.  This insight from materialist history undercuts Eagleton’s Christolology.  He is compelled to another abrupt u-turn.  “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism,” he tells us [55], “it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary beginnings.  Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive . . . it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the riffraff . . . with whom Jesus himself hung out.”  This second u-turn fetches Eagleton back to a Marxian ideological de-mystification that totally eviscerates the Christian Theology he had earlier invoked against New Atheists.

Eagleton of course is an old pro and his book buzzes with rhetorical zingers.  As sustained argument, however, it has not much to offer.  It is evasive, arrogant, contradictory.  As for example (32): “All authentic theology is liberation theology,” versus: “Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive” (55).  More crucially, with respect to the human prospect in the twenty-first century, his book is irrelevant and foolish.  What is particularly distressing is the repudiation of science.  Lacking science, we would have no way of coping with the ecological and nuclear/biological crises that lie ahead.  One would expect a Marxist critic as highly-credentialed as Eagleton to understand the difference between scientists who produce scientific know-how; and those captains and CEOs of the capitalist order who decide how the know-how will actually be used.  To ignore this difference leads to the mistake of holding science solely responsible for oncoming crises and precludes the possibility of mobilizing science — given a more enlightened political leadership — as our key resource in resolving them.  Eagleton nourishes this misconception by his relentless portrayal of Dawkins as a latter-day Dr. Strangelove, blinded by scientific hubris to the needs of the human condition.  This is not an accurate portrayal: I have read Dawklins too.  So much for content.  What about context?

II.  Context

Context, by definition, I suppose, ought to be inexhaustible, but here we need to focus on two particular aspects: first, the contrast between divergent responses from opposite poles of the American political spectrum; second, what the book itself and the responses to it convey as to the impact of religion’s resurgence on labor and left constituencies in the United States.

(1) The View from the Bridge

Protestant Fundamentalism, although still a powerful reactionary component in American politics, began slipping downhill long before the Bush dynasty fell from grace.  Meanwhile, however, capitalist collaboration with religious constituencies was shifting to a “higher level,” on which it seems likely to continue for some time, regardless of success or failure of the Obama presidency.  As yet, this level carries no specific name tag, but for practical purposes can be described as ecumenical and syncretist.  Ecumenical emphasizes the commonalities — the shared ultimates — of religious belief, these being exactly what the US/British alliance requires in its march toward a global “free” market.  Syncretist refers (in this connection) to the widely-held notion that since science and religion represent alternate paths to the same “truth,” newly-discovered information about one will prove equally beneficial to travelers on the other.  Both ecumenical and syncretist stand, from somewhat different angles, in opposition to Fundamentalism.  I can best point to the ideological construct that integrates these complex relationships by bringing forward several live examples.

Eagleton’s book exists because Yale’s Terry Lectureship  — motivated (I would guess) by his earlier attacks on Dawkins — invited him to deliver its 2008 lectures which carried a commitment to publication by Yale University Press.  The Terry lectures, founded in 1905, were modeled on the Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews in Scotland which date from the lifetime of Isaac Newton.  Both programs celebrate syncretism.  Thus the Terry Lectureship declares its goal to be promotion of scientific discoveries, and especially the application of such discoveries to human welfare by building “the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.”  That Eagleton is scheduled as Gifford lecturer in 2010, then, need not seem altogether coincidental.

Politically more influential than Yale’s Terry Lectureship — and vastly more affluent — is the Templeton Foundation, a formerly Fundamentalist Protestant grant-supporting organization, which over the past decade has been transferring its gigantic resources to the “higher level” of syncretism referred to above.  Declaring its raison d’etre to be support for “Research and Discoveries about Spiritual Realities” and headlining its current blog pages as “Supporting Science — Investing in the Big Questions,” Templeton pours millions of dollars annually into subsidizing education, research, and publication in the syncretist mode.  Last year, Eagleton opened his promotional tour of the United States with a Book Forum at New York’s Harvard Club sponsored by Templeton Foundation.  One might dismiss book forums as routine events of promotional tours, but in this case there were perhaps intimations of larger significance.  Eagleton’s book — the one promoted on his tour — contains six indexed citations to another work, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), described by Eagleton as a “magisterial study” (76).  It’s author, the Canadian-born Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, was awarded in 2007 the Templeton grand prize, modestly described by Templeton’s public relations module as “more than $1.5 million . . . the world’s largest annual monetary award given to an individual” (Saxton, “The God Debates,” Science & Society, October 2009, 478; “‘Sir John’ Templeton’s Foundation,” Free Inquiry, June/July, 27-34)

Intimations?  It may seem difficult to imagine that any jury of peers could find Eagleton’s “lunging, flailing, mispunching” text worth that kind of money; but one can always hope.  After all, an earlier Templeton grand prize went to Billy Graham mainly for his book on angels!  The Terry Lectureship followed by the even more prestigious Gifford Lectures establishes legitimacy; and in any case Templeton awards are not for specific titles but lifetimes of  “achievement.”  Eagleton certainly has been at it for a long time and has written some important books although none (at least at time of publication) that would have held the slightest interest for the Templeton Foundation.  Yet times change; in 2009, the fact that an assault on the New Atheists was orbited by a Marxist of international reputation serves as value added.

Syncretists of course are bullish on science and some may have been irked by Eagleton’s stress on Weberian disenchantment and scientific reductionism; yet since science itself, riding high in the twenty-first century, remained untouched by these anxieties, syncretists can simply dismiss them as tokens of Eagleton’s general “incoherence,” and focus instead on parts of his message that converge with their own ideological projections.  Thus James Wood, the fellow Brit at The New Yorker (August 31, 2009, 76,77), while conceding Eagleton’s “shiftiness about his religious belief,” nonetheless credits him with making “a sharp, limited case” against atheism –“better than any previous book of its kind.”  And so, Stanley Fish — rated, according to Wikipedia (2009) “among the most important critics of the English poet John Milton in the 20th century” — concludes a starry-eyed, two-thousand word review in the New York Times (May 3, 2009) by endorsing Eagleton’s anger against Dawkins: “He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school yard atheists . . . . I know just how he feels.”

Syncretists, in any case, are not primarily concerned with defending science, which they take for granted.  They are concerned with atheism — not just any atheism — but the empirical, true/false kind of atheism often put forward by scientists.  It seems that most so-called New Atheists are working scientists.  The four targeted by Eagleton include three scientists (two evolutionary biologists, one cognitive scientist), the exception being Hitchens himself, who (like Eagleton) is a critic and professor of literature.  More broadly, among scientists recently gone public on atheism, the majority probably are evolutionary biologists, but also included are cosmologists, physicists, anthropologists, psychologists.  From the syncretic standpoint, it is not disbelief per se that poses the main danger, but disbelief as propounded by scientists because that immediately undercuts the intent of syncretism.  What syncretism really intends is not merely a synthesis of science and religion, but an authority within which science can deal autonomously with particulars; while religion — or some sort of spiritualized concept of the cosmos — takes charge of the perimeter, that is, governs the outside track that encircles the entire field.

Francis Collins, an orthodox (but not Fundamentalist) Protestant Christian — and former director of the Human Genome Project — appropriately sums up this relationship in his autobiographical account of his own apprenticeship: “Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world.  Whether probing the structure of the atom, the nature of the cosmos, or the DNA sequence of the human genome, the scientific method  is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events.”  But he then adds, “Science is not the only way of knowing.  The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth” (Language of God, NY: Free Press, 2006, 228-9).  We can round out this sequence by following it through one more cycle.  Collins in 2007 founded the Biologos Foundation, a syncretist NGO dedicated (Wikipedia, 2009) to promoting “the harmony of science and faith.”  Nominated soon afterwards by President Obama (confirmed by the Senate) to direct the National Institutes of Health, Collins resigned his post at Biologos.  In that office, he was immediately succeeded by Karl Giberson, professor of Physics and Theology at Nazarene College in Massachusetts, a frequent principal in Templeton projects, and editor of two journals sponsored by the Foundation.

To sum up from the foregoing: Eagleton’s book has enjoyed something like red carpet treatment by opinion-makers at upper echelons of the American capitalist establishment.  Initiatives on Eagleton’s behalf by the Terry and Gifford Lectureships and the world-circling Templeton Foundation clue us into why this is happening.  As U.S. policy shifts from its Fundamentalist/Libertarian phase to an Ecumenical/Syncretic global strategy, critiques of religion, especially when pushed systematically by professional scientists, become ideologically disruptive and politically dangerous.  Whatever flaws his book may contain, Eagleton speaks directly against scientific atheism, derides Richard Dawkins, its most prominent current exponent, and speaks, moreover, with the double validation of his own religious sensibilities and long-sustained commitments to the working class, the social-democratic welfare state, the Marxist Left.  To this extent his book comprises a bonanza for our capitalist Captains.

(2) The View from Down Under

So what about the opposite end of the spectrum — the flatlands inhabited by unionists lucky enough to belong to unions that survived the Reagan/Bush regimes; more recently overrun by throngs of disillusioned populist democrats; together, of course, with scattered remnants of a Marxist Left?  In earlier times one would have expected a Left, whether astride the crest or squeezed into the crevices, to have mounted some sort of counter-attack against a religious (or, more accurately, spiritual) profession of faith like that of Eagleton’s.  Not so in our era.  After sitting on its hands through the entire God debate, the Left is not likely to rise in protest against what it has haltingly and somewhat surreptitiously come to recognize as a substitute for reality: not real reality, maybe; but a semblance of reality as imagined in the vast ocean that comprises the core of wage-earning America.  Most Americans actually think we live in a spiritualized cosmos.  Whether spirit works at a pantheist or transcendent level (or both) makes no big difference to them since in either case we are kin to spirit, just as spirit is somehow kin to us.  Consequently, to think that our species — and our kind within our species — might ever be denied access to a privileged, humanly spiritual, inner track becomes in itself unthinkable.

Eagleton’s book — but especially the lack of radical criticism of his book — suggests the same holds not only for the wage-earning center of this country, but also for the left wing.  Certainly there has been no rush of attention, critical or otherwise, from populist-democratic or Left journals in the United States.  And maybe something similar may be the case for England as well.  Should we expect a critique of “spirituality” in New Left Review where Eagleton’s essays frequently appeared?  I await the day!  Currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, NLR has just published a prospective agenda for the next half century which in twenty-two pages of close type makes not a single reference to religion.  Apparently its editors expect to be pursuing their tasks ensconced in some sort of secular cloister, far from the Madding Crowd.

Eagleton was perhaps at one time in his youth a non-believer.  Where he stands now he never tells.  Generally he has written for academic readers.  Non-(or anti-) academic readers will be likely to find his style pretentious and tedious.  Endlessly diving into theology, he keeps bobbing up with evasive literary analogs to faith as “tragic art” (16, first chapter) or faith embedded in “tragic humanism” (169, last page, last chapter).  He seems to be offering a choice — like shopping at the supermarket — between rival commodities: religion as real thing, or religion as literary make-believe.  Are these interchangeable?  Is there no difference between consequences entailed by choosing one over the other?  Nonetheless, and despite the transatlantic silence on the Left — or, more accurately, because of it — the plaudits received higher up will trickle down.  The bottom line, then, is that Eagleton has revealed what most Americans (and doubtless many British) actually believe; although in terms that will prove more acceptable to opinion makers at the upper echelons than common folk in the lowlands.  This is not a good prognosis for the crises that lie ahead.

III. Conclusion

Beginning with his decision to denounce — rather than critically applaud — the work of the “New Atheists,” Eagleton manages to come down on the wrong side of the most important questions he raises.  Thus in his opening chapter, he writes, “All authentic theology is liberation theology” (32).  Historically this obviously is mistaken (as subsequent chapters amply demonstrate) and, for purposes of political or moral decision-making, totally useless.  Crises of global warming, rising oceans, ecological burnout, the devastations virtually certain to be wrought by proliferating weapons of mass destruction, will fall most heavily on working people, rural and urban.  Statistics tell us religious belief has its strongest base among such populations.  But it will not help liberate them.  To resolve (or survive) these crises demands levels of commitment and social activation unprecedented in previous human experience.  Religious belief will impede all-out commitment because it sustains the illusion of a privileged inside track.  So it adds its semblance of credibility to the “free” market myths of quick turn-over and non-planned, short-range “planning.”  What we need, on the contrary, is a historical materialism that would cut through such illusions, focusing instead on consciousness, scientific analysis, and collectively-willed action — that is, on the evolved powers of our species which may (or may not!) prove adequate to survival.  We have just witnessed at Copenhagen a dress rehearsal of this passion play.  Even responsible leaders (Obama) can walk away from Copenhagen because the religious faith of their constituents (not to mention their own!) takes them off the hook.  They stall off real decisions for another decade or so, keeping busy meanwhile with the play-pen games of sustainable growth and market-generated problem-solving.  Apres moi le deluge!

Eagleton writes (also in his opening chapter): “The advanced capitalist system is inherently atheistic” (39).  Here he is recycling the Marxist metaphor of religion as a narcotic purveyed by hypocritical capitalists who themselves remain nonbelievers.  This may sound about right for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and exactly right in respect to the neocons who engineered the Republican/Fundamentalist alliance in our own era.  When, however, near the end of his final chapter, Eagleton repeats this same charge almost verbatim –“Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic” (143) — he is using it to romanticize, by contrast, our compulsive surrender to religion (“tragic humanism”), while at the same time vilifying anti-religious scientists (like Dawkins) as capitalist fellow-travelers.  Deliberately or otherwise, he is mistaken on both counts.  Capitalism in the twenty-first century is not moving toward atheism.  It’s movement is in the opposite direction: first, through the Fundamentalist alliance which enabled it to remodel the American economy along Libertarian lines (but ran into severe problems of conflict and credibility); second, through its shift to the syncretic “higher level,” for which Eagleton’s book provides ideological cover.1  Capitalism in the twenty-first century can no longer afford the luxury of being cynical or hypocritical about its own mythologies.  This, precisely, is why syncretism is replacing the Fundamentalist alliance.  And as to theology’s liberating powers, we would all be better off if Eagleton were using his polemical gifts to push historical materialism rather than “tragic” spirituality.


1  Whether this “higher level” syndrome will metastasize into global politics or remain unique to the United States and Great Britain poses a definitive (but at this point) unanswerable question.  What seems certain, however, is that fundamentalisms — and not just Christian Fundamentalism — will play a big role in other parts of the world, especially where resistance to capitalist globalization takes the guise of militant nationalism.  One of the effects will be to pose populist-oriented fundamentalisms against the elitist syncretism of the globalizers, which in turn will exacerbate religious and ethnic conflict among segments of the (global!) working class.  All this will confront the Left with excruciating problems of tactics and strategy.  That these are not being researched and debated (and so far as I can observe, they are not) is due in part at least to the Left’s collective reluctance to talk (or think) about religion.

Alexander Saxton is emeritus professor of history at UCLA.  He is the author of three novels (Grand Crossing, The Great Midland, and Bright Web in the Darkness) and several historical works, including The Indispensable Enemy and The Rise and Fall of the White Republic.  He has also published a historical materialist analysis of religion: Religion and the Human Prospect.  This article will also appear in a forthcoming issue of Science & Society.

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