The Human Condition
The Human Condition
The Human Condition
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Ontology of God - Religion Series
What Is True Religion?
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What is true religion, and true worship? Is it to know something secret, or something that makes "more sense" and has all of the answers, or believe something that is absolutely "right?" Is religion simply a matter of belief, or is it something else? To the ancient Jews, religion was making sacrifices, observing the Sabbath, and following every law to the extent of dotting every i. Does being religious just mean attending religious ceremony once in a while and saying you are a person of faith? Can it mean, just not harming others - live and let live? Or does real religion mean to believe that you are descendents or a follower of some powerful religious figure? Is it love? Or is it just being "spiritual?"
Tip: you probably won't find true religion in a pair of jeans - take that any way you want. ; )
The terms "true religion" and "true worship" are nearly synonymous. We are not really clear on what it means to "worship" God, and even less clear on what "religion" is all about. What the ancients meant by the word worship, and what we mean today, are not even the same. The phrases "true religion" and "true worship," have similar meanings in both Buddhism and the Judeo/Christian religions. (Note: Hoping to include the Muslim Koran (Qur'an), arising some 700 years after Christ, I found that it unfortunately offers only a description of true religion in terms of religious form, with no substantive criteria for the phrases "true religion" and "true worship." Sorry.)
Following is the term "worship" defined in three languages, including today's English. Note the migration toward the meaning, "ceremony."
How we think today of the term "worship" (ceremony) and what is meant in ancient writings by "true worship," are not the same. Yet the same tendency to confuse ceremony with worship existed in ancient times.
Let's begin with an illustration in which a person shows obeisance (respect and deference) to a king. The king wishes primarily that each of his subjects treat each other fairly and honestly, and look out for each other's well-being. Which of the following two people actually shows respect and deference to the king? One person bows gracefully as the king passes by, attends all of the official functions, but then goes out and oppresses other people, steals from them, sends gifts to the king from his ill-gotten gain, and scoffs at the king's wishes. The other person simply smiles at the king as he goes by, despite his own difficult circumstances, only occasionally attends feasts and functions, but treats everyone fairly and gives to the poor. Which one actually has respect for the king and defers to his wishes?
Buddhism makes a clear and direct statement about true religion and true worship. Christianity also asserts that people must "worship in truth," but the meaning is less clear. The meaning seems dependent on the earlier traditions of what is meant by truth, and is more difficult to ferret out. What does "worship in truth" mean in the Judaic tradition, on which Christianity is dependent?
Early in Christ's ministry, Christ gave a clear indication of what it means to worship God (John ch. 3, 4 and 5). At that point in time, some in the Jewish religion were very preoccupied with keeping "The Law." The Law is the rules set forth by the first five books of the Bible (the Torah). The Law contained not only rules of conduct, but rules pertaining to forgiveness, which used sacrifice as a vehicle. There was a lot of daily practice of tokens of personal sacrifice, and ritualized sacrifice of animals at the Temple. The Jews were only allowed to worship at the Temple at Jerusalem, making this type of worship an infrequent activity due to the travel, although a Rabbi (teacher) could teach anywhere.
Other people, especially the Samaritans, whose religion had frozen in time because they recognized only the first five books, were preoccupied with special places where their ancestors had found God, or had experiences with the supernatural. This enshrining of holy places was historical, and very common in the area, in the Orient, India, China, indeed all over the world among ancient people.
The area of Samaria is the mountainous region of Israel. This region includes descendents of the Israelites, plus descendents of the Assyrians. The Assyrian empire conquered the Northern portion of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. The Assyrian king deported many of the Israelites to Assyria, and settled many Assyrian people in Israel. So the area of Samaria became a blending of Assyrian and Israelite religion. The later religious literature of Israel (after the first five books) apparently made minimal penetration into the area.
Jesus was traveling through Samaria, which was a region with people who either were not Jews, or only used the Torah. The Jews had poor relations with the Samaritans, but traveling through their territory was unavoidable. On his journey, he did two unusual things. Jesus reached Jacobs well, a well on the land of their common spiritual ancestors. A woman was at the well, and Jesus talked to her. He associated with a Samaritan, and a woman. Beyond not associating with Samaritans, a man was not supposed to talk to a woman, unless he was married to her.
That Jesus would talk to a Samaritan and a woman, tells us that something is very different about Jesus's concept of religion. He says to the woman that he can give her living water. She doesn't realize that he is talking of spiritual matters, but when he tells her about her past, she realizes that he is a prophet. She then questions him about one way her religion stands apart from mainstream Judaism. She says, "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you [the Jews] say that Jerusalem [where the Temple is] is the place where men ought to worship."
Christ then tells us another way in which his concept of religion is different. He replies to the woman, "...God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." He continued his journey, and healed the son of an official. Although it is difficult to make much of this healing since the chapter is about "signs" that attest to Christ's authority, we might see later that this action of healing is relevant to Christ's concept of religion.
In the next chapter (the chapter divisions are actually artificial), Jesus came across an incapacitated man lying on a pallet. It was the Sabbath, and the Jews were not to do any work on the Sabbath, according to their predominant interpretation of The Law. This included healing, and carrying pallets. Jesus healed the man, and told him to pick up his pallet and walk. Two moving violations - he could get a ticket in today's world. Anyway, now we have had two healings in this passage, both signs of his power and authority, but also making dramatic statements about Christ's concept of religion. His actions declared, "Human need is more important than The Law."
These actions became typical of him. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He also said that God requires mercy, not sacrifice. He not only broke taboos by talking to Samaritans and women, he also talked to and healed outcasts, such as tax collectors and those with leprosy. His actions were matched by the message he gave them. That message was, those who seek God will not find him in a place (mountain or Temple), or in following laws and doing personal and ritualistic sacrifice. They will find him in another way: "...God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."
What is truth? The healing of two people is a bit telling. But the story about "truth" and "true worship" goes back many years. But first, much more was said in the three chapters, so I'll spend some time unraveling the overall theme of chapters 3, 4, and 5.
Overall theme of John ch. 3, 4, and 5
The overall theme of John chapters 3, 4, and 5 is about his authority and what it means to believe. Christ weaves an interesting story about what it means to believe, and to have the kind of belief that brings a person into living in the right way - a way with lasting consequences.
Christ says some confusing things to a religious teacher, "Truly, truly [meaning very true], I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." And then he says to him, "God sent the son [Christ] into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him (Christ) is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God." Interesting, but confusing if not seen in context.
Christ says a similar thing in the next passage. He does various miracles so that people will believe in his authority - that he has come from God. (Note that he is not doing miracles to try to get people to have faith or believe in God, but instead to understand his authority.) The passage is confusing. "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him." The water he gives, "... will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Note the emphasis is on the connection between name and authority ("this is the person") and following his words (water, meaning life), which wells up to eternal life.
He says to the Samaritan woman that "...salvation is from the Jews." What did Christ mean by this? Next he says to an official, who wants his son healed, that he will only believe if he sees a miracle. But the official has heard his reputation (believes in his authority), so Christ heals his son, and then the man also believes.
Christ then says to the Jews who wanted to put a stop to his ministry, reiterating the same theme of hearing and following: "Truly, truly [very true] I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." He then says to the Jews, I don't have any person to testify to my authority, as you seem to require.
The Jewish religious leaders formed the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council of the Jewish religion. The leader of the Sanhedrin was appointed by the Romans - the council was as political as it was religious. The religious leaders had certain expectations of a prophet, and of religious leaders in general. They didn't want conflict with their established system or with the Romans. The religious situation was very controlled to prevent trouble. The leaders felt that the age of the prophetic tradition had come to an end and was closed. There would be no more prophets. (Zechariah 13, Malachi 4.)
Christ did not have the stamp of the Roman government on him, nor did he have the approval of the Sanhedrin. And saying the things he said, he wasn't likely to get their approval. So he did miracles to show his authority, and said to them, It is God and his word who testify about me. And then he rubbed salt in the wound: "...I know that you have not the love of God within you [because of your unbelief]." What Christ saw was that many would rather believe in the restrictions of The Law in preference to healing or saving a life, so they would not believe in his authority or word.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5, are a little difficult to understand because Christ spoke in riddles, probably because people liked puzzling over riddles (people love a puzzle), and probably because he could say things in this way so that his statements did not get him into so much hot water with the Jewish religious authorities or ruling Roman politicians. The authorities would react very negatively to bold, clear statements, but it was difficult to argue with miracles and puzzles.
Christ asked people to believe in his authority (his name and the witness assigned to it (the witness being his miracles and God's word), and in his word. He provided a way, already seen in Judaism (through the history of the Ancient Israelites), that would bring a fulfilling and eternal life. This is what he meant by the statement, "Salvation is from the Jews." Those who believed in his word, (his ways, his testimony) were those who were receptive because they were already on the right path.
There is nothing exclusive about this - Christ was a very inclusive person. Those who disbelieved were those who already believed what was convenient to support their bad behavior, and they were unlikely to find the healing of their broken character through his ways. He was not here to condemn people - they had condemned themselves already and had closed their ears - but he was here to verify the valid (true) path for those who did believe and would believe.
The overall theme is about verifying the true path, through authority. Christ brought "very true" statements, saying he wasn't here to condemn people - people condemn themselves. Others believed already. The true path was already here, and people recognized it in him. What is the true path? To worship in spirit and in truth. What does worshiping in truth mean? (I began studying and writing about this in 1979 - the following paragraphs reveal what it means.)
While Jesus raises a question about the purpose of the Sabbath, it actually reflects on the purpose of all moral Law. Are people created so that they can be subjects of the law? Or is the law created to serve people? Is the law a code of conduct that regulates how people treat each other? Or is the law above everything, and how people treat each other is secondary to obeying the law? The answer lies in the perspective created by history. Was Jesus right about the true path always having been here (salvation from the Jews)? What does history tell us about what is true? Which is more important, obeying the law or our conduct toward others?
True and false - what is false or a lie?
You can get at what is true in three ways. One, by looking at direct statements of things called, "true." Second, by looking at the contrasting statements of what is called, "false." And third, by looking at the context in which these words are planted.
The words "true, and false," and variations of them, are used many times in the Bible. Many of the occurrences are not about any kind of ultimate truth, but simply about people telling the truth, or labeling something true. Other times when the word true is used with reference to God's word, it is embedded in a context that is historical, addresses some situation, and is in a topic (multiple paragraphs or a chapter about one theme). Overall these many occurrences of the words provide a major context in which any single occurrence is embedded. This gives the words established meanings, so that we have a reasonably good idea of what the speaker is meaning.
First, what is considered "false?"
"If a person goes around uttering hot air and lies, saying, 'What I believe you should do is languish in alcohol,' is this person a leader of people?!" - Micah 2:11 (paraphrased). In this verse, truth is contrasted with the brashness of what is false. I think that this simple statement from a prophet near the end of Ancient Israel's life, puts in context what is meant by truth. It isn't misleading people - it is straight-up talk. "Straight up, here is what is right." Micah recaps a long tradition.
Psalm 119, from early in Israel's Ancient history, begins with, "Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!" The entire chapter is about keeping the commandments of God, and treasuring them. Verses 118 and 119 tell us that the cunning of the wicked is useless, and they accomplish nothing of value. But (v. 121) I have done what is just and right. (V. 163-165) I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law... great peace have those who love your law. (V 160) The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.
So in Psalm 119 we have the true thing - God's word and laws, which experience says bring good things, juxtaposed against the untrue thing: the wicked and their deeds, which bring about bad things. Note that the statements about truth end by talking about the results that they bring - truth proves itself.
In Isaiah chapter 28, Isaiah speaks against the religious leaders, who have become unrestrained hedonists who can't judge right from wrong because they are confused by strong drink, and apparently believe and do only what is convenient. They have made lies and falsehood their security, scoffing at God. But the tested foundation of religion, which is God, will bring back justice and right living. The focus is on good judgment and living in justice and rightly with others.
Jeremiah echoes the same thoughts in Jeremiah 6:16: "... from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely." Again, the emphasis is on the bad things that people do to each other, which is against the true word of God.
Christ used similar themes about those who mislead people for their own gain, in Matthew Chapter 7. This chapter talks about sound judgment. He asks, how are you going to help another with a small problem, when you are completely blind to your own faults? Whatever you want people to do to you, do to them. This is the Law and the prophets." He continues about those who mislead in 7:15, 16, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits."
What is truth?
Argh! Truth is probably the most hotly debated issue in religion and philosophy.
Religion and philosophy have long debated what truth is. (Philosophy, meaning as a field of inquiry, not a specific "philosophy.") The outcome is that we know that there are things that are "valid," or can be called "true," and there are claims of "absolute truth." Absolute truth is a claim about a system of content that is considered by certain people to be absolutely right and incontestable... but not necessarily provable. The religious claims of ultimate truth don't stand up to the rigors of philosophical inquiry. Ultimate truth, of which there is no shortage of claims by various religions, is simply a matter of faith.
Religious people believe certain claims about God just as much as scientists believe their claims about science. The claims of both science and religion change over time, and neither philosophy nor religion can actually prove anything. What seems most likely, in this mess, is that proving through experience, something more like the empirical method associated with science, provides the feedback through history that develops faith. (Incidentally, the "God of History" is a foundation of Judaism.) We know that the ways shown to us by God are true because these "laws," summarized by the golden rule and love, work well. Time tested guidelines (summaries of the spirit or intent of the law) are truth, and these are what the Biblical people call true, right down through history.
The prophets of Ancient Israel were not about truth in the sense of some kind of debatable statement. They accepted that Israel's religion was "truth," and what they spoke about was the behavior of the people at a specific point in time - as their behavior contrasted with the truth.*1 Through The Law, God asked certain things of them (mostly to treat others well), but they did just the opposite. They mistreated others.
Jesus the Christ laid it out very plainly. Do good to others - this is what The Law and the prophets were about. Beware of those people who tell you things that sound good, but are just there to enrich themselves. People who speak the truth do good things for others. If you hear my words (truth) and don't do them... go figure where this will ultimately get you.
((())) Philosophy, Religion, and extreme claims
Philosophically, truth is not an easy thing for us to assess. Why? Because of our limited sight. The poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant is my favorite example, but there is another easy example. You can tell a beginning elementary school child that you can't subtract 3 from 2. He doesn't comprehend negative numbers. Later he can understand that subracting 3 from 2 leaves a deficit of -1. In a few years he will be capable of understanding logarithms, solving for two unknowns, imaginary numbers, Schroedingers Cat, and superstrings. Anyway, try to explain Schroedingers Cat to an elementary school student.
It isn't just short-sightedness that limits our ability. Our methods are not so great. Philosophy typically tests claims of truth through logical reasoning, which pushes a claim to its logical extreme. For example, "If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and a God of love, then (assumption) he won't let bad things happen? Bad things happen, so he is not a God of love." Certainly many groups of people have looked at the God of the Old Testament (Scripture of Ancient Israel) and the later conduct of Christians, compared these to the treatment (slaughter and enslavement) of those who are not Jews or not Christians, and come to the same conclusion - the word and actual practice aren't consistent. People at least recognize that the proof is in the pudding - truth is as truth does. Surprise! This is actually a big part of the key to understanding truth.
A similar debate has raged in Christianity from the beginning. Is a person "saved" by faith alone? Is just believing the right things all that is required? The counter argument is that "faith without works is dead" faith. The Biblical book of Hebrews is based on that premise. Belief is a verb, not a noun, and is expressed in action. If a person believes, then it is seen in his behavior.
Much of the content of the Bible and Christian conduct isn't consistent with claims about God. Indeed, today, as in the ancient world, some religious groups condemned the God of Ancient Israel, and claimed that their God was not him, but a new God. By the First Century, cultures in the Orient tended to have a concept of God that removed him from the realm of human pitfalls. But ancient religious literature (both Hindu and Judaic) began with a God who was more a clan god who supported the clan in war and required very strict discipline. This was in contrast to a universal god, and the clan god was probably a necessary step in the interpretation and limited understanding of ancient people. But philosophical inquiry, the keen eye of human judgment, and The Law have very limited ways to make exceptions in their deliberations.
The legalism of Ancient Judaism was in the same predicament as philosophy. Legalism pushes things to extremes. For example, if The Law (Torah) requires that you rest on the Sabbath (7th. day, Saturday), then it must not be within The Law to do any work on the Sabbath. And since healing must be work, then it must not be within The Law to heal on the Sabbath. Therefore, The Law is always above human need, and mankind is therefore here to serve The Law. It is an argument that is predicated on a misimpression. As we have seen through Christ, The Law is here to serve people.
Philosophy and legalism easily make the mistake of misidentifying the letter of the law for the intent of the law. The Law is not an absolute, and we lack the knowledge and experience to declare anything absolute.
Can you take religious thought to extremes? Following are some examples of what happens:
Our definition of truth gets stuck at whatever point we are incapable of understanding. Love your brother, child, wife, neighbor, foreigner in a different land, those of a different religion, enemy... somewhere in there we all typically get stuck. We prefer what is familiar, comfortable, and self-serving.
So it was that the people of Ancient Israel periodically lost sight of the Spirit of the Law and shrank the scope of the law to serve their purposes. And then a prophet would become acutely aware of the situation and bring them a bone-jarring message. While they were judging themselves "better than everyone," they were acing as criminals.
We learn through experience. We prove that what God asks of us is right both by our failures in disregarding his requests, and by performing his requests, benefiting everyone. Religion, philosophy, and the law struggle to guide us and help us understand. Our sight is limited, so when we are shouting most adamantly that one thing or another is absolutely right... we are typically absolutely wrong. We simply don't have the entire picture.
The simple truth
Truth is as truth does. This is so simple that Forrest Gump might have said it. If it is truth, it results in good things. If it results in bad things, "it ain't truth."
In Isaiah 10:20, Isaiah is speaking to Ancient Israel, about whom the prophets spoke many words of warning about their wicked behavior. For this, they would go into exile. But he said, one day some of them would return, and "...they will lean upon the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth." The word truth is contrasted with wickedness.
In the 8th. Chapter of John, Christ spoke about himself and belief. V 14, about himself, "My testimony is true." V. 26, "...he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. And then he said about them, v 31, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They didn't understand - none of them were slaves. Christ continued, "Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin." Once again, truth is tied to what comes out in people's behavior. And he ends with v. 51, "Truly, truly [meaning very true], if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." The death he spoke of is eternal, the consequence of wickedness and closing your ears to the truth.
What is true is the message of God - that which is revealed through his history with people. It is people's experience of his word - that constant pounding of real life that hammers out the truth. His word is the cumulative understanding of what God asks of people, by way of teaching them that living respectfully toward him and heeding his word, brings people into a good relationship with each other, by influencing them to act "rightly" toward each other.
It is very important "what" we believe. We hear a lot about truth, but the proof is in the pudding - the "fruits." Truth is translated into actions that bring about good things. If it doesn't do that, then it isn't truth, and the truth wasn't in that person. People's behavior and actions toward others is the fire that reveals whether there is truth in their words. There are people who attend religious services three or more times a week, but they are preoccupied with hating other people, and their religion is just a sharp barb to aim at others who are different from them. Not everyone who goes through the motions of religion, is actually religious.
Buddha, the prophets, and Christ spoke at length about our treatment of others. When you read their books, you find that they talked about dealing honestly with others in economic trade, about not taking unfair advantage of others in economic trade, about not lying and manipulating in the courts for our gain, about giving to the poor, about not stealing other's things, about not murdering, about not sexually violating women, in short: about not mistreating others but instead treating others like we want to be treated. When the truth of God is spoken about, it is his word that is true, but the word true is generally used in the context of how we treat others.
While rituals, sacrifices, and attending religious services can be very effective reminders of what religion is about, they are only symbols, they are not religion. Religion is the juncture of what we believe and how we act. It is belief being revealed and converted into deeds. It is dynamic truth, live, vital, proving itself through experience. Religion is the love of God moving through the world to make it a better place, by making each of us a better person who does better things.
The voices through history are very consistent, whether tracing the core message through Judaism and Christianity, or comparing the core message of various religions. The path that is false is typically more convenient, and is composed of actions that are in opposition to the golden rule. It is a divisive path leading to hate and condemning others. True religion is a path of love that is proven, consistent, credible, and stands out as a clear choice that is worth following - you can count on it. It isn't as flashy as end of the world images, but you can have faith that it works.
My hope is that you can make your religion, whatever it is, a true religion.
((())) lesson in the experience of good and wickedness.
For those who are interested, here is the short course on Ancient Israel and its slide into its first exile. It is a lesson in the experience of knowing truth: the difference between good acts, ritual, and wickedness.
Worship of God is not just bowing to God. This was a message which had been delivered to the ancient Israelites many times by the prophets. The Prophet Amos came when Ancient Israel was at the height of its prosperity and military power. Those were heady days when the people considered themselves the chosen ones for all eternity, and seeing no end in sight they never considered that the future of their election might be conditional. Life was good and people appeased God through religious symbols: they bountifully supported religious shrines, had frequent religious feasts, and religious ceremonies abounded. But outside the Temple in their daily lives, their conduct was atrocious. Amos looked at this picture and accused Israel and her neighbors, saying, (paraphrased) "You go to one holy city and do wrong, and then you go to another and do ten times worse. You rely solely on your military power, your dealings with others are full of corruption, you ignore the poor while you sit in opulence, you are horribly immoral, you're totally shallow, and your religious feasts and ceremonies are meaningless. God hates... no, he despises your religious feasts and meetings! He doesn't want to hear your songs. What he wants is for justice to roll from you like an ever-flowing stream."
They didn't listen and a hundred years later the Prophet Jeremiah stepped into the scene. He tried to make them realize that their "election" was conditional. He asked (paraphrased), "Would you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie against others, worship false gods, and then come to God's House and say, "We are cleansed," and then go back out and do the same horrible things all over again? Is this Temple a den of thieves? I don't think so. God doesn't think so. Don't trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.'" Once again they were symbolically bowing to God, pretending to do what He wanted, then doing the opposite. They toyed with the symbol of religion, the form, but ignored the content.
They didn't listen to Jeremiah either, so when the Prophet Ezekiel arrived on the scene about a hundred years later, the worst was already on its way. Ezekiel said to them (paraphrased), "God is tired of talking to a bunch of rebels who won't see and won't hear anything but their own voices. You have perverted everything - the house of God has now become a symbol of your horrible crimes. You go to the Temple but you can't find God there because your crimes are blinding you and you aren't listening anyway. Well guess what, God is booting you out and leaving the Temple."
Of course they didn't listen. Ezekiel saw the glory of God leave the Temple, and the Assyrian Empire conquered them and deported most of the people in the northern half of ancient Israel to Assyria. Later a new agreement was made with "the chosen" that emphasized individual responsibility. Chosen didn't mean pampering and protecting wickedness, it meant chosen as an example and to deliver a message.
Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.
Next: The Spiritual
1. Von Rad, Gerhard. The Message of the Prophets, 1962, Chapter 9.
The quoting of various sources in this series, from early Christian writings to various religions, is intended to reveal that despite the diversity of thought, there is unity in the overall message. To this day, religion fragments into movements that focus on various aspects of God. God is a God of variety, and we are all individuals, yet our needs are all very related.
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