The Impossible Now–Part Four

This is the final installment of an introductory position paper I’m calling “The Impossible Now” or “Towards a Theology of the Impossible.”  There are three previous parts.  You can find them here, here, and here.  In this final installment I talk about “the religious question.”  Cheers!

…The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable….

The Event of the im/possible cannot be prepared for and at the same time cannot be depended on. These are horrible words to hear for strategic planning! How then do we live with such (non)knowledge? If authenticity, imagination and experiment are the tools that we shape the relative future with, what are the tools we use to embrace the wildcard future—the im/possible? What can we possibly do or say or prepare in reference to something that lies so completely out of our ability to do or say or prepare for? It is for this place, this absurd, unexpected, undeterminable place that a different set of internal reservoirs are needed. Religion, good religion, seeks to address this sort of question.

Having done all to encounter the present in a meaningful way, we are still often left with seemingly meaningless events that continually take us by surprise, disturbing our best laid plans. This realization is, at its highest, a religious experience. It doesn’t require belief in a Personal Origin, or First Cause. But it does require something of us. That much is certain. The “what” is actually rather well-known. The attributes I’m going to mention are in many ways universals. They’re what philosopher’s might call “un-deconstructables,” in that they are ideals—almost always un-fully-realized urges that keep us reaching toward them. The most famous of Jesus’ early followers, the apostle Paul, said it best, in my opinion, “…in the end, these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.”

This simple three word formula provides the basis for the intersection between the im/possible and the real. Faith isn’t so much a mental adherence to theoretical propositions about the nature of truth, but rather living today in the light of the future as it should be. Faith sees the idealized Peaceful Tomorrow, the future where swords have been beaten into plowshares, and tanks made into tractors, and determines to live peaceably today, even while the world is filled with wars and rumors of wars. Faith is an active, aggressive leap forward toward the Good, the Just, and the Best in spite of evidence contrary. Faith is an investment in particularity and locality, refusing to be theoretical and (merely) universal. Faith is always personal, though hardly private.

Hope isn’t the spindly sickly stuff of fantasy; it’s longing contentment. Hope sees the possibility of renewal and resurrection where others see lifelessness or death. Hope believes in commonality, compassion and a desire for connection with the Other where fear informs us that only Strangers and Monsters await on the other side of the unknown.

And love…Love is the greatest of these. Even faith and hope must give way before love. What can be said of love? Those who have known both Love and God have said that God is Love. If God can be spoken of and said to be anything at all, God is spoken of as and said to be Love. The substance of the divine is bound up in love. Concrete love. Active love. Visible, tangible, touchable love. Love, which covers a multitude of sins. Love which walks the extra mile. Love which gives up the second coat. Love which willingly lays down its life for another, for the Other. Love, of whom we may sing a thousand songs.

Our deep need to account for the unaccounted for, forces us to build up, to work on, a different skill set entirely. The things that are simply cannot prepare us for the things that are not. For those sorts of im/possible occurrences we must draw on the deep fountains that lurk at the corner of our being, not quite yet realized, still in formation, and dependent on some previously unforeseen happening to unleash their potential in our lives. In some strange way, these too, carry the stamp of Artistry. Art, in all of its forms, somehow allows to us to look upon, and hint at, those things which we cannot view in a straightforward way. Artistry gives birth to the Encounter of im/possibility which we are able to meet with arms open, acting out of faith, hope, and love.

+ Some Quotes +

A trinity of quotes today. 

One from a scientist. One from a philosopher. And the final from a priest. Somehow they speak to the foundation I sense I’m standing on. It is, to be sure, a weak foundation.  I’m not looking for a strong or obscenely certain one.  The weakness of the foundation is as weak as Love itself–something that calls to us, that draws us, urging us to be fall forward, to take the leap, propelling us ahead, but without force. In the end my affirmation is a simple one, to quote Gianni Vattimo when asked if he still “believed”, he answered “I believe so.”  I believe that I believe. 

You have a choice… I don’t think anyone can prove that God exists or that God doesn’t exist–we’re in an area far to deep for mere proof…a big fundamental question like belief in God (or disbelief) is not settled by a single argument. It’s too complicated for that. What one has to do is consider lots of different issues and see whether or not the answers one gets add up to a total picture that makes sense–but also gives meaning, beauty, depth, joy and hope.  In other words do you like the panting that you’ve just created or not?–Polkinghorne, pg 36

 

Who do I love when I love my God?  I love this question because it assumes that anybody worth their salt loves God. If you do not love God what good are you?  You are too caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification to be worth a tinker’s damn. Your soul soars only with a spike in the Dow Jones Industrial average; your heart leaps only at the prospect of a new tax break. The devil take you.  Religion is for lovers, for men and women of passion, for real people with real passion for something other than utilitarian gains, people who believe on something, who hope like mad in something, who love something with a love that surpasses understanding…but again, we must ask then “Who do I love when I love my God?”(Caputo, pg 2)

 

Dear friend, being beloved is the origin and fulfillment of the life of the spirit.  I say this because as soon as we catch a glimpse of this truth, we are put on a journey in search of the fullness of that truth and we will not rest until we rest in that truth.  From the moment we claim the truth of being beloved we are faced with the call to become who we are.  Becoming the Beloved is the spiritual journey we have to make. (Nouwen, pg 41)

The devil and a bit of truth

The devil and his friend were walking down the road when they noticed a passer by pick something up off the ground.  The friend wondered aloud as to what the person had found.  Satan replied that they had picked up a piece of Truth.  His friend was chagrin, “You can’t just let people go around finding Truth, can you?  I mean, what kind of world would this be….?” 

The devil laughed out loud and calmly reassured his friend, “Oh don’t worry, they’ll just turn it into a belief…I’ve seen this a million times before!”  Somehow Satan’s friend didn’t look convinced to which the devil addressed his final comment, “Just ask Jesus.  He’s came into the world and embodied Truth and look what happened to him…his disciples just ended up founding Christianity!”

Relieved, the friend mused, “Yeah, I guess you’re right…nothing to be worried about I suppose.”

The Truth Shop

There’s a story that I’ve become fond of recently:

A man was wandering through the famous Portobello Street in London taking in all the bizarre shops and sights when, hardly believing his eyes, he saw a sign over a door front that read: “Truth Shop“.  Needless to say he decided it was best to investigate. 

The saleswoman was extremely polite. She asked what type of truth the man would like to purchase, partial or whole?  The man didn’t think twice about the choice.  No more defenses. No more rationalizations or justifications. No more deceptions.  Only the plain, unadulterated, and absolute truth.  She waived the man to the other side of the store. 

The salesman on that side of the store pointed to the price tag.  “The going rate of absolute truth is very high sir,” he said.  “Well, what is it?”  the man asked, determined to get the whole truth no matter what the cost.  “Your certainty sir. Your certainty.” 

And so the man went away sad. The cost of Truth was to great.  He needed to hold on to the security of his certainties more than he needed the truth he sought.

Much Ado about nothing…

Truth is a slippery thing these days. 

Let’s take science for instance.  Say you wanted to observe and reasonably understand with a level of predictability the collision of two air molecules.  Air molecules are fairly simply, they’re relatively uncomplicated; the event of the collision will occur within a fourteen millionth of a second which means there’s shouldn’t be a mass of data spread out across time.  It looks straightforward enough.  The only problem is that in order to observe and predict this single collision taking place in a fourteen millionth of a second scientists tell us that we would need to take into account an electron (the smallest particle of matter) on the other side of the known universe (as far from HERE as you can go)!  All of this to say that detailed behavior is absolutely unpredictable without absolutely universal understanding.  To neglect even a single electron is to radically misinterpret the information. 

The rather backwards admission that we don’t have universal understanding on any given subject confronts the assertion that we have a leg to stand on with even the smallest of claims.  If I can’t know everything (which seems rather strange to say out loud but DOES form a basic assumption in Western science, philosophy, and certainly religion) then can I really know anything? 

I can feel the fundamental hackles rising. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing the reality of Reality here…I’m just sniffing around on the subject of our ability to know it.  Not long ago I might have agreed with that to a point but then countered something along the lines of God’s ability to overwhelm our natural inabilities.  What is impossible with man (Absolute understanding) is possible with God.  And because God wishes people to know him he is perfectly willing to break all the laws of quantum physics in order to serve up a detailed knowledge of Godself to us.  Well, that’s how the logic goes–perhaps. 

That argument is believable up to a point.  But it starts to break when we think about our relationship with the toute autres–the wholly Other.  If something is completely outside of the constructs of what we have known or understood it will quite simply pass over us.  If something that was purely unknown to us entered our space we wouldn’t even recognize it.  Our senses wouldn’t have categories for it. Our sight would fail us. The wholly Other would be lost on is, like the ships of the Spaniards on the early South American tribes–invisible. 

This means that when a “new” idea bursts like a flash of lightening from heaven onto us–it’s rarely new.  In some way, no matter how brilliantly or orginally conceived, revelation–especially the revelation of the wholly Other–is dependent on what we’ve already known or understood.  Perhaps another way of saying all this more to the point is that even something like revelation is dependent on our existing categories and concepts.  It’s still perilously linked into us, our dispositions, affinities and affirmations.  That makes it, in my finite mind, still suspect.  If everything that I process or that proceeds through me is stamped with my interpretations and since I do not have “universal understanding” I’m still in the same boat of not knowing anything about…anything…for certain at least…

So where does this leave us? 

If I can’t gage anything with certainty or absolutism am I doomed to a purposeless Nihilistic existence?  Isn’t it exactly as my friend Kevin said, “the trouble with stripping away one’s core belief structure is it can leave you spinning free into an abyss of endless possibility. no right or wrong, no up or down, and no real direction at all. you’re faced with the realization that there may actually be no greater purpose to this life“? 

This is what the exestentialists called “the anguish of freedom”.  Perplexity. Despondency.  Hopelessness.  All these are feelings that flow into this place where nothing seems absolute–where absolute reason has fled out the door and we’re left with no solid ground to stand on–save only sinking sand.  Where is our Rock to build upon?  Faced with a plurality of reality is there any Real to set up shop at? 

Camping out is what True believers are always apt to do.  Jesus, “the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life”, has to gently remind willful Peter to come down off the mountain, to not set up booths on the Mountain of Transfiguration, and to keep step as Truth moved on.  Moses is allowed to see God but only his rear–where God has just previously been.  The Name of God (YHWH) is less than a name and more of a Divine kiss off, roughly translated as “Never You Mind”…”I am that I am.” An earlier patriarch, Abraham, isn’t even given that much. The name he affirms God with is simply rendered as “Most High God”…or the god above the other ones.  For Abraham, while there were certainly other god’s, this one–this Most High God–was the one for him.  And there’s the jumping off point for me.

If I could take a bit of connected rabbit trail….

…let’s talk about love. I fell in love with my wife NOT out of fate…not because I thought that was my destiny…  not because she was the ONLY woman in the world…  In other words, I didn’t hedge my bets.    With love you really can’t be certain.  There aren’t absolutes.  You could wish there were.  You could wish that suffering or death or rejection or betrayal were not elements in love. And what one of us chooses love anticipating rejection or betrayal?  In fact while we don’t have any Certain Assurance or Absolute Reason for choosing our loves we do probably have good reasons… We look at the beauty standing in front of us and say to ourselves, “This One may not be the only one, may not even be the eternal one, but they are the one for me in this moment here and now.”  This is the choice of Love. 

That’s how I see Abraham’s name for God, “Most High God” relating.  It’s a statement of Love.  He’s not discounting the reality of the other gods.  He’s well aware that there are other games in town–but this One–this is the Most high…above all the others…towering over them…the others don’t hold a candle to Most high God. 

In the end this is how we navigate the world. 

Outwardly we approach the Loving Unknown with a degree of artistry. We encounter life with experiment, imagination and authenticity.  We engage the relative future (the future that is related to the present decisions that we make) with the knowledge that we have choice and responsiblity.  Who we are is detirmined (in this case) by the actions we have and will undertake. Make today count. Try. Dare. Risk. 

There are also though encounters of the “Im/possible”.  The unexplained and unprepared for, which then enters our reality and overturns our applecarts.  We couldn’t have even conceived of such an event and it exceeds all of our natural reserves.  It, by its very nature, subverts the paradigms we operated within.  The tables get turned over and the money changers of our ordered way of doing things are reversed.  How do we approach those events?  With the inward resolve of what one ancient philosopher called “the things that remain: faith, hope and love (with the greatest being love)”.  That is how we embrace the wild card future…faith, hope and love…

That’s how we then live…we live with certainty, certainly knowing our uncertain state. 

If in the end our reasons, our certainties, and our absolutes are eroded to deconstructables floating on the refuse heap we are left with the need for far more FAITH than we ever imagined.  If things, including science and philosophy and religion, are all interpretations that we can’t ever be completely sure of or imagine that we have the irrefutable answer to, then we have to take one step at a time walking down a darkened hall. 

Beautiful…

The new faithful

This morning I heard a doctoral student from MIT on the radio. He was explaining how as a scientist he believes in an objective, universal truth that can be discovered and known.  The young scientist went on to say that as a Christian (and here I admit I don’t know WHICH brand of Christianity he was speaking about-though I could venture a guess) he felt that this congealed quite well, because there was also a great focus on universal objective truth in his “faith”. 

I thought this was interesting.  He was attaching his religious experience to one of cognitive logic, sequential algorithms, numerical binaries, and rational projections…science. To hear him describe his “faith” one would have thought he was speaking about algebra. Everything was observable and concluded. The problem was solved. The solution was reached. It all seemed very reasonable to him.

Which is funny.

Beyond algebra–into the complex “new mathmatics” that seem to actually be at the heart of the universe, many scientists start sounding like priests. Reading Michael Greene’s treatise’ on string theory is almost like having a mystical encounter. And for myself, it was after digesting an article on the Big Bang that I had a near revelatory experience with the divine.  Isn’t that interesting? 

It is in fact post Newtonian science that seems to be teaching religion something these days… What is being taught you ask? Well, contrary to the young scientist this morning on the radio, we are being taught the LIMITS of knowledge. The limitations of the knowable. We, the religious community, are being mentored in pressing on with the “most reasonable guess” until it is proven or disproven; understanding that this may never be in our lifetime…and that’s ok.  We are being reminded about the experimental nature of discovery. Rather than sitting on our laurels and crowning ourselves the new imperial certitude; rather than waving victory signs long before the final showdown, we are seeing that this race is much more one of a long distance one filled with numerous new terrains. We don’t know what we don’t know.

So it’s humorous.

If Faith is the moving without sight in the dawning light of what is to come, then scientists may be the new faithful. 

Just a thought ;)

How (Not) to Write a blog

I have a thousand things I want to talk about…consequentially I can’t talk about any of them…I believe this is what Pete Rollins calls hypernimity…the abundance of content leads to an inability to speak of it. 

1) the difference between organic and organic

2) looking at the (un)knowability of God pictured in the Exodus story.seen trough the name of Moses

3) the parable of the prodigal God

4) how true community seems like it is more or less experienced in the process and the journey rather than sought after or arrived at

5) the grudge match between the uber minute hair split of “presumptuousness” and “certainty”

6) defining that “fundamentalism” is NOT exactly interchangeable with the word “conservative”…just with being “narrow minded”

7) why television is a bigger glut than it’s ever been and why that’s ok with people–why do we keep on watching? And how a Spanish Romantic Game Show is the best hour on TV from 7-8pm PST, M-Th.

8) faith without doubt is dead

9)  why I increasingly feel out of sync with churchianity–and what to do about that.

10) The pretentiousness of music snobs like myself–not being able to craft a better pop song and calling that art

11)    The CHOICE of “the dark night of the soul” versus the EXPERIENCE of it

12)  Why I’m cranky these days

13) Sufism and spinning

14) Enneagram and why every person serious about a personal journey needs to question their motives and acknowledge their shadow

15) the fact that empiricists (Christian, secular, and otherwise) sound idiotic at best.

17) being hearers of the word and doers

18) how I sold my soul for 2.50 in 9th grade to a guy who later went to Fuller (it really explains so much in retrospect)

19) why having an agenda is a guilty pleasure–no one admits they’ve got one but we all do…and maybe we should…

20) …there’s a lot more where these came from…

…So God offers you a Gift…

Imagine that God speaks to you—we’re not talking about general revelation here, this is specific divine interruption.  He lets you know that he desires to give you a Gift, but because of “free will” it will need to be one of your own choosing.  Having said that you’re given two options:

 

1.) You can spend the rest of your life being absolutely certain about God, there will be no questions of faith or doubt. There will be an abiding sense of God’s presence and smile in all your ways…but everyone you meet will instantly begin to doubt the certainty of their own faith. They may or may not ever recover from that crisis.

OR

 

2). through you many of the wrongs in the world will be righted, justice and mercy and grace will be exhibited, the blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame will walk…but you will cease to believe in God at all. You will even forget this conservation between yourself and the Most High…it will have been all in your imagination.

 

Which do you choose and why?

Accommodating away…

I’m an accommodator naturally.  That’s what I do.  It’s my own social fluidity.  And here’s what it means to me—if someone has a strong perspective, I back off mine.  Sometimes they don’t even have to have a strong one…I just back off…  In some ways this is a great thing; frankly I think people are too rigid about their “internal compass”, being real is, as cliché as it sounds, often just another way of being rude.  I have to wonder with some people, is it worth it?  Is this particular battlefield the one you want to die on?  So, like I said, this internal ebb and flow of being invested in a particular system of beliefs has come in useful.  It also has its disadvantages…distinctly.  And, I’m sure that we can think of about a thousand of them, but the most gripping personally is this…sometimes it leaves me wondering, “But what DO I believe?” 

 

Let’s step away from me for a sec. and look at the last 100 years in the protestant Christian community.  On one side you have the fundamentalists.  Certain words come to mind that have negative overtones for myself: dualistic thinking, rigid, low level process, either/or, dogmatic, isolationist, etc… Many of those groups have emphasized an esoteric system of believing—right thinking—in order to be a part of their club.  Any one who’s thought life diverges finds themselves teetering towards the tropical end of pre-eternity.    

 

Compare that with the liberal, often mainline, denominations.  In general a perception of them is an absolute refusal to speak with conviction on any subject.  It sometimes feels like they can almost be down right apologetic about being Christian…as if it is simply the stream they flow in because of tradition, if for no other reason.  And, many have complained that the mainline scholars out there currently are essentially “dressed up” atheists—advocating from the inside of Christianity for a church beyond belief.  The final analysis for many of the critics of such congregations is that they become accommodating to the point of annihilating their belief…in the end simply social action groups with very little reason for actually existing together since their over arching stories have been eroded. 

 

There are conversations now among mainline congregations about how to emerge from that stereotype.  Many are wondering how to speak with conviction, how to have a degree of certainty that isn’t simply willfully self imposed but is also truly believed.  This new type of thought suggests that there is a middle of the road, a third way, between dogmatism and denial. 

 

And it feels like I’m in that conversation…or at least personally that’s the conversation I want to be a part of and to hear. 

 

Because…it may just be possible to accommodate one’s way out of any faith at all…it probably wasn’t the intention…it probably just…well…happens in one of those ebb and flow conversations where the “other” says their story…and you no longer do. 

Not the Religious Type

Books come my way quite a bit these days…but I must say, this title, “Not the Religious Type”, intrigued me.  First, a little bit of back story.  Back in Bible college days I came across the seminal work, “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis.  I devoured it.  For the first time in my faith journey I felt as if there were REASONS to believe.  Looking back on it I’ve wondered if that REASON negated Faith (which is most often the absence of sight, of certainty).  However, I came to the perspective that Blaise Pascal articulated so well in his pithy little quote: “We must know where to doubt, where to feel certain, where to submit”.  In other words, its alright to feel certain about some things.  And, indeed, that certainty may very well be in spite of evidence often, or at least independent of it.  Still, all of this to say that Mere Christianity has always held a fond place in my heart.  It’s heirs have not.  There are countless imitators, each of which ratchet up the certitudes, the historical evidence, the necessary proof, etc…And in my mind, they each take steps forward towards negating true belief.  So, when I see books that claim to be in the tradition of CS Lewis and “Mere Christianity”, I am instantly suspicious.  This book may be different though.

It’s written by a fellow who pastors a seemingly thriving fellowship right outside of MIT and Harvard in Boston.  That, in itself, is no great feat, but it does seem to be working for him.  A one time avowed atheist, Dave Schmeltzer, speaks the language of doubt with the best of them. He treads tenderly on the hallowed dirt of faith, ambiguity and mystery, while engaging that which we CAN know.  His education and extreme diversity of exposure and experience makes him capable of being conversant in current pop culture and events…something that instantly seems to set him apart of from those whose only relationship to the dominant paradigm is simply spying in order to conquer it.  He reads the New Yorker, Slate, and listens to and watches PBS.  He speaks my dialect.  

The book begins with a premise…the secular and the sacred need not be opposing elements. Because that is true the world need not be considered evil and God need not be considered exacting and rule bent.  Cliche, but still overwhelmingly true, God is about relationship, a passionate relationship with His creation. More importantly, the deeper the relationship, the more uncertainty and ambiguity plays a part.  Schmelzer highlights M. Scott Peck’s four stages of spiritual/emotional development.  He abbreviates stage four as the “mystical” stage and suggests that this stage moves in connection with the Divine Other, but tentatively…humbly…with doubt as a part of faith.  

You can see that stage 4 (mystical) is a stage filled with uncertainty to the same degree that stage two (rules based) is, by definition, filled with certainty.  Or, to put it differently, stage 4 [the highest] is about questions; stage two is about answers. In this way of thinking, stage 2 looks at truth from the outside, as if it were a book that can and must be mastered. Stage 4 looks at truth from smack-dab in the middle of it, as if truth is everywhere and will take a lifetime just to begin to traverse (which is the joy of it). 

This presentation allows for a beautiful steering away from the dualistic, linear way of thinking of liberal vs. conservative (rules based vs. rebellion).  It’s ok to stand LOST in the center of God as Truth and feel overwhelmed, even confused…when you’re that close, you see LESS clearly…but experience MORE fully.  Truly, wonderful.

He goes on to call Truth itself, relational, instead of propositional or abstract. This is similar to Tony Jones’ statements about Truth having, in the person of Jesus, needed a bath, maybe having lice, slept, ate/drank, loved…”Jesus didn’t claim to be a teacher of truth. He claimed to be Truth”.  Truth as a person is always on the move, is never static, and therefore the only way to encounter Truth is to be around the person (and I would insert, that Person’s people who become a community of mutual question).  

And here’s what I enjoyed most about this book…people.  The author fills the pages with names and faces. He, as if truly believing that Truth is relational, presents his truths relationally, in bursts of story.  That brings up a complaint about much of post Don Miller writing…everyone does the memoir schticknow …mostly, badly.  By badly, I mean that their stories are so point driven that they cease to be interesting STORIES!  Thankfully Schmelzer avoids this pitfall for the most part and his stories are actually interesting, rather than being drawn out battering rams for a theological point that everyone understands within the first sentence.  

One point of interest…”Not the Religious Type” offers an interesting spin on something that most “high minded” academically oriented head cases probably wouldn’t touch: hearing the voice of God.  Some of the narrative that surrounds it, about his tempestuous early dating relationship with his now wife, reads like Jeremiah or Job.  Dave screams at God.  God talks back.  God makes a deal Dave can’t refuse.  Dave gives God a timeline (or was it the other way around?).  Etc..  And that may sound like an affront to the “modern” moderation of Christians (such as myself), who hesitate to say, “God told me…” Truthfully, it is.  But, Dave suggests that over time, starting in small ways, as you relate to God in a way that suspends disbelief, we discover a place where God and man meet, where God speaks.  It’s as if doubt propels us towards a void, a void where the object of Faith compels us to know and be known.  Really, Schmelzer is saying, “Why not try it?”  He admits that speaking with God, hearing His voice, is a learned taste, it takes time and patience.  Very interesting…And I believe it too.  

Ok…some questions for Dave Scmelzer:

1.  Where’s the jumping off point?  When does doubt embrace certitude and take the existential, “leap of faith”?

 

2.  In a pluralistic society how do you hold your path loosely while still embracing it whole heartedly?

 

3.  Are we happier people for believing in God and embracing Christianity?

 

4.  Is the defining characteristic of Christianity grace?  If so, how are our lives transformed in more than an abstract way?  In what way does God’s good news for our spirit become good news for our marriage, neighborhood, environment, and global village?

 

All in all…a great book.  I recommend it.

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