ND   Essays / by Robert Hugh Benson

"Christian Science"

A paper read at the Catholic Conference at Brighton, 1906.

By the Rev. Robert Hugh Benson, M.A.

IT is extremely easy to make fun of "Christian Science." In fact, if we consider it as it is in itself, or rather as it appears to present itself to the casual observer, it is extremely difficult not to do so. It appears to solve problems by denying that they exist; to remove the toothache by assuring the sufferer that he is under a complete misapprehension, for he has neither a tooth nor an ache; it claims to be an universal religion, and at the same time its professors charge heavy fees for instruction in its tenets its founder has written a slender but expensive volume with the title Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and causes this to be bound up to resemble the Bible. In fact, the complete absence of any sense of humour in the presentation of this religion to the world arouses a corresponding counterpoise of laughter in ourselves.

But this is a shallow method of meeting the question. If Christian Science were as ludicrous as it appears -- or, rather, if it were nothing more than ludicrous -- we should have to relinquish to a large extent our faith in human nature for it is beyond a doubt that this system is making almost unprecedented strides in the modern world. Statistics, especially when they come from America, where nothing is ever done except on a gigantic scale, are apt to be misleading, but we are bound to pay some respect to them when they inform us that the recently built "Temple" of the Scientists in Boston cost 400,000, that the organ cost 8,000, and thirty thousand of the denomination attended its opening.

Neither are converts made only among the uneducated. It is true to a large extent, if we may trust our own observation and the tone of the testimonies put forth by its adherents, that Christian Science is chiefly triumphant amongst the partly educated -- amongst those who have sufficient learning to be impressed by oracular paradoxes, but not enough to detect their shallowness; but it is also true that very highly educated persons indeed are to be found amongst its supporters, and those, not only educated in irrelevant subjects, but qualified exponents of the very sciences which it claims to supplant. Doctors as well as classical scholars and mathematicians worship at the shrine of Mrs. Mary Baker G. Eddy. Humourists, philosophers, and Christians seem the only persons unrepresented in this body. Lastly, unless we are prepared to doubt the word of obviously sincere persons, and even, in the case of some of us, the evidence of our own senses, we are bound to admit that the practical claims of this religion are to a large extent justified; and that persons who have hitherto spent much money on physicians without amendment of health have been cured by the methods of this curious sect.

Briefly the history of Christian Science is as follows:

It was discovered by Mrs. Eddy in 1866, as a result of her Scriptural researches; she began her propaganda in 1867; her Science and Health was published in 1875, and by 1903, 270,000 copies had been sold. In 1879 she organized the "Church of God Scientist in Boston," and in 1881 she was ordained to the ministry and founded the Massachusetts Metaphysical College; in 1883 she founded The Christian Science Journal. Since that date the denomination has gradually spread, and in recent years has met with extraordinary success in England as well as in America. There has been more than one formidable secession; but in this paper I propose to deal rather with the original body from which all sprang.


We must now proceed to an examination of its tenets, and this (as admirably stated by Miss Margaret Benson in a tract published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) falls naturally under three heads: the religious, the philosophical, and the physical.

First, then, its religious aspect, and in particular its claim to be considered Christian. The famous essay on "Snakes in Iceland" is irresistibly suggested to the mind. There are no snakes in Iceland; and Christian Science is not Christian; and we shall see presently that it is not scientific either.

It is not Christian, I mean, in the ordinary sense of the word. It is not more Christian, for example, than the religion of Mahomet. Mahomet wrote in the Koran that Mary should "hear the Word proceeding from God," and that "Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary," was one of those who approach near to the presence of God" (chap. ii.). Such was his mistaken reverence for our Blessed Lord that he stated that "the Jews slew him not . . . but he was represented by one in his likeness" and that "God took him up unto himself" (chap. iv.). Mrs. Eddy, however (who, as we should expect, affixes no index to her works -- there is none at least in my copy of Science and Health), is as explicit as her confused mind will allow her to be, that "Jesus is the human man, and Christ the divine ideal" (S. and H., 473) she implies by her silence that the Person of Our Lord was human, not divine; she criticises His institution of the Holy Eucharist (ibid. p. 34), calling it His "ritualism or concessions to matter" (p. 33). Yet her connection with Christianity is sufficiently strong to allow of her falling into several heresies condemned and exploded many centuries ago. "God never created matter" (p. 335), we are informed. That is all a mistake; it came into its attenuated shadow of existence through what she calls "mortal mind." "Temporal things," she says, "are the thoughts of mortals and are the unreal, being the opposite of the real or spiritual and eternal" (p. 337). The conclusion of such logic, as Miss Benson points out, is irresistible. East, which is real, has West for its opposite. Therefore West is unreal. Or, even better, my left ear is the opposite of my right; but my right ear exists, therefore my left cannot. I only think that it does. She is a kind of elementary Gnostic, therefore, in her views of matter, and a kind of Docetic in her views of the Incarnate Son of God. She further denies the Atonement, at least in any sense in which that word has ever been understood by Christians. "Does erudite theology," she sarcastically asks, "regard the crucifixion of Jesus as chiefly providing a ready pardon for all sinners who ask for it and are willing to be forgiven? . . . Then we must differ" (p. 24). "Its efficacy," she continues, "lies in the practical affection and goodness it demonstrated for mankind."

One wonders, therefore, with all this, why she pays such deference to the Holy Scriptures at all. But the difficulty is less great when we consider that, first, she would get no hearing from the ill-educated Protestants who form her sect if she did not; secondly, that her early Congregational teaching is too strong for her; and, thirdly and supremely, her method of exegesis. This last point repays deep study. She makes the Scriptures mean exactly what she likes. Contemplate if you please the following passage. It is taken from the 29th division of the tenth chapter of the work on Science and Health, beginning at the first verse: --

"The word Adam is from the Hebrew 'Adamah,' signifying the 'red colour of the ground, dust, nothingness.' Divide the name Adam into two syllables, and it reads 'a dam' or obstruction." (One can only be thankful that it means nothing worse.) "This," proceeds the oracle, "suggests the thought of something fluid, of mortal mind in solution: it further suggests the thought of that 'Darkness . . . upon the face of the deep,' when matter or dust was deemed the agent of Deity in creating man -- when matter stood opposed to Spirit as that which is accursed. Here 'a dam' is not a mere play upon words, for it means much. It illustrates the separation of man from God, and the obstacle the serpent, sin, would impose between man and his Creator. The dissection and definition of words, aside from their metaphysical meaning, is not scientific" (p. 338) . . . and so and so on.

I beg to assure my hearers that this sublime passage is as I have read it. You will observe that Moses is also set aside in it as a blind guide to mortal minds, and that Mrs. Eddy has penetrated mysteries where the friend of God was at fault. Perhaps the only point in the passage to which one is able to give one's cordial consent is that the word Adam, as interpreted by the American prophetess, does indeed "suggest the thought of darkness upon the face of the deep."

Or consider this comment upon the ninth verse of the first chapter of Genesis -- a verse which would, superficially considered, appear to offer at least some little difficulty to a lady who denies God's creation of matter, the goodness and even the reality of matter itself, and at the same time pledges herself to a belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures. But Mrs. Eddy is undaunted.

"And God called the dry land Earth: and the gathering together of the waters called He seas; and God saw that it was good." Here is the comment: --

"Here the human concept and Divine idea seem confused by the translator, but they are not so in the scientifically Christian meaning of the text. Upon Adam devolves the pleasureable task of finding names for all material things; but Adam has not yet appeared in the narrative. In metaphor, the dry land illustrates the absolute formations instituted by mind, while water symbolizes its elements. Spirit duly feeds every object, as it appears in the line of creation, so that it may express the fatherhood and the motherhood of God. Spirit names and blesses all. Without natures particularly defined all things would be alike, and creation full of nameless children, wanderers from the parent mind, strangers in a tangled wilderness" (p. 506).

This is the whole of the comment; and it, as well as the preceding passage, is an admirable example of Mrs. Eddy's style and methods. Upon myself, who have really attempted to understand what she means, I can only say that the effect has been one resembling that of incipient imbecility. They are certainly English words arranged in tolerably grammatical order; but they produce to my poor intelligence rather less than no meaning at all. I feel indeed, in her own beautiful expression, a "wanderer from the parent mind, a stranger in a tangled wilderness."

After these examples we are not surprised to learn the following facts.

The river Hiddekel means "Divine Science, understood and acknowledged." "In" (i-n) is "a term obsolete in Science, if used in reference to Spirit or Deity." "Gad" means "Science; spiritual being understood haste toward harmony." "Assher" means "Hope and Faith; spiritual compensation, the ills of the flesh rebuked." And lastly -- and this is a piece of exegesis that seems to me significant -- Gihon (a river) means "The rights of woman acknowledged morally, civilly, and socially" (pp. 581-588).


It would be possible to go on for ever quoting passages of this kind, in illustration of Mrs. Eddy's religious position -- I think it is the most confused and intricate that I have ever come across. I picture her seated at her desk with the Bible before her -- with what is called the Authorized Version -- and a small heap of second-rate Nonconformist commentaries upon the text. ("Adamah, red colour of the ground, dust, nothingness," brings back the memory of the Scripture Monday mornings at my private school.) Seated at her desk, then, absolutely confident that she is inspired from on high, yet dependent for mere technicalities of the etymological meaning of words upon the coarse erudition of dissenting divines, she proceeds to find her system in the Bible. Gad must mean something, therefore why should it not mean science, spiritual being, understood, haste towards harmony? There is no reason why it should not, therefore it does. There must be something about women's rights; Gihon seems tolerably unoccupied, therefore Gihon means women's rights. Here is Moses saying that God made mountains and seas and saw that they were good. But God did nothing of the sort: Moses entirely misunderstood the situation, or at any rate his translator did. Therefore this must be set right. And so on.

Now, I sincerely intended when I began this paper to take Mrs. Eddy seriously, but it is simply impossible. In religious matters she resembles a bull -- or shall we rather say a well-intentioned cow? -- in a china shop. She means ever so well; she has grasped the outline of the idea that Scripture can be allegorically interpreted, and that there is such a thing as symbolism; so she proceeds, as it were, to drink out of the spout of a coffeepot and put a slop-basin upon the top of her head to protect her from the sun. These clay objects, she argues, occasionally resemble other things than those for which they were designed; a china apple may serve as a pepper-pot; then why in the world should not a slop-basin serve as a hat?

Hence follows the scene of confusion and the sound of trampling and breakage, of which I have given you only the minutest glimpse.


When we turn to her philosophy, we are not in much better plight; for the most charitable construction that we can put upon her system is that she provided herself with the smaller edition of a philosophical dictionary, asked her friends the meaning of some words and guessed at the rest.

Briefly stated, her philosophical system, so far as it is coherent at all, is as follows: --

God is mind, and God alone has true existence in the highest sense. Man also is mind (she is not explicit as to whether man is, therefore, Divine or not; but we will be charitable and assume that she is not a sheer Pantheist, although this is a hard task when we read that God is "the only Ego"). But we will allow that man has a secondary kind of personality dependent upon God. Very well, then. Since God -- or shall we say, "The Divine"? -- alone is real, all that is opposed to the Divine must be unreal. But the Divine is Spirit, and the opposite of spirit is matter. Therefore matter is unreal. Again, God is good, therefore the opposite of good is not God, therefore it is not real; therefore evil has no existence.

Here, then, is the philosophy with which Mrs. Eddy sets out to attack the problems of sin and suffering. "There is no sin or suffering" is inscribed upon her banner. She is quite explicit about this. "There is but one primal cause," she says, "therefore there can be no effect from any other cause." (One notes in passing that she is apparently unaware of what are called secondary causes.) ". . . And there can be no reality in aught which proceeds not from this great and only cause." And again, "God does not cause man to sin, to be sick or die." And the conclusion is, as I have said, that sin, sickness, and death have no real existence.

But somehow the world persists in believing in these things; and this must be accounted for. This, then, is her solution. The mind of man has somehow become rather debased -- she does not explain how this is possible, if deterioration from the primal cause is an impossibility -- but -- well, it is so. This debased perception she calls by the name of "mortal mind," and sickness and death, though not real in themselves, have a kind of phantom life when regarded by mortal mind. The cure, then, is evident -- man must refuse to yield to the allurements of mortal mind; he must stoutly deny its veracity, and thus gradually the idea of sin and sickness will be eradicated, and with the eradication of the idea such an attenuated existence as they possess will also pass away.


Now in this summary we have really the pith of Mrs. Eddy's system. First let us expose the fallacies.

Mrs. Eddy does not understand the meaning of existence. She is right, in a hazy kind of way, when she thinks that God alone has existence in the highest sense; but she is wrong when she thinks, if she does so think, that there is no other kind of existence possible. She ignores the possibility that creation, secondary causes, and man's free-will may be capable of modifying the extension of God's original idea. She is, that is to say, an Idealist in such a sense that she denies any sort of reality to anything except ideas. She does not seem to be aware that matter may be a product of spirit and of a different constitution from spirit without thereby destroying the supremacy of spirit.

She contradicts herself also flatly, as I have already hinted. If nothing can truly exist except that which is in harmony with the creative Spirit, how is it, we ask, that mortal mind exists? She has no answer to this except that of saying that it doesn't. Yet she bases the existence of the idea of sin and matter upon the fact that it does, and that it is, moreover, extremely energetic. Here again is another contradiction. There can be no effect from any other cause except the Primal Cause, she tells us yet almost in the next paragraph she tells us that sin and matter, so far as they exist, have come into existence from mortal mind which is certainly anything but a Primal Cause.

It is really useless to go on -- it is like arguing with a fog. And her final retort, of course, silences us at once. We ourselves are in a condition of mortal mind, she informs us; therefore, of course, we cannot understand her. And indeed we cannot.


But is there nothing in her ideas? No, I think there is a good deal in them. There is that truth in them which the Christian religion has taught for nineteen centuries; namely that spirit is superior to matter, and the original cause of it, and that under certain circumstances spirit can control matter.

Here is the principle that is true under all her confusion. I say that the Christian religion has taught it for nineteen centuries; I will go further and say that the mind of man has grasped it since the creation of the world. It is this that underlies every miracle that God has ever wrought; it is by this that the Saints have lived; and it is this that modern psychologists are at last begining to verify by scientific methods. It is the vast and all-dominating principle on which we resist temptation, namely that spiritual interests are better worth securing than carnal; it is on that principle that the madman can perform feats impossible to the sane, and that the hypnotist can banish a nervous headache, and can, under certain circumstances, modify the ravages of organic disease. But it does not therefore follow that because the master is greater than the servant therefore the servant is a phantom; nor that there may not be occasions when the weary master can deal with matters better through his servant than himself, as when a doctor gives a chemical drug instead of hypnotism. "All good things are ours," says Browning, "nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps souls."

This, then, is our answer to Mrs. Eddy: You are right, we say, when you declare that God is a Spirit; you are wrong when you deny that the Word was made Flesh. You are right in proclaiming the superiority of Mind, you are wrong when you deny the existence of matter. You are right when you say with the Idealists that the qualities of matter have no existence apart from mind; you are wrong when you deduce from that proposition that if human minds ceased to perceive there is no Divine Mind to save the situation. You are right, then, with nearly every other heretic under the sun in your affirmations; you are absolutely wrong with absolutely every heretic in your negations.


We will pass on to the practical system of Christian Science. Now this is chiefly directed to the destruction of such delusions as bodily suffering by a means other than that of medical science. The success of this religion is indeed largely due to its results in this direction; for there is no question at all that cures are wrought by this extraordinary philosophy. The close, indeed, of Mrs. Eddy's remarkable book consists largely of testimonies to this effect; and one or two recent trials are evidences to the fact that, even if these cases were a little unfortunate owing to the perversion of mortal mind (which, as we have seen, can have no existence), yet that there are persons of integrity sufficiently satisfied as to Mrs. Eddy's claims to risk and indeed to sacrifice their lives in her cause.

I must confess that the extracts from rejoicing ex-patients, given in her book, seem to me a little unconvincing; but I am perfectly willing to allow that they are genuine, and that it is only my cold insular nature, coupled with my "mortal mind," that makes me hesitate, "I wish to say," writes a lady, "to those who think the price of our literature is too high, that if I could not get another copy, there is no price on earth that would induce me to part with my Science and Health. Not mentioning the money paid for doctor's bills, I gave for one medical book $3.50, for another, $6.75, and after studying these I found I had more diseases than before their purchase."

(This reminds me of Mr. Jerome's experience in similar circumstances; his was even more shocking, for, perhaps you will remember that he discovered that he had every disease enumerated in the book except housemaid's knee.)

"For the small sum of $3," the lady continues, "I purchased a copy of Science and Health, and through reading it understandingly found I had no diseases. It always brings a feeling of pity when I hear any one say our text-book is too costly. Who would not give three dollars to be freed from all diseases? I seemed to have all, or nearly all, the ills that flesh is heir to. I will not try to enumerate them, but one that I was made free from -- one that had always been with me -- was a pain on the top of my head. . . . The doctors told me that I never would be freed, as my brain was too large for the space allotted to it, and that was what caused the pressure and pain. Soon after reading Science and Health I forgot that I had a brain that was too large, for all the pain and pressure was gone. Oh! I can never tell how free I felt, with no pain after so many years of suffering (p. 613). -- M. M. S. CLINTON, Iowa."

But this same lady seems to have been but an imperfect disciple, for she informs us also that "from being a shadow of ninety-five pounds, she reached one hundred and sixty-five pounds" from a perusal of the book. Surely she should rather have ceased to weigh any pounds at all since matter is a delusion! Yet we cannot but rejoice at her liberation even to this extent, for, previously to this, we learn that she was in the habit of taking medicine every fifteen minutes throughout the day.

And this is a tolerably characteristic example of Mrs. Eddy's followers. Honestly, I opened the book at random, when I fell upon this precious passage. Perhaps I was guided to do so. But I do not say they are all of this nature; I am quite willing to allow that even objective diseases may be cured by Mrs. Eddy's system; for the power of self-suggestion is certainly a remarkable fact; and I should hesitate from attempting to limit the effect of a convinced mind acting upon the body. But where I take exception to the system is in the fact that bodily disease seems to be selected alone for treatment from all the manifestations of mortal mind. Food also, according to the new gospel, ought to be a delusion; so is money, so are carriages and horses and trains and steamboats and clothes -- for they are all manifestations of a thing which does not exist, since God is Spirit and Spirit is all. Yet I am not aware that Christian Scientists have less than three square meals a day -- in fact, I am acquainted with one family belonging to this denomination which joyfully sits down to a late supper of tinned lobster, exclaiming at the liberating doctrine which tells them that there is no such thing as indigestion. Mrs. Eddy herself wears, I believe, a black silk dress; she certainly charges three dollars fifty cents for her miracle-working book, demanding prepayment, and, I rather fancy, a sum of about twenty pounds sterling for a course of higher study; I happen to know that her followers travel by train -- and, in fact, lay themselves open generally to the charge of not quite believing what they say.


Yet what do they say to this? They say that at present concession must be made to these fantastic ideas, the mortal mind of the rest of the world is still too strong for the elect, and that they must continue to wear their chains a little longer. Mrs. Eddy goes even further, and sadly laments the limiting power of vulgar credulity. "Until the advancing age," she writes, "admits the efficacy and supremacy of mind, it is better to leave surgery, and the adjustment of broken bones and dislocations to the fingers of a surgeon, while you confine yourselves chiefly to mental reconstruction and the prevention of inflammation." Another irresistible parallel suggests itself. When David Copperfield, you remember, was giving his little supper, ending as it did in such a lamentable manifestation of mortal mind, under the delusive influence of non-existent alcohol, one by one the preparation of the dishes was consigned to the manipulation of the pastrycook round the corner, thereby allowing Mrs. Cripps, his landlady, to "give her undivided attention to the potatoes" and "to serve up the cheese and the celery as she would wish to see it done." But a good time is coming, says the prophetess: "The time approaches when mortal mind will forsake its corporeal, structural, and material basis, when immortal mind and its formations will be apprehended in science, and material beliefs will not interfere with spiritual facts."

Yet, until that time comes, we may surely be pardoned if we continue to see a little inconsistency in all this, and to explain what successes are attained by the system by the principle of self-suggestion rather than by a philosophical fallacy. It might be otherwise if there was any really startling evidence that Christian Scientists believed what they said. When Mrs. Eddy ascends a pillar like St. Simon Stylites, or confines her diet to pulse and water like the holy children -- for even we do not ask that she should subsist entirely on high and noble ideas -- when American professors of this creed cross the Atlantic on millstones, or even without them, upborne by their supreme consciousness of the superiority of mind over matter -- even, we might almost say, when the preachers of this religion go out barefooted and brownfrocked -- for we will grant them that concession to mortal mind for the present -- to proclaim the good news of the kingdom to those who cannot afford three dollars fifty cents as the price of their liberation -- when we see all this, I say -- when we see even one-hundredth part of the self-denial of the meanest among the Christian saints, or the very faintest sign that God is working among them in a manner in which He does not work in hypnotic establishments, perhaps then we shall be able to treat them with more respect and less laughter, and be patient enough to study their complicated books with something resembling sympathy.


In conclusion, then, we have seen that Christian Science cannot claim, in any acknowledged sense of those words, to be either Christian or Scientific. It is a digest of an emasculated Protestantism and a misunderstood Idealism manifested in an inconsistent course of life. Yet Mrs. Eddy has one true principle -- namely, that mind is master of matter; and she has proclaimed this principle to an undiscerning and credulous public who had forgotten it, sunk in materialism, or, at the very best, in an utterly conventional and de-spiritualised form of Christianity, in language resembling that of a would-be minor prophet confined in an American asylum on the charge of thinking himself the Apostle John. To such people as these, accustomed to regard matter as supreme, and religion as a kind of pleasing emotion largely dependent on the state of the liver, her message has come as a revelation; and for this, I think, we may be thankful. Anything in the world -- the creed of the Hottentot or of the Red Indian -- I had almost said even spiritualism itself -- is better than materialism. It is better to be aware of the spiritual world, seeing it through even Mrs. Eddy's spectacles, than not to be aware of it at all; and it is something to know that God is Love, even if one forgets that He must also have some attribute corresponding to common sense.

For this, then, we may be thankful, though it is hard to preserve our gratitude when we consider the huge superincumbent weight of dross that lies about the gold; still more, when we remember the thousands of immortal souls whom God made for Himself, whom He endowed with reason, and whom Mrs. Eddy has succeeded in diverting from the path that leads to Him. But if all roads lead to Rome, at least a great many may lead to God, and it is impossible to say that many Americans, and, indeed, English as well, are not better as cheerful, healthy-bodied, though mind-deluded, "Scientists" than as narcotic, materialistic, hopeless invalids. This is, I am afraid, faint praise, but it is all that I have the heart to utter.


You will forgive me, perhaps, if I end with two or three recommendations to any who have to deal with persons suffering from this distressing form of thought.

First, I am sure that we must keep our tempers; and, secondly, our sense of humour. If it is true that Protestantism rises in any degree from the absence of this latter virtue, I am certain that Christian Science, its latest development, rises almost entirely from it. I do not say that no scientist possesses a grain of humour but that such is bound to keep it in a locked cupboard when he treats of his religion. Let us therefore bring to bear this genial solvent of laughter and see whether Christian Science is as impervious to it as to so many other facts of the world in which we live.

But supremely let us remember that the sacramental system is the one and only positive scheme which can be advanced with any hope of success. It is from the loss of this that this new heresy has had its rise. When matter was no longer understood to be the divinely-appointed vehicle of spirit, it became its enemy. Let it be our business, then, so to know our own faith that we may state it intelligently to others; that we may show how fallen matter, evil indeed so far as it is abused, has been caught up and purified by the divinely-inspired Revelation of God; how bread and wine brought forth from the earth by the labour of man for bodily sustenance are transformed by divine power into the Bread that comes down from heaven and the Atoning Blood of the Son of God; how human words that in one man's mouth may deceive and ruin, in another's may convey the message of heavenly pardon; how the water that man defiles yet flows from the Paradise of God and washes souls as well as bodies -- how, in fact, the whole range of matter that had become man's enemy has become again his friend -- and how that which was an occasion of falling has turned again to his wealth and peace; and how supremely, as the very keystone of the glorious arch that God has built from earth to heaven, hangs the doctrine of the Incarnation, by which the Creator became linked ineffably to the creature, and the spiritual to the material in bonds that are eternal; and how, finally, the truth that the Word was made Flesh illustrates, underlies, and emphasizes in a fashion of which man could never have dreamed, the further truth of which it is the correlative, that God is a Spirit, that they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth; that God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.

U. -- March, 1907.

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