A Reasonable Faith
A Reasonable Faith
Introducing the Sea of Faith Network
by David Boulton
David Boulton is a member of the UK Sea of Faith steering committee
and wrote the following article as an introductory pamphlet for the Network.
David has written widely on Quaker history and his forthcoming book In
Fox's Footsteps, relates Fox's seventeenth century theology to the radical
non-realist theology of the late twentieth century.
Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. The objectives
of the Sea of Faith Network are "to explore and promote religious faith as
a human creation".
This version was current at 6-Oct-96
Most of us think of ourselves as seekers: seekers after knowledge, seekers after
truth. If our lives have purpose, we would like to find it. If life itself has
meaning, we would love to know what it is. life is commonly seen as a journey, a
pilgrimage, and we travel more securely if we think we know where we are going.
Religion sometimes offers clear-cut answers, promises to reveal Truth, unveils
mysteries, and shows us the road mapped out for us in the Great Cosmic Plan. In
an uncertain world, it claims to offer certainties, safety and salvation.
If you are looking for clear-cut answers, absolute truths, moral and spiritual
certainties, then read no further. Sea of Faith offers none of these. Indeed, it
suggests that they can't be found because they don't exist. Life just
isn't that simple!
Instead, we must make our own meaning, create our
own purpose, find ways of working out our own salvation. Not alone, as isolated
individuals, but together, in community. That's a tall order, a challenge, an
If the adventure appeals, you may find that the Sea of Faith Network has
something to offer you, and that you have something to offer the Sea of Faith
Network. If you don't want to settle for take-away truths, ready-made, written
in the Book, you may like to take a dip with us and start making waves.
But before you read further, a few words of caution. The Sea of Faith Network
has no orthodoxy of its own, no line to push, no official formulation of truth.
We call ourselves a "network", rather than something more formal and
institutional, precisely because we see ourselves as autonomous individuals,
each with our own stories, traditions, insights, disciplines.
So it follows that my "Introduction to the Sea of Faith Network" is
bound to be different from someone else's. It is one member's view: nothing
more. It inevitably reflects my own background - which happens to be Quaker,
Humanist, and card-carrying member of the awkward squad. An Anglican, Jewish or
Buddhist member of the Network would write quite differently - though always
from the shared viewpoint which sees all religious faith as a human creation.
That is why this booklet, like all Network publications, carries the necessary
health warning that opinions expressed therein are those of the author and must
not be assumed to be shared by all members, or in any way to express
"official" Network policy.
This applies even when I venture, as I occasionally do, to write "we"
rather than "I". "I" is a tedious pronoun; and in any case,
even a Network of individuals is not so atomised as to lead us to paraphrase the
Iron Lady and proclaim that there is no such word as "we". Thus, for
instance, we do not believe that every individual man, woman and child, in
isolation from each other, creates her or his own religion, his or her own god.
Human societies, human collectives, have shaped our wholly human religious
traditions. So of course I can say "We in the Network...". But
remember that the "we" is my we: my view of what the Network, or most
of its members, might agree on.
One more caution. I have called this booklet "A Reasonable Faith". I
have done so for two reasons. One has to do with historical resonances. A
booklet of this name was published in 1871 and proved an important factor in the
transformation of the Society of Friends (my own tradition) from a conservative
and unreasoning sect into a liberal body ready to embrace modern thought. But
there is a more important reason. I want to emphasise, simply and without
compromise, that our "faith", our philosophy, our world-view, must be
reasonable and rational if it is to have any value. The alternative - an
unreasonable, irrational faith - is not only pointless but immeasurably
But of course I do not mean to imply that Sea of Faith alone offers a reasonable
and rational faith! Nor do I want to suggest that Reason has some existence of
its own, some god-given status which puts it beyond human culture. I urge a
reasonable faith: but I understand very well that human reason has its limits.
If, after picking your way through these cautions and qualifications, you decide
to read further; and if, after reading further, you find yourself broadly in
sympathy with our view of religious faith as a human creation which has not yet
irretrievably lost the capacity to enlighten and inspire; then you may wish to
join us. And if you do take the plunge, you will find that we value imagination
no less than reason, heart no less than head.
But first, those questions...
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What is the Sea of Faith Network?
Many people have heard of Sea of Faith but are not very clear what it is, what
it does and what it stands for. The Network has had more than its share of media
publicity, some of which has suggested that it is an organisation of
"Godless vicars" or "atheist priests", or a special-interest
lobby within the churches, or a plot to infiltrate religion with humanism, or
the start of a new sect. It is none of these things.
Sea of Faith is an informal network of men and women, some attached to places of
worship, some not, who accept the modern view that all the religious faith
traditions are wholly human creations, not the product of "revelation"
from some extra-human source. What this means, and its implications for what we
mean by God, prayer and "faith" itself will be looked at later. I
simply want to emphasise here that this view of religion as a human creation is
the common denominator which brings together an otherwise very diverse group of
people: radical Christians and "post-Christians", humanists, and
liberals in some of the many faith traditions which are now firmly established
Within this informal network, in local groups or by personal contact, in
national conferences, magazines and newsletters, mailings and through the
Internet, members support each other, share their experiences, and explore the
implications of their shared view of religion as a human creation.
Some are clergy: men and women from most of the mainstream Christian
denominations and other traditions, including the Church of England, the Roman
Catholic Church and the nonconformist churches. Some are determined to stay
within their chosen or inherited tradition, refusing to abandon it to the
fundamentalists or those who cling to pre-modern supernaturalist notions. Some
only hang in there by their fingernails. Some have broken with organised
religion altogether, or have never been involved with it, but want to maintain
dialogue with those who see humanity's religious quest as one way, along with
poetry and music, all the arts and all the sciences, of making sense of the
human condition and giving imaginative expression to the human spirit.
So the Sea of Faith Network is not an exclusively Christian organisation. While
it includes many church people, it is equally open to members of all faiths and
Sea of Faith is not a sect. It has no hierarchy, and no leader. Nor does it have
even a minimal creed. Even its stated objects, "to explore and promote
religious faith as a human creation", are intentionally ambiguous and
provisional. If that gives the Network a tendency to anarchy, it is an anarchy
tempered by care and concern for each other. No doubt is too shocking, no idea
too challenging, to be expressed within the Network. Sea of Faith is a network
of friends and acquaintances on a shared, open-minded quest for a rational and
creative framework for the one life we have to live.
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How did the Network start?
In the 1960s Bishop John Robinson published Honest to God, arguing that
it had become anachronistic in the modern world to think of God as a Being or
SuperPerson "out there". God was better understood as
"within" rather than outside. Although this idea had a long history,
especially in the mystical and religious humanist traditions and the Society of
Friends (Quakers), it caused quite a stir in church circles - not least because
it was expressed in clear, simple language which the man and woman in the pew
could understand, and published in a cheap paperback edition which everyone
Then in 1980 the Rev. Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, published
Taking Leave of God, described as "a resumption of the discussion
about the nature of God begun by John Robinson and shelved for too long".
Taking his title from a sermon by the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, who said
that "Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes
leave of God", Cupitt argued that "an objective metaphysical God is no
longer either intellectually secure nor even morally satisfactory as a basis for
spiritual life". Instead, "faith in God must be understood as
expressing an autonomous decision to pursue the religious ideal for its own
sake". Theological realism - belief in an objectively "real" God,
somehow outside and independent of human consciousness - had to be replaced by a
free, agnostic faith - with no certainties and no guarantees.
Taking Leave of God was denounced by some churchmen as
"atheist" and welcomed by others as a modern expression of Christian
or religious humanism. As the debate raged, Cupitt was invited by the BBC to
make a six-part television series charting the transition from traditional
"realist" religion to "the twentieth century view that religion
is simply human": a view he called "nonrealism" (which is not to
be confused with unrealistic! ) . The series, and the book which
accompanied it, was called The Sea of Faith.
In the wake of the broad debate provoked by the series, small groups of radical
clergy and church members began meeting to discuss ways of exploring and
promoting this renewed understanding of what religion was about. Starting with a
mailing list of 143 potential sympathisers, they organised a national
"exploratory conference for radical Christians" in 1988, followed by
another twelve months later. Three months after the second conference, in
October 1989, the decision was made to set up a Sea of Faith Network "to
explore and promote religious faith as a human creation". The words
"radical", "Christian", "non-realist" and
"church" were deliberately omitted from the minutes of the meeting, to
broaden the range of membership to embrace humanists, others with no formal
religious allegiance, and those who identified with a religious faith-tradition
other than Christian.
The founding members set up a Steering Committee, membership grew, the
conference became an annual event, a quarterly Sea of Faith magazine was
published and some twenty local groups were established. The media discovered
Sea of Faith, and some of those who had been thrust into the front line found
themselves interrogated by reporters seeking to expose this new breed of godless
men of God - (and it was mainly men in those days!). Membership applications
began to come in from Europe, America and South Africa, and a flourishing Sea of
Faith Network was formed in New Zealand, building on the pioneering work begun
there by Professor Lloyd Geering in the 1960s.
In 1994 the Bishop of Chichester sacked the priest in charge at Staplefield, the
Rev. Anthony Freeman, for publishing a book (subversive things, books!) called
God in Us expressing Sea of Faith views in simple, direct language.
Freeman was the first Anglican clergyman this century to be dismissed for
publishing theological opinions unacceptable to his bishop. The resultant
publicity produced a big boost in Network membership. Meanwhile, radical or
non-realist theology began to be taken seriously in academic circles, and
started making waves in groups as stylistically different as the Anglican church
and the Society of Friends.
At its 1994 AGM, after five years of growth, the Network adopted a formal but
"minimalist" constitution designed to safeguard it against the
development of hierarchical and patriarchal structures and to ensure that
control remains with its members. A Steering Committee is elected annually to
serve the membership, organise annual conferences, and generally further the
work of the Network. The constitution, like the Network's statement of
objectives, is open to change and renewal, for Sea of Faith stands for a law
written not on tablets of stone but in human hearts.
The Network currently (1996) has a membership approaching a thousand in Britain,
with several hundred in its sister network in New Zealand. Local groups often
attract a wider circle of "attenders" who sample what is on offer in
their area before deciding whether to join the national Network. I shall return
later to the subject of what the Network actually does.
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Why "Sea of Faith"?
Sea of Faith may seem a strange name. It derives, of course, from the title of
Don Cupitt's television series and book. But where did he get it from, what does
it mean - and, in particular, what is meant here by "faith"?
In 1867 Matthew Arnold published his poem Dover Beach in which he
pictures himself beneath the famous white cliffs, on a moonlit night, listening
.....the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the
high strand...and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
The sound of the receding tide brings to his mind another receding sea, the
"Sea of Faith", an image of declining religion. He hears
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the
As Cupitt puts it, the poem "expressed the sense, common in his time, that
the ancient supernatural world of gods and spirits which had surrounded mankind
since the first dawn of consciousness was at last inexorably slipping
So Cupitt lifted "Sea of Faith" for his own title. But for him the
decline of traditional religion and its superstructures was not, as it was for
Arnold, a sad and melancholy business, but an opportunity to create something
new for the modern or post-modern age: a human idealism, religious in its deep
seriousness of purpose and commitment, but freed from the authoritarianism and
supernaturalism of the old "gods and spirits" which had sometimes
inspired but often terrorised humankind.
The sea provides other useful images. It is ceaselessly changing, never standing
still, never fixed, always in motion, having no permanent form or shape. It
can't be pinned down. Traditional metaphysical religion was fixed, unchangeable,
firm. It was rock, where contemporary faith must ride the wave, the swell,
embracing perpetual motion.
But why speak of "faith" at all? Not because we see any merit in
"having faith" in unprovable religious dogmas and doctrines. We do not
set up "faith" against reason, as metaphysical religion tended to do,
nor do we use it as a synonym for blind belief. Faith for us is the trust that
it is possible to give value and meaning to life: we can't prove it, but we
choose to live by that faith, to trust to it, much as we choose to have faith in
our friends and lovers. In this sense every world-view which offers value,
purpose and meaning is a "faith", whether "religious" or
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Explain what you mean when you say religion is a "human
creation". Does that apply to God too?
People have always believed that other people's religion was man-made,
but have often assumed that their own was revealed by God. This produced
difficulties for thinking people. Why should God reveal the Truth only to Jews,
or Christians, or Moslems? One answer was that God revealed his Truth to all
peoples, but only one group (invariably the one to which we happen to belong)
interpreted him correctly. Another answer was that God planted some knowledge of
himself in all human hearts but different cultures then codified this implanted
knowledge into different religious systems. This might make sense if all
religions witnessed to the same truths and lived in mutually supportive peaceful
co-existence, but they notoriously do not. The unhappy history of religion is
one of mutual intolerance, persecution and holy war. Some major religions, and
particularly Christianity, have insisted that they alone have God's Truth:
"No man cometh unto the Father but by me". So to admit that other
faiths are also divinely inspired seems to be a denial of a central teaching of
one's own tradition.
The assumption that one religion - our religion - is the true one and all
others are merely human and false is understandable when there is more or less
complete ignorance of the beliefs and practices of the others, as used to be the
case when east was east and west west and ne'er the twain met. But the twentieth
century shrinking of the world has changed all that. Not only do we read about
other cultures in our newspapers and see them on television, but in increasing
numbers we invade them for our holidays or on business. Most important of all, here in our own
country we have been transformed in the last half-century into a multi-cultural,
multi-faith society. It may be no accident that Sea of Faith is strong in areas
like Leicester and Loughborough where Muslim and Hindu live alongside Christian
(practising or nominal) communities.
So we have come to learn that all faith traditions have developed
gradually, shaped by human processes, human history, human culture and human
language. Religion is no different in this respect from music, poetry, painting.
It is, as they are, an expression of human creativity, an outpouring of the
human spirit. This, then, is what we mean when we acknowledge that all religious
faith is a "human creation" - and none the worse for that!
Where, then, does that leave God? First, not all faith traditions have an
identical God-concept, and some have no God-concept at all. Buddhism, for
example, is non-theistic, and Hinduism has divinity expressed in a huge variety
of forms. But the creator-God has been, and remains, central to the three major
monotheist traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Have they all made a big
mistake in believing that their one God created the world, and humankind in his
I suggest that there has been a growing understanding within all three
traditions, but particularly within liberal Christianity and Judaism, that the
God traditionally worshipped as the source of our being cannot be wholly
divorced from human consciousness and human language. God, as William Blake put
it two hundred years ago, "resides in the human breast". God is love,
and love is human. To quote Blake again, "Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
is God"; but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is also "Man...For
Mercy has ahuman heart, Pity a human face, And Love the
human form divine, And Peace the human dress".
So yes, we are saying with Bishop John Robinson that God is not a metaphysical
entity "out there". Such a God is too small. "He" is no
longer credible. God is, and always was, a metaphor for the values which, though
we understand them to be generated by human culture, we have come to think of as
"ultimate" and "eternal": Blakes' mercy, pity, peace and
love, but also justice, compassion, truth, integrity, beauty.
After all, most educated "believers", with the exception of
fundamentalists (those who still believe in the literal truth of the bible, from
Adam and Eve, through Jonah and the "whale", to the virgin birth of
Jesus) have gradually abandoned the idea that angels and demons, including the
devil himself, are "real" objective beings. Instead, they are seen as
figurative and allegorical, human projections of good and evil. A
"real", objective God is for many modern believers the sole survivor
of this ancient belief-system. But Sea of Faith suggests it is time to
"take leave" of a "real" God "out there", to
recognise that "he" too is figurative and allegorical. This is not to
deny the reality of the experience which is sometimes described as
"experience of God", but it is to understand the experience and its
reality in a different way.
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Isn't this just atheistic humanism dressed up as
It is humanism, certainly, but "atheistic" demands definition. If an
atheist is defined as one who does not believe in a "real"
metaphysical God, a God who exists independently of human consciousness, then
Sea of Faith may be called atheist - but you will then have to apply the term to
many Christians, particularly in the mystical tradition, who have always
understood God as metaphor and symbol. You will also have to label as atheist
many eastern religious traditions, including Buddhism and those strains of
Hinduism which interpret their gods allegorically. If the term
"atheist" is to retain a distinctive meaning, as it should, it must
surely describe the belief that all concepts of God and gods are meaningless,
mere delusions. This may be the position of some members of Sea of Faith,
who would argue that the word "God" has become so debased by his
professed followers that it is best dropped altogether. But others within the
Network are reluctant to leave God to the literalists. For them the God of the
old God-stories, interpreted as metaphor and symbol, remains a living
experience. That's not atheism as it is generally understood!
But I readily accept that it is a form of humanism. Humanism is a dirty word in
some circles because some humanist organisations have seemed more concerned to
attack all and every form of religion than to concentrate on the positive
promotion of human values and human autonomy. But that is changing. There is a
growing tendency among humanists to acknowledge that humanism has many
expressions, including the celebration of human values and the human spirit in
religious language and practice; and this is paralleled by a growing awareness
within the churches that values, whether they are labelled "religious"
or "secular", are essentially human. So Sea of Faith has become a
place where humanism and radical religion meet and overlap, and
"humanist" has taken its place alongside "radical",
"post-Christian", "non-literalist" and
"non-realist" as alternative descriptions we have come to use of
ourselves within the Network.
This does not mean that we worship Humanity, setting it up as a new god.
We have no illusions about the perfectibility of man- or woman-kind. Our species
is capable of great good, and of unimaginable evil - and it is one species among
many, differentiated from others by its consciousness and self consciousness,
which we are only just beginning to understand. That gives usunique
responsibility: responsibility we cannot transfer to some celestial being
imagined as wholly independent of human history, language and culture.
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But if there are no absolute standards of right and wrong,
doesn't this lead to moral anarchy: a "me first", "every man for
himself" attitude? Isn't this individualism run riot?
We all acknowledge that the laws of the land are made by our representatives in
Parliament: all too human beings. But we don't say that, because our laws are
human-made rather than God-given, we can pick and choose which laws we are going
to obey, or write our own statute book. We acknowledge that laws evolve by human
consensus and their authority is dependent on that consensus. As times and
conditions change, so we change our laws too. Laws, then, are relative, though
for centuries they were perceived as absolute.
It is the same with the moral law. This action is "right" and that
action "wrong", not because an external God says so but because we
human beings, together, in community, have so decided. Some actions - murder,
rape, theft, but also dishonesty, betrayal, selfishness - have such an
overwhelming weight of consensus against them that we have come to think of them
as "absolutely" wrong. But there are many issues, such as the use of
force for just ends, or the complexities of sexual relationships, on which there
is no consensus and opinions differ.
Nor do we escape the human responsibility of distinguishing right from wrong if
we choose to look to an ultimate and absolute authority to decide for us for we
still have to interpret the word of that ultimate authority, whether it be God,
the bible or the church, and interpretation is necessarily and unavoidably
human, culturally conditioned, provisional - and fallible.
While we all have a responsibility to our own individual conscience, the
business of making moral judgements devolves largely on our human
community. It is in community, in society with others, through common
experience and culture, that we generate our ideas of right and wrong. This is
the opposite of moral anarchy or rampant individualism.
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How can a Sea of Faith priest or minister recite creeds he
or she doesn't believe, or lead the church in prayer? And what about life after
As I have made clear, many Sea of Faith members do not belong to creed-based
churches - or, indeed, to any religious group at all. But many others do, and
some are priests and ministers, so the question is often asked.
It might be better to rephrase it to ask what SoFers, whether priests or
congregation, think they are doing when they recite creeds in religious
services. First we should recognize that in the case of the Church of England
the ancient creeds are officially described as "formularies", attempts
by earlier generations of Christians to express their beliefs in words. But
neither priests nor lay-people are any longer required by the church to
interpret these formularies literally or regard them as timeless, unchanging
expressions of "truth". To recite the creed is to reaffirm the
tradition, to connect with the past, to glory in the poetry. But it does
not imply assent to, or a literal understanding of, every proposition
formulated by church fathers centuries ago, often after bitter debate and
compromise. If it did, many a bishop would feel conscience-bound to leave the
Again, use of prayer books, set prayers, and even extempore prayers need not
necessarily imply a belief that "someone" "out there" is
"hearing" what is said and "answering" it, all by some
supernatural process. The psychological utility of prayer is widely recognised,
as is the fact that collective prayer can motivate collective action. A
heartfelt desire for peace may find expression in prayer, which may then
energise practical efforts at peace- making. Prayer-as-action rather than
prayer-as-petition remains potent for many. As the old Quaker poem puts it,
"Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer."
I might add that there is a rising interest in the religious communities in what
theologians call the "apophatic tradition" with its emphasis on
silence, meditation and absence of dogma. Many people find this tradition of
"prayer" or "worship" has more to offer them than the
traditional highly structured "service", with its verbal liturgies and
litanies. The Sea of Faith Steering Committee, and some local groups, make a
practice of starting every meeting with a short period of silence, rather in the
style of a Quaker "meeting for worship". Whether individual members
think of this as a time for prayer, meditation, contemplation or getting
themselves in the right state of mind is of little consequence. What is real is
the silence, and its role in preparing minds for the business that follows.
So there are in SoF those who happily recite creeds as a badge of belonging to
their tradition, and those whose traditions simply lack (or have discarded) the
badge. Again, some in the Network think it important to work within their
tradition as a valid vehicle for human spirituality or values, helping to adapt
and refine it to meet the needs and insights of contemporary life, while others
prefer to cut loose and make a fresh start. Each respects the other not least
because many of us can never quite make up our minds to which of the two groups
we really belong!
As for immortality, a Sea of Faith view would have it that concepts of
"eternal life", "life after death", "Heaven" and
"Hell" are necessarily human constructs. Just as Heaven and Hell are
now widely understood as states of mind in this life, so traditional doctrines
of eternal life are ways of expressing the profound conviction, common in all
cultures (and confirmed, of course, by modern biological science), that we are
part of a process which began long before our birth and will continue long after
our death. Indeed, it is precisely because every individual life makes its own
unique contribution to the drama of the living universe that it is seen as
having "eternal" significance. And it i5 precisely because our one
life in this world is all that we have that we have a responsibility to make the
most of it. To see life "here below" as a mere preparation for joys
above (or horrors in outer darkness) - that is to diminish it, to trivialise it.
We reject such reductionism.
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This is beginning to sound very rationalist. Is Sea of Faith
all head and no heart?
Hardly! We do think it is important to fashion a rational and reasonable faith,
since, as I suggested in my Introduction, the alternative is an irrational and
unreasonable one. But no faith is fully human if it excludes the emotions,
imagination and the creative spirit. A faith which fails to rise above
schoolroom logic will never change the world, just as a faith based solely on
intuition, instinct and emotion may change it for the worse.
We need head and heart together: reason and imagination, history and mystery.
The human spirit finds expression in poetry as well as philosophy, the arts as
well as the sciences, deeds as well as words, contemplation as well as action.
Gerard Winstanley in the sixteenth century said "God is Reason".
William Blake a century later said "God is Imagination". I would enrol
them both as honorary founder-members of the sea of Faith Network.
Part of religious awareness is a sense of awe and wonder at the universe of
which we are part. Like the ancient psalmist, we feel the urge to "make a
joyful noise". The fifteenth-century Hindu-Muslim mystic Kabir expressed it
like this in one of his songs:
Dance my heart! dance today with joy.
The strains of love fill the days and
the nights with music,
and the world is listening to its melodies:
with joy, life and death dance to the rhythm of this music.
The hills and
the sea and earth dance.
The world of man dances in laughter and tears.
Why put on the robe of a monk, and live aloof from the world in lonely pride?
Behold! my heart dances in the delight of a hundred arts;
Creator is well pleased.
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