Double Religious Belonging and Liminality: An Anthropological Reflection, 297-312.

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Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J. is Professor of Theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi, and Director, Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai, India. A well known international speaker and writer, he has written extensively on issues of mission and liberation theology. He is also a regular lecturer at the EAPI

Is it possible for a person who belongs to one particular socio­religious group to feel at home and participate in another? Exploring this question at an abstract level either sociologically or philosophically the answer would probably be no. Each religion considers its wordview and doctrines as absolutely true. It seems unthinkable that someone can profess at the same time two such truth systems. Sociologically speaking, religion is a deep source of personal and social identity, even in the so-called secularized societies. Therefore it seems questionable that a person can assert his/her identity with two different socio‑religious groups at the same time. But phenomenologically we do seem to come across people who seem to feel at home in two different religious traditions. So I think that this question should not be explored in the abstract but rather with reference to some concrete examples.

Anthropologists and theologians, for example, speak of the phenomenon of double or parallel religion in popular religiosity (Schreiter 1985: 144‑158). Some well-known examples are the Afro‑Brazilian cults in Brazil and many independent churches in Africa. In the Afro‑Brazilian cults, for example, groups of people who would identify themselves as Christian invoke saints who both have Christian and African names. Outsiders think of them as syncretistic or parallel religious systems. But their practitioners seem comfortable with them.

A combination and even integration of local cosmic religiosities and pan‑local metacosmic soteriologies are seen, not only as normal, but even inevitable and necessary by theologians like Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka ( Pieris 1988: 69‑86). These phenomena are found all over the world when the so-called 'great religions' spread across new geographical areas. The cosmic and meta‑cosmic nature of the different elements do not make their coexistence or even integration a problem. People actually live in different symbolic worlds and seem to move from one to the other with a  certain ease. The coexistence, if not integration, between the two is  often marked by local historical and social conditions. Various studies of popular religiosity in different continents have shown that, side by side with the official and approved liturgies of the churches, people invoke other powers—often spirits and ancestors —in times of need for protection from danger, for healing from physical, mental and social maladies and for establishing favorable relations with the powers of nature and society (Bamat and Wiest 1999). Such rituals seem prevalent at times of the rites of passage in individual and social life. These practices are variously condemned, tolerated or even encouraged in the form of popular devotions by the official Church. Sacred places and times, powerful mediators living and dead and pilgrimages and special penances are common all over the world even today.

At a more elite level, in recent years we have the practice of oriental methods of meditation and concentration by many Christians. A method is not simply a technique, it leads to an experience. These experiences have particular spiritual‑theological meanings in a given religious tradition. Some can use these methods in a superficial way to discover a certain mental calm and feel happy that these seem, at a certain level, non‑religious; they could even be promoted as such. Some others may remain firmly rooted in their religious tradition, but seem to profit by some beautiful texts or symbols or practices of another religious tradition, which they seek to integrate in their own tradition. Double belongingness is not a problem here. But there are others who also struggle with their spiritual‑theological meanings, as for instance, Swami Abhishiktananda (1998). People like Gandhi seem to have had a certain ease in relating to Jesus and the Gospels, without ceasing to be Hindu.

When people belonging to a particular religious tradition encounter another tradition at a certain depth and find its scriptures and spiritual practices inspiring and attractive the normal tendency is to try to integrate them into one's own tradition through a process of reinterpretation and/or adaptation. But in recent years we have examples of people who seek to experience both traditions seriously without seeking to integrate them too quickly, but living rather in tension. How can we understand these experiences?

It may be helpful, first of all, to distinguish between different kinds of rituals. Socio‑religious symbolic actions or rituals seem to be of three kinds. Some are need‑based and cater to the ordinary problems and tensions of life. At this level people do not seem to have any problem in crossing religious boundaries. Pilgrimage centers and sanctuaries as well as ceremonies of healing celebrated by pentecostal or charismatic groups attract crowds of people from different religions. A certain use of methods of meditation in traditions like yoga, vipassana and zen too need not go beyond this level of meeting a particular need for mental and personal peace. They focus on restful postures, exercises of breathing, and techniques of quietening mental activity and agitation through concentration on breathing or a verbal, pictorial or sound image.

Other rituals mark the relation of an individual to a social group at important moments of his/her life. These are called rites de passage. These are so closely related to a community's identity and integration that no one who does not belong to that community seeks to practice them. This is particularly true of the rituals that accompany the mysteries of birth and death and the event of initiation into adulthood. Cut off from the community they will have no meaning either. It is significant that even in societies that are secularized in which people are no longer practising their religion in any significant way, people still are faithful to the rituals surrounding birth, initiation to adulthood and death. There seems to be a need to mark these events with some gestures of transcendent meaning on the one hand, and on the other feel and even celebrate one's belongingness to a community that is constituted by such meaning.

A third kind are rituals of transcendence that relate a person‑in‑community to the Ultimate. These are celebrations of praise, thanksgiving and intercession. They relate in symbolic action to the Transcendent in and through, but beyond, the socio‑cultural structures and limits of a particular group. The festivals of most religious traditions, pilgrimages and rituals of worship like the Eucharist point primarily to the Transcendent, relativizing in the very process the symbolic structures through which it is done.

People would not feel free to participate in the rites de passage of another religious group. But at the level of the rituals that are need‑based focused around 'sacred' objects, places and persons of power and of the rituals of transcendence people seem ready to cross boundaries. In a broad way, this readiness seems to indicate that people are able to distinguish between the Transcendent and the various social‑symbolic worlds through which it is mediated and made present in history. Such readiness to cross boundaries in rituals that are not strictly socio‑structural is worth reflecting upon. Let us look a little more closely at this symbolic dimension of religion.

Religious Experience is Symbolic

Humans as spirits in bodies living in community are symbolic beings. All human experience including religious experience, is symbolic. It is mediated through symbols. Anything in nature or in human life could become symbolic when it is given a special connotative meaning in a particular context by a group of people. Social action too can become symbolic in this manner. An action in a human group involving communication is necessarily mediated through symbols. Some would say that all thought and human activity even when a person is alone is symbolic. Even experiences of emptiness seem to be negative correlates of positive symbols. But we need to go into this issue here.

No one experiences God or the Ultimate as such; only God can. God is experienced by the humans as manifested in a particular personal or social experience or event in which they are involved in some way, at least as observers. This happens always in a particular historical and cultural context. The experience is therefore lived, given expression to and communicated through symbols. Such experiences are often self‑authenticating. People who have the experience may try to explain it to others. But they themselves need no proof of it. No proofs or demonstrations can induce an experience either.

Symbols are not arbitrary, conventional products like signs. They are related in some way both to the reality experienced, the person‑in‑community who is experiencing it and the context in which the experience is happening. Symbols are therefore rooted. They are not like words in a language or conventional signs in science that can be picked up and used by any one anywhere. Symbolic actions as events often take the form of narratives. Symbols can also be real/physical and/or personal/relational.

Every religion has certain primordial or foundational experiences that are embodied in narratives (myths and/or scriptures) and social‑symbolic actions (rituals). Religious practice then becomes a tradition that seeks to relive and reactualize such foundational experiences. Memory therefore plays an important role. Tradition is a socio‑historical experience that is rooted in a particular community.

Since religious experience is symbolic, it is limited. It is an experience of Ultimate reality. But it is not an experience of that reality as such, but mediated by the social and historic circumstances of its manifestation. It is a true experience of the Ultimate. But it is not the experience of the Truth or the Ultimate as such. Every symbol embodies a correlation between the reality experienced and the person‑in‑community experiencing it. It is an absolute‑in‑the‑relative. It is a relation that holds in tension the Reality experienced and the community experiencing it. It is this rootedness in a relationship that saves it from being merely relativistic. Relativism is normally subjectivistic. But relationship always supposes a link with an object which holds in check the pure creativity of the subject.

Every symbol has an apophatic dimension built into it. This means that even when one is tied down to the symbol, one knows and feels that the Reality is beyond the symbol. One does not relativize the symbol. But one experiences it as limited. This experience makes space for other symbols. Such new symbols may be encountered in one's own life and experience if there is a search or progression in it. But in some cases, it is possible, of course, that one does not have this experience till one meets another person or group with a different symbolic system.

Since symbols are limited in this way, a pluralism of symbols of the same reality, even within the same religious tradition is possible. The pluralism can also mark a progression or development in tradition. All the symbols in a tradition may not be equally adequate to the reality. They may not be equally significant for the tradition. Some may have a key role. One may not feel comfortable with all the symbols even in one's own tradition. One may also be selective with regard to the symbols one encounters in other ecclesial or religious traditions. We can differentiate between respecting someone who follows a particular symbolic tradition and ourselves feeling at home in it, precisely because symbols are rooted in a socio‑historical context. An experience of a different socio‑historical context may be necessary before being able to appreciate the symbols that go with it.

Symbols and the Pluralism of Religions

Different religions are different symbolic experiences and expressions by different human communities in different historical and cultural contexts of the same Ultimate Reality. We do believe that there is only one God or Ultimate. The fact that different religions relate to the same Ultimate does not mean that they are the same or have equal merit., etc. Therefore comparative statements like "All religions are the same" or "All religions are equally true" should be avoided. Certainly they cannot be made a priori. It is doubtful whether we would make them a posteriori.

Sometimes we hear people say that the mystics have the same experience of God, though their symbolic expressions of their experience are different. I think that not only their expressions, but their experiences themselves are different. This difference comes from two directions. The historical and cultural contexts of the experiencing individuals and/or communities are different. That is, the symbolic mediations are different. Symbols affect not merely the expression but also the experience one has of the reality, since every symbol touches only one aspect of the reality. Secondly, the Ultimate Reality itself, especially if we believe it is personal, can manifest itself differently to different people in different social and historical circumstances.

Each religion is adequate to its followers in so far as it mediates an experience of the Ultimate to them. The different religions can be seen as different paradigms of divine‑human encounter. I do not think that there are any religions that represent purely human efforts reaching out to the Ultimate. This would be against the universal presence and action of God in the world.

Some religions claim a special revelation from God. But in order to be understood by the human group God has to speak in a particular language in a particular socio‑historical context. Secondly, God may choose the aspects of God's self that are being revealed to this particular group of humans. Thirdly, the humans in expressing and celebrating the revelation that they have from God are limited by the symbolic structures and the socio‑historical contexts of their celebration. This is what makes possible an increasing understanding or deepening of revelation. No particular revelation can be totally adequate to the infinite and inexhaustible mystery of God.

Since a human community is involved in the symbolic experiencing and expression of the Ultimate, not only limitations, both of the human agents and of the symbolic mediations, but also human sinfulness in many forms can influence the symbolic structures and their use. Socio‑political or even economic structures may condition both the mediations and their celebration. But there are always prophetic individuals or groups in each religious tradition that challenge and seek to reform such limitations.

If different religions are different symbolic experiences of the Ultimate, one particular symbolic experience cannot become the criterion to judge the authenticity or adequacy of the others. We can however speak of a negative criterion. If all symbolic manifestations have some authenticity, they cannot be mutually contradictory ‑ though such contradiction should not be too easily and quickly assumed. Common criteria for judgment should be evolved through dialogue.

Every religious tradition is unique in its own way. Beyond this, if a particular religious tradition claims a certain uniqueness in the context of the whole, this can only be an affirmation of faith, not a comparative statement. As an affirmation of faith, it is obviously not intelligible to the others. However, even this faith must be made meaningful in a historical context, if it has to have any significance for the life of the community and not remain an abstract a priori statement. And such a search for meaning cannot be at the expense of other religious communities. But in practice, every great or meta‑cosmic religion claims to be the best, if not the only way to God. Its effort to convert others to its own way has sometimes been aggressive.

Conversion from one religious tradition to another is however not excluded. But it is never the result of a comparative study of the different traditions. Every religion mediates a relationship between the divine and the human. Therefore a conversion can only be a response to a call by God. We may explore the socio‑historic conditions of such a call, but the call itself is ultimately a mystery that concerns the freedom of God and the freedom of the individual or group called by God. In history, conversions from a cosmic religion to a metacosmic soteriology have been common. Such conversions are normally group conversions. Conversions from one metacosmic soteriology to another is rare. People with some experience of such cases say that it is never a smooth passage from one to the other religion but involves a rupture of some kind. For instance, a person who is alienated from one religion for whatever reason suddenly discovers the meaningfulness of another religion in the course of a search for meaning.

No religion can claim that its own symbolic structures are not symbolic, but real, representing Ultimate Reality as it is in itself, while other religions are only symbolic. Religious pluralism is not relativistic because their ground of truth is not the limitedness of the humans as subjects, but the absoluteness of the Ultimate. Combined with the community's response in faith‑commitment it can have in absolute normative value for the community, because it is the way that God is reaching out to it.

Inter‑religious Encounter

In such a context of the pluralism of religious symbols how do we understand inter‑religious encounter? I think that we have to avoid two extremes. One extreme would be to say that each religion is not merely a different symbol system but also a different socio‑cultural group of humans. They are not really compatible. Such incompatibility is further complicated by the absolute claims that each religion makes. The rise of religious fundamentalism makes the situation even worse. Inter‑religious encounter, where and when possible can focus on mutual knowledge and removal of prejudices and lead to mutual tolerance. Even mutual respect would be problematic. Any further closeness between religions would smack of syncretism.

The other extreme would be to say that the different religions are merely different symbol systems of one and the same reality. They mediate the same experience. Though one's own religious practice is normally limited to that of the community to which one belongs, participation in other symbolic celebrations of other religions is not only possible, but even welcome. All religions lead to God like all rivers lead to the sea. Symbols may be different, but they lead to the same God.

While the first extreme exaggerates the differences, the second does not take them seriously. The differences between the religions are obvious. We have rather to be clear about the underlying unity that links them in some way. This unity has two dimensions. On the one hand we believe that there is only one God and that this God is present and active in all religions, though the symbolic mediations of this activity may be different. We believe further that all religions seek to meet similar fundamental human needs for meaning and wholeness in the midst of the evil prevalent in the world and in human life. On the other hand, people belonging to different religions in most parts of the world today belong to the same civil society and are committed to provide a common moral and spiritual foundation to public life in collaboration with other believers and all people of good will. Conflicts between religious groups are not wanting in today's world. But we believe that such conflicts have to be overcome in a spirit of harmony and peace. It is in this socio‑religious context that I would like to set the phenomenon of inter‑religious encounter.

While the religions have a common goal and a common orientation and play a common role in society, they are different. They are not merely different symbols of the same reality; they are different relationships of different groups of people with God. These differences being socio‑cultural they constitute the socio‑personal identity of the people. This identity may grow or change. But it must be taken seriously. This would seem all the more important if these differences are due to the freedom of God and of the humans. The proper attitude to other religions seems to be respect and a readiness to dialogue in the pursuit precisely of a common social goal. But in the process the religions discover each other and an interaction, not merely at the social but also at the religious level, becomes possible.

A dialogue between different religious traditions that goes beyond mutual understanding to mutual challenge and enrichment seems therefore possible. The ground for this is the realization of the limits of one's own historical and cultural experience when one cultural‑religious community comes into a living, non‑polemical contact with another. But the growth has to come from within the tradition. When people belonging to a particular religious tradition encounter another tradition at a certain depth and find its scriptures and spiritual practices inspiring and attractive the normal tendency is to try to integrate them into one's own tradition through a process of reinterpretation and/or adaptation. One speaks, for instance, of a 'Christian Yoga' or a 'Christian Zen.' These are seen as techniques to quieten the mind before engaging in serious prayer or contemplation.

Double Belonging

But in recent years, we have examples of people who seek to experience both traditions seriously without seeking to integrate them too quickly, but living rather in tension. How do we understand this experience in the context of what we have been saying?

I would like to exclude a superficial approach which looks on the religious world as a supermarket in which one goes round picking up the best methods and elements that one finds useful for one's own purposes. I would also exclude people who claim to use the symbols of different religious traditions, freely moving from one to the other. This is syncretism. These people do not know what religion means. Probably they are not rooted in any religion. They treatsymbols as disincarnate shells that can be filled with any meaning which one wants. They move from guru to guru, from cult to cult, from practice to practice. With such an attitude they will not find anything permanently satisfying anywhere. Anyway, I am not talking about them here.

I am not talking either about popular religiosity in which people relate to centers of spiritual power for healing. They remain at a cosmic level of religiosity which is below the level where religious belongingness becomes an issue and a problem. Going to a ritual specialist for healing or other material benefit is like going to a doctor. There is no personal and social meaning involved. There is no faith commitment. Rituals and symbols are used insofar as they 'work.'

There may be others who, in a situation of living together and of dialogue, try to reach out to the other and understand the other from the other's point of view. This is very praiseworthy. It helps one to see oneself from prejudices. But this is not a problem of double belongingness.

I think that double belongingness enters into the picture when people really feel called to be loyal to two religious traditions. One example I know is Abishiktananda who discovered the Hindu spiritual tradition in the sacred mountain of Arunachala and sought to experience it from within and struggled to come to terms with it as a Christian. He claimed to have had the advaitic experience of non‑dual oneness. But at the same time he was faithful to the psalms and the Eucharist till the end of his life. I have the impression that, till a short time before his death, he was not able to reconcile harmoniously his double belongingness. It was a life‑long struggle. One of the reasons for this may have been that he lacked the theological principles and tools to find a positive meaning in the situation. I think that the concept of liminoid phenomena may help to make the experience meaningful.  Let me explain this concept.

Liminality and Communitas

Anthropologists analyzing the rites de passage point to three stages in it: separation, margin and aggregation. These are particularly evident in the rituals of initiation. The adolescents are separated from the group of which they formed a part till then, kept at the margins of society and given a rigorous training initiating them to the secrets of the social group and then integrated in the society of adults. Limen in Latin means 'threshhold.' The period of intense training at the margins is called a liminal period. It is compared to being in the womb or dying before being born or rising again. During this period the group is unstructured and egalitarian. There are no status differences among them. Even sexual differences may be downplayed by adopting a loose common dress. Liminality refers to this intermediary stage in a process of change from one state of society to another. It is as if an artist reduces a statue to a lump of clay before reshaping it into another. There is a passivity which is a source of new creativity. The novitiate in religious orders and congregations can be said to be a liminal period being a transition and training (re‑creative) period between life in the world and life in the religious order.  Liminality is characterized by communitas ‑ an experience of equality and togetherness ‑ which is contrasted to structure.

A similar stage of transition can be seen in festivals like the carnival in the West or the Holi in India where the traditional social structures seem to break down during a period of time in a cathartic gesture. Similarly, during a pilgrimage a certain amount of penance, renunciation and fraternity establishes itself in the group of pilgrims who are on the way to the sacred sanctuary.

The term has also been used in a wider sense to indicate a contrast society symbolized either by an individual or by a social group. Victor Turner who has developed this notion of liminality extensively, mentions people like the Buddha, Francis of Assisi and Gandhi as liminal personalities. Creative artists also tend to be persons at the margins of society. Turner continues:

The category of liminality is useful in understanding such cultural phenomena as subjugated autochthons, small nations, holy mendicants, good Samaritans... monastic orders and many more (Turner 1979: 150).

What is important here is to note that liminality here refers no longer only to the transitional stage of a group but also to persons and permanent groups like the monastic orders in so far as there are contrast societies at the margins of a well-structured social order. However it is such marginal or liminal groups that "frequently generate myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art" (Turner 1979: 151). Structure and communitas balance each other not only diachronically in ritual, but also synchronically in social life. The groups that embodycommunitas may acquire a prophetic role in society. In the life of the Church one can also discover aspects of communitas in sacramental celebrations like the Eucharist. At the Eucharistic table, ideally, every one participates equally going beyond all status distinctions of caste and class. The Eucharist therefore becomes a celebration of communitas.

We are now in a position to understand the descriptions of liminality and communitas provided by Victor Turner.

The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial (Turner 1969: 95).

The bonds of communitas are undifferentiated, egalitarian, direct, extant, nonrational, existential, I‑Thou. Communitas is spontaneous, immediate, concrete, not abstract... It does not merge identities: it liberates them from conformity to general norms, though this is necessarily a transient condition if society is to continue to operate in an orderly fashion. It is the fons et origo of all structures and at the same time their critique... Communitas strains towards universalism and openness, it is a spring of pure possibility (Turner 1979: 150).

Double Belonging and Liminality

I think that at the level of socio‑religious identity controlled by the rites de passage people belong to a particular religion. This would normally involve a basic loyalty to its symbolic world, though some may feel a certain freedom to distance themselves from some elements of it and eventually to go beyond it.

But a few people may be called to cross the boundaries and enter into the symbolic world of other religions. They do not belong simultaneously to both religions sociologically. I think that double belongingness in this sense is not possible. But, though they may belong to one religion sociologically, they are at the margins of both religions and they belong to both religions symbolically and experientially. I think that they should not make any effort to reconcile them superficially by discovering analogies, much less to integrate them. One does not live in two symbolic worlds formally at the same time. The religious symbol systems are like paradigms: they hang together. But one feels free to move from one to the other. In the process one would tend to relativize both of them not in relation to one another, but in relation to the Absolute in an apophatic sense, without abandoning any of them. Double belonging in this sense seems possible. They may be able to pass from one symbol system of experience to the other, either through the practice of particular techniques like yoga or zen or through the company of the members of another religious group. In the context of emerging inter‑religious encounter they have a prophetic and creative role in their own community. They are able to facilitate, not so much an integration of both the religious systems in some higher, third religious, entity, but a dialogical flow that leads both the religious communities towards a co‑operative convergence rather than conflict.

The Need for Liminal Persons

The paper may give the impression that I have built up an argument to justify the idiosyncratic behavior of a few eccentric individuals who have occasionally crossed religious borders and that such liminality in the area of religious identity is a rare thing. On the contrary, such a ministry of mediation between religions is not uncommon and seems today more necessary than ever.

First of all, there has been a progressive opening up to the other religions by us Christians after the Second Vatican Council. From a negative assessment of other religions we have now come to accept the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in other religions. Dialogue with other religions also has become official policy. Over the last twenty five years the Christians in India have discussed, favorably, the possibility of using the scriptures of other religions, not only in private prayer, but also in official worship and also the possibility of sharing worship with members of other religions in both directions. Use of Asian techniques of sadhana or spiritual effort like the yoga, zen, vipassana, etc. have become common, not only among Asians but among Christians all over the world, in spite of official reservations. Though the official Church has not been able to go beyond, for various reasons, inviting members of different religions to come together to pray for peace in Assisi (1986) and in Rome (2000), live‑togethers in which people of different religions read their scriptures together, share their thoughts and problems and pray together have been regular in various parts of India since the Second Vatican Council. While we cannot say that such practices are being taken up by Christians everywhere, the number of people who do so is considerable. All these will be liminal Christians in some way, though in various degrees.

Secondly, in spite of such dialogical activity, on the one side, religions are increasingly in conflict everywhere. Such conflicts are caused by religious fundamentalism, and communalism which make use of religion as a political tool. People are searching for their identity. In such a situation dialogue between religions has become urgent and imperative. Liminal persons of the kind that we have described above, can play an important role in promoting such dialogue, counter‑balancing the influence of fundamentalism.


I think that such a double belongingness is possible because of a strong belief in, if not experience of, the oneness and transcendence of the Ultimate. I think that one does not become a liminal person by deciding to become one. I have been saying that religion is a divine‑human relationship. It is a response to a call and a commitment. Therefore crossing religious boundaries would be a response to a special call and not a way that one chooses for oneself lightly. It would be disastrous to link this to a kind of postmodern pluralism which discourages all kinds of meta­narratives because its roots are precisely the oneness of the Ultimate and a belief in the basic harmony of all things and all religions. It is not a superficial scenario where all religions are said to lead to God as all rivers lead to the sea. It takes the symbolic world seriously and appreciates and respects its human, historical and cultural roots. The phenomenon of double belongingness itself can be seen as a symbol of the call to transcendence and convergence leading to ultimate, eschatological, community, and harmony.


Abhishiktananda, Swami

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Bamat, Thomas and Jean Paul Wiest (eds.)

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Pieris, Aloysius

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Schreiter, Robert J.

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Turner, Victor

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