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Practices as Participation in the Life of God

Author: Mark Love
Published: Summer-Fall 2016

MD 7

Article Type: Conference Article

A better understanding of how practices are related to participation in the life of God is crucial for helping congregations discover their missional vocation in the world. To that end, this article surveys the recent literature devoted to Christian practices and, in turn, proposes more eschatological understanding of participation. After briefly considering christological and pneumatological perspectives on Christian practices in light of eschatology, hospitality is taken as an example of the practices that bear the conditions of possibility for participation in the life of God.

In the consulting work I do with congregations who are interested in missional innovation,1 we often talk about participation in the life of God as a way to invite them into the missio Dei. However, we never stop to define what this means, partly because we are never asked. I’m not sure what people hear when we say “participation in the life of God,” and I’m not even sure what we mean. What are we saying when we invite congregations to participate in the life of God, and how is that participation related to practices? A better understanding of how practices are related to participation in the life of God is crucial for helping congregations discover their missional vocation in the world. Though many have written on Christian practices and participation in the life of God, few have made it clear how these things are related. In what follows, I propose a way of thinking about this relationship that would help congregations identify practices that possess the conditions of possibility for participation in the life of God.

As a way of getting at the relationship of practices and participation in the life of God, I want to begin with a survey of the recent literature devoted to Christian practices. Christian practices have received a lot of attention the past few years, due in large part to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre’s notions of practice seem to be the starting place for all who dip their toe into this conversation, even if their ecclesiologies are very different. He defines a practice as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”2

This definition is useful for theologians. It recognizes, for instance, that practice is rooted in social systems of meaning, which are in turn valued because of a particular account of the world shared by those who “cooperate” in a particular practice or set of practices. This socially embodied understanding conforms well to an understanding of the church or congregation as more than an aggregation of individual, religious consumers. The faith is primarily a socially embodied experience made both concrete and coherent through practices.

The faith is primarily a socially embodied experience made both concrete and coherent through practices.

Moreover, MacIntyre’s notion of “internal goods” releases the church from the need to ground its own practice in some prior, or general, account of reality. The shared practice of the church emerges from its unique account of the good. Still, while internally coherent, practices extend beyond the boundaries of a given tradition as the realities of changing times and circumstances are engaged and notions of the good are enlarged.3 Additionally, practices assume bodies.4 Any account of the church in which practices are constitutive is simultaneously rooted in creation and the incarnation. Through the church’s practice, the body of Christ becomes visible in the world in a material way. The church visible through practices avoids ideal or essentialist accounts that stand above or behind the actual existence of Christian communities. This shift from the ideal to the actual can also be applied to what it means to be Christian. To be Christian is not simply to hold certain ideas or to believe certain notions. Faith is not simply belief in this sense, but faith works itself out in love—in material practices with others for the sake of the world.

Through the church’s practice, the body of Christ becomes visible in the world in a material way.

Prominent Proposals about the Place of Practices

As I mentioned above, MacIntyre has been conscripted in the service of diverse theological viewpoints. An impressive literature on practices has been produced by a group led by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra, including writers like Miroslav Volf, Diana Butler Bass, and Christine Pohl.5 Following MacIntyre, they define Christian practice as “things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the world.6 They are vague, however, on how these practices relate to the life of God. After all, these practices contribute to the thriving of all human life—“good for oneself, for other people, and for all creation”—but are done by Christians “somehow differently because of their knowledge of God in Christ.”7 As Roger Owens suggests, for the Bass/Dykstra project, practices are a response to what God has done. While Dykstra and Bass hope for an account of practices that also provides an adequate account of participation, these practices are a response to what God has done. As Owen summarizes, “This way of talking about practices—“in light of and in response to”—suggests that the activity of God for the life of the world is happening somewhere other than in the practices of the church, so that through the church’s practices the church must find where God is working, and join with God, cooperating, so to speak, in meeting human needs.”8

A quite different perspective on practices, also relying on MacIntyre, is represented by theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and James McClendon. For instance, McClendon finds in MacIntyre helpful correspondences to an account of the world revolving around notions of principalities and powers. As Owen summarizes McClendon,

MacIntyre’s concept of a social practice is useful not only for understanding the undeniable social constitution of human life; it is helpful for understanding the Bible’s suggestion that the social constitution of human life is corrupted and redeemed, rebellious against God’s reign and yet conquered by the victory of Christ. The social constitution of human life, embodied within a web of social practices, finds its place in the theological narrative of God’s creating and redeeming the world as those biblical ‘principalities and powers’ with which Christ conflicts and over which he conquers.9

Additionally, McClendon imagines how practices constitutive of Christian community create a distinctly Christian engagement with the larger society, a note that resonates with the work of Hauerwas. In fact, this is the advantage of MacIntyre’s definition for “baptist” theologians like McClendon and Hauerwas: it refuses a general account of morality, leaving us instead to particular accounts, rooted in particular narratives, that result in concrete, embodied, and contrast communities.10

I find the approach taken by McClendon more helpful than that of the Bass/Dykstra group in providing the conditions of possibility for practices to be an actual participation in the life of God. However, I want to make my own proposal in light of the helpful, albeit incomplete, work of Roger Owens. Owens is very specific in laying out a detailed proposal that would allow some practices to be an actual participation in the life of God. Owens’s proposal is considered and expansive, moving through a variety of influences, including Maximus the Confessor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Herbert McCabe, to name only a few. His account of participation insists that “the church’s participation in God is Christ’s practicing himself as the embodied practices of the church, in the Spirit, for the world.”11 As such, the following descriptions apply:

1. An account of participation must faithfully maintain the distinction between Creator and creation. . . .

2. An account of participation must be given in terms of the particular and embodied nature of the church. . . .

3. An account of participation must begin with the particularity of Christ and the church and not in a general account of creation’s participation in God qua creation. . . .

4. An account of participation should show how participation in God is not an invisible essence or interiority, but is socially visible and has the shape of the life of Jesus’s peacefulness. . . .

5. An account of participation will need to be given in particular terms of the activity of the triune God.12

What is missing in Owens’s account is a truly eschatological understanding of participation. His understanding of participation would be strengthened, perhaps even significantly altered, with a sixth criterion: An account of participation will define the relations of God, church, and world in light of the coming kingdom of God. While Owens gives lip service to participation as eschatological, his notions of it are not strong enough to warrant a listing in his criteria.

Owens’s “eschatology” is better labeled a “teleology,” or an end in which theosis, or deification in the life of an individual, is the result. There is little talk of participation in the life of God for the sake of a new heaven and a new earth. As teleology, the life of the church may be seen as continuous with the life of God.13 Eschatology, however, is not necessarily simply the state of things at the end, or the telos of existence. In particular, an apocalyptic eschatology works from the future into the present. The church experiences its life, not only in continuity with God, but also in discontinuity with the larger realities of the coming kingdom of God.

Owens’s lack of a robust eschatology, in which the future of God is breaking into the present in material ways, betrays the fact that his account of participation does not escape the gravitational pull of a substantialist ontology, which defines participation principally in terms of “natures.”14 This becomes evident, for instance, in Owens’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.15 In explaining Bonhoeffer’s understanding of preaching as an actual participation with Christ, Owens gives attention to Bonhoeffer’s Christus totus ecclesiology. “‘The Church is the body of Christ,’ writes Bonhoeffer. ‘It does not signify the body of Christ. When applied to the Church, the concept of body is not only a concept of function, which refers only to the members of his body. It is a comprehensive and central concept of the mode of existence of the one who is present in his exaltation and humiliation.’”16

Bonhoeffer is aware of the difficulties of identifying the all-too-human church with Christ. He is clear that while the church is the body of Christ, Christ must also be distinguishable from the church. According to Owens, Bonhoeffer can, by way of Chalcedon, hold that “in the church itself is Christ’s adoption of humanity, without any confusion between the divinity and the humanity.”17 Bonhoeffer, according to Owens, both totally identifies and distinguishes Christ and church through an appeal to “natures.”18

Instead of conceiving of the space between Christ and the church through an understanding of “natures,” I propose an understanding of participation that honors the daylight between church and kingdom around notions of “identity” seated in a temporal or dynamic ontology. Here I am following Robert Jenson (and others19), who move to make discussion of God’s identity prior to a discussion of his nature. Jenson would shift the discussion of God from “a perduring something” or “continuing subject” toward more personal, temporal, and dramatic meanings.20 The way the identity of God is known is through the narrative construals of the biblical testimonies. “To the question ‘Who is God?’ the New Testament has one descriptively identifying answer: ‘Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.’”21

Jenson’s discussion of God’s “being” moves away from a list of God’s attributes and toward a series of relational qualities of the God rendered through the narrative testimonies of Scripture. God is an event, a person, a decision, a conversation.22 These render not so much God’s nature but rather his identity. This is not to deny the category of natures, of God’s nature or human nature, but to suggest the priority of identity in participating in the life of God, and subsequently, its methodological/theological priority. This is the case simply because identity is a step closer than nature to rendering an actual person. Identity refers to a concrete person who can be “identified” as distinct from others. The first question of participation is not, “In what do we participate?” (substance, power, causation, knowledge, etc.) but “With whom do we participate?” (The One who raised Israel’s Messiah from the dead).

The first question of participation is not “In what do we participate?” but “With whom do we participate?”

Participating in the Life of God: Trinitarian Eschatology and the Practice of Hospitality

This move from nature to identity bears fruit precisely around the question of the relation of practices to participation in the life of God. Imagining participation in relation to natures leads Owens to describe only those practices that deliver a mystical sacramentalism as a real participation in the life of God: preaching, eucharist, and baptism. So, on the one side, we have the Bass/Dykstra school of thought that speaks only vaguely of Christian practices as participation in the life of God, if at all. Practices are, after all, things other people do as well, but that Christians do “somehow differently because of their knowledge of God in Christ.”23 Nowhere in the Bass/Dykstra literature are the eucharist or baptism even discussed as practices. On the other side, we have Owens, who because of his onto-theological commitments can only talk about the sacraments as practices that provide a real participation in the life of God. The shift I have described, a narrative approach rooted in God’s eschatological identity, would offer a third way that would include both the sacraments and the longer list of practices by Bass/Dykstra, all as a real participation the life of God.

While evoking eschatology as a factor in an account of practices as participation is already a step forward, in my opinion, the gains are amplified when considering eschatology from a Trinitarian perspective. For the sake of space, I want to consider briefly christological and pneumatological perspectives in light of eschatology.

Cruciform Christology

For Paul, the death and resurrection marks a dramatic turn of the ages, wherein the future realities of the new creation have broken into the present. The resurrection, anticipating the resurrection at the end of the age, is the sure sign that the new age has broken into the present. More than that, the self-giving death of Jesus displays the very power of God, a power other than that of the principalities and powers of this present age. The death of Jesus, in this view, is more than a transactional event whereby sins are forgiven. Rather, it is a reality in which we participate. This is notable in Paul’s autobiographical texts, which feature the language of participation. “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20). “I want to know Christ, and the power of his rising, share in his sufferings and conform to his death” (Phil 3:10). “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So, death is at work in us, so that life may be at work in you” (2 Cor 4:11–12).24 Statements like these are what Paul indicates by the phrase, “in Christ.” He is participating in his cruciform identity.

No one has written more persuasively about the cruciform shape of Pauline faith than Michael Gorman. Gorman views cruciformity as more than just an imitation of Christ but as an actual participation in the life of God. For this to be an actual account of participation would require that the shape of God’s life be cruciform, which Gorman finds in various places, particularly in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Kenosis is not simply something Jesus did but is an expression of who God is, possessing a self-emptying life for the sake of others.25 Gorman, in fact, claims for Paul an understanding of salvation as theosis, defining theosis as “transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ.”26 For biblical authors, like Paul, participation in the arc and movement of the dramatis personae Dei,27 is an actual participation in the life of God precisely because God inhabits the space created by this movement.

So, we participate in the cruciform life of God through practices that are kenotic or self-giving. Narrative practices conforming to the identity of God established eschatologically in the power of the crucified one, therefore, constitute a participation in the very life of God. Jesus, as the second Adam—the firstborn from the dead and progenitor of a new humanity fit for the realities of the coming age—makes available to us God’s life in human form, or practice. The Spirit of God—the Spirit of the risen one and agent of the future glory of God—empowers the eschatological people of God to share in Christ’s life in anticipation of the coming new creation.

We participate in the cruciform life of God through practices that are kenotic or self-giving.

Advent Pneumatology

This brings us to a consideration of the Spirit from an eschatological perspective. Since Moltmann’s epochal The Crucified God,28 the Spirit has frequently been identified as the agent of God’s coming future. The Spirit, for Moltmann, does not bring about the consummation of history (futurum) but rather a deliverance from history as the Spirit works as the agency for the coming future of God (adventus).29 Jenson refers to the Spirit as “the End of all God’s ways . . . because he is the Power of the divine future.”30 The pouring out of the Spirit in Acts 2, therefore, is a sign that the future Day of the Lord has become effectively present.

Michael Welker provocatively refers to the Spirit’s effective, eschatological presence as a “force field,” through which we participate is the Spirit’s life, in “valid, liberating, and liberated life.”31 Welker’s notion of the Spirit as force field rescues the Spirit from overly individualistic conceptions—the Spirit working only for the benefit of the individual. The Spirit of God, more characteristically, creates spaces in which the cruciform power of God works for redemption, justice, and liberation, working not just within people but among and between people—even in and through creation.

Hopefully, I have given enough description to establish both a cruciform christology and an advent pneumatology as eschatological and participatory, creating the possibility that Christian practices participate in the life of God. I would like to end the paper with an exploration of hospitality as a preeminent missional practice, largely determinative of missional vocation and identity, that bears the possibility of participation in the life of God.


When coaching congregations to practice hospitality, we certainly mean they should provide room for others when they venture into “our space.” You should treat visitors well. We emphasize more, however, the capacity to participate in God’s hospitality in other people’s space. Part of this is due to the missional critique of Christendom that claims the “if you build it, they will come” days are largely over. Congregations in a new missional era will have to increase their capacity to form relationships apart from their own privilege—a kenotic move. This commitment is embodied in year one (of a three year process) in the practice of Dwelling in the Word, in which Luke 10 is used and participants are invited to share with a “reasonably friendly looking stranger” (a member of the congregation they may not know as well) and “listen them into free speech.”32 The act of attending to the other as stranger is hospitable. Luke 10 is chosen precisely because it depicts God’s hospitality occurring on other people’s terms. It depends on finding “people of peace.” God’s hospitality often takes place away from home in Luke-Acts: for example, Zacchaeus, Cornelius, Lydia, the jailer. Often, these encounters are arranged by the Holy Spirit.

Congregations…will have to increase their capacity to form relationships apart from their own privilege.

In the second year of our process, we invite congregations to “plunge” into their communities to find “people of peace.” We encourage them to shed paternalistic notions of mission attached to the prepositions “to” and “for,” and instead to go expecting God’s hospitality under the preposition “with.” This shift in prepositions is itself a foregoing of privilege in anticipation of the Spirit’s ability to create liberated and liberating space between and among people. It embodies both a cruciform christology and advent pneumatology.

Hospitality is an example of the practices that bear the conditions of possibility for participation in the life of God. Others have helpfully pointed to the centrality of hospitality to being Christian,33 but few if any discuss it as participation in the life of God. I believe that moving the possibility of participation from a substantialist to a narrative ontology, with the attending move from “nature” to “identity,” frees the necessary space to explore hospitality and other practices more explicitly as real participation in the life of God. The integration of belief and practice in this way, moreover, would highlight missional theology’s own unique contribution to broader theological conversations. If theology is not simply thinking the faith within certain categories (e.g., Trinity, christology, eschatology, etc.) but instead is concerned first with naming the missio Dei contextually, then theology must necessarily be done within practices that promise participation in the life of God. Seen this way, theology itself is a practice, and the congregation is its primary location and agent. Apart from wedding practices and participation in this way, missional theology loses both its unique place in the larger theological enterprise and its ability to help congregations reimagine their lives.

Dr. Mark Love is Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, and Associate Professor of Theology at Rochester College. Mark served congregations in Texas and Oregon full-time for 17 years before finding his place in the academy. In addition to teaching courses in evangelism, missional ecclesiology, and congregational transformation, Mark works extensively with congregations pursuing missional innovation.

Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.

1 I am an Affiliated Consultant with Church Innovations (, St. Paul, MN, for a three-year process called Partnership for Missional Church.

2 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 221–23.

3 See Diana Butler Bass for a brief description of how MacIntyre’s notions of practice are informing a variety of renewal movements in mainline congregations. Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004), 57–68.

4 While this seems like an obvious point in relation to practices, MacIntyre strengthens his notion of practices as bodily in his work subsequent to After Virtue. To sustain his understanding of practice, he develops a general account of bodies and creaturely existence centered in notions of well-being. Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).

5 Dykstra and Bass are the names most associated with the Valparaiso Project, which seeks “to encourage creative thinking and writing on practices foundational to a Christian way of life.” The project website ( extends the conversation begun by the collection of essays contained in Dorothy Bass, ed., Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010). The book and website focus on twelve practices that have been fundamental historically to a Christian way of life: honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping Sabbath, testimony, discernment, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and singing our lives. Other notable works produced or included by the project include, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, ed. Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra, eds., For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008); Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001); Christine D. Pohl, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

6 Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 18.

7 Ibid., 16, 17.

8 L. Roger Owens, The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 59.

9 Ibid., 53.

10 A criticism of “baptist” ecclesiologies, which emphasize the contrast nature of Christian community is that their primary witness is to be observed. This may be true of some, but certainly is not for McClendon who has a developed notion of how Christian practices engage “principalities and powers” embodied in other sets of practices.

11 Owens, 16.

12 Ibid., 161–62.

13 Owens, 168, leans heavily on Maximus’s notions of movement toward an end. As Maximus writes, “For God is the beginning and the end. From him come both our moving in whatever way from a beginning and our moving in a certain way toward him as an end.”

14 Owens does take great pains to avoid any essentialist account of the church. Similarly, he refuses to turn Jesus into an abstraction, instead making the details of the life of Jesus indispensable to the particular account of God offered by Christians. He wants to hold together disparate voices, take the best of each, and make a more comprehensive understanding of participation available. When push comes to shove, however, he chooses Maximus the Confessor over Hans Frei. As will be shown, this is evident in his use of Robert Jenson, as he largely avoids the narrative dimensions of Jenson’s proposal. Finally, Owens develops only three practices as instances of actual participation in the life of God: preaching, baptism, and the eucharist. His account of participation is uniquely ecclesiological, but it is not apparent how other practices might qualify as participation or how the world might be a necessary precondition for an account of participation in the life of God.

15 I am critiquing here only Owens’s limited use of Bonhoeffer. Whether his treatment of Bonhoeffer here is fair or complete is a different topic, one that I am not competent to assess.

16 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 59. Cited in Owens, 77.

17 Owens, 89.

18 I share Miroslav Volf’s critique of ecclesiologies constructed around Christus totus. The movement of the “one to the many” establish the church in a sequence of hierarchies, collapsing vital notions of both pneumatology and eschatology. See Volf’s critique of Ratzinger and Zizioulas in Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). The same movement of the “one to the many” also leads to imperialistic notions of mission. See Jannie Swart, Scott Hagley, John Ogren, and Mark Love, “Toward a Missional Theology of Participation: Ecumenical Reflections on Contributions to Trinity, Mission, and Church,” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (January 2009): 75–87.

19 See also Stanley Grenz, The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-Ontology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Grenz traces the long history of the dialogue between Christian theology and philosophy that resulted in various onto-theologies. Grenz argues that once Christian thinkers associated being with the divine name given in Exod 3:14, both ontology and God’s identity were removed a step from the biblical narrative with philosophical notions of being taking precedent. Grenz hopes to return the biblical narrative, and with it a Trinitarian understanding of God’s identity, to the forefront of any discussions of “being.” In doing so, he welcomes the undoing of onto-theology and its substantialist underpinnings as an opportunity to articulate a theo-ontology. Along the way, Grenz notes Heidegger’s efforts to move away from the “substance ontologies” that were characteristic of the Western philosophical tradition and movement toward a more dynamic notion of being tied to time (p. 112).

20 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 222.

21 Ibid., 44.

22 Ibid., 221–23.

23 Dykstra and Bass, “A Theological Understanding,” 16, 17.

24 Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.

25 See Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), chs. 1–5 and esp. p. 165, fn. 19.

26 Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 7.

27 Jenson, 75.

28 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

29 Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 22–29.

30 Jenson, 157. See also Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 330–32.

31 Michael Welker, God the Spirit, trans. John F. Hoffmeyer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 340–45.

32 See Mark Love, “Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 5, no. 1 (February 2014):

33 See especially, Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

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