William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

. (page 2 of 11)
Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 2 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

truthful and honest and pure? Can we not see,
therefore, that since religion has something in com-
mon with each of these other phases of the higher
life, and since religion in each case furnishes some-
thing which these others lack, religion is essential to
their full fruitage?

It may be well to note briefly, in conclusion, some
of the characteristics of the religion which is best
adapted to the needs of those whose lives and sym-
pathies are in harmony with the higher life. Here
we must speak of a religion as distinct from religion,
for nothing is clearer than that there are as many
different religions in the world at large, and even
among those immediately about us, as there are dif-
ferent tastes and sympathies. These differences are
not merely differences of creed, nor of forms of wor-
ship, but of standards of morality, of external ac-
companiments, and of subjective ideals. The reli-
gion of an artist will be different, no doubt, from
that of a scientist, and that of a scientist from that of
a moralist ; yet there must be some things in common
between the religion of a man who is spiritually
inclined and that of a man whose mental faculties are
exercised only slightly or not at all. One need but


read history to learn that the leaders of the world's
thought, the men who, in one capacity or another,
have made the highest contributions to the higher
life, have for the most part been men of strong reli-
gious character.

We may ask, therefore: What has been the
nature of this religion ? What is the nature of the
religion which today will prove acceptable to men
and women of higher thought?

a) This religion will be simple in its nature.
Truth is always simple; never complex or com-
pound. The greatest teachers have thus presented
it. It was Amos who said: "Hate the evil, and
love the good, and establish judgment in the gate."
(Amos 5: 15 a.) Another prophet said: "He hath
showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth
Jehovah require of thee but to do justly, and to love
kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"
(Micah6:8.) It was Jesus who said : "Verily I say
unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom
of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter
therein." (Mark 10:15.)

In respect of simplicity, then, religion is "like a
work of art, a picture, a symphony, a cathedral.
Its genius does not forbid ornament and variety.
But its greatness is in its grand, simple, and total
effect, toward which all ornamentation contributes." 1
Simplicity need not shut out aesthetic form; indeed

1 DOLE, The Religion of a Gentleman.


it must not, for otherwise many of those for whom
it has a mission will ignore it.

b) It will be reasonable; else the scientist and
the philosopher will reject it; that is, it must stand
the test of investigation. It must make no false and
pretentious claims. It must make no unreasonable
demands upon the weak credulity of man. It must
appeal to the judgment and the reason, in order
that those of aesthetic predilections may find in it
what they do not find in their special field.

c) It must be a religion of toleration. One's
neighbor must be allowed to differ. No single
religion, not to speak of a phase of religion, can be
regarded as the only one containing religious truth
or affording religious help. There must be whole-
some respect for the sincere adherents of other
faiths, even though they be far removed. Religious
expression must be regarded to some extent, per-
haps to a large extent, as the product of historical
circumstance, of geographical situation, of heredi-
tary transmission.

d) It will be a religion characterized by idealism ;
for otherwise those inclined toward the artistic could
not endure it. Think of a religion devoid of poetry
and music; a religion with no prophetic vision; a
religion with no reaching out toward the invisible and
the infinite ! There can be no place for such a reli-
gion in the minds of those spiritually inclined.

e) It will be an ethical religion in order to meet


the demands of the moralist and the needs of the
artist; and in order that it may be capable of inciting
to righteousness the lives of those who accept it.
"Let judgment roll down as water and righteousness
as a mighty stream." For righteousness the cry goes
up on every side, and nowhere more loudly or more
continuously than from among those whose lives
have been molded in the atmosphere of the college
and the university. It was the ethical side of proph-
etism that made it mighty in its influence, though
it was handicapped in so many ways.

/) It will be a religion capable of affording com-
fort in the time of trouble, consolation in the hour
of distress; for this is what neither art, nor science,
nor philosophy, nor ethics can do ; and this, after all,
is the greatest demand of the human soul when it
becomes fully aware of its utter weakness. There
are seasons (who has not experienced them?) when
life has nothing to offer that will please the human
soul. Torn and bleeding, as it were, healing is
needed; but the power of healing has been given
only to religion; and without religion there is no
health, no whole condition.

I wish, finally, to say three things, the truth of
which I am persuaded you will more and more
appreciate as you go forward in the higher life.

i. Religion has much to do with the higher life;
much to offer those who are spiritually minded. It
is an essential factor in a fully developed, well-


rounded life. Without it you lack that which
would give you breadth and strength and vigor; calm-
ness and tenderness and peace.

2. It is worth your while carefully to consider
the kind of religion, the particular form of religious
culture, which you will cherish. It is no longer a
question of creeds or denominations. The dividing
line runs, not between this and that form of religious
faith, but through all forms. The name is insig-
nificant; the serious thing is the character of your
religion. Is it adapted to your needs, and is it lifting
you upward? or is it something foreign to your
nature and is it dragging you down ? Is your reli-
gion a source of anxiety and pain ? or does it bring
rest and peace of mind ? If it is not what it ought
to be, do not be satisfied until it has been set aright;
for every individual must have his own religion, and
that of no other will answer his purpose.

3. The religion of Jesus Christ is a religion
capable of adjustment to any and every individual,
however peculiar his temperament, however exact-
ing his demands. Its simplicity, as the Master him-
self presented it, is marvelous. In its proper form
it has always stood the most rigid tests; and it
appeals as strongly to the reason as to the heart. It
will permit you to respect your friend's religion; if
he is a Jew, because it came out of Judaism; if a
sincere follower of Islam, because much of Islam
came from it; if a disciple of some eastern faith,


because its founder, Jesus, was broad-minded and
tender, and saw truth wherever truth existed, with-
out reference to the name it bore. It is a religion of
ideals, not weird and fanciful; but chastened, strong,
and inspiring to true service. It is ethical in a
sense peculiar to itself, for it is the religion of the
Beatitudes and the Golden Rule. It is a religion
that says: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are
heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

The greatest minds of nineteen centuries have
found this religion helpful. I do not urge upon you
any special form of this religion, for I have in mind
its very essence, that which is common to all forms,
that which makes it the power history shows it to
have been through all these centuries. This, as
found in the teaching of Jesus, is, in the words of
old Hebrew philosophy, the fear of the Lord i. e.,
belief in and acceptance of One who has power to
help, even to the uttermost. This step, this posi-
tion, this opening of the mind and heart to an in-
fluence of the highest spiritual character, will prove
to be the beginning, and indeed, the chief part, of
that higher life which lies before you, that higher life
upon which you have already entered, and in which,
we trust, your walk will continue, until there comes
the next step forward the step that will usher you
into the life still higher, the highest life the life



THE religious side of man's nature will always
furnish new and fresh material for study. Every
manifestation of the religious spirit, whether in the
individual or in the nation, deserves careful exam-
ination and consideration; and these manifestations
are as numerous and as varied as are the individuals
and the nations in which they appear. It may be
said, with truth, that there is a religious spirit for
every individual, and, in a slightly different sense, a
religious spirit for every closely connected group of

The differences which may be noted are so strik-
ing and so bewildering in our contemplation of them
that one may fairly question the propriety of using
such a term as "the religious spirit." Is it possible,
for instance, that the degrading, licentious, and cruel
religious rites of one nation, and the elevating, puri-
fying, and ennobling practices of another, are mani-
festations of the same spirit ? z May we suppose that
the man who, so far as concerns religion, seems cold

1 Contrast, for example, the base and sensual conceptions
associated with the ceremony of circumcision among other nations
with the holy and spiritual thought connected with that rite
among the Hebrews.


and indifferent and unaggressive, has in him any of
the spirit which makes his neighbor warm, enthusi-
astic, and zealous ? But more than this is true : the
religious spirit in individual and in nation is always
changing. The spirit of the child is not that of the
mature man, and the latter, in turn, differs from
that of the man of old age. The same man exhibit-
ing the spirit in one form, in this environment, will,
if suddenly transferred to other surroundings, make
a quite different manifestation.

Nothing in history is more significant than the
changes through which a nation passes, in the course
of several centuries, in respect to the outward form
and the inward content of its religious faith. Trace
the history of the Hebrew nation from the primitive
and simple ritual of early times, to the highly devel-
oped and complicated service of the second temple.
Study the strange, almost incredible, movements in
the history of Christianity itself; the peculiar, almost
endless, variety in forms of worship and belief,
which characterize the different bodies of Christians
today; and there will be found full illustration of
what has been said.

There are three elements which enter into the
religious spirit, and which may be said to constitute
it. The presence of these three elements, in varying
proportions, determines largely the nature of the
religious spirit in any particular case. The first of
these elements may be expressed in the single term


"worship." This term means here the attitude of
an individual, or a group of individuals, toward the
outside and higher world of supernatural or divine
existence. It includes the outward acts which in
various forms symbolize the inward thought. In
some cases so simple and unconventional is it as to
pass almost unnoticed. In other cases it is so elab-
orate and complex in its various forms and mani-
festations as to win our aesthetic admiration, though
at the same time suggesting the query as to whether
the participant, in the maze of outward ceremony,
may not lose sight of the essence which the particular
act is intended to represent.

I have just said that this element, called worship,
includes the outward acts which in various forms
symbolize the inward thought. Now one may ask:
Does the thought precede the act and determine it,
or does the act waken the thought which it is sup-
posed to represent ? At different times and under
different circumstances each of these things happens.
We must suppose that in the institution of any par-
ticular form or act in a ritual of worship, whether
simple or elaborate, the intention and effort were to
embody in a tangible form some conception sug-
gested by the religious spirit; and that in the mind
of individuals possessing a sensitive temperament,
and controlled by the same general influences, the
performance of the act would later produce that
phase of feeling, or reflect that phase of thought,


which originally suggested, whether consciously or
unconsciously, the institution of the ceremony.

But how easy and how natural it is for the act to
lose its significance after a long period of time has
passed, or when the ceremony is performed in situa-
tions entirely distinct from that with which it was
first connected ! In the history of religion one finds
multitudes of these institutional ruins. Our modern
religious life abounds in rites and ceremonies which
no longer express the thought originally intended for
expression, and in the performance of which we who
take part are perhaps in many cases only performing
a farce. They do not reflect our spirit; they do not,
as they are performed, create in our hearts a corre-
sponding emotion. These observances, unless per-
formed with the right spirit, are a mockery, and we
who perform them are little better than hypocrites.
They constitute, however, the conventionalities of
religion, and we are under the same obligations to
observe the conventionalities of religion as to observe
the conventionalities of social life. To violate these
conventionalities is, in the opinion of many, to strike
a fatal blow at religion itself. This of course, is a
mistake in so far as the violation is a violation only of
conventionality. But we ought gravely to consider
just where the line may be drawn between what shall
be called conventionality, and the real expression of
our inner self in its relation to God.

The second element which enters into and con-


stitutes the religious spirit is the element of belief or
faith. This is never quite independent of the first
element. Thus, in most cases, it determines sooner
or later, the form of worship. In this second ele-
ment there is again at times the same simplicity and
the same elaborateness which, in different instances,
characterize worship. A simple faith or belief,
however, is by no means always found with a simple
form of worship ; and a complicated ceremonial does
not necessarily presuppose, on the part of the ordinary
worshiper, a more fully developed theological system.
In respect to the exercise of belief, the individual has,
of course, a larger freedom than is possible in the
exercise of worship. It is necessary in the economy
of life that men unite in forms of worship. It is not
necessary that any two men should think alike.
The desire for system and co-ordination, and the
influence of the ceremonial, have led, in the course
of our ecclesiastical history, to the separation into
distinct bodies of those whose beliefs were similar;
for the opinion has generally prevailed that, in order
to work together in the religious field, men must
have the same theological beliefs, and must exercise
the same forms of worship.

But the experience of most recent years shows us
that this opinion was wrong, and in the future the
tendency in the direction of union of effort on the
part of those holding different theological views and
practicing different forms of worship may surely be


expected to increase. No one, moreover, can fail to
recognize the fact that in these separate bodies,
whose separation from each other was effected in
order to bind those who held the same views more
closely together, there is coming to exist the widest pos-
sible divergence of opinion on many questions which
have been regarded as of paramount importance.
The third element which, together with worship
and theological belief, enters into the religious spirit,
is the ethical standard of a man's life one's con-
duct in relation to himself and to his fellow-men.
This element may not be entirely separated from
either of the other two. The effect upon conduct of
the other two elements of the religious spirit is
marked. Thus the form of worship may be the
strongest possible incentive toward either right living
or wrong living. One's belief, however, may exert
an even stronger influence upon conduct than one's
ritual. Nothing is easier to understand than the
sensuality of many ancient nations when we recall
that their conception of God was best represented
by the bull, the animal representation of sexual
reproduction. Character, it must be conceded, is
largely determined by belief. The hue and cry so
common today against creeds can be justified only
on the ground that it is directed against the effort to
compel men to accept some form of belief, or to
accept all the details of any so-called system of
belief, which, it is thought, must be accepted or


rejected as a whole. From any other point of view
this hostility to creeds must be judged puerile, for
where is the man who does not believe something,
and does not therefore have a creed? It is to be
noted, however, that the element of belief does not
now occupy the same position that it once did. A
man's life, at least in civilized countries, is not
dependent upon his theological belief, as it once was.
His position in a particular body of the Christian
faith is not so definitely determined. The range
within which he may exercise his belief, without
injury to his influence and without the necessary
change of ecclesiastical standing, is constantly widen-
ing. In other words, the present is an age of tolera-
tion, with which no past age of history may be com-
pared. Though at first it may seem paradoxical,
it is true that in proportion as less emphasis is placed
upon a particular form of belief, greater emphasis is
laid upon conduct. In proportion as larger liberty
of thought, within reasonable limits, prevails, ethical
standards are elevated.

These then, briefly described, are the three ele-
ments which enter into the religious life and deter-
mine the religious spirit. Every true manifestation
of this spirit will include all three of these elements,
and the character of every such manifestation will be
determined by the proportion in which the three ele-
ments are combined.

May I now, before making a personal application


of what has been said, dwell for a moment upon two
points bearing directly upon our subject?

The history of religion furnishes us some inter-
esting facts touching the mutual relationship of these
three elements in the progress of their development.
In the ancient religions only the element of worship
existed. There was no dogma. The rite, as
Robertson Smith has pointed out, was connected
with a myth, but, "strictly speaking, this mythology
was not an essential part of ancient religion, for it
had no sacred sanction, and no binding force on the
worshipers." There may have been several accounts
of the origin of a given ceremony. It made no dif-
ference what the worshiper believed in reference to
the ceremony, if only he performed it regularly and
accurately. He did not understand that any
special favor was to be obtained from the gods by
believing this or that thing. As a recent writer has
said, "what was obligatory or meritorious was the
exact performance of sacred acts prescribed by
religious tradition." In these ancient religions, of
course, the ethical standard was very low. The
religious spirit, therefore, found its manifestation
almost exclusively in the acts of ritual service. At
a later period the element of faith or belief was
introduced. Few of us appreciate the fact that this
element entered the history of religion very late.
It is largely the controversies between the various
divisions of the Christian church that have led us to


think that in the history of religion dogma or belief
has been prominent. The controversy in reference
to the ritual in the Christian church has been, after
all, a controversy in reference to belief, for it is only
the interpretation of the ritual that has been thought
important. It was when the prophets of the Old
Testament began to preach one God as against many
gods that religion, as we are acquainted with it, first
really emphasized belief. The denunciations of the
prophets were directed for the most part, it will be
remembered, against the formality and hypocrisy of
the Israelitish worship. It is also true that in the
Old Testament religion the standard of right living
was at first very low, and although it was lifted
higher and higher through the centuries, it never
reached a plane which, from the modern point of
view, could be called a high one. Briefly, then, the
religious spirit of the Old Testament shows itself
most largely in the act of worship. The Levitical
service occupied the largest share in the attention
of the people. Then in the work of the prophets the
elements of belief and right living were introduced
and inculcated. In the later days the sages, who
held a broader point of view than that of the prophets,
gave practically all of their thought, as religious
teachers, to ethics, and, while not ignoring the ele-
ment of belief, found little or no use for the element
of worship. The historical development of these
three elements in Israel's history is essentially their
history everywhere.


The second point may be briefly stated. We
notice in individual and in ecclesiastical life here
and there abnormal manifestations of the religious
spirit. In some of these the spirit is so strong as to
overthrow the judgment, and, indeed, at times to
dethrone reason. At others it has associated itself
with immorality of the grossest type, and indescrib-
able cruelties. Of all wars, religious wars have been
the most dreadful; of all controversies, theological
controversies have been the most implacable. We
have often been at a loss to understand why, in the
case of men whose hearts were right with God, there
could be standards of life so utterly degraded; or
why, in the case of men whose lives were pure and
upright, there should be an utter disregard of church,
and of church relationship. The explanation of
these anomalies and abnormalities will be found in
the historical background of the nation, or in the
psychological constitution of the individual. This we
may never be able to understand, but the character of
their manifestation is clear. In each case one ele-
ment of the religious spirit has been emphasized
unduly, and the others neglected or ignored. Each
case presents a one-sided development. The nation
and the individual has acted or lived at times with-
out heart, again without mind, still again without
heart or mind. This being true, ought we to be
surprised at the result ?

We may now return to the personal application
of what has been said.


The cultivation of this religious spirit is for us
as serious an obligation as the cultivation of the body
or the mind; for without this spirit, our life is as
deficient as would be our body if it had no heart, our
mind if there were no brain. Rule out of life this
element, described under the word "worship," the
great truths for which religion in the highest sense
stands, and the principles of conduct of which religion
is in the highest sense today an advocate rule these
elements out of life, ignore them all or any of them,
and you are not a man or woman in the full sense
intended by your Creator.

Granting now that you, the individual, feel the
force of the obligation to cultivate this spirit, how
can it best be done ? Many and long answers have
been made to this question, but mine shall be short
and simple. Accept this unique, wonderful character,
Jesus Christ, as your leader and guide in the work of
developing in yourself the qualities which he pos-
sessed. In any other kind of work you would go
for direction to that person within your reach who
in himself and in his own actions best represented
the thing which you were seeking. For be assured

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 2 of 11)