William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

. (page 6 of 11)
Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 6 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Here again the word of caution must be spoken.
We must not lean upon broken reeds; and yet,
how shall we determine who is strong and who weak ?
So often a mistake is made, so liable is it to be made,
that we are almost ready to cry out with the prophet :
"Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils,
for wherein is he to be accounted of." Alas ! we are
in sore straits. We may not fully trust ourselves,
we may not fully trust our fellow-men. What
shall we do? The answer lies in what shall be
said of the third kind of dependence. This time
I have in mind, not self, nor inter-dependence, but
a dependence which is absolute. This time I shall
speak no word of caution.

Will you picture to yourselves a scene in ancient
Babylonia: the great city, with its immense walls
and battlements, the very embodiment of all that
was powerful; with an army regarded as invincible;
with a king whose prowess in war the whole earth
celebrates mighty Babylon, the mistress of the


nations ! And behold, in the midst of all this pomp
and power, that ragged captive remnant, the residue
of what was once the lion of Judah; a poor,
heart-sore, distressed folk, held in reproach by
man, seemingly abandoned by God. Never was
there a picture combining so strong an apparent
contrast of strength and weakness, pride and debase-
ment. But, hark! One says "Cry!" And the
prophet asks: "What shall I cry?" "Tell the
downtrodden captives," speaks the voice from heaven,
"not to be despondent. Babylon's walls are strong
and lofty; Babylon's king is fierce and terrible;
but all flesh and Babylon, after all, is flesh all
flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as
the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the
flower fadeth, when the breath of Jehovah bloweth
upon it. Babylon is grass. The grass withereth,
the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall
stand forever." The preacher of this sad period
had no occasion for the exercise of self-dependence;
less, if possible, for that of dependence upon those
about him. But there was one on whom he depended
God; and his trust in this one was not mis-

And as it was with the prophet, so with us. God
is the rock on which we may set our feet without
fear of danger. Some of us are just assuming the
responsibilities of life, the burdens of life none
too light, as even the few years we have lived


clearly show. Each one of us, however situated,
with every new day finds new cares. It is, indeed,
a heavy burden. I have felt that every year, yes
every month, contributed to the weight of the burden.
And we are, as I have said, taking up new burdens
all the while.

Shall we ask ourselves now whether we are try-
ing to carry them alone ? Doubtless we are putting
forth every effort to do all that men and women can
do. We do not wish to lean too heavily upon our
friends. Our education has taught us independ-
ence; but have we also learned dependence? My
friends, we must do everything we are able to do.
We must secure all legitimate aid from our friends.
But we may not stop with this, or life will bring to
us nothing in comparison with what might have
been ours. Go one step farther. Put your trust,
and keep your trust, in God. Let us place ourselves
unreservedly in his hands, to be guided according
to his will. If we are weak, he will strengthen us;
if we are strong, he will make us yet stronger.

"Gracious is the Lord and righteous,
Yea, our Lord is merciful.
It is better to trust in the Lord,
Than to put confidence in men."

"It is better to trust in the Lord,
Than to put confidence in princes."

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses;
But we will make mention of the Lord our God."


"They that trust in the Lord

Are as Mount Zion which cannot be moved, but abideth

"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem,
So the Lord is round about his people."

Be dependent? Yes. Be likewise dependent
on self? Yes, though with caution. On God?
Yes; without reserve, and with absolute confidence
that he will render help in every time of need.



So CLOSELY interwoven are the many and various
elements which make up life that most of us fail to
recognize the complexity which sober thought shows
us to exist, and consequently to make due allowance
for it. Life, even in its simplest forms, is complex.
Nor is this more true of physical than of social life.
In the case of both, the ancients were innocent of
any true comprehension of the facts. Their ideas
of physiology as well as of the relationships of life were
crude and infantile. Where there is no adequate
knowledge of details there is, of course, a conception
that simplicity exists ; and so it remained for modern
times to discover and to make known the utterly in-
calculable complexity of life, physical and social.

One sometimes wonders whether this additional
knowledge is to be recognized as gain or loss.
Whichever it may be, it is coming into our possession
with a rapidity which often bewilders us. This be-
wilderment, however, exists not merely because we
are for the first time beginning to comprehend this
complexity, but also because in our times the complex-
ity is being greatly intensified. The life of the ancient



peoples, even if it had been understood, would have
been a simple thing compared to the life which we
live. The century so soon to close has brought a
more marked advance in this respect than perhaps
any ten or twenty preceding centuries. That a still
greater complexity is something inevitable, no one
doubts. With the progress of civilization it is always
increasing. The lines run out in still more numer-
ous directions. They become finer and finer, so as
to be almost imperceptible, though having real
existence. The possible combinations grow in num-
ber and form, and no one may even dream of the
end of this seemingly boundless development.
There is, therefore, no advantage to be gained from
opposing it. It is creeping onward quietly, but
irresistibly, and opposition will only increase the
speed of its progress. Resistance to it would be
like the resistance of an isolated tree to the fierce
windstorm which tears it from its roots, or like that
of the unprotected hut to the power of the advancing
river-torrent which swallows it and leaves nothing.
Nor, indeed, are we for a moment to suppose that
it is undesirable. The word "development," just
used, furnishes us the explanation of it. For the
highest development there must be just such flexi-
bility, such interweaving, such combination, such

But what is the fate of the individual in this
complexity? Here is the practical question to


which we ought to make answer. If life in general
is thus complex, surely life in particular is a perplex
thing; a labyrinth or maze in which the individual
wanders now here, now there, without light and
without guidance, now up, now down; not knowing,
perhaps not even caring, what shall be the outcome.
It is for the individual to make the needed effort,
however great a struggle it may be, to find his place
in the midst of this complexity. How shall he know
where he belongs? One of millions, what is his
relationship to those about him ? Aiming to ac-
complish the best thing for himself, what is his
attitude to those in whose midst he lives ? But
whether right or wrong, whether conscious or un-
conscious, determined to find a place for himself,
to what extent shall he regard the rights of those
who are aiming for the same place ? Is not this the
practical issue of life that external thing for which
every man strives who has ambition in him ? And
is not the higher issue only another phase of this?
Various methods are employed; various routes are
followed ; but, after all, it is the essence of life to find
one's place in this complicated machinery of the
world, and thus to avoid, so far as may be, the dismal
perplexities, the uncounted miseries, of an aimless
existence. Does anyone suppose that his fellow,
however fortunate he may be, at last attains a posi-
tion in which struggle is no longer needed ? Does any-
one suppose that for any human being this perplexity


ever has an end ? No man has lived for whom life
was not this thing of doubt, of perplexity. Heaven
is nothing but the elimination of this perplexity;
hell, its further intensification. In which direction
are we moving ? For we may well believe that the
future life is but a continuation of that which we
deliberately choose in this life.

Yet back of this question lies another as funda-
mental and as important: How are we moving?
Indeed, the two questions are one, for if the method
is indicated, one is inevitably made cognizant of the
direction likewise. There is a right and a wrong
policy of life. Failure, in general, is due to an
inability to grasp the right policy. In this policy
and I am now speaking only of the method of liv-
ing there are two elements, both of which are ne-
cessary, both of which contain promise of good out-
come; either of which, when exaggerated, brings
ruin and disaster. Has it occurred to you that the
dividing line between good and bad is very diffi-
cult to draw; that the character of the policy is often
determined, not by what it is, but by the extent to
which it is carried; that mistakes are made, not
simply in going, but in going too far or not going
far enough ?

Remembering, now, this complicated maze in
which every human being finds himself moving in
one direction or another; remembering that every
action has to do with the actions of others, every


thought connects itself with others' thoughts; re-
membering that all possibilities are wrapt up in the
kind of combinations made; that one cannot remain
alone; that there is no such thing as isolation; that
every effort must be put forth to find the particular
place in this great labyrinth which the individual
was intended to occupy, a place possibly near at hand
or possibly far removed picture to yourself the man
who refuses to put forth effort to find this place, who
fears to come in contact with other forms of life,
and so far as he may, stands still; who, finding him-
self in a certain groove, remains fixed and gradually
becomes hardened, impervious to influence; who
hears nothing, sees nothing, merely exists; who,
being out of place and unable to find a place, is
consequently out of connection with all about him,
and so constituted that those who would naturally
come into relationship with him are injured by con-
tact with him; who has become callous and unsym-
pathetic, out of touch with those about him except for
harm; who is unable to assist or direct others to the
place in the maze which they ought to occupy; who,
indeed, actually prevents others from taking the
place which is really theirs. What element in the
true policy of life does this man lack, or what ele-
ment does he possess which makes his life a failure ?
Remembering, further, that each life among all
lives has its part, that this part is a unique one,
and that the player of it must do a particular thing


in order that it may contribute its share to the whole
and be in harmony with all; remembering that any
failure on the part of one life affects all, and that
life itself is too short in any single case to permit
many parts to be assigned to a single life, even if
they are fittingly assigned; remembering that it takes
time to fit one's self into one's surroundings, even
when the supposition is that one has found one's true
place, and that skill also is required in order that
the adjustment of each part to other parts may be
complete picture to yourself that other man who
in each successive month or year imagines that his
work is something different from that which he has
been pursuing; who imagines that his neighbor's
place is that which he was intended to occupy, and
forthwith makes effort to secure that place; who
today is here, tomorrow there, moving from one
point to another, regardless of the fact that he is one
of many and must connect himself with others of
his group in order that the work of the group may
be successful; who jumps from this path to that,
little appreciating that he is perhaps going farther
and farther away from the true path; who does not
seem to understand that he is mingling and con-
founding that which, though complicated, was defi-
nite and distinct; who finds himself, when he stops
to consider the situation, moving in a circle, and not
in a direction which would have indicated progress;
who is ready at any time and under any circum-


stances to change or modify his course, moved as
he is by any wind that blows. What element in
the true policy of life does this man lack, or what
element does he possess, which makes his life a
failure ?

I have used general terms because I did not wish
to specify any one of the many realms of life's
activity. One's policy will probably be the same,
whether in business, political, or religious life. For
the sake of this general application, I may be allowed
to use general terms with which to designate these
elements in the policy of life. In one of the cases
described there was a fixity and rigidity, a self-
satisfaction and unwillingness to put forth effort, a
lack of flexibility. Here belong one-half of life's
failures, the occasion of the failure being an un-
warranted certainty that what one has is all that is
worth having; that what one knows is the whole
truth; that what one does is the right thing to do;
a certainty based upon lack of sufficient evidence;
a certainty involving immense risk to everyone pos-
sessed by it.

The dangers of certainty are many and serious.
The feeling of certainty begets a contentment which
dwarfs and stunts the life and soul of man; an in-
difference to truth which condemns before its utter-
ance every new form of statement, every new phase
of conception; a fixity of thought which soon comes
to be obstinacy and prejudice; a lack of sympathy


which dries up the heart and starves the intellect;
a literalism which shrivels and destroys. This, we
must grant, is the most natural and most common
tendency of human life. It is from the lethargy
growing out of this that we must free ourselves, if
the race as a race, or if individuals of it, are to ac-
complish the great mission of the Almighty. The
results of this tendency have presented themselves
to every thinking man or woman. The disposition
to shut one's eyes to the facts about him, to accept
without sufficient evidence that which is presented,
to fail to hold these things subject to verification, is,
alas, too common a characteristic even of the leaders
of our times. God forbid that I should say any-
thing which would seem to be harsh! But when I
see on every side of me the monuments of the past
revered as if they had been handed down by God
himself, actually erected into gods for worship,
treated with a reverence and a holy fear worthy of
something higher and better, my heart sinks within
me at the proneness of men's minds to stand still
a tendency as great as is the proneness of the sparks
to fly upward.

But the element of uncertainty in life is even more
mischievous. Its presence leads to a shallowness
painful in its weakness; to an inability to grasp
truth even in the simplest form; to a flitting hither
and yon without purpose and without result; to a
dangerous radicalism, because of the lack of strength


to resist that which is plausible, though false; to an
ignoring of the lessons of the past and a blindness to
the real possibilities of the future; to a failure to
appreciate the existence of great and fundamental
principles in accordance with which life and all that
goes to make up life shall be regulated. The lack
of honest convictions on important questions is a
source of uneasiness and disquiet. It must lead to
abject dependence upon others and an utter aboli-
tion of that feeling of independence which should be
the characteristic of every man. What more pitiable
spectacle than that of a man who never knows what
he himself thinks; whose life is one of credulity and
skepticism, of inconsistency and unfaithfulness ?

Here belong the other half of life's failures, their
occasion being an utter uncertainty as to what one
should think or should do, or should be; instability
of character, for which no better symbol can be
found than that applied by Jacob of old to Reuben :
"unstable as water." In one's contact with men he
finds many possessed of high qualities and great
ability whose lack of stability makes a life, that
would otherwise be most successful, an utter failure.
The absence of a continuity of purpose, the inability
to adhere to a plan of action, counterbalance all else
and condemn them to darkness and despair, pro-
vided they have a disposition serious enough to lead
them to understand their condition. It is one's busi-
ness, and I think I may say one's chief business in


life, to succeed; to avoid the probability, and indeed
the possibility, of failure. The work which we do in
school and college and university is intended to re-
duce the chances of failure, or, if you please, to
increase the chances of success. It is not impos-
sible, of course, for a college man to fail. If, how-
ever, he has been able to read aright the commission
which has been given him by nature and nature,
that is God, has given a commission to every man
before his birth he will have attained ideals which
will enable him to understand this complicated sys-
tem in which he has been placed and to overcome
the perplexities of the situation.

The ideals of a university man in his efforts to
advance himself, and in his attitude toward those
about him, should be the highest. He must steer
clear of the dangers of certainty as well as those of
uncertainty; and he of all men knows that the world
is making progress, and that the best life is that
which is lived in its own times rather than in those
of a past generation. There must be strong convic-
tion, and sturdy adherence to a well-founded opinion,
if anything is to be accomplished. How, now, shall
he adjust himself to these two elements, each of
which contains some truth; either of which, as has
been said, when exaggerated brings disaster? He
should first of all repudiate mere partisanship. He
must be an independent, whether in matters of reli-
gion of or politics. He must not be a sectarian hi


religion, a party politician in politics. Such adher-
ence to political or religious creed of the past, because
of historical or local influence, cannot be justified.

This does not mean that he shall not work in
connection with that religious denomination or with
that political party which seems to him, upon the
whole, best adapted to his needs and necessities, as
well as to his conceptions of truth. But the religious
denomination or the political party will be the means
employed by him to serve God and his country, not
the end of that service. He will put aside the pre-
conceptions of the local atmosphere which he has
breathed, and endeavor to reach for something
higher. But he will not, if his training has been
scientific, throw away what he has obtained before
securing something which shall serve as its substi-
tute. He will above all things go beneath the sur-
face and aim to understand the foundations of
things; for he will soon learn that it is only upon
strongly built foundations that later work of substan-
tial character can be established; or, to change the
figure, that, if his roots grow deep down into the
soil the tree will grow above and beyond the narrow
limitations which otherwise might have been set,
and that the tree with roots reaching far down is the
tree which stands firm and is less disturbed by the
storm. He will live and think and act in accordance
with principle rather than according to rule. And
here, after all, lies the great difference between the


strong life and the weak. There are laws and prin-
ciples which govern our lives, and the life that dis-
regards these suffers. The petty rules and regula-
tions of one class or another signify nothing, accom-
plish nothing. They are of use only, if at all, for
training where the mind is not yet developed, or is
always to be weak.

Do you think that I have not had in mind in
these few words the religious life and its influence,
and the contribution which religion makes to this
complexity of situation and perplexity of life? I
answer that in my own mind I have thought only of
the religious. But it is easier to present religion in
the concrete than in the abstract and so, in closing,
I present to you the concrete example of one who
knew, as no other man has known, the complicated
structure of the universe and man's peculiar relation
to it ; who experienced, as no other man experienced,
the perplexities and bewilderments and wretched-
ness of this our life upon earth ; who steered his way
through the midst of all the dangers which attend
the life of one standing firmly for his convictions;
who represented to the world new thoughts and new
conceptions, and who gained reproach and death
because of his lack of adherence to the old; who
trampled upon the beliefs of his time, repudiated the
teachings of his fathers, introduced the sword of con-
tention among his brethren, climbed high above the
narrow and inconsiderate prejudices of his country-


men, reached far down beneath the surface to dis-
cover and to proclaim principles, the adoption of
which should shake to their very foundations the
institutions of the world. Who was this man?
Jesus Christ the ideal of a humanity into which
divinity had been breathed ; in whom the complexity
of life is lost, unity and simplicity taking the place
of it ; in whom the perplexities of life find their solu-

Do we know this man Christ Jesus ? For not to
know him is not to know the true philosophy of his-
tory, and to be ignorant of the very purpose of our
existence. We, who have gathered here this after-
noon, are students. Let us see to it that we remain
students. And may I suggest, what surely has been
suggested many times before, that one subject of our
study during what is left us of life, indeed the subject,
shall be this perfect exemplification of the life and
character of an educated man; and that the purpose
of our study, as well as the purpose of our lives,
shall be not to treat as known that which is uncer-
tain, and not to hesitate in respect to that which is


WE are all interested in the progress and growth
of the principles of Christianity. There may be
differences among us in respect to the application
of some of these principles; but in reference to their
substance, and in reference to the importance of
promulgating them, we are agreed. We are all
likewise interested in the work of higher education.
As instructors and students, as parents and friends,
we are closely connected with a great cause one
only less important than that of Christianity itself,
a cause which, indeed, may not be separated from
the highest life and teaching of Christianity. But
we have noticed that at times, and in the case of
certain individuals, perhaps even in ourselves, there
has arisen what may have seemed to be a conflict
between these two interests the religious and the
intellectual life.

At times in the history of the church, men have
reached conclusions in their investigation of great
themes which have been adjudged irreconcilable
with the creeds of the church, and these men have
been made to suffer, even death. At certain periods
in the history of some of our denominations, the


people as a whole have been afraid of higher learning
and have frowned upon it. And the day of this evil
is not yet entirely past.

But what I wish to speak of here are certain
difficulties into which those who are engaged in
higher studies sometimes fall. They are especially
the difficulties of university men and women,
although many outside of the university circle have
to struggle with them; for is it not true that men who

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 6 of 11)