William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

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think, whether in or out of the university, belong to
one great family ?

The first one is the disposition to doubt, a dispo-
sition which characterizes most men, whatever may
have been one's Christian experience, or even if one
has had no such experience. The time when we
first began to see things from the new point of view
may have been very definite so definite that we
can remember the hour and place when our thoughts
were turned, and our lives began to be different; or
the experience of change may have been so gradual
as to be almost imperceptible; or we may still be
looking forward to that time ; but in every case there
have been difficulties, and there are doubts. I use
the word broadly.

This Christian life is a strange thing; with some
of us it is comparatively easy and bright ; with others
gloomy and hard. We pass through what is utterly
incomprehensible; we grow uneasy; it is so dark at
times that we seem almost to have lost the light;


but the experience of those unfortunate ones who
never have had even a faint glimpse of this light
which lighteth the world must be darker and more
wretched still.

But these intellectual difficulties are certain to
exist. No man who really thinks can escape them.
It has sometimes seemed to me that to think and to
doubt were synonymous. Certain it is that in pro-
portion as a man thinks, in that same proportion
questions arise the answers to which are often hard
for him to discover. And since it is the chief busi-
ness of the student to think, he need not be surprised
if doubts crowd in upon him thick and fast. If
one's reading does not lead him to think and to ask
the wherefore of things, the why this is true, if it be
true, and the why this is false, though always believed
to be true it would be better for him not to read.
If one's reading has taught him to think about
the classics, and about art, about science, and about
history, and has not also led him to think (and I
mean by the word "think" the asking of questions,
the testing over again of truth supposed already to
have been tested, the interposing of a doubt as to
this or that thing not yet based on sufficient evidence)
if, I say, one's reading has not led him to think
about the great questions which are connected with
our religion and our faith, that reading or study has
been in part a failure. You must not misunderstand
me when I say that unless your intellectual work


has taught you to doubt, at least to an extent which
will compel you in self-defense to make inquiries
the result of which will be the furnishing you a basis
on which to rest an intelligent faith, that intellectual
work has not yet gone far enough. Although you
will meet difficulties, if you think, do not, I beg of
you, stop thinking because you are afraid of diffi-
culties. They are certain to exist.

In the great majority of cases, these difficulties
are independent of a true profession of Christianity.
Thus you are not to suppose that because of their
existence you cannot become a Christian, or that,
having become a Christian, they will cease to exist.
They exist before, during, and after the change of
heart. Your faith in the essential verities of Chris-
tianity is largely independent of them. Let us sup-
pose that you and I are Christians. Certain diffi-
culties of belief arise the same difficulties for both
of us. You will probably settle yours, if at all, by
one method, and I mine by another; the result will
be one thing in your case, and quite a different
thing in mine. We are, however, both satisfied. I
may think that you are wrong, and you may think
that I am wrong, as to this specific point; but our
faith is the same. And so, all about us, Christian
men are settling their difficulties of belief in many
different ways; and, notwithstanding these differ-
ences, faith remains unaffected.

Nor is this all. These intellectual difficulties


may continue to exist without being settled in any
way, and still one's faith may remain unaffected.
Faith in Jesus Christ and in the living principles of
Christianity is not bound up or in any vital way con-
nected with the outside intellectual difficulties which
are all the while presenting themselves to us. You
have your difficulties; some one else has other diffi-
culties. The result should not and need not affect
one's active Christian life.

But suppose that you are not a Christian; are
you waiting until all difficulties have disappeared?
If so, you will wait until the end of life. If some
good friend labors with you until he has persuaded
you that these difficulties have been removed, and
begs you now to accept the Christ, he is deceiving
you; it is not so. Do not allow yourself to be thus
deluded. Many of these perplexities will continue;
but if your faith is real and simple, they will grad-
ually become less and less significant, until by falling
into their proper places they will leave you undis-
turbed. Be sure, thus, of this: if you wait until you
are argued out of these doubts, you will wait long
and hopelessly.

And now, as to the solution of these difficulties.
I insist that they are independent of our Christian
life and activity; that we may be good Christians,
and may rest in peace of soul, without having settled
them. But do not think that therefore I advise
you to let them go unsettled. That would be to


stop thinking; and to do that you must cease to be
a student. You cannot pursue any line of investi-
gation without coming into contact with Bible
thought. If you are an honest thinker, you will be
compelled to make an effort to reach definite con-

Nor must we leave the resolving of these questions
to the men who deny the existence of a God. They
are not to be left to be decided by the rationalistic
skeptic. It is the province of the thinking Christian
to discuss, and in due time to settle, them. And so,
my friends, although these questions are separate
from a simple faith, it is your business to grapple with
them and to settle them, in so far as they can be
settled through honest thought and work. But in all
such work it is to be remembered that first comes the
effort to cultivate a Christian life, and that the diffi-
culties stand second.

Just here someone may raise an important con-
sideration. "How," he asks and I understand
him to ask it honestly "How can I profess to accept
that about which I have doubt? A Christian life
is inseparably connected with a full acceptance of
Christian doctrines. If I cannot accept the doctrines,
how can I lead, or profess to lead, the life ?"

I answer: I know that life and conduct are affected
by opinion; but I know also that the doctrines neces-
sary to be accepted by him who would lead a true
life, are not many, nor abstruse. I remember that


the men and women of our Lord's times who accepted
him, and in him found rest and peace, were not
loaded down with theological systems; and, still
further, that their theological beliefs, so far as they
held such beliefs, were made up largely of the
ephemeral notions and ideas of their day. The sum
and substance of the Christian faith is found in two
words, "Follow me." The belief in this or that
thing may be important; it is not essential. The
simpler one's faith, and the more childlike, the more
helpful and satisfying it will prove to be. Again,
therefore, I urge you, do not hold back because this
or that thing is not clear, because this or that thing
cannot be accepted. Do not be all intellect; allow
yourself to be moved, at least to some extent, by
your heart.

But I have drifted somewhat away from the
question of the solution of these difficulties. Let
me tell you, out of my own experience, that during
several years before personally accepting the Chris-
tian faith I studied the Bible earnestly and carefully
for the purpose of discovering that which would
enable me to convince others that it was only an
ordinary book, and very ordinary at that. I could
not, if I would, here tell you of the work of those
years years spent in finding, not in settling diffi-
culties. The work was, of course, superficial, and
my point of view altogether wrong; but those diffi-
culties were still there, when, after a while, I began


to see some faint rays of coming light. And as the
light grew brighter the difficulties did not diminish
in number or in character. I desired to be a Chris-
tian, but no man told me what I now know, and
what I beg you to hear from me, that I could first
become a Christian and settle the difficulties later.
I went forward ; yet the difficulties remained. What
could I do with them? Only one thing: take up
again the study of the Bible, this time going deep,
and working from a different point of view; and it
was not long until I discovered two things: that the
difficulties were in some cases altogether imaginary;
and that from the new point of view, and with the
more scientific study, principles could be found
which, if followed out, gave to the whole case a
different aspect.

This, then, was my experience; and among others
I have found that perplexity is due almost always
either to ignorance of the representations of the
Bible or to a misunderstanding of its contents. The
man who will study it honestly and fearlessly, regard-
less of the mass of rubbish which tradition has
gathered about it, but, at the same time, with a spirit
of true reverence, will find his imaginary difficulties
vanishing one by one ; he will find his real difficulties
assuming a new and more manageable shape. He
will find great and fundamental principles, of the
truth of which he will be so confident that his feet
will seem to be standing on a rock, which doubt
cannot shake.


Do you believe the Bible, asks someone, because
of what is in it, or do you believe what is in it because
it is in the Bible ? How should one answer these
questions ? I would answer yes to both questions.

When I compare the early chapters of Genesis
with the similar stories in other literatures, and note
the spirit and purpose of one in contrast with the
spirit and purpose of the other; when I compare the
history and psalms of the Old Testament with the
history and psalms of the old Assyrians ; when I study
the story of the life of Christ, a story beside which
no other story may be placed; when I see what the
Bible has done for humanity and what it is today
doing I can say most strongly, I believe the Bible
because I find it to be a collection of books that have
stood the test of time.

But let me turn it around. I believe also what
is in the Bible because it is there. To be sure, I
reserve the right for myself to decide that one book
of the collection has more of religious truth in it
than another. Who, for example, would deny that
the ninetieth psalm was not more helpful than the
first chapter of Chronicles ? I reserve the right
also to decide whether this or that book is really
to be taken as one of the collection. Luther exercised
this privilege. Why should I not enjoy it also ? I
reserve the right, still further, to decide for myself
in what way I shall interpret this passage or that.
When I read:


"The mountains skipped like rams,
The little hills like lambs,"

I am at liberty to believe that it is poetry and not to
be taken literally. So likewise when I read,

"Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon,
And thou, moon, in the valley of Ajalon !
And the sun stood still and the moon stayed,
Until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies,"

and see that it is poetry, as it is shown to be in the
Revised Version, and that it is obviously quoted
from that ancient collection of poetical pieces, the
book of Jasher, I understand that I may believe the
Bible, without believing at the same time that the
sun and moon stood still.

Thus I find upon investigation that if it be prop-
erly interpreted, what the Bible says is true; I could,
therefore, easily believe that the things which are
in it are true because they are there.

But I do not wonder sometimes that some of our
students and investigators have thrown the Bible
aside. Here is the situation : In childhood they were
taught ideas concerning the Bible which were in
keeping with their ability to comprehend the subject.
As the years passed, the childish conceptions relating
to other subjects were displaced by more mature
conceptions ; the child grew to be a man. As a man,
however, he is unable to accept the teachings given
him when a child. And, meanwhile, he has not
been given other, better, and more mature instruc-


tion. The old is gone; there is no new to take its
place. This is the explanation of a large part of the
skepticism in the world; and the responsibility for it
rests upon those who have given direction to the
curriculum of instruction.

But I have only talked about difficulties in general.
This is not the time to discuss questions of miracles,
or the question of inspiration, or the question of the
incarnation, or any of those subjects which are
ordinarily supposed to cause us most perplexity. I
have limited myself to talking about the question
as a whole, and all that I have said may be summed
up in very few words:

1. Have your difficulties; go on having them;
suspect that something is radically wrong when you
cease to have them.

2. You who have not yet accepted as your friend
and guide the Christ who lived and died for all men,
do not wait for a time when these difficulties will
grow less. Until you take this step, you may hope
for nothing. That step taken, all the rest, in time,
will follow.

3. You who have cast your lot with the church,
remember that these difficulties need not, must not,
interfere with your Christian work and life. It is
a mistake to suppose, as many do, that when diffi-
culties begin to arise, and faith to grow weak, you
should forsake communion with God and association
with his people until your faith grows strong again.


This, of all times, is when you need such help as only
prayer and Christian activity can furnish.

For relief from difficulties of every kind, whether
of life or thought; for a help which may always be
obtained ; for a rock on which firm standing-ground
may be gained go to the Bible ; not as to some talis-
man possessed of magic power, but as to a book con-
taming story after story which tells of God's dealings
with man; to a book containing precept upon pre-
cept, richer in truth than any other of the world's
possessions a book which will guide your thought
unfailingly to the only source of wisdom, to the
source of all wisdom to God.



EVERYTHING repeats itself. The experience of
today is only that which happened yesterday; and
our experience of yesterday was much the same as
that of men who lived six or seven thousand years
ago. The child before birth repeats every stage
of that long ascent from the lowest life to the highest
which culminates in man. The child after birth
repeats every stage of that long process by which
primitive man has become civilized man. The
college life, with its temptations and struggles,
with its successes and failures, with its ambitions and
despairs, is an epitome of that larger life which
men are said to live when they go out into the world.
The fact is, of course, that when one enters college,
he enters the world, and life in the world is only the
repetition over and over again of the life lived in
college. If men and women could only be made
to see this when they first enter college, how different
would be for most of them their college life.

But now the question presents itself to those of
us who are soon to leave the University precincts,
and take up work in another and different atmos-
phere : What have we come in contact with here



in this environment that will be repeated in the new
situation? What is it that we have had which we
shall experience again many times in later life ? If
I mistake not, one of the most striking things in
the life of the great majority of students is the nature
of the difficulties with which they are called upon to
contend. These difficulties vary in number and in
character as they do in life itself.

Some have had to fight against poverty. And
to one engaged in this battle the obstacles which
confront him seem at times insurmountable. To
go through college under these circumstances is to
be deprived of even the most reasonable recreations ;
to separate oneself from others, for lack of means
to share the necessary expense of even a simple
social life; to sacrifice the very necessities of living;
to submit to what, under other circumstances, would
be constant humiliation. Yet this struggle is under-
gone by a larger proportion of our numbers than
is ordinarily supposed; and in many instances the
struggle is more severe than the facts, as seen by
those on the outside, would seem to indicate. The
result of the struggle with poverty usually is either
discipline of the highest character or death; not
infrequently both.

With others the obstacle which stands in the path
of progress is ill-health. Strangely enough, the
author of existence has not always seen fit to adapt
the body of man to the vigor of his mind; and so,


many of us suffer in long-continued agony because
the body will not fulfil the mandates of the brain;
because we see as if within our very grasp possi-
bilities of life and living which, after all, are as far
from realization as heaven is from earth. This
constant failure to attain what in all reason might
have been expected disheartens us. The struggle
is indeed maddening; the sense of disappointment,
keen and ever-present.

And often both these things a lack of means
and a lack of health are coincident. In such a
coincidence the case would seem to be hopeless;
and yet even this combination the human will is
sometimes strong to combat and conquer. But
great and varied and numerous in college life as are
those difficulties which have their origin in lack of
means and in ill-health, and sad and pathetic as is
the result of the struggle in many cases to overcome
them, there are other conditions which give rise to
difficulties greater and more numerous, with results
sadder and more pathetic.

There are sometimes found within the university
circles those to whom nature refused to give a strong,
vigorous mental equipment; those who are styled,
in common conversation, slow and dull. Conscious
of the fact that nature has thus despoiled them;
realizing that every forward step costs them twice,
or even ten times, the effort required of others about
them; knowing that, at the best, only a mediocre


attainment is possible, these souls plod on and on
day after day. In these cases the difficulties of
progress are magnified tenfold, since for them every
hill is a mountain. To feel during each moment of
existence that for oneself only this little thing is
possible, while for that other nothing is quite impos-
sible, is to have one's life, whatever kind it be,
enveloped in a cloud of darkness the density of
which will be appreciated only by those who, once
swallowed up in it, have passed beyond into an
atmosphere of comparative clearness and rarity.
It is here that strength of will is developed the
determination to do or die. Many, to be sure, give
up the struggle in an early stage; many others fight
as with death itself, and in the end triumphantly
win the battle.

I wish, however, to mention still another source
of difficulty which confronts men and women in
the college life. I have referred to lack of means,
to lack of physical endowment, and to lack of intel-
lectual equipment ; I have in mind now lack of strong
moral purpose, or, more briefly, lack of character.
I may not here consider how this deficiency has arisen
whether by heredity, or from the sin of early youth
long since put aside, or from an evil habit still prac-
ticed. Nor do I wish to refer to those men and
women who are sunk so low in depravity that they
are unconscious of being in depravity, or who, being
conscious, justify themselves. I am thinking rather


of that one whose ambition is to be good and to do
good, who knows what good is, and who really seeks
it; but who is nevertheless morally weak; who cannot
withstand temptation; who, now and again, in spite
of honest effort, in spite of the influences with which
friends seek to surround him, falls; and who, when
he has fallen, is conscious of his degradation.

This man or woman may or may not have ample
means for the prosecution of his work, he may or
may not have the blessing of a good physical consti-
tution, he may be brilliant or he may be dull; at all
events, he lacks moral purpose, his conduct is not
guided by moral principle, and he knows what his
lack is. For this man, just in proportion to the
degree of his consciousness of his shortcoming,
life is a torture. A merciful providence has decreed
that in most instances in which there is moral defect
there is a lack of consciousness of the defect. But
this is not always the case. The struggle of a soul
tending thus to fall, and apparently too weak to
resist the impulse, is a struggle far more pathetic
than any to which reference has thus far been made.
When the downfall is one which takes on outward
significance and is apparent to all eyes, the man
soon leaves college; but often this lack of character
does not assume an objective form; it may manifest
itself in secret sin, and so the man goes on and on,
now rising superior to it, now again falling. The
details of such a contest are known only to himself


and God; except when, by the keenness of his suffer-
ing, he is impelled to lay bare to some friend the
secrets of his life and heart. It has been my privilege
to hear the confession of many a soul thus burdened
and to see the pressure relieved in part by such con-

If, then, the story which we hear almost every
day of some worthy student's lack of food is sad;
if the picture of disease, and sometimes of death
itself, seen on the face of one striving for intellectual
advancement, is still more sad; if the desperate
determination, hopeless yet full of confidence, of
those whom nature has, as it were, branded with a
mark that tells of something lacking which neither
money, nor love, nor work may supply this dogged
determination to fight at all hazards and at every
cost is pathetic; how much more sad and pathetic,
indeed how truly pitiful, is the struggle of the man
who has been denied the strength to maintain him-
self in the path in which he knows he ought to walk
the path of moral rectitude?

These difficulties I mention are, however, not the
only ones that you have encountered in college and
university life. Some of you have had too large an
allowance of money. Some of you have found the
very vigor and physical strength with which nature
endowed you a source of trouble and difficulty. In
many cases it is brilliancy of intellect that proves a
man's ruin; and sometimes it is the effort to be con-
scientious that brings the most bitter sorrow.


These, I repeat, are not the only difficulties to
be met with in college life ; but they are the chief ones
and are typical. Not all of you have had to contend
with these difficulties; but there are few men or
women who leave the university without having
fought some of them. And these are precisely the_
difficulties you will continue to encounter in the days
to come. Your weakness or defect, whether material
or physical, whether intellectual or moral, is certain to
disturb you in the future. You have been poor in
this world's goods today; the chances are that this
poverty will be your constant companion. If you
are to practice law, you must face the fact, apparent
on all sides, that the average lawyer is scarcely able
to support himself. If it is the ministry, you are
told that the average salary of a minister in the state
of Illinois is less than five hundred dollars a year.
Are you to be a physician? Then the number of
young physicians who actually starve while they are

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Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 7 of 11)