William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

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particulars the Christian faith is passing through a
transitional period, but it is not being destroyed.
Possibly it is growing less ecclesiastical, but certainly
itJsgTowmg more practical. Just as the modern
conception of education is growing unscholastic,
and is emphasizing life rather than information,
so the religion of the educated man is becoming less
based upon theological philosophy, more based upon
demonstrable truths, more determined to find
expression in better social conditions and larger
social sympathies. It would be a most disastrous
situation if the case were otherwise. To separate
the educated man from the religious man would
mean infinite loss to the world. Our colleges may
be less determined to support some peculiar view
of God and theology, but they are producing men
and women who are not content to live in a universe


in which there is no God. If education tends to
lead college students to adopt the shorter form of
every creed, it is teaching them at the same time
that religion is an elemental fact in human life, and
that no man can be thoroughly educated who does
not know the fear of the Lord.

Infidelity has always been, is, and probably
always will be, present in the world. The greatest
danger to which the church today is exposed, how-
ever, is not the infidelity of the college student, or
of the educated person, but that of the great mass
of men and women who are being estranged from
the church because of the unwillingness of Christians
to make the love of man co-ordinate with professions
of loyalty to a creed. It is too easy to distrust any
institution which teaches that one must love a God
he has not seen, but which does not lead a man to
love his brother whom he has seen.

The evils in the situation, then, so far as college
students are concerned, may in great measure be
avoided. Let me point out three things which the
remedy for these evils must include:

Better training and more of it in the earlier years.
Every academy, college, and preparatory school
should have an instructor of broad sympathies and
large knowledge whose entire time is devoted to the
work of preparing the boys and girls for the changes
through which in college life they are to pass; in
other words, a biblical chair, to be filled by one who


will anticipate the coming struggle, and provide
beforehand that which will be of service at the time
of the student's crises.

But, besides more and a better training, there
must be stronger preaching, and a different kind
than there has been during the college years. It
is absurd to suppose that the same kind of preaching
will satisfy, at the same time, the inquiring, anxious,
soul-disturbed student, and the self-satisfied, inert,
lifeless person of the same age in an ordinary church.
Nor will a single preacher meet the needs of any
considerable number of students. For different
temperaments and different points of view there
must be preaching of different men and different

And, finally, there must be specific teaching of a
definite character, adapted to individual needs and
necessities. This calls for chairs of Bible instruc-
tion in every institution. These chairs should be
filled by men who rank in scholarly ability with the
men who occupy the other chairs in the institution.
The religious side of instruction must not be ignored
or treated half-heartedly. The best talent is none
too good. For are not the interests involved the
very highest?

Let us not croak, then, about the amount of
infidelity now in our colleges. We may well be
surprised that it is not even greater than it is, when
we take into account the wretched conditions which


exist as to the religious education of boys and girls
who have not reached the college age. We our-
selves, as parents and church members, are largely
responsible for such infidelity as does exist in college
since, in most cases, we have failed to take even the
most simple measures to prevent it. The college
can hardly be expected to repair the mistakes of the
home, or the teacher to overcome the indifference
or irreligion of the parent.



I HAVE come with the sincere feeling that I have
for you a message. I may be unable to express
this message in forceful style, but I shall use my
utmost endeavor to make it definite. If it does
not seem to be new, at least you must agree with
me that, since the days of Jesus and the apostles,
men have not delivered many messages altogether
new. Human effort has, in great measure, been
expended in ascertaining, explaining, and illustrating
that old, old message, the truth of which has become
more firmly established with each cycle of the years.

My message may, then, be imperfectly expressed,
and it may be lacking entirely in the new, the strange,
or the startling; but I ask permission in advance to
assure you of two things: first, that the positions
suggested are those which I have tested by my own
personal experience an experience, you will allow
me to say, of more than twenty-five years in Bible
study and Bible teaching; an experience likewise
including contact of the closest kind with young
men passing through almost every phase of life;
secondly, my purpose in presenting these points is
sincere, and honestly meant to be helpful. God



knows how many men in trouble and in misery it has
been my lot to meet, and in some small way perhaps
to help; too many, I can vouch to you, to permit me
to say a single word that would be other than helpful.

The phrase "personal experience" is inter-
changeable with two other phrases which relate to
the individual: "religious experience" and "religious
life." We have here, in fact, a specific use of the
word "experience," as applied to religious feeling.
It is something through which a man goes; some-
thing, perhaps, which comes to him a feeling, an
emotion, though always more than this: it is a state
of being, a life in which, as Emerson has expressed
it, the "individual soul mingles with the universal
soul;" or, as it is more commonly put, in which the
individual soul comes into sympathetic touch with
God. And first I wish to remind you that this
religious life or experience may be regarded from
two points of view, one largely outward, the other

The outward expression of this experience is seen
in all that enters into worship. This the Psalmist
had in mind when he said: "Bless the Lord, O my
soul, and all that is within me, bless his Holy Name ! "
This is the effort of the soul to express its feeling
toward the higher world of supernatural or divine
existence; an effort in some cases so simple and
unconventional that it passes almost unnoticed, in

other cases so elaborate and complex as to bewilder
and confound. The various acts of worship, whether
of sacrifice, prayer, or praise, symbolize in various
forms the inward thought. At times it is the thought
that makes effort thus to express itself; at other
times the expression leads up to the thought and
stimulates it to a higher achievement. As^ndividual
temperaments differ from each other, as national
characteristics separate great bodies of humankind
from one another, so the outward expression of the
same thought frequently varies, and men finoT many
different ways of giving expression to the varied
religious thoughts which fill their souls. While
these outward forms, indicative of the religious life,
are all the time undergoing change and modification,
it is evident from the history of religious thought
that they are carefully to be observed, not merely
as we observe the conventionalities of social life,
but even more rigidly and more sacredly, because
they constitute the agency for the preservation of
that long and helpful experience of religious life
which has been transmitted to us from the begin-
nings of human thought.

But the religious life finds outward expression
in another form in the system of belief, or the creed.
It is important to keep in mind that creeds, as we
find them in the various religions, and in the various
historical stages of Christianity, are mere outward
expressions of the religious life, not the religious life


itself. Here, again, we find the same simplicity and
the same complexity as in the forms of worship.
But no one, in face of the facts confronting us every
day, would dare to assert that the religious experience
of any man is to be measured by the definiteness or
vthe completeness of his system of theology. Some
of the purest and noblest lives ever lived were largely
innocent of even the simplest knowledge of creeds
or theology. At the same time, it is a fact easily
capable of demonstration that life and character
are influenced in the highest degree by the nature
of the religious belief. In illustration of this, con-
trast the ancient belief in the bull as the representa-
tive of deity, and the revolting consequences which
ensued, with the more modern Puritan conception
of God and the sturdy virtue accompanying it.

What a childish thing it is, therefore, to raise a
hue and cry, as so many do, against creeds ? What
man is there that does not have a creed? His
creed is but the outward expression of his inner
thought. No doubt in our day less emphasis is
placed on the factor of belief than was done in former
times. A man's life in civilized countries is no
longer dependent upon his theological belief. Nor
is his position in a particular body of the Christian
faith so definitely determined as it once was by his
special form of creed. This means simply that we
live in an age of toleration. But though men's
beliefs are not so strongly contested, they are not
on this account any the less vigorous.


Still a third outward form of expression for the
religious life is conduct or ethics, for we are told that
"pure religion an3^uno!enled before our God and
Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in
their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from
the world." The external acts of life that is, one's
conduct in relation to himself and to his fellow-men
constitute perhaps as clear an expression of personal
religious life as can be found. "By their fruits ye
shall know them." The regular performance of
the various acts of worship in a given ceremonial
reveals some characteristics of one's religious experi-
ence; the sincere acceptance of this or that form of
dogmatic creed is also a token; but much is left to be
discovered from a study of the ethical standard of
life which a man holds up to himself. And in all
these ways you and I tell the world something of
that inner experience which we, as Christian men,
say we have passed through and are now living.

But we must ask ourselves this question: What
constitutes this inner life, this spiritual life, this reli-
gious experience of which the acts of worship, the
formulation of creeds, and the conduct of life are
but the outward expression? What does it mean
to have one's soul in sympathetic touch with God ?
What, after all, is actually to be understood as being
included in the second phase of our topic, personal
or religious experience? What is the very essence
of it? And, it seems to me, no answer to this


question can be sufficient that does not show the
spiritual life to include these three elements : a con-
sciousness of sin, a fellowship with God, and a love
for God.

The religious experience must invariably include,
then, a consciousness of sin. The depth of the
experience may most accurately be estimated as in
proportion to the keenness of this consciousness.
No modern expression of this feeling is more vivid or
more pathetic than that of the Psalmist of old:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine indignation :

Neither is there health in my bones because of my sin.

For mine iniquities are gone over my head:

As a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.

My wounds are loathsome and corrupt because of my foolish-

I am pained and bowed down greatly;

I go mourning all the day long.

For my loins are filled with burning;

And there is no soundness in my flesh.

I am faint and sore bruised:

I have groaned by reason of the disquietness of my heart.

Ps. 38:3-8.

When I kept silence, my bones wasted away

Through my groaning all the day long.

For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me:

My moisture was changed as with the drought of summer.

I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity did I not

I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah;

And thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.

Ps. 32:3-5.


It is hardly worth our while to ask whether this
consciousness of sin is to be regarded as the recogni-
tion of a high estate once held by man, but long
since lost; or as the recognition of the survival of
animal conditions out of which in his ascent upward
he is gradually but surely being lifted. It is the
fact, not the explanation of the fact, which forms
a part of the religious experience. Do I feel this
awful, this terrible lack, in my own soul ? this falling
short of the standard clearly fixed before my eyes ?
this tendency to be dragged downward in spite of
constant struggle? this separation by an almost
impassable gulf from all that is high and pure and
holy? This is the question. And for my part, I
can conceive no true religious experience that has
not in it some such feeling. It will assume varying
forms with different individuals, and even entire
nations may exhibit characteristic features in their
experience of this feeling; but it will always be
present, and with it a corresponding longing for
truth and righteousness. The latter is but the com-
plement of the former. One is the negative, the
other the positive, side of the same phase of feeling.
To be sure, in some individuals the negative may
seem to be all that exists, but a closer study will
reveal at least the germs of that insatiable longing
for truth and righteousness as they are represented
in divinity.

In every true experience there must likewise be


found a sense of fellowship with God, together with
that realization of divine aid in the struggle of life
which has brought comfort and consolation to all
who have experienced it ; in more common language,
trust in God's goodness and mercy. This phase of
the religious experience, which, however violent
and antagonistic may be the character of the imme-
diate situation, always brings calmness and peace,
is in striking contrast with that just described as
consciousness of sin. And, again, you will notice
that it is just in proportion to the strength of the
feeling of divine fellowship that one is conscious
of sin. It is the touch received from contact with
divinity, the appreciation of the divine character
in other words, the consciousness of God that
brings one to a proper sense of his own utter mean-
ness, his humble lowliness in the sight of his Creator.
But the sense of fellowship with God, and trust
in his goodness, do not constitute the highest form
of the religious experience. This was not all that
religious development had achieved even in Old
Testament times. There had come to some the
experience of love for God not fear, nor merely
reverence, but a love represented to be like that of
son for father, or of wife for husband. Do you
recall how often the Old Testament prophets tried
to picture this idea, at that time so new to all about
them ? Was not God a father, and his true followers
sons? Are not the latter often described as chil-


dren that have rebelled, children that "deal cor-
ruptly"? and yet again as those whom Jehovah
draws with "cords of a man, with bands of love,"
for "like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord
pitieth them that fear him." Was he not also a
husband, while the true believers, the church, were
represented as the bride, sometimes faithless and
adulterous, but after all to be "betrothed to Jehovah
forever in righteousness, and in judgment and in
loving-kindness, and in mercies and in faithfulness" ?
And then the bride would "know Jehovah." The
full significance of this word "know" can scarcely
be overestimated.

Perhaps in these utterances the fuller emphasis
is on the love of God for man, rather than man's
love for God; but the latter is always included, and
finds ideal expression in the words of another psalmist
"I have said unto the Lord, thou art my Lord, I
have no good beyond thee" (Ps. 16:2). Wherever
love for God exists, there is the corresponding feeling
of love for one's fellow-man. If the first four com-
mandments of the Decalogue deal with the attitude
of man toward God, the remaining six have to do
with his attitude toward his fellow-men. Hosea,
whose greatest thought is the love of God for man,
is no less urgent in his plea for the proper treatment
of one's fellow-men than was Amos, who viewed
the Deity chiefly as a God of justice. The attitude
of Jesus was clearly marked. After all, the greatest


contribution of the new religion introduced by him
was the conception of love instead of fear as mani-
fested toward the Deity, love instead of selfishness
as manifested toward one's fellow-men. "But
now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but
the greatest of these is love" (i Cor. 13:13).

The religious life, then, although expressed in
acts of worship, articles of belief, and standards of
conduct, really consists in a consciousness of sin and
a longing for truth; in a sense of fellowship with
God and trust in his goodness ; in a consciousness of
love for God as well as for one's fellow-men. The
religious life is a spark, more' or less brilliant a
spark of the divine life in man. This spark may
have gone out ; or it may still be in existence, although
it no longer appears to the human eye. It may just
be growing warm and bright under the influence
of a breath blowing upon it, a divine breath; it may
be very bright and brilliant, giving warmth and
guidance to all who see it. Or, if we were to use
the figure of the seed, the germ, the thought would
be the same. The outward expression of this divine
element in the human soul may be indeed imperfect.
When we recall the history of individuals and of
nations; the cases in which even reason itself has
been dethroned as a result of the experience; the
instances in which immorality of the grossest type
has been associated with it; the wars and contro-
versies which are termed religious the most bitter


of all history; when we recall the names of men like
David, whose hearts seemed right with God, whose
lives nevertheless represent much that was utterly
degraded; and the names of other men whose lives
seemed pure and upright, who nevertheless have
shown utter disregard for all religious convention-
alities we ask ourselves whether in all this there
has really been evidence of the existence of religious
life. I answer: Yes, but the spark was shining
in different degrees of brightness, or perhaps already
so nearly quenched as to appear black; the germ
was exhibiting different stages of growth, or was per-
haps almost destroyed.

All this only emphasizes the truth that one's
conception of God, one's attitude toward him, is
the fundamental thing in life, whether it be that of
the individual or that of the nation. Nations have
existed whose names have long been lost. Of some
nations only a name has come down to us. These
have done nothing for the world, have added nothing
to its history. They have maintained for a longer
or a shorter period merely the dead level of monoto-
nous existence. In the case of other nations the
very opposite is true. Separating themselves in
an early period from the environment of which they
formed a part, they have lifted themselves gradually
away from that environment to higher and higher
planes of life and thought. It is the story of these
nations that makes up the world's history.


Of the many millions of human beings that have
lived, the mass are as if they had not existed.
There is no tangible evidence of their life. They
have been born, they have existed, and they have
died this is all. There has been no contribution
to life or thought. In the case of some, however,
this does not hold true. Imbued with a spirit eager
to secure that which was higher, driven by an impulse
growing out of a desire to help humankind, con-
trolled by a power which they themselves could not
comprehend, these men have led the world in each
step of its progress. What now, in each case, was
the factor which differentiated the few nations from
the many, the few individuals from the masses? I
answer: Their conception of God. In proportion
as this conception was true and clear and strong,
in that proportion did the nation or the individual
rise out of darkness into light; to that extent nation
or individual entertained true and clear and strong
conceptions of life and the relationships of life, of
death and the significance of death. In other words,
if we may point out the idea concerning God which
prevails in any nation, or is accepted by any indi-
vidual, there is furnished at once the key to the laws
of the nation, the habits of the individual, the litera-
ture of the nation, the soul of the individual.

If you would tell me, my friends, what you think
of God, or the relationship which you sustain to him,
I could determine the character of your religious


life nay, more, the measure of your influence in
the world. Is it possible that you have no thought
of God; that you have not come to realize the existence
of God and your dependence on him; that you do
not yet understand the goodness of God and his power
to inspire your soul ? Then, indeed, you are to be
pitied; for you are one of the vast multitude whose
hands have worked without avail. The great and
controlling influence needed in order that your work
shall count has been lacking. I do not have in
mind the meaning of the creeds, nor the work of the
churches. It is something higher and deeper the
contact of the human soul with the power that created
it; the communion of that soul with the spirit that
continues its existence. Just as light and progress
have come into the world with the coming of the
truer conception of God, so light will enter the soul;
and the life of that soul will make progress with
the increasing appreciation of the goodness and
the greatness of God. Religious life is largely
the outward expression of thought, and thought
is most ideal is thought of God. Let us
free ourselves, so far as we may, from the things
which fetter the spirit in its effort to come into
contact with the great spirit of which it is a part.
Let us break down the barriers which stand between
us and the God in whose image we were made.
Let us avail ourselves of every opportunity to grow
upward rather than downward. Let us earnestly


seek that higher life in which spirit meets spirit,
and the ideal of man's creation is at last attained.
What is it to be free ? It is to be in touch with
the Divinity. What is it to be strong? It is to
be a companion spirit of the Great Spirit. What
is it to be true? It is to be in harmony with the
truth of the universe, which is itself the reflection
of the character of God.

And now, what has Bible study to do with all
this ? What relation has been found to exist between
this inner and outer religious life, this personal
consciousness of sin and righteousness, of God and
his goodness, of love for God and for man all this
on the one hand, and, on the other, the study of the

My question does not put on one side the religious
life and on the other the Bible. For the Bible is
of no more value to you in the struggles of your
religious experience than the trashiest ten-cent novel
unless directly or indirectly you make use of it.
Do you remember that most interesting discovery
made in the days of King Josiah in Jerusalem, the
discovery of a long-lost Bible? Shaphan read it
before the king. "And it came to pass, when the
king had heard the words of the book of the law,
that he rent his clothes." Then there followed

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Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 9 of 11)