Gentlemen, I am very much astonished at this spectacle. I told you last night it was against our principles in Scotland to have religious meetings on a week night. It seems to me that if you come to a meeting of this kind you mean business, and you may just as well own it. If a man comes to a shorthand class, it means that he wants to learn shorthand; and, if a man turns up at what I suppose I must call a religious meeting, it means that he is less or more interested in the subject.
Now I should say that I think a man has to give himself the benefit of that desire, and he should not be ashamed of it. The facts of religion are real; and, as mere students of life, you and I are bound to take cognizance of them. Of course, many very fair minded men are kept away from going into this subject as they would like by a number of exceedingly surface reasons. I cannot help calling them surface reasons. For instance, you meet a man who tells you that he doesn't like Christians, that they always put his back up.
Now, Christians often put my back up. There are many of them I find, with whom it takes all my time to get along. But that is not peculiar with Christians. It is only peculiar to peculiar Christians, and there are just as many of the other sort. A man might just as well say, I don't like sinners. A man might just as well keep out of the world because he doesn't like some people in the world, as to keep out of Christian circles because there are some objectionable creatures in it. We cannot be too fastidious. We cannot join any sect without having the weaker brethren in it. We cannot get on in this world entirely by ourselves. We must join this thing and that if we are going to be of any service at all, so that I think the difficulty of having to join ourselves with objectionable men applies pretty much all around.
Other men are kept away from Christianity by what I might call its phrases. A great many people, not so much in your country as in ours, talk in a dialect. The older people especially, our grandmothers, have a set of phrases in which all their religion is imbedded, and they can't talk to us about religion without using those phrases; and when we talk to them, if we do not use those phrases, we are put out of the synagogue. Now what we can do in this case is to translate their dialect into our own language, and then translate into their dialect when we speak back. It is a different dialect. We would put it upon a different basis; but after all we mean pretty much the same thing, and if we can once get into this habit of translating our more modern way of putting things into this antique language that those worthy people use to us we will find ourselves more at one with them than we think.
I meet another set of men who tell me that they don't like churches, that they find sermons stale, flat and unprofitable. Now, if any man here hates a dull sermon, I am with him. I have intense sympathy with any man who hates dullness. I think the world is far too dull, and that is one of the greatest reasons why the brightest men should throw themselves into Christianity to give it a broader phase to other people. One must confess that some church work, at all events, is not of a very cheerful or lively order. But of course that is not an argument why one should abstain from religious service. There are many reasons why we should even sacrifice ourselves and submit to a little dullness now and again if it is going to gain for us a greater good. After all, we live by institutions, and by fixed institutions. There are very few men who are able to get along without steady institutions of one kind and another. Some men are so tremendously free that they hate to be tied down to hours, to places and to seasons; but there are very few men big enough to stand that for a long time. If we look about for it, we will find some place that we can go and get some good. When a man goes to church really hungry and goes because he is hungry, he will pick up something, no matter where it is. Christ himself went to church, and even if we know something more than the minister knows, the fellowship, the sense of the solidarity of the Christian church throughout the whole world, the prayer and the inspiration of the hymn and the reading will at least do us some good. I do not say that a man cannot be very religious without that. There are tens of thousands of Christians who never go to church; and there are tens of thousands who go to church who are not Christians. But, as with substantial meals taken at intervals, man is no worse and may be much better for it.
The religious life needs keeping up just as the other parts of our life need keeping up. There is nothing more impossible than for a man to live a religious life on an hour's work or an hour's thought a week. A man could not learn French, German or Latin by giving an hour per week to it; and how can we expect a man to get in this great world of the spirit, this great moral world, this great ideal region, and learn anything about it by merely dabbling in it now and again? We must make it a regular business, and, if the religious part is a vital part of the whole nature, we may as well attend to it.
You may remember a passage in Mr. Darwin's life. He says: "In one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, the poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley, gave me great pleasure; and even as a school boy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, and especially in the historical plays. I have always said that pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, but found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost my taste for pictures and music. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. But why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain, I cannot conceive. If I had my life to live over again" (this is the point) "I would have made the rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week." There is the greatest authority on degeneration confessing to his own personal degeneration, and in the same paragraph telling us how we may avoid it. He says by leaving these things out of his life for so many years, although he had a real liking for them, his nature at these points began to atrophy, and when he went back to them he found that they disgusted him; and then he says that, if he had his life to live again, he would have made it a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week, and that would have kept the thing up. There is nothing magical about religion. If a man is to keep it up, he must use the means, just as he would use the means to keep up the violin, or his interest in art of any kind.
I find another set of men who have never got beyond this difficulty, that they find the Bible a somewhat arid and slow book. Now, in the first place, I want to say that I have, again, great sympathy with that objector because, as a matter of fact, there are whole tracts of the Bible which are distinctly dull, which are written in an archaic language, and about departments of history in the past which haven't any great living interest for us now. One must remember that the Bible is not a book, but a library consisting of a large number of books. By an accident, we have these books bound up in one as if they were one book; and to say that all the books of the Bible are dull is simply to pass a literary judgment which is incorrect. It is not true, as a matter of fact, that all these books of the Bible are dull. Of course a sailing directory is very flat on the shore; but when a man is at sea and wants to steer his way through difficult and dangerous wastes, where the currents are strong and the passages narrow, he wants the best chart he can get, and he wants to use it as carefully as he can; and when a man wakens up to the difficulty of life and the reality of its temptations, he wants some such chart as he gets in that book to help him through.
As a mere literary work, there are books there that are unsurpassed in the English tongue, and for their teaching, for their beauty and for their truth they have never been surpassed. Christ's words, of course, are beyond comparison; but even Paul had a far greater brain than almost any writer of history.
John's writing is far deeper and more beautiful than Emerson's, for instance. Let the man who is in love with Emerson, as I am happy to say I am, take up the book of John just as he would take up Emerson, and see if he doesn't get in it a great deal that Emerson has, and a great deal more. If a man doesn't like the Bible, it is because he has never struck the best parts of it, or because he has never felt any great need in his own life for its teaching. As a matter of fact, however, reading the Bible is a new thing. There were Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years before there was any people's Bible; so that it is not even essential, if you can't overcome this matter of taste, that you should read the Bible. There are hundreds of Christians at this moment who cannot read the Bible. There are Christians in heathen lands in whose language there is as yet no Bible; so that you see there is no absolute connection between these two things. Besides that, the Bible has now become diffused through literature to such an extent that you can often get the heart of the Bible in a very bright and living and practical form through other forms of literature. If you don't care to get it direct from the book itself, you can get it from our modern poetry, even from our modern novel; and Christianity has now been so long in the world and is diffused over so many things that it reflects itself in almost everything in life. Some one was once trying to convince a certain lady of that point as they were sitting at dinner; and he said to her that in the pudding which they had just eaten there was an egg, and that that morning at breakfast he had also eaten an egg. He saw the egg at breakfast, but he did not see the egg in the pudding; yet he had no doubt the egg in the pudding would nourish him just as much as the one he had for breakfast.
A man may get his nourishment straight out of the Bible. He may see it there, shell and all; but he may also get his nourishment mixed up with other ingredients, and it will do him just as much good.
There is another class of men, however, whom none of these minor difficulties touch--men who have come up to college, and who have got upset on almost all the main doctrines of Christianity. Now, I want to confess to you that, so far as I know my old friends, they have all passed through that stage. Every man who is worth a button passes through that stage. He loses all the forms of truth which he got in the Sunday School; and, if he is true to himself, gains them all back again in a richer and larger and more permanent form. But, between the loss and the gain, there is sometimes a very painful and dismal interlude, during which the man thinks that he is never going to believe again, when everything lies in ruin, and he doesn't see where any reconstruction is to come in. These are dark days and dark years in a man's life, and they are inevitable to every man who thinks. They are inevitable, because we are all born doubters. We came into the world asking questions. The world itself is a sphinx and tempts us to keep on asking questions. There are no great truths in the world which are not to some extent doubtable; and the instrument with which we look at truth is largely impaired, and has to be corrected by long years of experience for its early aberration. So that when we look at truth we only see part of it, and we see that part of it distorted. The result is a certain amount of twilight where we expected full day. One consolation to give that man is to tell him that we have all been through that. We take it like the measles. It lasts a certain number of months or years, and then we come out with our constitutions better than ever. There is a real rationale for that. Everything in the world passes through these stages, provided it be growing. You remember how the philosophers describe it. They describe the three great stages as position, opposition and composition. Position: Somebody lays down a truth, you look at it and say, "Yes, that is truth." I heard a clergyman say that when I was a boy, and I believed it. Then, one day, you read a book or hear some one else talk, and he put a query on it; and then there came the revolt against it, and for a long time your mind was seething with opposition to this original thing which was positive. And then you went on and put all these contradictory things together and composed them into a unity again. You reached the third stage--that of composition.
It is the same with everything. You begin to learn the piano, and after you have played about a year you think you know all about it; and you tackle the most difficult pieces, dash away at them, and think you can do it as well as anybody. Then you go into Boston and hear some great pianist, and come home a sad man. You see you know nothing about it. For the next six months you do not touch a single piece. You play scales day after day and practice finger exercises. Then, after six months, you say: "What is the use of playing scales? Music does not exist for scales;" and you turn to your old pieces and play them over again in an entirely different way. You have got it all back again. There are men here going through the scale period with regard to religious questions. What is the use of all this opposition? Is it not time to go back again, you ask, and put all this experience into something, and get at some truth at the other side? You see the same truth in a novel. Volume I., they will. Volume II., they won't. Volume III., they do.
We see the same thing in art. A man paints a picture. He thinks he has painted a grand one. After a few months, some one comes along and says: "Look here! Look at that boat! You don't call that a boat? And look at that leaf! That is not a leaf." And you discover that you have never looked at a boat and never seen a leaf. You are disheartened and do nothing the next six months but draw boats and leaves; and, after you have drawn boats and leaves until you are sick, you say: "What is the use of drawing boats and leaves?" and try again and produce your first landscape. But it is altogether a different thing from the picture you painted before. Now, when a man is working over the details of the Christian religion and struggling to get one thing adjusted and another, he will very soon find out that that does not amount to much. It is a useful thing, and he has to go through it, but he has to come out the other side also and put these things together.
The best advice, I think, that can be given to a man who is in this difficulty is, in the first place, to read the best authorities on the subject; not to put himself off with cheap tracts and popular sermons, but to go to the scientific authorities. There are as great scientific authorities in Germany, in England and in America on all the subject matter of theology as there are on the subject matter of chemistry or geology. Go to the authorities. You may not agree with them when you have read them. But if a man reads all the books on the opposition side he will very naturally get a distorted view of it. So, for every book he reads on the one side, he should, in justice, read a book on the other side.
Next, let a man remember that the great thing is not to think about religion, but to do it. We do not live in a "think" world. It is a real world. You do not believe that botany lies in the pages of Sachs. Botany lies out there in the flowers and in the trees, and it is living. And religion does not live in the pages of the doctrinal books, but in human life--in conflict with our own temptations, and in the conduct and character of our fellow beings. When we abandon this "think-world" of ours and get out into the real world, we will find that, after all, these doubts are not of such immense importance, and that we can do a great deal of good in the world.
For my part, I have as many doubts on all the great subjects connected with theology as probably any one here; but they do not interfere in the very slightest with my trying, in what humble way I can, to follow out the religion of Christ. They do not even touch that region; and I don't want to lose these doubts. I don't want any man to rob me of my problem. I have no liking and little respect for the cock-sure Christian--a man who can demonstrate some of the most tremendous verities of the faith, as he can the Fifth Book of Euclid. I want a religion and theology with some of the infinite about it, and some of the shadow as well as some of the light; and if, by reading up one of the great doctrines for five or six years, I get some little light upon it, it is only to find there are a hundred upon which I could spend another hundred lives. And if I should try to meet some specific point upon which you are at sea to-night, it would not do you much good. To-morrow a new difficulty would start in your mind, and you would be simply where you were. I would be stopping up only one of your wells. You would open another out of the first book you read. Try to separate theological doctrine from practical religion. Believe me that you can follow Christ in this University without having solved any of these problems. Why, there was a skeptic among the first twelve disciples, and one of the best of them, and one of the most loyal of them. That man sat down at the first Lord's table, and Christ never said any hard words against him. He tried to teach him. That is the only attitude, it seems to me, we can take to Christ still. We can enter His school as scholars, and sit at His feet and learn what we can; and by doing His will in the practical things of life, we shall know of this and that doctrine, whether it be of God. The only use of truth is that it can do somebody some good. The only use of truth is in its sanctifying power; and that is the peculiarity of the truth of Christianity, that it has this sanctifying power and makes men better.
Now you say: "What am I to do? If I am to block up this avenue and am not to expect very much along the line of mere belief, in what direction am I to shape my Christian life?" Well, I cannot in the least answer that. Every man must shape his Christian life for himself, according as his own talents may lead him; but the great thing to do is simply to become a follower of Christ. That is to become a Christian. There is nothing difficult or mysterious about it. A Darwinian is a man who follows Darwin, studies his books, accepts his views and says, "I am a Darwinian." You look into Christ's life, into His influence; you look at the needs of the world; you see how the one meets the other; you look into your own life and see how Christ's life meets your life; and you say, "I shall follow this teacher and leader until I get a better." From the time you do that, you are a Christian. You may be a very poor one. A man who enlists is a very poor soldier for the first few years, but he is a soldier from the moment he enlists; and the moment a man takes Christ to be the center of his life that man becomes a Christian. Of course that makes a great change in his life. His friends will know it to-morrow. On the steam engine you have seen the apparatus at the side called the eccentric. It has a different center from all the other wheels. Now, the Christian man is to some extent an eccentric. His life revolves around a different center from many people round about him. Of course, it is the other people who are eccentric because the true center of life is the most perfect life, the most perfect man, the most perfect ideal; and the man who is circulating around that is living the most perfect. At the same time, that man's life will to some extent be different from the lives round about him, and to some extent he will be a marked man.
But what difference will it make to a man himself? For one thing, it will keep you straight. I fancy most of the men here are living straight lives as it is; but it is impossible that every man here is. Well, I will tell you how to keep your life straight from this time--how your hunger after righteousness can be met. If you become a Christian, you will lead a straight life. That is not all. If you become a Christian, you will help other men to lead straight lives. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The only chance that this world has of becoming a righteous world is by the contagion of the Christian men in it. I do not know any country with the splendid pretensions and achievements of America where there is so much unrighteousness in politics and to some extent in commerce, and where shady things are not only winked at, but admired. That is acknowledged and deplored by every right thinking man in the country. I get it, not from observation, but from yourselves. There is not a day passes that I do not find men deploring political corruption and the want of commercial integrity, in some districts of this country, at all events. Now nothing can change that state of affairs unless such men as yourselves throw your influence on to the side of righteousness and determine that you will live to make this country a little straighter than you found it.
There is a career in Christianity as well as an individual life. How do you test the greatness of a career? You test it by its influence. Well, can you point me to any influence in the world in the past which has had anything like the influence of the name to which I have asked you to give your life's adherence? That life started without a chance of succeeding in anything, according to the received theories of a successful life. Christ was born in a manger. If you and I had been born in a manger, the shame of it would have accompanied us through our whole lives; and yet there is not one of us born to-day who is not baptized in the name of Christ and who has not a Christian name. Christ went to no university, and had no education; and there is not a university in Europe or in America which is not founded in the name of Christ. This university was founded in the name of Christ. Aye, and the very money which has gone to build the universities of the world has come from the followers of Christ. The education of the world, gentlemen, has been done by the followers of Jesus Christ. Christ had no political influence, and sought none; yet there is not a President placed in the White House, there is not a sovereign in Europe placed upon a throne, but acknowledges, in the doing of it and in public, that the power to do it has come from Christ, and that the object in doing it is to secure the coming of Christ's kingdom. Take it in any direction, and you will find that this influence, judged from mere worldly standards of success, has been supreme.
Napoleon said, "I do not understand that man. He must have been more than human. I used to be able," he said on St. Helena, "to get people to die for me. I got hundreds of thousands of them, but I had to be there. Now that I am here on this island, I can't get a man. But He," said he, "gets hundreds of thousands of the best men in the world to lay down their whole lives for Him every day." Judged as mere influence from the standpoint of an ambitious man like Napoleon, you see that that Life was supreme.
You remember the dinner that Charles Lamb gave to some literary men, and how they were discussing after dinner what their attitude would be if certain great figures of the past were to come into their dining room. After they had all spoken, Lamb said:
"Well, it looks to me like this, that if Shakespeare entered the room I should rise up to greet him; but if Christ entered the room, I should kneel down and keep silent."
And so I ask you if you have feelings of that kind about any figure in history compared to the feelings that spring into your mind when you try to contemplate that Life. Some of you have never read Christ's life. You have picked up a parable here and a miracle there, and a scrap of history between; but you have never read that biography as you have read the biography of Washington, Webster, or the life of Columbus. Read it. Go home and read one of the four little books which tell you about His life. Take Matthew, for instance; and if you don't run aground in the 5th chapter and find yourself compelled to spend a week over it, you haven't much moral nature left. I have known men who have tried that experiment, who have begun to read the gospel of Matthew, and by the time they had finished reading the 5th chapter, they had thrown in their lot with the Person who forms the subject of that book. There is no other way of getting to know about Christ unless you read His life, at least as a beginning. If you want to become a Christian you must read up, and that is the thing to read. If you like, after that you can read the other lives of Christ. How do men get to know one another? They simply take to one another. Two men meet here to-night. They go downstairs and exchange greetings. To-morrow night they meet in each other's rooms. By the end of a month they have got to know each other a little, and after another year of college life they have become sworn friends.
A man becomes a little attracted to Christ. That grows and grows, into a brighter friendship, and that grows into a great passion, and the man gives his life to Christ's interest. He counts it the highest ambition he can have to become a man such as Christ was. You see there is nothing profound about a religion of that kind. It is a religion that lies in the line of the ideals a young man forms, and that all the reading that he meets with from day to day fashions. In fact, it is a man's ideal turning up, and the man who turns his back upon that is simply turning his back upon his one chance of happiness in life and of making anything off life. Every life that is not lived in that time is out of the true current of history, to say nothing else. It is out of the stream --the main stream that is running through the ages, and that is going to sweep everything before it. A man who does not live that life may not be a bad man. The Bible does not say that everybody who is not a Christian is a notorious sinner; but it says that the man who lives outside that is wasting his life. He may not be doing wrong, but his life is lost. "He that loveth his life," Christ said, "shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." I am not ashamed to quote that to you; and I ask you to regard it with the same validity, and more, that you will give to any other quotation.
You will not accuse me of cant because I have used sacred words in this talk. There are technical terms in religion just as in science and philosophy. Just as in science I should speak of protoplasm, of oxygen or carbonic acid gas, so in talking of religion I must talk about faith and Jesus Christ. Just as I should quote authorities in speaking of chemistry or political economy, so I must use authorities in speaking about Christ. You will not take the words that I have said tonight as a mere expression of phraseology of a cant description, because it is not that; and I would ask those of you who are very much frightened to use such words to consider whether it is not a rational thing and a necessary thing, if you speak at all on this subject, to use these words. We must not be too fastidious, or thin-skinned, or particular on a point like that. While we are not in any degree to advertise our Christianity by our language, there are occasions, and this is one, when these things are necessary.
I want to say, in closing, that I hear almost extraordinary accounts of you Harvard men. Robert Browning once came to the Edinburgh students to talk to them; and he said, after he had gone away, that he had never in his life seen such a body of young men. Now I have no acquaintance with you whatever; but I have been asking up and down this district what sort of men the Harvard men are, and I want to let you know that you have a fairly good character. So far as I can learn, you have a character such as none of our Scotch universities have. Now live up to it. Let this university in the years to come be famous over America not only for its education, but for its sense of honor and manliness, and purity and Christianity. Seek first the kingdom of God. You know the whole truth. Live it. Want of interest in religion does not acquit you of taking your share in it. Why should I be here to talk to you? A Scotchman hates talking. I believe an American is dying to talk all the time. Well, I say want of religion does not absolve you from taking your share of it. The fact that you do not care about Christ does not alter the fact that Christ cares about you, that He wants you men, and that His kingdom cannot go on unless He gets such men as you. Are we to leave the greatest scheme that has ever been propounded to be carried out by duffers? It is easier, somebody says, to criticise the greatest scheme superbly than to do the smallest thing possible. The man who is looking on from the outside sees things in the game that the players do not see. He sees this bit of bad play and that. Well, stop criticising the game. Take off your coat, and come and help us. Our side is strong, and it is getting stronger; but we want the best men. Christianity ought to have the superlative men here in every department--in classics, in poetry, in literature, in humor, in everything that goes to the making of a man. The best gifts should be given to Christ. We are apt to despise Christianity and keep away from it because there are many weak-minded people in it. That is one reason why we ought to take off our coats and throw ourselves into it, heart and soul. And I leave you with that appeal. I appeal to the strong men here to consider their position and see if they can do anything better with their life than to help on this great cause.
Delivered to students of Harvard University, in April, 1893.