(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin’s Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)
Religion is experience. It is the response of man’s nature to his highest inspirations. It is his intercourse with Being above himself and his world.
Religion is normal experience. Its enemies call it “an indelible superstition,” and its friends assert that man is born believing. That a few persons, here and there, appear to lack the sense for the Invisible no more argues against its naturalness than that occasionally a man is found to be colorblind or without an ear for music. Mr. Lecky has written, “That religious instincts are as truly part of our natures as are our appetites and our nerves is a fact which all history establishes, and which forms one of the strongest proofs of the reality of that unseen world to which the soul of man continually tends.”
Some have sought to discredit religion as a surviving childishness. A baby is dependent upon its parents; and babyish spirits, they say, never outgrow this sense of dependence, but transfer that on which they rely from the seen to the unseen. While, however, other childish things, like ghosts and fairies, can be put away, man seems to be “incurably religious,” and the most completely devout natures, although childlike in their attitude towards God, give no impression of immaturity. When one compares Jesus of Nazareth with the leaders in State and Church in the Jerusalem of His day, He seems the adult and they the children. And further, those who attempt to destroy religion as an irrational survival address themselves to the task of a Sisyphus. Although apparently successful today, their work will have to be done over again tomorrow. On no other battlefield is it necessary so many times to slay the slain. Again and again religion has been pronounced obsolete, but passing through the midst of its detractors it serenely goes its way. When men laboriously erect its sepulchre, faith,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
Will arise and unbuild it again.
Its indestructible vitality is evidence that it is an inherent element in human nature, that the unbeliever is a subnormal man.
Religion is an affair of the whole personality. Some have emphasized the part feeling plays in it. Pascal describes faith as “God felt by the heart,” and Schleiermacher finds the essence of religion in the sense of utter dependence. Many of us recognize ourselves as most consciously religious in
that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on.
Our highest inspirations commonly come to us in a wistful yearning to be like the Most High, in a sense of reconciliation with Him, in a glowing enthusiasm for His cause, in the calm assurance of His guidance and protection, in the enlargement of our natures as they become aware of His indwelling. “We feel that we are greater than we know.”
Others give prominence to the rôle of the intellect. God is the most reasonable explanation of the facts of life. Religious truths and men’s minds harmonize as though they had been made for each other. The thought of Deity gives them perfect mental satis faction. Dante tells us: “The life of my heart, that of my inward self, was wont to be a sweet thought which went many times to the feet of God, that is to say in thought I contemplated the kingdom of the Blessed.” And a present-day English thinker, Mr. F.H. Bradley, writes: “All of us, I presume, more or less are led beyond the region of ordinary facts. Some in one way and some in another, we seem to touch and have communion with what is beyond the visible world. In various manners we find something higher which both supports and humbles, both chastens and transports us. And, with various persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principal way of their experiencing the Deity.”
Still others lay the chief stress upon the will. Man wills to live; but in a universe like ours where he is pitted against overwhelming forces, he is driven to seek allies, and in his quest for them he wills to believe in a God as good as the best in himself and better. Faith is an adventure; Clement of Alexandria called it “an enterprise of noble daring to take our way to God.” We trust that the Supreme Power in the world is akin to the highest within us, to the highest we discover anywhere, and will be our confederate in enabling us to achieve that highest. Kant found religion through response to the imperative voice of conscience, in “the recognition of our duties as divine commands.” Pasteur, in the address which he delivered on taking his seat in the Académie Française, declared: “Blessed is he who carries within himself a God, an ideal, and who obeys it; ideal of art, ideal of science, ideal of the gospel virtues, therein lie the springs of great thoughts and great actions; they all reflect light from the Infinite.”
But while all these views are correct in their affirmations, it is perilous to exalt one element in religious experience lest we slight others of equal moment. There is danger in being fractionally religious. No man really finds God until he seeks Him with his whole nature. Some persons are sentimentally believers and mentally skeptics; they stand at the door of the sanctuary with their hearts in and their heads out. Writing as an old man, Coleridge said of his youth, “My head was with Spinoza, though my whole heart remained with Paul and John.” An unreasoning faith is sure to end in folly; it is a mind all fire without fuel. A true religious experience, like a coral island, requires both warmth and light in which to rise. An unintelligent belief is in constant danger of being shattered. Hardy, in sketching the character of Alec D’Uberville, explains the eclipse of his faith by saying, “Reason had had nothing to do with his conversion, and the drop of logic that Tess had let fall into the sea of his enthusiasm served to chill its effervescence to stagnation.”
Others, at the opposite extreme, are merely convinced without being converted. They are appealed to by the idea of God, rather than led into actual fellowship of life with Him. A striking instance is the historian, Edward Gibbon, who, at the age of sixteen, unaided by the arguments of a priest and without the æsthetic enticements of the Mass, was brought by his reading to embrace Roman Catholicism, and had himself baptized by a Jesuit father in June, 1753. By Christmas of 1754 he had as thoughtfully read himself out of all sympathy with Rome. He was undoubtedly sincere throughout, but his belief and subsequent unbelief were purely matters of judgment. The bases of our faith lie deeper than our intelligence. We reach God by a passionate compulsion. We seek Him with our reason only because we have already been found of Him in our intuitions.
Still others use their brains busily in their religion, but confine them within carefully restricted limits. Outside these their faith is an unreasoning assumption. Their mental activity spends itself on the details of doctrine, while they never try to make clear to themselves the foundations of their faith. They have keen eyes for theological niceties, but wear orthodox blinders that shut out all disturbing facts. Cardinal Newman, for example, declared that dogma was the essential ingredient of his faith, and that religion as a mere sentiment is a dream and a mockery. But he was so afraid of “the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries” that he placed the safeguard of faith in “a right state of heart,” and refused to trust his mind to think its way through to God. Martineau justly complained that “his certainties are on the surface, and his uncertainties below.” We are only safe as believers when, besides keeping the heart clean, we
press bold to the tether’s end
Allotted to this life’s intelligence.
Those, again, who insist that in religion the willingness is all, forget that it seems no more in our power to believe than it is to love. We apparently “fall into” the one as we do into the other; we do not choose to believe, we cannot help believing. And unless a man’s mind is satisfied with the reasonableness of faith, he cannot “make believe.” Romanes, who certainly wished for fellowship with the Christian God as ardently as any man, confessed: “Even the simplest act of will in regard to religion—that of prayer—has not been performed by me for at least a quarter of a century, simply because it has seemed so impossible to pray, as it were, hypothetically, that much as I have always desired to be able to pray, I cannot will the attempt.” Christianity has ever laid stress upon its intellectual appeal. By the manifestation of the truth its missionaries have, from Paul’s day, tried to commend themselves. We do not hear of “Evidence Societies” among non-Christian faiths. When the Emperor Julian attempted to restore the ancient paganism, he did not argue for its superior credibility, but contented himself with abusing the creed of Christians and extolling the beauty of the rituals of the religion it had supplanted. But the propaganda of the gospel of Jesus is invariably one of persuasion, convincing and confirming men’s minds with its truth.
It would be as false, however, to neglect the part a man’s willingness has in his faith. To believe in the Christian God demands a severe moral effort. It can never be an easy thing to rely on love as the ultimate wisdom and power in the universe. “The will to believe,” if not everything, is all but everything, in predisposing us to listen to the arguments of the faith and in rendering us inflammable to its kindling emotions.
But no man can be truly religious who is not in communion with God with “as much as in him is.” Somebody has finely said that it does not take much of a man to be a Christian, but it takes all there is of him. An early African Christian, Arnobius, tells us that we must “cling to God with all our senses, so to speak.” And Thomas Carlyle gave us a picture of the ideal believer when he wrote of his father that “he was religious with the consent of his whole faculties.” It is faith’s ability to engross a man’s entire self, going down to the very roots of his being, that renders it indestructible. It can say of those who seek to undermine it, as Hamlet said of his enemies:
It shall go hard,But I will delve one yard below their mines.
As an experience, God is a discovery which each must make for himself. Religion comes to us as an inheritance; and at the outset we can no more distinguish the voice of God from the voices of men we respect, than the boy Samuel could distinguish the voice of Jehovah from that of Eli. But we gradually learn to “possess our possession,” to respond to our own highest inspirations, whether or not they inspire others. Pascal well says: “It is the consent of yourself to yourself and the unchanging voice of your own reason that ought to make you believe.” So far only as we repeat for ourselves the discoveries of earlier explorers of Him who is invisible have we any religion of our own. And this personal experience is the ground of our certainty; “as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God.”
Religious experience, and even Christian experience, appears in a great variety of forms; and there is always a danger lest those who are personally familiar with one type should fail to acknowledge others as genuine. The mystics are apt to disparage the rationalists; hard-headed, conscientious saints look askance at seers of visions; and those whose new life has broken forth with the energy and volume of a geyser hardly recognize the same life when it develops like a spring-born stream from a small trickle, increased by many tributaries, into a stately river. The value of an experience is to be judged not by its form, but by its results. Fortunately for Christianity the New Testament contains a variety of types. With the first disciples the light dawns gradually; on St. Paul it bursts in a flash brighter than noonday. The emotional heights and depths of the seer on Patmos contrast with the steady level disclosed in the practical temperament of the writer of the Epistle of James. But underneath the diversity there is an essential unity of experience: all conform to that which Luther (as Harnack summarizes his position) considered the essence of Christian faith—”unwavering trust of the heart in God who has given Himself to us in Christ as our Father.”
Religious experience has been defined as man’s response to God; it often appears rather his search for Him. But that is characteristic only of the beginning of the experience. The experienced know better than to place the emphasis on their initiative in establishing intercourse with the Divine. “We love, because He first loved us,” they say. The Apostle, who speaks of his readers as those who “have come to know God,” stops and corrects himself, “or rather to be known of God.” Believers discover that God was “long beforehand” with them. Their very search is but an answer to His seeking; in their every movement towards Him, they are aware of His drawing. The verse which begins, “My soul followeth hard after Thee,” continues “Thy right hand upholdeth me.”
Religious experience, like all other, is limited by a man’s capacity for it; and some men seem to have very scant capacity for God. It is not easy to establish a point of contact between a Falstaff or a Becky Sharp and the Father of Jesus Christ. There is no community of interest or kinship of spirit. “Faith is assurance of things hoped for;” and where there is no craving for God, He is likely to remain incredible. Prepossession has almost everything to do with the commencement of belief. It is only when circumstances force a man to feel that a God would be desirable that he will risk himself to yield to his highest inspirations, and give God the chance to disclose Himself to him. It is a case of nothing venture, nothing have. Faith is always a going out whither we know not, but in each venture we accumulate experience and gradually come to “know Whom we have believed.” Without the initial eagerness for God which opens the door and sends us out we remain debarred from ever knowing. As the Theologia Germanica puts it, “We are speaking of a certain Truth which it is possible to know by experience, but which ye must believe in before ye know.”
The capacity for religious experience can be cultivated. Faith, like an ear for music or taste in literature, is a developable instinct. It grows by contagious contact with fellow believers; as “the sight of lovers feedeth those in love,” the man of faith is nourished by fellowship with the believing Church. It is increased by familiarity with fuller and richer experiences of God; continuous study of the Bible leads men into its varied and profound communion with the Most High. It is enlarged by private and social worship; prayer and hymn and message were born in vital experiences, and they reproduce the experience. Browning, in characteristic verse, describes the effect of the service upon the worshippers in Zion Chapel Meeting: These people have really felt, no doubt, A something, the motion they style the Call of them;And this is their method of bringing about, By a mechanism of words and tones, (So many texts in so many groans) A sort of reviving and reproducing,More or less perfectly (who can tell?), The mood itself, which strengthens by using.
An unexpressed faith dies of suffocation, while utterance intensifies experience and leads to fresh expression; religion, like Shelley’s Skylark, “singing still doth soar, and soaring ever singeth.” Above all, the instinct for the Unseen is developed by exercise; obedience to our heavenly visions sharpens the eyes of the heart. Charles Lamb pictures his sister and himself “with a taste for religion rather than a strong religious habit.” Such people exclude themselves from the power and peace, the limitless enrichment, of conscious friendship with the living God.
Indeed it is not conceivable that a man can have really tasted fellowship with the Most High without acquiring an appetite for more of Him. The same psalmist who speaks of his soul as satisfied in God, at once goes on, “My soul followeth hard after Thee.” He who does not become a confirmed seeker for God is not likely ever to have truly found Him. There is something essentially irreligious in the attitude portrayed in the biography of Horace Walpole, who, when Queen Caroline tried to induce him to read Butler’s Analogy, told her that his religion was fixed, and that he had no desire either to change or to improve it. A believer’s heart is fixed; his soul is stayed on God; but his experience is constantly expanding.
Constancy is perhaps an inaccurate word to employ of man’s intercourse with the Invisible. Even in the most stedfast and unwavering this intercourse is characterized by tidal movements of devoutest awe Sinking anon to farthest ebb of doubt.
And in the world’s life there are ages of faith and ages of criticism. Both assurance and questioning appear to be necessary. Professor Royce asserts that “a study of history shows that if there is anything that human thought and cultivation have to be deeply thankful for, it is an occasional, but truly great and fearless age of doubt.” And in individuals it is only by facing obstinate questionings that faith is freed from folly and attains reasonableness.
Nor can religious experience, however boldly it claims to know, fail to admit that its knowledge is but in part. Our knowledge of God, like the knowledge we have of each other, is the insight born of familiarity; but no man entirely knows his brother. And as for the Lord of heaven and earth, how small a whisper do we hear of Him! Some minds are constitutionally ill-adapted for fellowship with Him because they lack what Keats calls “negative capability”—”that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go a fine isolated verisimilitude, caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.” We have to trust God with His secrets, as well as try to penetrate them as far as our minds will carry us. We have to accustom ourselves to look uncomplainingly at darkness, while we walk obediently in the light. “They see not clearliest who see all things clear.”
But to many it seems all darkness, and the light is but a phantom of the credulous. How do we know that we know, that the inference we draw from our experience is correct, that we are in touch with a living God who is to any extent what we fancy Him to be? Our experience consists of emotions, impulses, aspirations, compunctions, resolves; we infer that we are in communion with Another—the Christian God; but may not this explanation of our experience be mistaken?
Religious experience is self-evidencing to the religious. God is as real to the believer as beauty to the lover of nature on a June morning, or to the artistic eye in the presence of a canvas by a great master. Men are no more argued into faith than into an appreciation of lovely sights and sounds; they are immediately and overwhelmingly aware of the Invisible.
The rest may reason, and welcome;
’tis we musicians know.
Faith does not require authority; it confers it. To those who face the Sistine Madonna, in the room in the Dresden Gallery where it hangs in solitary eminence, it is not the testimony of tradition, nor of the thousands of its living admirers throughout the world, that renders it beautiful; it makes its own irresistible impression. There are similar moments for the soul when some word, or character, or event, or suggestion within ourselves, bows us in admiration before the incomparably Fair, in shame before the unapproachably Holy, in acceptance before the indisputably True, in adoration before the supremely Loving—moments when “belief overmasters doubt, and we know that we know.” At such times the sense of personal intercourse is so vivid that the believer cannot question that he stands face to face with the living God.
Such moments, however, are not abiding; and in the reaction that follows them the mind will question whether it has not been the victim of illusion. John Bunyan owns: “Though God has visited my soul with never so blessed a discovery of Himself, yet afterwards I have been in my spirit so filled with darkness, that I could not so much as once conceive what that God and that comfort was with which I had been refreshed.” Many a Christian today knows the inspiration and calm and reinforcement of religion, only to find himself wondering whether these may not come from an idea in his own head, and not from a personal God. May we not be in a subjective prison from whose walls words and prayers rebound without outer effect?
How far may we trust our experience as validating the inferences we draw from it? The Christian thought of God is after all no more than an hypothesis propounded to account for the Christian life. May not our experiences be accounted for in some other way? We must distinguish between the adequacy of our thought of God and the fact that there is a God more or less like our thought of Him. Our experience can never guarantee the entire correctness of our concept of Deity; a child experiences parental love without knowing accurately who its parents are—their characters, position, abilities, etc. But the child’s experience of loving care convinces the child that he possesses living parents. Is it likely that, were God a mere fancy, a fancy which we should promptly discard if we knew it as such, our experience could be what it is? An explanation of an experience, which would destroy that experience, is scarcely to be received as an explanation. Religion is incomparably valuable, and to account for it as self-hypnosis would end it for us as a piece of folly. Can life’s highest values be so dealt with? Moreover, we cannot settle down comfortably in unbelief; just when we feel most sure that there is no God, something unsettles us, and gives us an uncanny feeling that after all He is, and is seeking us. We find ourselves responding, and once more we are strengthened, encouraged, uplifted. Can a mere imagination compass such results?
How shall we test the validity of the inference we draw from our experience?
One test is the satisfaction that it gives to elements in our complex personality. One part of us may be deceived, but that which contents the entire man is not likely to be unreal. Arthur Hallam declared that he liked Christianity because “it fits into all the folds of one’s nature.” Further, this satisfaction is not temporary but persistent. In childhood, in youth, in middle age, at the gates of death, in countless experiences, the God we infer from our spirit’s reactions to Him meets and answers our changing needs. Matthew Arnold writes: “Jesus Christ and His precepts are found to hit the moral experience of mankind; to hit it in the critical points; to hit it lastingly; and, when doubts are thrown upon their really hitting it, then to come out stronger than ever.” Unless we are to distrust ourselves altogether, that which appeals to our minds as reasonable, to our hearts as lovable, to our consciences as commanding, and to our souls as adorable, can hardly be “such stuff as dreams are made on.”
Nor are we looking at ourselves alone. We are confirmed by the completer experiences of the generations who have preceded us. “They looked unto Him and were radiant.” Those thousands of beautiful and holy faces in each century, “lit with their loving and aflame with God,” can scarcely have been gazing on light kindled solely by their own imaginations. And all their minds transfigured so together,More witnesseth than fancy’s images, And grows to something of great constancy.
Religion has written its witness into the world’s history, and we can appeal to an eloquent past. Look at the generations of old, and see: Who did ever put his trust in the Lord, and was ashamed? Or who did abide in His fear, and was forsaken? Or who did call upon Him, and He despised him?
And its witness comes from today as certainly, and more widely, than from any believing yesterday. Ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, out of every kindred and tongue and nation, throughout the world, testify what the God and Father of Jesus Christ means to them. Are we all self-deceived?
Nor are we limited to the experiences of those who at best impress us as partially religious. For the final confirmation of our faith we look to the ideal Believer, who not only has an ampler religious experience than any other, but also possesses more power to create faith, and to take us farther into the Unseen; we look unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith. His life and death, His character and influence, remain the world’s most priceless possession. Was the faith which produced them, the faith which inspired Him, an hallucination? There is contained in that life more proof that God is, than in all other approach of God to man, or of man to God.
The other test of the correctness of our inference drawn from our religious experience is its practical value, the way in which it works in life. “He that willeth to do His will shall know.” Coleridge bursts out indignantly: “‘Evidences of Christianity’! I am weary of the word. Make a man feel the want of it; rouse him, if you can, to the self-knowledge of the need of it; and you may safely trust it to its own evidence.” Religion approaches men saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” He cannot be good unless He is. A fancied Deity, an invention however beautiful of men’s brain, supposed to be a living Being, cannot be a blessing, but, like every other falsehood, a curse. If our religion is a stained glass window we color to hide the void beyond, then in the name of things as they are, whether they have a God or not, let us smash the deceiving glass, and face the darkness or the daylight outside. “Religion is nothing unless it is true,” and its workableness is the test of its truth. Behind the accepted hypotheses of science lie countless experiments; and any one who questions an hypothesis is simply bidden repeat the experiment and convince himself. Behind the fundamental conviction of Christians are generations of believers who have tried it and proved it. The God and Father of Jesus is a tested hypothesis; and he who questions must experiment, and let God convince him. To commit one’s self to God in Christ and be redeemed from most real sins—turned from selfishness to love, from slavery to freedom; to trust Him in most real difficulties and perplexities, and find one’s self empowered and enlightened;—is to discover that faith works, and works gloriously. A man’s idea of God may be, and cannot but be, inadequate; but it corresponds not to nothing existent, but to Someone most alive. That which comes to us through the idea is witness of the Reality behind it.
Nor are we confined to the witness of our personal discoveries. There is a social attestation of the workableness of faith. The surest way of establishing the worth of our religious experience is to share it with another; the strongest confirmation of the objective existence of Him with whom we have to do is to lead another to see Him. The most effective defender of the faith is the missionary. “It requires,” as David Livingstone said, “perpetual propagation to attest its genuineness.” Not they who sit and study and discuss it, however cleverly and learnedly, discover its truth; but they who spend and are spent in attempting to bring a whole world to know the redeeming love of One who is, and who rewards with indubitable sonship with Himself those who prove wholeheartedly loyal.
For our final assurance we appeal confidently to the future. The glory of the Lord will only be fully revealed when all flesh see it together. But with personal certainty, based on our own experience, corroborated by the testimony of all the saints, we both wait hopefully and work tirelessly for the day when our God through Christ shall be all in all.