More than twenty years ago some of us found a little paper called A College Town Pulpit, devoted to the sermons of Dr. Sunderland, at that time minister of the Unitarian Cburch in Ann Arbor. Since then we have followed all his work with profit and fruitful joy, whereof it is an honor to bear testimony. Through all the years he has been a teacher of wise and good and beautiful truth, the far-reaching influence of which he can never measure.
Dr. Sunderland is a Yorkshire man, born in 1842, educated at the Chicago University and the Baptist Union Seminary. Two years after his ordination to the Baptist ministry, he became a Unitarian, and has held many strong pulpits, both in Canada and the United States; traveling the while in many parts of the world, a writer, an editor, an interpreter of man and his faith. He was President of the All-India Theistic Conference in 1913-14. Among his many books perhaps the best known are The Origin and Growth of the Bible, Life in Palestine, The Spark and the Clod, James Martineau, Channing, and Because Men Are Not Stones.
Out of the quiet of his retirement he writes the following sermon—gracious, serene, rich in faith—in which one feels the mellowness of old experience and the tranquillity of a great hope. Who can better tell of Religion as Experience than one who has tested it amid the trials and triumphs of many days and years.
God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1.
A Father of the fatherless. Psalm 68:5.
A refuge for the oppressed. Psalm 9:9.
Our dwelling place in all generations. Psalm 90:1.
Religion presents itself to man under four aspects: as something to be gone through with, or performed; as something to be believed; as something to be studied, analyzed, or speculated about; and as something to be experienced. In other words, it presents itself as a Ceremonial; as a Creed; as a Philosophy; and as a Life.
What are we to say of these differing conceptions of religion? Doubtless we should say that all are legitimate; all are useful; but no one taken alone is complete—each needs the others to round it out to wholeness. Especially is this true of the first three, but they need the fourth. Experience or life is the end toward which each of the others ought to lead—the only result which gives them justification for being. Without religion as a personal experience, ceremonials, creeds and philosophies are a body without a soul.
Experience of religion! I know there is a prejudice in many minds against the thought. To some persons, such experience seems only superstition, or cant, or pretense; to others, an empty dream of the imagination. Persons with habits of unfettered thinking, or who care much for science and reason, are perhaps particularly liable to be among those who look upon religious experience with incredulity and disfavor. But why should this be so? Can any one give a good reason?
No one denies the validity of experience in matters outside of religion. Indeed the scientist and the man of independent thought are the very ones who, in other things, are likely to appeal to experience most. They do not want speculation, they tell you; they want to know. They want the testimony of somebody who has seen, heard, felt, experimented. They of all men, then, should show not least but most respect for experience in matters of religion.
If I believed that religion rested upon a foundation of mere hypotheses and speculations I certainly should not be a religious teacher. Indeed, if I did not believe that the main, central truths of religion are as evident, certain, verifiable as anything known to man—as the facts of science, or as the demonstration and axioms of mathematics—I certainly should never stand in a Christian pulpit. I do believe that nothing in man’s knowledge rests upon a more secure foundation—upon one more absolutely incapable of being disturbed, than religion. Why? Because it rests upon the soul’s deepest experiences. Below these it is impossible to go. If here is not reality, then indeed.
The pillar’d firmament is rottenness,
And earth’s base built on stubble.
For even the validity of our knowledge of the outward world depends upon the truthfulness of the world within.
You say agriculture you know about, for that has to do with tangible things; and a science like geology you can be sure of, for that deals with hard facts. But do you really think that a stone is any more a solid fact than is love or hope? Are you any more sure that the stone is out there, than you are that you love your child or your friend? Are you any more certain, when you plant your seed in the spring, that you will get a harvest in the fall; or when you go to bed at night tired from your toil, to rest for the next day, are you any more sure that there will be any next day than you are that justice is better than injustice, and truth than falsehood? I think not.
As regards any object of external nature, a flower or a tree—are you any more sure that it really exists, as to your senses it seems to, than you are that over the tree and over all else you see, and over your own life, there is a Power higher than yourself, from which, somehow, the tree and yourself came—a Power and Wisdom that can be trusted—which you have learned by all the experience of your life can be trusted? I think not. Men talk strangely, sometimes, about the physical world—the world of external nature—being certain, and the internal world of the mind and the spirit being uncertain—as if the distant could be more certain than the near—as if knowledge of the soul’s foreign lands could be more reliable than knowledge of the soul’s home lands. Do we not know that the things of external nature—trees, grass, houses, hills, other persons, animals, skies—are really our soul’s foreign lands, the lands which the mind reaches by journeying away to a distance. The own country of us all, the land in which we habitually dwell, is the internal world of our own thoughts, our own feelings, our own desires, aspirations, hopes, fears, memories, longings, loves, imaginations, emotions. Shall we say that our knowledge of this near, familiar land is uncertain, untrustworthy? and that to get knowledge which we can rely on we must travel away from home, sailing out from port of eye and ear, over oceans of air and mysterious spaces we do not understand, to the foreign land of objective things—physical, external nature—stone, tree, river, sky?
No, there is nothing so near us as ourselves. There is nothing we so immediately and certainly know as ourselves. Our deepest knowledge is experience, and not even that experience, either, that comes to us from without, indirectly and roundabout by way of the senses, but that deepest of all possible experience which is immediate, which is internal, which is of the mind, the heart, the conscience, the moral and spiritual nature, upon which true religion ever builds. “The things which are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.” Why is the religion of experience so sure? Because God has builded it into man’s moral and spiritual nature. By all of man’s long experience on the earth it has grown to be a part of his deepest self. The creator of his soul has engraved it on his soul: nay, has planted it in his soul, a plant of the eternities. It is the divine in him. It is God in him. Therefore he can depend upon it as certainly as he can depend upon the universe or upon God himself.
One of the striking things about the preaching of Jesus when he was on the earth was his constant talk about what he called “the Kingdom of God,” or “the Kingdom of Heaven.” He represented his constant desire, his great aim, as being to establish that kingdom, to build it up among men. He taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … thy kingdom come.” He pronounced blessing upon the humble and lowly in spirit, and those who were persecuted for righteousness’ sake, saying, “Yours is the kingdom of heaven.” When men desired to know what that kingdom was, he represented it as the reign of truth and love, of peace and good will, on the earth. And when asked further about it, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”
Now, what did ordinary hearers of Jesus, those who saw only superficially, think about this talk? Undoubtedly they thought it nonsense. The “kingdom of heaven” to them was probably nothing but a fancy, a hallucination of the brain of the Nazarene. As for them, they preferred solid, enduring things, not dreams and moonshine. A kingdom! Herod had a kingdom that was real; for could they not see the swords and spears that supported it? Kings in other nations round about had kingdoms that were substantial; for were they not guarded by powerful armies? Especially was the empire of world-commanding Rome solid. But this kingdom that this religious enthusiast declaimed about, which consisted simply of ideas, principles, truths, sentiments, and that was declared to be within the mind and heart—let him go and preach it to silly women! Were they not men with too much shrewdness and judgment to be caught with such chaff?
And yet, now that nigh two thousand years have gone, how stands the case? Which do we see to have been right, the prophet of religion, who proclaimed a kingdom of the soul, or they who could see nothing strong or enduring, or worthy of regard, but that which appealed to the eye, and ear, and the physical senses of man? Alas! in a few brief years every vestige of Herod’s kingdom was gone. Rome stood longer, but in spite of her unparalleled strength she too fell. And all these nineteen centuries, since the prophet’s voice was heard, have been full of the noise of toppling thrones and the wreck of kingdoms, empires, dynasties. But how about that kingdom of the spirit of which Jesus spoke? Has it faded or failed? Not so! Steadily has it strengthened; century by century has its dominion widened; never was it so powerful, and never were its foundations so firm as today. Amidst a world of change it has proved the one enduring reality.
In vain the surge’s angry shock,
In vain the drifting sands;
Unharmed upon the Eternal Rock,
The Eternal Kingdom stands.
Truly, indeed, the things that are seen are temporal; the things that are not seen are eternal. Verily, the solid things are not those which we hear and see and taste and handle. The solid things are those of the soul. Religion builds upon what cannot be shaken because she builds upon what is deepest in the nature of man.
And this, too, is why religion can supply man’s deep and permanent needs as nothing else can. What are the deepest and most permanent needs of man as he journeys through the land of earth? Of course, he must have food to eat and water to drink by the way, and clothing and shelter to protect him from the cold. These are essential, for without these he dies. But these alone, and everything else on the plane with these, satisfy the wants of only the brute beast in him. Is he only a brute beast? Has he no wants other than the ox or the tiger? Ah, there is a higher side of his nature which has its needs as deep and imperative as those of his body. He was made to think, and feel, and hope, and love, and pray; to cherish truth, to obey reason, to champion right; to care for his fellow men, to help every good cause; to abhor evil, to spurn wrong; to aspire after that which is above him, to walk joyfully and holily through the world, to keep his heart full of patience and trust to the end, and when the evening of his life’s day comes,
Approach his grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him,
And lies down to pleasant dreams.
Where is he to get help to do all this? Yet this need is quite as great as his need for food or drink or shelter for his body. For what could compensate if he should feed the animal in him and let the angel starve? To be sure, in this world of so sore poverty and physical suffering, it is a great problem how to supply adequately the bodily needs of the poor. The importance of this should not be overlooked. And yet the larger, deeper, graver problem is how to supply the spiritual wants of both poor and rich. For, oh, how much ignorance, fear, sorrow, disappointment, pain, heartbreak, despair, sin, lust, greed, cruelty, hate, misery and evil in ten thousand forms is to be seen all up and down the world, among rich and poor alike! And where is this spiritual want and misery to find relief?
When man is hungry with that hunger which is of the soul, and which physical bread only mocks; when he thirsts with a thirst which the things of sense cannot quench or touch; when he is tired, so that no bed can rest him, weary in mind and heart, tired of life itself; when hope fails; when strength is gone; when courage departs; when the currents of human friendship and love seem to freeze; when sorrow and disappointment fall upon him and break his heart; when bereavement and death stand coldly, bitterly, in his path and must be met; and saddest and most terrible of all, when temptations to evil roll over him like billows and sweep him under; and when sin, like a body of death, fastens itself on him, dragging him down, with resolves broken, desire baffled, will enfeebled, down, down—then where is help to be found? In what direction, in such deep needs as these, may we look for light or hope?
There is no direction but one; in all the world’s ten thousand years of search for help in her experiences of mightiest need, no at all adequate resource but one has ever been discovered. What is that? I need tell no one of you who has observed, no one of you who has read history, no one of you who has a human heart—that resource is religion—the personal experience of religion in the soul—the conscious, purposeful, earnest opening of the soul’s doors to the incoming spirit of God, the power of God, the peace of God, the love of God, the life of God. The tides of life from above once set flowing through a man, then, but only then, there is hope for any human soul. And that is the reason why religion, particularly the Christian religion, of God’s Fatherhood and unfailing Love to all his children, has been able to reach, quicken, ennoble, sanctify, transform, save men in every condition of life, as nothing else has ever done.
Let no one misunderstand me. There are other influences in this world besides religion that have elevating, ennobling, saving power. I would not undervalue or make light of these. Among the more important of such influences are doubtless education, homes, association with the good—and in their way, science, philosophy, laws, physical environment. All these should be employed and made the most of, and some of them are exceedingly important. And yet it is no disparagement to any of these to say that, as an agency for bringing hope to the despairing, comfort to the sad, courage to the faltering, succor to the tempted, strength to the weak, patience in trial, light in bereavement, calmness in the presence of death, and above all moral and spiritual regeneration to men dead in indifference and sin, none of them have a tithe of the power of Religion. As a practical reformatory influence in society, as a begetter of moral power, as an inspiration to men to live for the highest things, religion has been, at least through all Christian history, is now, and probably always will be, without a rival, without the possibility of a rival—something alone, unique, incomparable, truly divine—divine because through it man consciously lays hold of a Strength higher than his own.
I trust that this makes clear what I mean by Religion as an Experience. Nor is Religion as an Experience something confined to any one class of persons, or to any age or time. It has come in the past, and is coming still, to untold millions, of all classes—to kings, to beggars; to the wise, to the simple; to the greatest minds of the race, like Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Milton, Cromwell, Gladstone, Lincoln; but none the less it comes to the lowly woman in her garret; to the sailor on the sea; to the prodigal son squandering his substance in riotous living in a far country; to the old man tottering above his grave; to the little child in its sorrow. And it waits to reveal itself to you and me, whenever our need is great, and human help fails.
We none of us know much about our future. God kindly hangs a veil before our eyes. But this much we most surely know, the future of each of us will be full of deep heart-needs, which must be supplied from some source higher than ourselves. We shall all our lives have work to do that will not be easy—that will tend ever to sink into mere drudgery and slavery. What can prevent it? What can give us songs in our toil? Nothing so certainly—this is the testimony of the ages—nothing so certainly as the acceptance of our tasks as from God, to be done for Him, not only as a part of his plan of things, but under his eye, and in the light of his smile if done well.
We shall all, a thousand times over in the years that are coming, be pressed hard by temptation—temptation to hold lightly to our integrity; to stoop somewhat below high honor; to suppress the truth when we ought bravely to speak it out; to vary from the line of strict honesty in business; to be selfish when we ought to be generous; to ask what is easy, or popular, or expedient, when we ought to think only of what is right; to yield weak and slavish obedience to our appetites or passions instead of keeping our lower natures in subjection to our higher. What can help us in these crisis times of life? What can give us strength to stand on our feet and be men—yielding obedience ever to conscience as our king? There is no such help as Religion. The soul that has once definitely committed itself to the religious life, that has opened itself to religion as an experience, that has learned to identify the voice of conscience with the voice of God, is armed against temptation in all its forms as no other can possibly be. Consciously in alliance with a Power higher than his own, by a subtle law that Higher Power flows into his life.
So, too, as we travel on across the years we must all expect to meet disappointments, discouragements, failures of plans, dashing to pieces cherished expectations; such is the human lot. How are we going to be able to bear up under these? The danger is that as a result of them we may lose hope, courage, incentive, interest in life. What can save us? Nothing can so effectually save us as a noble Religious Faith, which looks beyond seemings to realities, beyond temporal things to eternal, and sees that in the soul itself lies all enduring good; so that even if riches take to themselves wings and fly away, and earthly prospects fail, and disappointments in matters of worldly interest or ambition come, the real ends of our existence are not affected; still, the soul, strong in the life of God and confident of an immortal destiny, rises serene above all these temporary clouds of earth, its hope undimmed, its courage undaunted.
Nor is anything less to be said as to the practical value of Religion in the sorrows and anxieties connected with that deepest mystery, death. It does not take a long experience in this world to teach us all that we are in a land whose green soil on every side breaks with startling ease into graves. The sunniest faces of today, tomorrow are wet with tears of sorrow for loved ones gone to return no more. And the end for ourselves, we know, is only just a little way on down the road.
What can help us in all this? Man in his experience on the earth has found no such help as the calm, strong faith in the soul that Wisdom and Goodness are at the heart of this universe—that we and all our loved ones for life and for death are in the hands of One who cannot do wrong and will not be unkind.
Thus it is that Religion as an Experience comes to us, not like so many others of earth’s helpers, to offer us its aid in hours of sunshine, and when all goes well. Rather does it come to proffer its help most urgently and generously when other resources fail. Indeed, there is no time of deepest, sorest need in life, when it is not at hand for us if we will have it.
From the cradle to the grave,
It comes to save!
From the world’s temptations,
From that fierce anguish
Wherein we languish,
From that torpor deep
Wherein we lie asleep,
Heavy as death, cold as the grave,
It comes to save.
From doubt where all is double,
Where wise men are not strong,
Where comfort turns to trouble,
Where just men suffer wrong;
Where sorrow treads on joy,
Where sweet things soonest cloy,
Where faiths seem built on dust,
Where love seems half mistrust,
Hungry and barren and sharp as the sea,
It comes to set us free.
Oh! where its voice doth come,
There all doubts are dumb,
There all words are mild,
All strifes are reconciled,
All pains beguiled.
There light doth bring no blindness,
Love no unkindness;
Knowledge no ruin,
Fear no undoing.
From the cradle to the grave
It comes to save.1
How does it save? How, in these deep needs of life, does Religion as Experience come to set us free? In the only way possible. By teaching us, like little children in the darkness, to reach up and touch God’s right hand in the darkness, and so be lifted up and strengthened. By letting us feel in all our times of deepest human need—in joy and sorrow, in sunshine and storm, in life and in death—that round about us and all whom we hold dear, are the everlasting Arms of Love and Care. By digging deeper, and filling more full, the Fountains of Life within our souls. By opening up anew the connection between our lives and the Infinite Life of God.
1 Matthew Arnold (slightly altered).