Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Willard L. Sperry, fully Willard Learoyd Sperry

American Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Minister of Harvard Memorial Church

"The act of worshipping is itself the process by which we first define God."

"This perpetual struggle between the magician and the religionist goes on in the mind and heart and will of every man of us. It goes on until it is rightly resolved, until man reborn into a mature religion ceases to try to coerce his God, and says humbly with Dante, “In thy will is our peace.” Religion, then, is not a matter of turning God to account in the realiza­tion of our own desires. Religion is trying to dis­cover what God is about and then offering oneself to the Eternal Goodness, “as a man’s hand is to a man.” “It is not in man,” says a modern thinker, “to make religion what he will have her be, but only to become what religion is making him.” Perhaps, then, it is to save a man from the defeat and disillusionment of childish magic that there stands in our Bible that old story of the temptation of Jesus. Its ramifications and restatements are legion. Thou shalt not use thy God to get thy way. Thou shalt not coerce the Infinite to further the headstrong passing whim of the finite. Thou shalt not break the laws of health and then cajole thy God into working thee a miracle of healing. Thou shalt not let thy mind rot in idleness and then look for a sudden in­spiration given by reality. Thou shalt not spend thine all upon the world that passes away and ask thy God at thy latter end to give thee the sudden boon of a credible immortality. Thou shalt not take this attitude at all, using the Most High as an amplifier and emergency device for realizing thy soli­tary and selfish will. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” We are being told on all sides that religion is now breaking down, that its beliefs are an outworn delu­sion, and that all thoughtful men are being liberated into a perfect skepticism. That is not what is hap­pening. What is happening is this, men are dis­covering again what they have discovered often be­fore and then have forgotten, that magic will not work. But religion as a final attitude and reference of the finite human spirit towards its infinite universe remains and always must remain. It is the disposi­tion of those disciplined natures of whom we say that they are pure in mind and heart and will. The true alternative to the outworn magic of primitive peoples is not the modern magic of persons disciplined in the applied sciences or the “new thought.” It is no solution of the ultimate moral and intellectual problem to trade self-will from the left hand of primitive magic to the right hand of applied science. What matters is a changed disposition and reference in this whole final commerce of man with his universe. Call it pure religion or pure science, the name does not matter. The one thing needful is that temper and disposition towards the will of God which we find in Jesus, Bernard, Pascal and Lister alike."

"We have here a clew as to religion’s reluctance to have too much to do with modern necromancy. Re­ligion does not challenge the findings of psychical research, it questions the initial attitude. For psychi­cal research the reference is from other worlds to this world. For religion the reference as between the living and the dead, is from this world to the unseen world. Psychical research hopes and believes that our dead may return to us, in response to our seance. Religion says of the spirits of just men made perfect, “They shall not return to us, but we shall go to them.” So it is with the final reference of life, its reference to God. There are those who hold quite soberly, both in theory and in practice, that we human be­ings have or may acquire a coercive power over the Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe, and that we can compel this spirit to do what we personally desire. This is an attitude which appears in all primitive attempts to define the relationship of man to God, and which persists in highly refined forms even in the most mature thought. It bears in the history and literature of this subject the name of magic. All who practice its arts, whether white or black, are magi­cians. Magic is an unbounded and egoistic confidence in our power to make the universe serve our wills."

"Have a daily, inaccessible fixed period of study: I agree that this is a must. However, ministers must be accessible most of the time, so the inaccessibility factor would have to be carefully planned and not abused. Some would seclude themselves in private study to the neglect of their congregations, but a minister must have uninterrupted time for study. One’s time in the Word is as precious as one’s duty to a fellow saint."

"isit every member twice a year: One fellow minister commented that this would be possible with a 200 member congregation, but would become harder with a larger congregation. I remember reading that for every 175-225 members there should be a minister — something some churches exceed while others fall short. Nevertheless, the point is to have an acquaintance with one’s congregation. A personal visit may be perceived as a “clerical duty” in today’s world, but another minister suggested having members over to your home (e.g., preacher, elder, deacon) for a meal to meet these ends."

"Pay it forward with gratuities: This is a good rule of thumb. However, in our day, we sometimes travel several hours to do a funeral because we've worked with other congregations. I’ve done funerals that have paid as if it was my salary, and I’ve had some that barely paid the gas to drive the four hours to do the funeral. Nevertheless, it’s not about the money. It is about honoring that person as much as you can. God will supply all our needs."

"Predecessor and successor kindnesses: Sometimes you won’t have to do anything, because, sadly, the congregation will let you know where you stand in relation to your predecessor and will let your successor know where they stand too. However, inasmuch as you can be a friend to either, do so. If folks will talk about who came before and after you, they’ll talk about you too. Regardless of how you feel, sometimes it’s best to hold your tongue if you haven’t anything good to say — at least that’s what my mother and wife tell me."

"Never seek favors: I’ve never had this problem, personally speaking. However, I’ve heard of some who have. Many brethren are exceedingly kind to their minister(s) without being asked. I always feel weird and indebted when brethren do kindnesses for me. However, I always make sure they know that I’m appreciative for their generosity. I even often look for little ways to say, “Thanks.”"

"We are living at a time when it is absolutely es­sential to make a clean cut distinction between the magical attitude and the religious attitude in life. We have today as men never dreamed of having in other days, coercive control over tremendous forces in the natural world. We make daily trial of these forces, we “tempt” them, and they obey. We press the button, and throw the switch, and spin the dial, and step on the accelerator and the gods of all mythology touch their caps in deferential obedience to our slightest whim. The applied sciences of the twentieth century do make magicians of us all. It should be said at once that the pure scientist stands absolutely free of the charge of practicing magic. The affinities of pure science are with re­ligion, in that its reference is not from the universe to man’s uses, but from man to the realities of his universe. But the pure scientist is as rare a creature in our world as the pure saint. The vulgar modern heresy that society is made up of a large number of very pure scientists and an equally large number of very impure Christians is simply grotesque. Once in a while this world sees men like Saint Francis, John Woolman, Charles Darwin, and Michael Faraday; once in a great while. But the pure scientist is as much an exception in a university laboratory as the pure saint is an exception in a sectarian meeting house. For the most part we have at hand a society of persons practicing variously in the names of re­ligion and science a self-willed, uncritical, and arro­gant attempt to make the ultimate forces give them what they severally desire. And this temptation of the Lord their God is neither science nor religion in the noblest meaning of those words."

"The true alternative to the outworn magic of primitive peoples is not the modern magic of persons disciplined in the applied sciences or the “new thought.” It is no solution of the ultimate moral and intellectual problem to trade self-will from the left hand of primitive magic to the right hand of applied science. What matters is a changed disposition and reference in this whole final commerce of man with his universe. Call it pure religion or pure science, the name does not matter. The one thing needful is that temper and disposition towards the will of God which we find in Jesus, Bernard, Pascal and Lister alike. The men who returned from the third attempt to climb Mount Everest, made in the summer of 1924, have told us that from now on the character of the endeavor is clearly defined in advance. One of them has recently said that the higher altitudes, from 22,000 to 28,000 feet, reached by the last party, were attained not by sportsmen and scientists break­ing the mountain to their intention, but by men who had come to feel towards the mountain an almost mystical relationship. He said that the mountain itself, with its tremendous appeal, must take men to the top, and that only a spirit, which for the want of any other accurate word must be called religion, would ever carry men the last exacting two thousand feet. What he seems to mean is that, in the presence of that imperious and majestic reality, the cheap coercive attempt to conquer the world must always break down, and that only something like the spirit of worship can draw and lift men at the last. The climbing of Mount Everest has ceased to be purely a geographical, political, and physiological problem. It has passed, as every great human endeavor must finally pass, into the realm of religion. And only the man whose peace is found in the imperious will of that terrific reality will ever stand upon its summit. After he had dragged the blankets out of the empty tent at Camp VI, high up on the shoulder of Everest, and had laid them in a “T” on the snow to tell the watchers below that there was no trace of Mallory and Irvine, Odell closed the flap of the tent and began the third retreat to India. “I glanced up,” he says, “at the mighty summit above me, which ever and anon deigned to reveal its cloud-wreathed features. It seemed to look down with cold indiffer­ence on me, mere puny man, and to howl derision in wind gusts at my petition to yield up its secret—the mystery of my friends. What right had we to ven­ture thus far into the holy presence of the Supreme Goddess, or much more to sling at her our blasphe­mous challenges. If it were indeed the sacred ground of Chomo Lungma—the Goddess Mother of the Mountain Snows—had we violated it, was I now violating it? Had we approached her with due rev­erence and singleness of heart and purpose?” That, in modern parable, is the crux of the tempta­tion in the wilderness. Magic in us dies and religion is born with that question which, if rightly answered, prefaces the true reference of the soul to God. What right have I to make trial of my God? Have I vio­lated his holy being with my self-will? Have I ap­proached him with due reverence and singleness of mind and heart?"

"Man is not yet so transfigured that he has ceased to keep the window of his mind and heart open towards Jerusalem, Galilee, Mecca, Canterbury, or Plymouth. The abstract proposal that we worship at any place where God lets down the ladder is not yet an adequate substitute for the deep desire to go up to some central sanctuary where the religious artist vindicates a concrete universal in the realm of the spirit."

"For the unconquerable mind. We give You thanks, O God, for the harvest of knowledge, patiently gathered over long years by ongoing generations of scholars, and now laid up for the needs of humanity in our universities. For the increasing mastery of special skills, for victory over ills which people have suffered through ignorance, for confidence in the reliable order of nature, for the wisdom which long experience adds to much learning, for ever new light falling on old mysteries, as for all the joys of our part and portion in the unconquerable mind: we give thanks."

"O God, forgive our wanton waste of the wealth of the soil and sea and air; our desecration of natural beauty; our heedlessness of those who shall come after us, if only we be served; our undue love of money; our contempt for small things and our worship of what is big; our neglect of struggling peoples, For such wrongs to our natural and human heritage, and for many things left undone, forgive us, O God."

"Grant, O God, to Your people more courage to live for You. Guard us from rashness, and deliver us from fear. Teach us when by patience we may serve You best, and when by impatience."