It is equally important for us to remember, if the spiritual life is to be real to us, that it is not a life of the imitation or repetition of the experience of others. That we need others here, as elsewhere, is clear. That we come into most that is of value to us, through introduction by some other, is also plain. Nevertheless, if the spiritual world is to have the fullest reality for us—the reality it ought to have for a mind awakened to mature self-consciousness—we must have some experience in the spiritual that is genuinely our own, not a hollow echo of something we have heard from others.
In a Christian community, where the language of religious experience is familiar, perhaps there is no greater danger besetting the spiritual life than this danger of merely imitating the experience of others. To face the reality of a genuine religious experience, heartily to fulfil the conditions upon which alone it may become genuinely ours, means much that is uncomfortable—real willingness to see the facts of our own life and need as they are, the breaking down of our pride, the giving up of our selfishness and self-indulgence, the putting of ourselves really and persistently in the presence of God's supreme revelation in Christ. This is not easy. Men naturally shrink from it. It is far easier to satisfy oneself with a very shallow dealing with the problem of our life, and then to catch up the traditional language of religious experience from others.
This temptation, in the individual himself, is increased by the virtual demand that has been very generally made by the Church, that there must be a full expression of the meaning of the Christian life at the very beginning, or even as a condition of entering upon it at all. But how is it possible that this should honestly be? It seems very like requiring a student to pass upon a course as a condition of entering it. A confession of Christ that means anything must be one's own, the honest expression of what one has already found Christ to be. A confession of faith requires that the faith—the living experience—should be there, before we confess it. But how can a man confess the divinity of Christ, for example, as a condition of becoming a disciple of Christ? The only confession of Christ's divinity, that can be even approximately adequate, can come only in his disciple-ship, in one's deepening experience of what Christ has come to be to him. Plainly, Christ's own little circle of the twelve came only gradually, under association with him, to any adequate confession of him. We have no right to require more. The point of insistence is, not that we should accept the creed of the apostles in order to come into their experience, but rather that we should seek an experience like the apostles, that may fruit in a like confession, which can then be genuinely our own.
The very familiarity with the language of religious experience, then, the instinctive temptation to catch up the expression of life rather than to insist upon the life itself, and the demand of the Church for an expression of Christian life quite beyond the possibility of experience,—all combine to produce the far too general habit of expressing more than has been personally known and experienced, and hence to give the sense of unreality. This is, to my mind, the most serious danger, for example, of the Christian Endeavor pledge, particularly with those quite young, where the matter is not carefully guarded. They are pledged to speak, whether they have really something of their own to say or not. They naturally catch up the language of Christian experience, which they have heard from others. Gradually, if they are thoughtful and conscientious and have not been making unusual growth, they come to feel that their language is no true reflection of their own experience. They feel its hollowness; a reaction sets in; and a most depressing sense of the unreality of the spiritual life naturally succeeds. We must not shut our eyes to such dangers. In any case, wherever the religious life becomes, to any large degree, a life of mere imitation or repetition of others' experiences, and the person is at all thoughtful, there the spiritual life is certain to come to seem thoroughly unreal.