Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Spurious Religious Excitement (Part 1)

This post (and the following) is an article written by Robert L. Dabney on the subject of false religious excitement as it relates to the "Revival movement" of the 19th Century. Although  today's version of such movements are not as wide-spread, the attendant evils are. Because of the article's length, I have split in into two parts relatively equal in length.

by Robert L. Dabney

It is believed all thoughtful Christians are alive to the fact that religious excitements, which consist of temporary movements of the emotions devoid of any saving operation of the Truth on the reason and conscience, are equally frequent and mischievous in America. This judgment not seldom expresses itself in very queer and inaccurate forms. Thus: good brethren write to the religious journals grateful accounts of a work of grace in their charges, and tell the editors that "they are happy to say, the work has been purely rational and quiet, and attended by not the slightest excitement." They forget that the efficacious (not possibly, tempestuous) movement of the feelings is just as essential a part of a true religious experience, as the illumination of the intellect by divine truth; for indeed, there is no such thing as the implantation of practical principle, or the right decisions of the will, without feeling. In estimating a work of divine grace as genuine, we should rather ask ourselves whether the right feelings are excited, and excited by divine cause. If so, we need not fear the most intense excitement. This misconception is parallel to the one uttered by public speakers, when they assure their hearers that, designing to show them the respect due to rational beings, and to use the honesty suitable to true patriots, "they shall make no appeal to their feelings, but address themselves only to their understandings." This is virtually impossible. On all practical subjects, truth is only influential as it stimulates some practical feeling. There is no logical appeal of the rhetorical nature which does not include and appeal to feeling. Does the orator proclaim, for instance, that waiving all appeals to passion, he will only address his hearers' intellects to prove what is for their interest, or "for their honor," or "for the good of their country"? What is he really doing except appealing to the emotions of desire for wealth, or love of applause, or patriotism?

In the Southern, Presbyterian Review, 1884, I presented a discussion on the psychology of the feelings. I wish to recall a few of the fundamental positions there established. The function of feeling is as essential to the human spirit, and as ever present, as the function of cognition. The two are ever combined, as the heat-rays and the light-rays are intermingled in the sunbeams. But the consciousness intuitively recognizes the difference of the two functions, so that it is superfluous to define them. "Feeling is the temperature of thought." The same kind of feeling may differ in degree of intensity, as the heat-ray in the brilliant winter sunbeam differs from that in the fiery glare of the "dog days"; but the thermometer shows there is still caloric in the most wintry sunbeam, and even in the block of crystal ice. So a human spirit is never devoid of some degree of that feeling which the truth then engaging the intelligence tends to excite. No object is or can be inducement to volition unless it be apprehended by the soul as being both in the category of the true and of the good. But, that function of soul by which the object is taken as a good, is desire, an act of feeling. Whence it follows, that an element of feeling is as essential to every rational volition as an act of cognition. The truly different sorts of feelings were distinguished and classified. But this all important division of them was seen to be into the passions, and the active feelings; between those impressions upon the sensibility of the soul, caused from without, and in receiving which the soul is itself passive, and its spontaneity has no self-determining power (as pain, panic, sympathy) on the one hand, and on the other hand those subjective feelings which, while occasioned from without, are self-determined by the spontaneity from within and in which the soul is essentially active, (as desire, benevolence, ambition, etc.)

It may be asked here: Does the writer intend to rest the authority of his distinction between genuine and spurious religious experiences on a human psychology? By no means. The Scriptures are the only sure source of this discrimination. Its declarations, such as that sanctification is only by revealed truth, its anthropology, its doctrine of redemption, and its examples of saving conversions, give the faithful student full guidance as to the conduct of gospel work, and the separation of the stony-ground hearers from the true. But it is claimed that the psychology outlined above is the psychology of the Bible. It is that theory of man's powers everywhere assumed and postulated in Scripture. It gives that theory of human action on which all the instances, the narratives, and the precepts of Scripture ground themselves. Hence these mental laws and facts are of use, not as the mistress, but as the hand-maid of Scripture, to explain and illustrate those cautions which the Bible gives us.

One inference is simple and clear. The excitement of mere sensibilities, however strong or frequent, can offer no evidence whatever of a sanctified state. The soul is passive in them; their efficient cause is objective. An instinctive susceptibility in the soul provides the only condition requisite for their rise when the outward cause is applied. Hence the excitement of these sensibilities is no more evidence of change or rectification in the free agency, than the shivering of the winter wayfarer's limbs when wet by the storms. Now the doctrine of Scripture is that man's spontaneity is, in his natural state, wholly disinclined and made opposite (yet freely) to godliness, so that he has no ability of will for any spiritual act pertaining to salvation. But it is promised that, in regeneration, God's people shall be willing in the day of his power. He so enlightens their minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renews their wills, that they are both persuaded and enabled to embrace Jesus Christ. The very spontaneity is revolutionized. Now the stimulation of merely passive sensibilities, in which the will has no causal part, can never be evidence of that saving change. No evidence of it appears, until the subjective desires and the will exhibit their change to the new direction. That fear, that selfish joy, that hope, that sympathy are excited, proves nothing. But when the soul freely exercises a "hungering and thirsting after righteousness," hatred of sin, desire of God's favor, love of his truth, zeal for his honor, this evinces the sanctifying revolution.

Shall we conclude then that the excitement of the passive sensibilities by the pastor is wholly useless? This class of feelings presents the occasion (not the cause) for the rise of the subjective and spontaneous emotions. This is all. It is this connection which so often misleads the mental analyst into a confusion of the two classes of feelings. The efficient cause may be restrained from acting by the absence of the necessary occasion; this is true. But it is equally true, that the occasion, in the absence of the efficient cause, is powerless to leaving any effect. If the pastor aims to move the sensibilities merely for the purpose of gaining the attention of the soul to saving truth, and presents that truth faithfully the moment his impression is made, he does well. If he makes these sensibilities an end, instead of a means, he is mischievously abusing his people's souls.

People are ever prone to think that they are feeling religiously because they have feelings round about religion. Their sensibilities have been aroused in connection with death and eternity, for instance; so, as these are religious topics, they suppose they are growing quite religious. The simplest way to clear away these perilous illusions is, to ask: What emotions, connected with religious topics as their occasions, are natural to the carnal man? These may be said to be, first, the emotions of taste, or the mental-aesthetic; second, the involuntary moral emotion of self-blame, or remorse; third, the natural self-interested emotions of fear and hope, and desire of future security and enjoyment; and fourth, the emotion of instinctive sympathy. The following conclusions concerning these feelings need only to be stated, in order to be admitted.

The aesthetic feeling may be as naturally stimulated by the features of sublimity and beauty of God's natural attributes, and of the gospel-story, as by a cataract, an ocean, a starlit sky, or a Shakespearean hero. Now it is most obvious that the movements of taste, in these latter cases, carry no moral imperative whatever. They have no more power to reform the will than strains of music or odors of flowers. Yet how many souls are deluded into supposing that they love God, duty, and gospel truth, because these aesthetic sensibilities are stimulated in connection with such topics!

When the ethical reason pronounces its judgment of wrongfulness upon any action or principle, this may be attended by the feeling of moral reprehension. If it is one's own action which must be condemned, the feeling takes on the more pungent form of remorse. But this feeling is no function of the. soul's spontaneity. Its rise is purely involuntary; its natural effect is to be the penal retribution, and not the restrainer of sin.

How completely this feeling is disconnected with the correct regulation or reformation of the will, appears from this: that the transgressor's will is usually striving with all his might not to feel the remorse, or to forget it, while conscience makes him feel it in spite of himself. A Judas felt it most keenly while he rushed to self-destruction. It is the most prevalent emotion of hell, which gives us the crowning proof that it has no power to purify the heart. But many transgressors are persuaded that they exercise repentance because they feel remorse for conscious sins. Man's native selfishness is all-sufficient to make him desire the pleasurable, or natural good, and fear and shun the painful, or natural evil. Those desires and aversions, with the fears and hopes which expectation suggests, and the corresponding terrors and joys of anticipation, may be stimulated by any natural good or evil, more or less remote, the conception of which occupies the mental attention distinctly. Just as the thoughtless child dreads the lash that is expected in the next moment, and the more thoughtful person dreads the lash of next week or next month, just so naturally a carnal man, who is intellectually convinced of his immortality and identity, may dread the pains, or rejoice in the fancied pleasures, of another life. He may fear death, not only with the unreasoning instinct of the brute, but also with the rational dread (rational, though purely selfish) of its penal consequences. Selfishness, with awakened attention and mental conviction, suffices fully for all this. In all these feelings there is nothing one whit more characteristic of a new heart, or more controlling of the evil will, than in the wicked sensualist's dread of the colic which may follow his excess, or the determined outlaw's fear of the sheriff. Tet how many deluded souls fancy that, because they feel these selfish fears or joys in connection with death and judgment, they are becoming strongly religious. And unfortunately they are encouraged by multitudes of preachers of the gospel to make this fatal mistake. Turretin has distinguished the truth here by a single pair of phrases, as by a beam of sunlight. He says: Whereas the stony-ground believer embraces Christ solely pro bono jucundo, the gospel offers him mainly pro bono honesto. True faith desires and embraces Christ chiefly as a Saviour from sin and pollution. The false believer embraces him only as a Saviour from suffering and punishment. Holy Scripture is always careful to represent Christ in the former light. His "name is Jesus because he saves his people from their sins." He gives himself to redeem us from all iniquity, and to purify us unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. But preachers so prevalently paint the gospel as God's method of delivering sinners from penal pains and bestowing the enjoyment of a sensuous paradise, and the guilty selfishness of hearers is so exclusively exercised about selfish deliverance, that we apprehend most men are permitted to conceive of the gospel remedy solely as a bonum jucundum, a provision for simply procuring their selfish advantage. It is true that, if asked, Is not the gospel to make you good also? many of them might reply with a listless "Yes." They have a vague apprehension that their grasping the bonum jucundum is somehow conditioned on their becoming better; and they suppose they are willing to accept this uninteresting formality for the sake of the enjoyment that follows it, just as the epicure tolerates the tedious grace for the sake of the dainties which are to come after at the feast. But were one to tell this gourmand that the grace was the real chief-end of the feast, and the eating a subordinate incident thereto, he would be exceedingly amazed and incredulous. Such would also be the feeling of many subjects of modern revivals, if the Bible conception of redemption were forced on their minds. Hence, one great reform in our preaching must be to return to the scriptural presentation of the gospel in this particular. A grand reform is needed here. This grovelling, utilitarian conception of redemption must be banished. Men must be taught that the blessing is only for them "who hunger and thirst after righteousness," not for those who selfishly desire to grasp enjoyment only, and to shun pain. They must be made to see clearly that such a concern does not in the least differentiate them from reprobate souls in hell, or hardened felons on earth; not even from the thievish fox caught in a trap.

The fourth and the most deceptive natural feeling of the carnal man is instinctive sympathy. It will be necessary to state the nature and conditions of this feeling. First, it belongs to the passive sensibilities, not to the spontaneous appetencies. It is purely instinctive, appearing as powerfully in animals as in men. Witness the excitement of a flock of birds over the cries of a single comrade, and the stampede of a herd of oxen. Next, it is even in man an unintelligent feeling in this sense: that if the emotion of another be merely seen and heard, sympathy is propagated, although the sympathizer understands nothing of the cause of the feeling he witnesses. We come upon a child, who is an utter stranger, weeping; we share the sympathetic saddening before he has had time to tell us what causes his tears. We enter a room where our friends are drowned in laughter. Before we have asked the question, 'Friends, what is the jest?' we find ourselves smiling. We see two strangers afar off exchanging blows; we feel the excitement stimulating us to run thither, while ignorant of the quarrel. Sympathy is in its rise unintelligent and instinctive. The only condition requisite for it, is the beholding of the feeling in a fellow. Third, this law of feeling extends to all the emotions natural to man. We so often connect the word with the emotion of grief, that we overlook its applicability to other feelings, and we forget even its etymology: pathos, in Greek philosophy, did not mean grief only, but every exercise of feeling; so sympathein is to share by spiritual contagion any pathos we witness in our fellows. We sympathize with merriment, joy, fear, anger, hope, benevolence, moral approbation, courage, panic, just as truly as with grief. Fourth, the nature of the emotion witnessed determines, without any volition of our own, the nature of the feeling injected into us. Sympathy with joy is a lesser joy. The glow is that of the secondary rainbow reflecting, but usually in a weaker degree, precisely the tints of the primary arch.

The reader is now prepared to admit these conclusions: that sympathy may infect men with a phase of religious emotion, as of any other; that the sympathetic emotions, though thus related as to their source, have no spiritual character whatever in themselves—for they are involuntary, they are unintelligent, they are passive effects on an instinctive sensibility, giving no expression to the will, and not regulating it nor regulated by it. The animal feels these sympathies as really as the man.

The reader should notice that these propositions are asserted only of the simple sensibility, the immediate reflex of strong feeling witnessed. It is not denied that the capacity of sympathy is a social trait implanted by a wise Creator for practical purposes. It is the instrumental occasion of many useful results. Thus, upon the excitement of sympathy with grief follow the appetency to succor the sufferer, and the benevolent volition. The first is the occasion, not the cause, of the second. On our natural sympathy with the actions we witness, follows our impulse to imitate. But imitation is the great lever of education. So sympathy has been called the sacred “orator's right arm.” Let us understand precisely what it could and cannot do in gaining lodgment for divine truth in the sinner's soul. This truth and this alone is the instrument of sanctification. To Presbyterians the demonstration of this is superfluous. It is impossible for the truth to work sanctification except as it is intelligently received into the mind. Light must reach the heart through the understanding, for the soul only feels healthily according as it sees. To the inattentive mind the truth being unheard, is as though it were not. Hence it is of prime importance to awaken the listless attention. Whatever innocently does this is therefore a useful preliminary instrument for applying the truth. This, sympathy aids to effect. The emotion of the orator arouses the slumbering attention of the sinner, and temporarily wins his ear for the sacred word. Another influence of awakened sympathy may also be conceded. By one application of the law of association, the warmth of a feeling existing in the mind is communicated temporarily to any object coexisting with it in the mind; though that object be in itself indifferent to that soul. The stone dropped into the heated furnace is not combustible, is no source of caloric; but by contact it imbibes some of the heat which flames there, and remains hot for a little time after it is drawn out. So the mind warmed with emotion, either original or sympathetic, is a furnace which gives some of its warmth to truth or concepts coexisting in it, otherwise cold and indifferent to it. But the warmth is merely temporary.

The whole use, then, of the sympathetic excitement is to catch the attention and warm it. But it is the truth thus lodged in the attention that must do the whole work of sanctification. Here is the all-important discrimination. Attention, sympathetic warmth, are merely a preparation for casting in the seed of the Word. The preacher who satisfies himself with exciting the sympathies, and neglects to throw in at once the vital truth, is like the husbandman who digs and rakes the soil, and then idly expects the crop, though he has put in no living seed. The only result is a more rampant growth of weeds. How often do we see this mistake committed! The preacher either displays, in his own person, a high-wrought religious emotion, or stirs the natural sensibilities by painting in exciting and pictorial words and gestures, some natural feeling connected by its occasion with a religious topic, as a touching death or other bereavement; or he stimulates the selfish fears by painting the agonies of a lost soul, or the selfish desires and hopes by a sensuous description of the pleasures of heaven. Then, if sympathetic feeling is awakened, or the carnal passions of hope, fear and desire are moved, he acts as though his work were done. He permits and encourages the hearers to flatter themselves that they are religious, because they are feeling something round about religion. I repeat: if this stimulation of carnal and sympathetic feeling is not at once and wisely used, and used solely as a secondary means of fixing a warmed attention on didactic truth, which is the sole instrument of conversion and sanctification, then the preacher has mischievously abused the souls of his hearers. The first and most obvious mischief is the encouragement of a fatal deception and self-flattery. Unrenewed men are tacitly invited to regard themselves as either born again, or at least in a most encouraging progress towards that blessing; while in fact they have not felt a single feeling or principle which may not be the mere natural product of a dead heart. This delusion has slain its “tens of thousands.”

The reader will remember the masterly exposition by Bishop Butler of the laws of habit as affecting the sensibilities and active powers. Its truth is too fully admitted to need argument. By this law of habit, the sensibilities are inevitably dulled by repeated impressions. By the same law, the appetencies and will are strengthened by voluntary exercise. Thus, if impressions on the sensibilities are followed by their legitimate exertion of the active powers, the soul as a whole, while it grows calmer and less excitable, grows stronger and more energetic in its activities, and is confirmed in the paths of right action. But if the sensibilities are stimulated by objects which make no call, and offer no scope for right action, as by fictitious and unreal pictures of human passion, the soul is uselessly hackneyed and worn, and thus depraved. Here we find one of the fundamental objections to habitual novel reading. The excitement of the sympathies by warmly colored, but unreal, portraitures of passions, where there cannot possibly be any corresponding right action by the reader inasmuch as the agents and sufferers are imaginary, depraves the sensibilities without any retrieval of the soul's state in the corresponding cultivation of the active powers. The longer such reading is continued, the more does the young person become at once sentimental and unfeeling. The result is a selfish and morbid craving for excitement, coupled with a callous selfishness, dead to the claims of real charity and duty. The same objection lies against theatrical exhibitions, and for the same reason. Now this species of spurious religious excitement is obnoxious to the same charge. In its practical results it is fictitious. The merely sensational preacher is no more than a novelist or a comedian, with this circumstance, that he connects topics, popularly deemed religious, with his fictitious arts. He abuses and hackneys the souls of his hearers in the same general way, rendering them at once sentimental and hard, selfishly fond of excitement, but callous to conscience and duty.

Once more; spiritual pride is as natural to man as breathing, or as sin. Its only corrective is sanctifying grace. Let the suggestion be once lodged in a heart not really humbled and cleansed by grace, that the man is reconciled to God, has “become good,” is a favorite of God and heir of glory—that soul cannot fail to be swept away by the gales of spiritual pride. Let observation teach us here. Was there ever a deceived votary of a false religion, of Islam, of Buddhism, of Brahmanism, of Popery, who was not in reality puffed up by spiritual pride? It cannot be otherwise with a deceived votary of a Protestant creed. The circumstance that there is divine truth in this creed, which has no vital influence on his heart, is no safeguard. The only preventive of spiritual pride is the contrition which accompanies saving repentance. Here, also, is the explanation of the fact, that the hearty votaries of those professedly Christian creeds which have more of Pelagianism than of gospel in them, are most bigoted and most hopelessly inaccessible to truth. Their adamantine shield is spiritual pride, fostered by a spurious hope, and unchastened by sovereign grace. Of all such self-deceivers our Saviour has decided that “the publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom before them.”

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