The great Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney has been mentioned a number of times on this site. It is a very telling indication of our times that such a visionary man is so little known, and usually slandered when mentioned at all. You can find the entire collection of his written works at the Dabney Archive, all of which are well worth reading. However, such a massive undertaking can be a bit overwhelming, and so on Sundays I will post bite-sized excerpts from Dabney’s works, with perhaps a little bit of my own commentary. This will be done in hopes of promoting wider readership for this great man. You can find links to all the previous “Dabney on Sunday” posts at the bottom of this post.
The following excerpt is taken from Dabney’s article which appeared in The Presbyterian Quarterly (October 1887), entitled “Spurious Religious Excitements.”
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. . . . 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. . . . 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.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Spurious Religious Feelings, Part 1