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.”
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. Yet 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 sumpathen 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.
Previous Dabney on Sundays:
Cruelty of Humanitarian Philanthropy
Preaching, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Doctrinal Confessions, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Divine Justice, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The African Slave Trade
Women Preachers, Part 1, Part 2. Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dangerous Literature, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4