The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings
by John Abercrombie
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

When we consider man as an immortal being, passing through a course of discipline to another state of existence, it is obvious that his highest consideration is his own moral condition, and the aspect in which he stands towards the Deity. In immediate connexion with this first of all concerns are the great and general principles of justice and veracity, as referring to our connexion with all mankind, and a class of private responsibilities which peculiarly regard each individual in his domestic relations; such as the duties of children to then parents, and parents to their children;—the latter, particularly, presenting a class of the most solemn kind, as it embraces the concerns of the present life, and of that which is to come. Then follow the duties of benevolence, friendship, and patriotism; after these, the ordinary avocations of life, as the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuits of business; and finally, those personal recreations and enjoyments, which, when kept in their proper place, are legitimate and necessary to every human being. These are all proper and laudable, provided they are kept in a proper subserviency to each other. But the important consideration is, that a man maybe acting unworthily of his moral nature, when he devotes himself to any one of them in a manner which encroaches upon the harmony of the whole.

To begin with the lowest of them, it is unnecessary to state how this remark applies to the man whose life is devoted to pursuits which rank no higher than recreation or amusement. It must be obvious to every one of the smallest degree of reflection, that such a man is living only for the present life. What cannot be denied of mere amusement, must also be admitted respecting a life of business, however important in themselves the concerns may be which engross the mind. They still refer only to present things, and carry not the thoughts beyond the moment which bounds the period of moral discipline. Even the engagements of benevolence and public usefulness, estimable as they are, may be allowed to usurp an improper place; and they do so, if they withdraw the attention from responsibilities and duties which belong more particularly to ourselves as individuals,—such as the duties of parents and of children,—and the other claims which arise out of the relations of domestic life. Finally, it is ever to be kept in mind, that no engagements of any description must be allowed to interfere with obligations, of the highest interest to every man,—those which relate to his own moral condition, in the sight of Him who is now his witness, and will soon be his Judge. From want of due attention to this consideration, year after year glides over us, and life hastens to its close, amid cares and toils and anxieties which relate only to the present world. Thus, fame may be acquired, or wealth accumulated; or, after a laborious ascent, a man may have gained the height of ambition,—when the truth bursts upon him that life is nearly over, while its great business is yet to begin,—the preparation of the moral being for an eternal existence.

It is scarcely necessary to add, on the other hand, that attention to this first of all concerns must not be allowed to estrange the mind from the various duties and responsibilities of active life. It is only, indeed, when the conduct is regulated by partial and unsound motives, that some of these objects of attention are allowed to usurp the place of others. He who acts, not from the high principles of moral duty, but from a desire of notoriety, or the applause of men, may devote himself to much benevolence and usefulness of a public and ostensible kind; while he neglects duties of a higher, though more private nature,—and overlooks entirely, it may be, his own moral condition. The ascetic, on the contrary, shuts himself up in his cell, and imagines that he pleases God by meditation and voluntary austerities. But this is not the part of him who truly feels his varied relations, and correctly estimates his true responsibilities.—It is striking, also, to remark, how the highest principles lead to a character of harmony and consistency, which all inferior motives fail entirely in producing. The man, who estimates most deeply and correctly his own moral relations to an ever-present and presiding Deity, will also feel his way through the various duties of life, with a degree of attention adapted to each of them. In the retirements of domestic life, he is found in the anxious discharge of the high responsibilities which arise out of its relations. He is found in the path of private benevolence and public usefulness, manifesting the kind and brotherly interest of one who acts on the purest of all motives,—the love of God, and a principle of devotedness to his service. Whether exposed to the view of his fellow-men, or seen only by Him who seeth in secret, his conduct is the same,—for the principles on which he acts have, in both situations, equal influence. In the ordinary concerns of life, the power of these principles is equally obvious. Whether he engage in its business, or partake of its enjoyments;—whether he encounter its difficulties, or meet its pains, disappointments, and sorrows,—he walks through the whole with the calm dignity of one who views all the events of the present life, in then immediate reference to a life which is to come.

* * * * *

The high consistency of character, which results from this regulated condition of the moral feelings, tends thus to promote a due attention to the various responsibilities connected with the situation in which the individual is placed. It does so, by leading him, with anxious consideration, to feel his way through these requirements, and to recognise the supreme authority of conscience over his whole moral system. It does so, especially, by habitually raising his views to the eternal One, who is the witness of all his conduct, and to whom he is responsible for his actions in each relation of life. It thus tends to preserve him from all those partial and inconsistent courses, into which men are led by the mere desire of approbation, or love of distinction, or by any other of those inferior motives which are really resolvable into self-love.

Such uniformity of moral feeling is equally opposed to another distortion of character, not less at variance with a sound condition of the mind. This is what may be called religious pretension, showing itself by much zeal for particular opinions and certain external observances, while there is no corresponding influence upon the moral feelings and the character. The truths, which form the great object of religious belief, are of so momentous a kind, that, when they are really believed, they cannot fail to produce effects of the most decided and most extensive nature;—and, where this influence is not steadily exhibited, there is a fatal error in the moral economy,—there is either self-deception, or an intention to deceive others. From such inconsistency of character arises an evil, which has a most injurious influence upon two descriptions of persons. Those of one class are led to assign an undue importance to the profession of a peculiar creed and the mere externals of religion,—to certain observations which are considered as characteristic of a particular party, and to abstinence from certain indulgences or pursuits which that party disapprove. Those of the other class, finding, in many instances, much zeal for these peculiarities, without a state of moral feeling adapted to the truths which are professed, are apt to consider the whole as either pretence or delusion.

In their mutual error there is to both matter of important warning. It becomes the latter to beware, lest, misled by the failings of weak or inconsistent men, they withdraw their attention from truths of solemn import to themselves as moral beings. There may be much pretension where there is no real feeling; but are they from this entitled to infer, there is not a reality in that which these pretenders counterfeit. By a slight gilding, articles of trifling value are made to assume the appearance of gold; but would it be reasonable to contend, that there are no articles of intrinsic worth which these are made to imitate. The fair induction is, in both instances, the opposite. Were there no such articles of pure gold, this ingenuity would not be employed in fabricating base imitations; and the hypocrite would not assume qualities he does not possess, where there not real virtues, from a resemblance to which he hopes to procure for his character that ostensible value which may enable it to deceive. But let those who have detected this deception beware of founding upon it conclusions which it does not warrant. They have not found the reality here, but there is not the less a pure and high standard which claims their utmost regard. If they search for it either among inconsistent or among designing men, they seek the living among the dead. Let them contemplate it especially as it is displayed in the character of the Messiah: in him it was exhibited in a manner which demands the imitation of every rational man, while it challenges the cordial assent of the most acute understanding, that this is the perfection of a moral being.

On the other hand, let those, who profess to be influenced by the highest of all motives, study to exhibit their habitual influence in a consistent uniformity of the whole character. It is easy to acquire a peculiar phraseology, to show much zeal for peculiar opinions, and rigid attention to peculiar observances; and, among a party, it is not difficult to procure a name, by condemning certain other compliances which by them are technically styled the manners of the world. But all this, it is evident, may be assumed; it may be, and probably often is, no better than a name; it often amounts to nothing more than substituting one kind of excitement for another, while the moral being continues unchanged. True religion is seated in the heart, and sends out from thence a purifying influence over the whole character. In its essential nature it is a contest within, open only to the eye of Him who seeth in secret. It seeks not, therefore, the applause of men; and it shrinks from that spurious religionism whose prominent characters are talk, and pretension, and external observance, often accompanied by uncharitable censure. Like its divine pattern, it is meek and lowly,—"it is pure and peaceable, gentle and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and of good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy." It aims not at an ostentatious display of principles, but at a steady exhibition of fruits. Qualities, which it cultivates with especial care, are humility, and charity, and mercy,—the mortification of every selfish passion, and the denial of every selfish indulgence. When thus exhibited in its true and genuine characters, it commands the respect of every sound understanding, and challenges the assent of all to its reality and its truth, as the highest principle that can regulate the conduct of a moral being.



The healthy state of a moral being is strikingly referred, in the sacred writings, to three great heads,—justice,—benevolence,—and a conformity of the moral feelings to a reverential sense of the presence and perfections of the Deity;—"to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." The two former of these considerations lead us to the duties which a man owes to his fellow-men;—the latter calls our attention to that homage of the mind and of the heart which he owes peculiarly to God. For the duties of the former class we are equally responsible to him, as the moral Governor of the universe, but their immediate reference is to our connexions with other men;—those of the latter class respect our relation to the Deity himself, and consequently consist, in a great measure, in the purity and devotedness of the mind. In human systems of ethics, attention has been chiefly directed to the obligations of social and relative morality;—but the two classes are closely associated in the sacred writings; and the sound condition of the moral feelings is pointed out as that acquirement which, along with a corresponding integrity of character, qualifies man, in an especial manner, for intercourse with the Deity. "Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in his holy place. He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn, deceitfully."—"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

Such declarations challenge the assent and absolute conviction of every sound understanding. Are we, as responsible creatures, placed in immediate relation to a great moral Governor, a being of infinite purity and boundless perfections:—Is the structure of our bodies, and the still more wonderful fabric of our minds, alike the work of his hand:—Then it is impossible to put away from us the impression,—that each movement of these minds must be fully exposed to his inspection. It is equally impossible to repel from us the solemn truth,—that it is by the desires, the feelings, and the motives of action which exist there, that our condition is to be estimated in his sight,—and that a man, whose conduct to his fellow-men does not violate propriety and justice, may be in a state of moral degradation in the eyes of him who seeth in secret;—"for," says the sacred writer, "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."

There cannot, therefore, be an inquiry of more intense interest, than what is that condition of the heart and of the mind which every man ought to seek after, when he considers himself as exposed to the continual inspection of the Almighty. It may, perhaps, be briefly referred to the following heads.

I. A habitual effort to cultivate a sense of the divine presence,—and a habitual desire to have the whole moral condition regulated by this impression. It implies, therefore, sacred respect to the character of the Deity, and is opposed to every kind of profaneness, or aught by which one might weaken, in himself or others, the reverential feeling due towards the character, and even the name of the Almighty. This must be extended, not to the outward conduct alone, but to the desires and affections of the heart. There is a state of mind formerly referred to, in which a desire, which the moral feelings disapprove, may not be followed by volition; while the desire is still indulged, and the mind is allowed to cherish it with some feeling of regret, or even to luxuriate with a sense of pleasure in the imaginary gratification. In the same manner, a malevolent affection to our fellow-men may be checked from producing injurious conduct, while the feeling still rankles in the heart, in the form of envy or hatred. These mental conditions, while they are widely at variance with the healthy state of a rational and responsible being, must be regarded by the Deity as constituting moral guilt and moral degradation. Nor is it only on the mind, which cherishes malevolent passions and impure desires and imaginations, that the Holy One must look with a feeling of condemnation. There may be another mental condition, in which the thoughts and desires are directed to transient and frivolous objects, and thus run to waste amid the trifles of the passing hour, without any feeling of the truths and motives which demand the attention of moral beings. The pursuits of such a man may have nothing in them that is referable either to impure desire or malevolent affection. They may be the acquisition of wealth,—the grasp after power,—the love of distinction,—or a devotedness to merely trivial occupations;—while there is a total neglect of those great concerns which really demand our chief and highest regard. Amid the legitimate and even the laudable pursuits of ordinary life, we are too apt to lose sight of those duties and responsibilities which attend a state of moral discipline,—and that culture of the soul required as a preparation for the future state of existence to which we are hastening. But we cannot doubt that these considerations bear an important aspect in the eye of the Deity; and that the mind in which they hold not a habitual influence is contemplated by him as in a state of moral destitution.

There are, accordingly, two classes of characters clearly pointed out in the sacred writings,—namely, one in whom the conduct indicates the depravity within,—and another, in whom the external character preserves a respectable aspect in the estimation of men, while the moral feelings are in a corrupted condition in the sight of God. We have formerly endeavoured to trace the laws to which this fact is to be referred, on the principles of the philosophy of the human mind:—they are chiefly two: (1.) We have seen that there are original principles in our nature which lead to a certain exercise of justice, veracity, and benevolence, independently of any recognition of divine authority. They are a part of our moral constitution, and calculated to promote important purposes in the harmony of human society; and they carry along with them a certain principle of reciprocal compensation, which is entirely distinct from any impression of their moral aspect. The man who is deficient in them, indeed, incurs guilt; but a certain discharge of them may arise from mere natural, or even selfish feeling, unconnected with any sense of responsibility; and this consequently conveys no impression of moral approbation. In the very exercise of them a man receives his reward, partly by a feeling of satisfaction, which from the constitution of his nature, they are calculated to yield, and partly as a member of that community where they promote peace, and order, and harmony; and he is not entitled to look farther, or to claim from them any feeling of merit in the sight of the Deity. (2.) A second principle, which bears an important relation to this subject, is the manner in which a man's character is influenced by the particular motive or pursuit to which he has resigned the guidance of his conduct. One surrenders himself to the animal propensities, and becomes a selfish profligate, insensible to every right principle of action, while his depraved condition is obvious to all around him. A second devotes himself to ambition;—and a third to avarice:—These ruling passions, it may be, are found to be adverse to the selfish indulgence and open profligacy of the former; and a character may arise out of them distinguished by much that is decent, and respectable, and worthy of approbation in the eye of man. In a fourth, the ruling motive may be the desire of esteem and approbation; and this may, and often does, become a principle of such influence, as to overpower, in a great measure, the selfish propensities, and to produce a character estimable not only for justice and veracity, but a high degree of active benevolence. Such a man sacrifices to his ruling passion much that might be turned to the purposes of ambition, avarice, or selfish indulgence, by those who are guided by these propensities; and, in doing so, he has his reward. He finds it in the gratification of that principle which in him has become predominant; and, rather than forfeit the esteem of those whose approbation he values, he will submit to much personal exertion, and sacrifice much selfish advantage, which others might deem highly worthy of attainment. But all this may go on without any recognition of divine authority; and may all exist in a man in whom there is much impurity of desire, and much deficiency of moral feeling. It is all referable to a motive of a personal nature, and, in the gratification of this, his ruling principle is satisfied.

The state of mind which is under the influence of a habitual sense of the divine presence may, therefore, be considered under two relations,—the one referring more immediately to the Deity,—the other to our fellow-men. The former seems chiefly to include an effort to have every desire, thought, and imagination of the heart, regulated by a sense of the presence and the purity of God, and in conformity to his will. Amid much feeling of deficiency in these respects, it leads our attention to that interesting mental condition, in which there is a contest and a warfare within,—and a prevailing opposition to every thing that is at variance with the purity of a moral being. The second division includes the cultivation of feelings of kindness and benevolence towards all men;—the love of justice,—the love of truth,—the love of peace,—the forgiveness of injuries,—the mortification of selfishness;—in a word, the earnest and habitual desire to promote the comfort and alleviate the distresses of others. From these two mental conditions must spring a character, distinguished alike by piety towards God, and by high integrity, benevolence, and active usefulness towards man. He who earnestly cultivates this purity within, feels that he requires continual watchfulness, and a constant direction of the mind to those truths and moral causes which are calculated to influence his volitions. He feels farther that he is in need of a might not his own in this high design; but for this he knows also he can look, with humble confidence and hope, when, under a sense of moral weakness, he asks its powerful aid.

II. A humble and dutiful submission to the appointments of Providence,—as part of a great system which is regulated by infinite wisdom. The man, who bears upon his mind this sublime impression, has learnt to contemplate the Almighty One as disposing of the events of the lower world, and assigning to each of his rational creatures the place which he occupies. That place, whatever it may be, he perceives has attached to it special duties and responsibilities,—and calls for the cultivation of moral qualities peculiarly adapted to it. Is it one of comfort, wealth, or influence,—solemn obligations arise out of the means of usefulness which these command. Is it one of humble life, privation, or actual suffering,—each of these also has its peculiar duties, and each is to be contemplated as belonging to a great system of moral discipline, in which no part can be wanting in consistency with the harmony of the whole. Such a submission of the soul to the appointments of God does not preclude the use of all legitimate means for bettering our condition, or for preventing or removing sources of distress. But when, under the proper use of such means, these are not removed, it leads us habitually to that higher power, to whose will all such attempts must be subservient;—and, while it elevates our thoughts above present events and second causes, it reminds us of that great scheme of discipline through which we are passing, and the purposes which these events are calculated to promote in our own moral improvement. Viewed under such feelings, the ills of life lose that aspect in which we are too apt to contemplate them; and will be considered with new and peculiar interest, as essential to that system, the great object of which is to prepare and purify us for a higher state of being.

III. A sense of moral imperfection and guilt,—and that humility and devout self-abasement which arise out of it. This must be a prominent feeling in every one who views his own conduct, and his mental emotions, in reference to the purity of God. It naturally leads to supplication for his mercy and forgiveness; and, in the wondrous display of his character, given in the sacred writings, a provision is disclosed, in virtue of which the exercise of mercy is made consistent with the truth and justice of a moral governor. This dispensation of peace we find habitually represented as adapted to man in a state of spiritual destitution: and no mental condition is more frequently referred to, as acceptable with the Deity, than that which consists of contrition and lowliness of mind.—"Thus sayeth the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit,—to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." With this state of mind is very naturally associated a sense of moral weakness,—and a constant reliance on divine aid, both for direction through life, and for the culture of the moral being.

IV. It is only necessary to add,—a profound sense of gratitude and love towards the Deity as the giver of all good,—as our daily preserver and benefactor. These feelings will have a special reference to the display which he has given of his character, as merciful, gracious, and slow to anger; and to the provision which he has made for the recovery and restoration of his fallen creatures, through "God manifest in the flesh." Of this divine person, and the work which he came to accomplish, philosophy presumes not to speculate;—but we have seen the light afforded, by the inductions of moral science, respecting the probability of this revelation,—and its adaptation to the actual state of man in his relation to the Deity. We have seen the impression conveyed by the character of the Messiah, considered merely as matter of historical truth,—exhibiting such a pattern, as never appeared in our world, except in him, of a pure and perfect moral being. We have seen, farther, the incontrovertible nature of that evidence, transmitted by testimony, and confirmed, as it is, in a very peculiar manner, by periodical observances, on which the whole revelation is supported;—and the inductions of sound philosophy harmonize with the impressions of the man, who, feeling his own moral necessities, yields his cordial assent to this mystery of God, and seeks in its provisions his peace in the life that now is, and his hope for the life that is to come.

* * * * *

From the whole mental condition, thus slightly delineated, there will naturally arise a character and conduct adapted to the feelings and principles which rule within. This implies, as we have seen, a due regulation of the desires, and a habitual direction of them to objects of real and adequate importance,—a diligent cultivation and exercise of all the affections,—and a conduct distinguished, in the highest degree, by purity, integrity, veracity, and active benevolence. It implies a profound submission to the will of the Almighty, which puts to silence every murmuring or repining thought under any dispensation of his providence. It comprehends the habitual suppression of every selfish principle, and the constant aspiration after a state of moral feeling, which proposes to itself no lower standard than that which will bear the inspection of a being of infinite purity. This character seems to correspond with that high tone of morals enjoined in the sacred writings. Its elements are defined and clear;—would we seek to estimate its sublimity and its truth, we have only to compare it with those distorted and temporizing systems which have resulted from the inventions of men. A feeling of dissatisfaction, the same in kind, though it may differ in degree, will attach to them all; and there is none in which we can confidently rest, until we rise to the sublime morality of the gospel. That great system of ethical purity comes to us under the sanction of divine revelation, and established by the miraculous evidence by which the proof of this is conveyed; but it is independent of any other support than that which it carries in itself,—consistency with the character of God,—and harmony with the best feelings of man. In yielding an absolute consent to its supreme authority, we require no external evidence. We have only to look at the record in its own majestic simplicity, tried by the highest inductions of the philosophy of the moral feelings, to enable us to point to the morality of the gospel, and to say with unshrinking confidence,—this is truth.

If we would seek for that, which must be of all conceivable things of the highest moment both for the peace and the improvement of the moral being, it is to be found in the habit of mind, in which there is the uniform contemplation of the divine character, with a constant reliance on the guidance of the Almighty in every action of life. "One thing," says an inspired writer, "have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple."—The man, who thus cultivates the habitual impression of the divine presence, lives in an atmosphere peculiarly his own. The storms which agitate the lower world may blow around or beneath, but they touch not him;—as the traveller has seen from the mountain's top the war of elements below, while he stood in unclouded sunshine. In the works, and ways, and perfections of the Eternal One, he finds a subject of exalted contemplation, in comparison with which the highest inquiries of human science sink into insignificance. It is an exercise, also, which tends at once to elevate and to purify the mind. It raises us from the minor concerns and transient interests which are so apt to occupy us,—to that wondrous field in which "worlds on worlds compose one universe,"—and to that mind which bade them move in their appointed orbits, and maintains them all in undeviating harmony. While it thus teaches us to bend in humble adoration before a wisdom which we cannot fathom, and a power which we cannot comprehend, it directs our attention to a display of moral attributes which at once challenge our reverence and demand our imitation. By thus leading us to compare ourselves with the supreme excellence, it tends to produce true humility, and, at the same time, that habitual aspiration after moral improvement which constitutes the highest state of man. "The proud," says an eloquent writer, "look down upon the earth, and see nothing that creeps upon its surface more noble than themselves;—the humble look upwards to their God." This disposition of mind, so far from being opposed to the acquirements of philosophy, sits with peculiar grace upon the man who, through the most zealous cultivation of human science, ascends to the Eternal Cause. The farther he advances in the wonders of nature, the higher he rises in his adoration of the power and the wisdom which guide the whole;—"Where others see a sun, he sees a Deity." And then, in every step of life, whether of danger, distress, or difficulty, the man who cultivates this intercourse with the incomprehensible One "inquires in his temple." He inquires for the guidance of divine wisdom, and the strength of divine aid, in his progress through the state of moral discipline;—he inquires, in a peculiar manner, for this aid in the culture of his moral being, when he views this mighty undertaking in its important reference to the life which is to come;—he inquires for a discernment of the ways of Divine Providence, as he either feels it in his own concerns, or views it in the chain of events which are going on in the world around him. He learns to trace the whole to the same unerring hand which guides the planet in its course; and thus rests in the absolute conviction that the economy of Providence is one great and magnificent system of design and order and harmony. These, we repeat with confidence, are no visions of the imagination, but the sound inductions of a calm and rational philosophy. They are conclusions which compel the assent of every candid inquirer, when he follows out that investigation of mighty import,—what is God,—and what is that essence in man which he has endowed with the power of rising to himself.

To enlarge upon these important subjects would lead us away from the proper design of a work, which is intended chiefly to investigate the light we derive from the phenomena of the mind itself. The points which have been stated, as arising out of the impressions of every sound understanding, challenge the assent of all who believe in a present and presiding Deity,—a being of infinite power and wisdom, and of perfect purity. With him who calls in question this sublime truth, we have no common feeling, and no mutual premises on which an argument can be founded. We must therefore leave him to sit in solitary pride, while he views the chaos which his fancy has framed, and strives to reconcile the discordant elements of a system, in which there are effects without a cause, and harmony without a regulating power; and in which the mind can perceive no element of credibility, consistency, or truth.

With this slight outline, therefore, we must quit a subject of the deepest interest, but which belongs rather to the theologian than to the inquirer in mental science;—and proceed briefly to investigate the means by which the condition of the moral feelings, which has been the subject of the preceding observations, may be promoted and cultivated as the regulating principle of the whole character. Two views may be taken of this point, which, though they harmonize with each other in practice, are to be considered in their philosophical aspect as distinct.

The restoration of man from a state of estrangement, anarchy, or moral death, we are taught in the sacred writings to refer to a power from without the mind,—an influence directly from God. We have seen the various considerations derived from the phenomena of the mind, and our impressions of the divine character, giving to this great doctrine a probability which claims the assent of every correct understanding. But, without in any degree losing sight of the truth and the importance of this principle, the immediate object of our attention, as a branch of mental science, is rather the process of the mind itself, by means of which a habitual influence is produced upon the whole character. This is a compound operation which may probably be analysed in the following manner. It seems to be composed of reason,—attention,—and a modification of conception. The province of Reason is to examine the truth of the statements or doctrines, which are proposed to the mind, as calculated to act upon its moral feelings;—and, upon this being done in a correct manner, must depend the validity of the subsequent parts of the mental process. This being premised, it is the office of Attention, aided by reason, to direct the mind assiduously to the truths, so as fully to perceive their relations and tendencies. By the farther process, analogous to Conception, they are then placed before us, in such a manner as to give them the effect of real and present existence. By these means, truths relating to things for which we have not the evidence of our senses, or referring to events which are future, but fully expected to happen, are kept before the mind, and influence the moral feelings and the character, in the same manner as if the facts believed were actually seen, or the events expected were taking place in our view. This mental operation is Faith;—and, for the sound exercise of it, the constituent elements now mentioned are essentially necessary. The truth must be received by the judgment upon adequate evidence; and, by the other parts of the process, it must be so kept before the mind, that it may exercise such a moral influence as might arise from the actual vision or present existence, of the things believed.

Attention to these considerations will probably enable us to discover some of the fallacies which have obscured and bewildered this important subject. When the impression, which is thus allowed to influence the mind, is one which has not been received by the judgment, upon due examination, and adequate evidence of its truth,—this is enthusiasm, not faith.—Our present course of inquiry does not lead us to treat of the notions which have, in various individuals, been thus allowed to usurp the place of truth. To those who would preserve themselves from the influence of such, the first great inquiry, respecting their own mental impressions, ought to be,—are they facts,—and on what evidence do they rest which can satisfy a sound understanding that they are so. On the other hand is to be avoided an error, not less dangerous than the wildest fancies of the enthusiast, and not less unworthy of a regulated mind. This consists in treating real and important truths as if they were visions of the imagination, and thus dismissing them, without examination, from the influence which they ought to produce upon the moral feelings. It is singular also to remark, how these two modifications of character may be traced to a condition of the reasoning powers, essentially the same. The former receives a fiction of the imagination, and rests upon it as truth. The latter, acting upon some prejudice or mental impression, which has probably no better foundation, puts away real and important truths without any examination of the evidence on which they are founded. The misapplication of the reasoning powers is the same in both. It consists in proceeding upon mere impression, without exercising the judgment on the question of its evidence,—or on the facts and considerations which are opposed to it. Two characters of a very opposite description thus meet in that mental condition, which draws them equally, though in different directions, astray from the truth.

When a truth has fully received the sanction of the judgment, the second office of faith is, by attention and conception, to keep it habitually before the mind, so that it may produce its proper influence upon the character. This is to live by faith;—and in this consists that operation of the great principle, which effectually distinguishes it from all pretended feelings and impressions assuming its name. We speak, in common language, of a head-knowledge which does not affect the heart;—and of a man who is sound in his creed, while he shews little of its influence upon his conduct. The mental condition of such a man presents a subject of intense interest. His alleged belief, it is probable, consists merely in words, or in arguing ingeniously on points to which he attaches no real value. These may have been impressed upon him by education;—they may constitute the creed of a party to which he has devoted himself; and he may argue in support of them with all the energy of party zeal. In the same manner, a man may contend warmly in favour of compassion, whose conduct shows a cold and barren selfishness;—but this is not benevolence;—and the other is not faith. Both are empty professions of a belief in certain truths, which have never fixed themselves in the mind, so as to become regulating principles or moral causes in the mental constitution. We may indeed suppose another character, slightly removed from this, in which the truths have really received the approbation of the judgment, and yet fail to produce their proper influence. This arises from distorted moral habits, and a vitiated state of the moral faculties, which have destroyed the healthy balance of the whole economy of the mind. The consequence is, that the man perceives and approves of truths, without feeling their tendencies, and without manifesting their power.

Intimately connected with this subject, also, is a remarkable principle in our mental constitution, formerly referred to,—the relation between certain facts or truths, and certain moral emotions, which naturally arise from them, according to the chain of sequences which has been established in the economy of the mind. A close connexion thus exists between our intellectual habits and our moral feelings, which leads to consequences of the utmost practical moment. Though we have little immediate voluntary power over our moral emotions, we have a power over the intellectual processes with which these are associated. We can direct the mind to truths, and we can cherish trains of thought, which are calculated to produce correct moral feelings;—and we can avoid or banish mental images or trains of thought, which have an opposite tendency. This is the power over the succession of our thoughts, the due exercise of which forms so important a feature of a well-regulated mind, in regard to intellectual culture;—its influence upon us as moral beings is of still higher and more vital importance.

The sound exercise of that mental condition which we call Faith consists, therefore, in the reception of certain truths by the judgment,—the proper direction of the attention to their moral tendencies,—and the habitual influence of them upon the feelings and the conduct. When the sacred writers tell us that, without faith, it is impossible to please God,—and when they speak of a man being saved by faith,—it is not to a mere admission of certain truths as part of his creed, that they ascribe consequences so important; but to a state in which these truths are uniformly followed out to certain results, which they are calculated to produce, according to the usual course of sequences in every sound mind. This principle is strikingly illustrated by one of these writers, by reference to a simple narrative. During the invasion of Canaan by the armies of Israel, two men were sent forward as spies to bring a report concerning the city of Jericho. The persons engaged in this mission were received in a friendly manner, by a woman whose house was upon the wall of the city;—when their presence was discovered, she hid them from their pursuers; and finally enabled them to escape, by letting them down by a cord from a window. Before taking leave of them, she expressed her firm conviction, that the army to which they belonged was soon to take possession of Jericho, and of the whole country, and she made them swear to her that, when this should take place, they would shew mercy to her father's house. The engagement was strictly fulfilled. When the city was taken, and the other inhabitants destroyed, the woman was preserved, with all her kindred. In this very simple occurrence, the woman is represented, by the sacred writer, as having been saved by faith. The object of her faith was the event which she confidently expected,—that the city of Jericho was to be destroyed. The ground of her faith was the rapid manner in which the most powerful nations had already fallen before the armies of Israel,—led, as she believed, by a divine power. Acting upon this conviction, in the manner in which a belief so deeply affecting her personal safety was likely to influence any sound mind, she took means for her preservation, by making friends of the spies. Her faith saved her, because without it she would not have made this provision; but, unless she had followed out her belief to the measure which was calculated to effect this object, the mere belief of the event would have availed her nothing. When we therefore ascribe important results to faith, or to any other mental operation, we ascribe them not to the operation itself, but to this followed out to the consequences which it naturally produces, according to the constitution of the human mind. In the same manner, we may speak of one man, in a certain state of danger or difficulty, being saved by his wisdom, and another by his strength. In doing so, we ascribe such results, not to the mere possession of these qualities, but to the efforts which naturally arose from them, in the circumstances in which the individual was placed. And, when the inspired writer says, that without faith it is impossible to please God,—he certainly refers to no mere mental impression, and to no barren system of opinions; but to the reception of certain truths, which in our present state of being are entirely the objects of faith, and to all that influence, upon the moral feelings and the character, which these must produce upon every mind that really believes them.

* * * * *

On this great subject, much misconception appears to have arisen from not sufficiently attending to the condition in which, as moral beings, we are placed in the present state of existence, and the important part which must be performed by the mental exercise called faith. As physical and intellectual beings, we have certain relations to the objects by which we are surrounded, and with these we communicate by means of our bodily senses. But, as moral beings, our relations are entirely of a different nature; and the facts and motives, which are calculated to act upon us in these relations, are chiefly the objects of faith: that is, they are not cognizable by any of our senses, but are to be received by a different part of our constitution, and upon a separate kind of evidence. This, accordingly, is the simple but important distinction, referred to by the sacred writer, when, in allusion to our condition as moral beings, he says,—"we walk by faith, not by sight." The objects of sight, here intended to express all the objects of sense, exercise over us a habitual and powerful influence. They constantly obtrude themselves upon our notice without any exertion of our own; and it requires a peculiar exercise of mind to withdraw our attention from them, and to feel the power of events which are future, and of things which are not seen. This mental exercise is Faith. Its special province, as we have seen, is to receive truths which are presented directly to the mind,—to place them before us with all the vividness of actual and present existence,—and to make them exert upon us an agency analogous to that which is produced by objects of sight. The next great point in our inquiry, therefore, is, what are the truths which are calculated thus to operate upon us as moral beings, and which it is the object of faith to bring habitually before us.

* * * * *

When we withdraw our minds from the influence of sensible things, and send forth our attention to those truths which are the province of faith, the first great object which meets our view is the eternal incomprehensible One, the moral governor of the universe,—a being of infinite perfections and infinite purity. From the stupendous works of nature, we trace his operation as the great First Cause,—and infer, with absolute certainty, his boundless power and wisdom, and his independent existence. The impress of his moral attributes he has fixed with indelible certainty, upon our moral perceptions,—where, in the light of conscience, co-operating with a simple process of reason, we perceive him to be a being of infinite holiness, and of unerring truth and justice. Our knowledge of these attributes is not the result of any process of reasoning which can admit of deliberation or doubt. They force themselves upon our conviction by the most simple principles of induction, when, from our own mental and moral endowments, we infer the perfections of him who formed us.

From every conception we can form of such a being, we have an equally insuperable conviction of his universal presence,—that he is the witness not only of our conduct, but of the thoughts and imaginations of the heart;—and that from these, as indicating our real condition, and not from our conduct alone, our moral aspect is estimated by him,—the pure and holy One who seeth in secret. Each moment, as it passes rapidly over us, we know is bringing us nearer to that period, when all our hopes and fears for this world shall lie with us in the grave. But we feel also that this is the entrance to another state of being,—a state of moral retribution, where the eternal One is to be disclosed in all his attributes as a moral governor. These considerations fix themselves upon the mind, with a feeling of yet new and more tremendous interest, when we farther take into view that this future existence stretches out before us into endless duration. This is the truth so powerfully expressed by the sacred writer, in terms which by their brevity convey, in the most adequate manner, their overwhelming import,—"The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

These truths are not the visions of enthusiasm; neither are they the result of any process of reasoning, by which different men may arrive at different conclusions. They force themselves upon our conviction with a power which we cannot put away from us, when we turn our attention to the solemn inquiry, what we are, and what is God. In the sacred writings they are detailed and illustrated, in a connected and harmonious manner; and are impressed upon us with the force of a revelation from the Deity himself. But the principles there disclosed meet with an impression, in our moral constitution, which pleads with authority for their truth. It is the province of faith to keep these habitually before the mind, and to cause them to influence the feelings and the conduct, as if they were objects of sense,—as if the Deity, in all the purity of his character were actually disclosed to our view,—or as if we were present at that dread hour which shall witness his righteous retribution. The man who thus feels their power, and exhibits their influence upon his character, is he who lives by faith.

When, under this mental exercise, a man brings himself into the immediate presence of the eternal One;—when he arraigns himself, as it were, before the bar of the omniscient Judge;—when he places before him that future state which stretches forth into endless existence,—a train of feelings must arise in his mind, to which he was a stranger, so long as he placidly resigned himself to the influence of sensible things. He views this being of infinite purity, as one who has been all his life the daily witness of his conduct; and feels that even the secrets of the heart have been at all times open to divine inspection. Each day, as it passed unheeded over him, was a portion gone by of his period of moral discipline; and each, as it glided amid the frivolities of life, or the active pursuit of temporal good, had its moral aspect assigned to it in the judgment of the eternal mind. Along with these impressions, which no reflecting man can put away from him, a voice within forces upon him the conviction, that, were his whole history disclosed to his fellow-men, he would, even in their estimation, be found wanting. How much more deeply must this be fixed upon his inmost soul, when he feels that the whole is, at one glance, exposed to the eye of omniscience; and that an hour is rapidly approaching, when a strict account must be rendered, and a righteous sentence pronounced, the result of which will extend into eternal existence. With these truths upon his mind, what reflecting man can view, without awe, the moment which is to close his state of moral discipline,—when, disencumbered from his earthly tenement, he shall find himself alone with God,—and there shall burst upon his astonished faculties the blaze of an endless day. These are not speculations of fancy, but eternal truth. The man who habitually acts under their influence, knows that his faith rests upon a conviction which cannot be shaken, when he recognises in all his ways the presence and the inspection of the Deity,—when he feels the obligation to have even the desires and affections under subjection to his will,—and when he resigns himself to his guidance and asks his powerful aid, both for the conduct of this life, and the preparation for the life which is to come.

* * * * *

Solemn is the hour when a man thus retires from the tumult of life, and seriously proposes to himself the question,—what is his condition as a moral being; what have been his leading pursuits in this life which is hastening to a close; what is his aspect in the view of that incomprehensible One, who perceives at a single glance the whole details of his moral history. Is he safe to meet the full splendour of that eye;—has he no apprehension, that, when called to account in the immediate presence of unerring purity, he may not be able to answer. The man lives not, who can appeal to his own heart and say, after serious inquiry, that he can thus meet the penetrating search of him, whose knowledge is perfect, as his purity is infinite: The man lives not, who can look back upon his whole life, without feeling, that, in the sight of this unspotted One, he is polluted with guilt: And, if his heart condemn him, with all its partiality for his own views and feelings, and all its forgetfulness of many points in his moral history, he must feel that God is greater than his heart, and knoweth all things. Under such an impression, to what refuge shall he betake himself. Does he appeal to an indefinite idea of the mercy of the Deity;—it must be evident that this conveys no distinct principle, and will not bear the confidence which is essential to hope and peace. For we cannot go to the extent of supposing a mercy so indiscriminate, that the Deity will depart from all the laws which he has made, and which he has impressed upon us as a part of our moral constitution. This would be ascribing, to infinite wisdom, an indecision and a change of purpose, unworthy of the weakest human lawgiver. If, then, we do not boldly assume this position, how are we to draw the line where such mercy is to terminate;—and where the Almighty is to appear in his character of justice, as a righteous moral governor. If we find that each individual fixes a different standard, and that each extends it so as to favour his own condition, it is clear that the system presents no character of truth, and that it is incapable of ministering to the consolation of him who feels his own necessities, and seriously contemplates the character of God. He must perceive that to apply such reasoning to human enactments, would be to represent them as a mockery of justice; and that it is impossible thus to argue, respecting the laws of him who is infinite in holiness and boundless in wisdom. He cannot but acknowledge that a universe governed in such a manner would run into irremediable confusion and anarchy; and will find it impossible, on any principle which human reasoning can furnish, to arrive at any other decision than this,—that the Judge of all the earth must be unchanging in his purposes, and impartial in his justice.

To this conclusion we are led by the clearest inductions of moral science;—but, at this momentous point, philosophy fails us. No human power can find a refuge, to which the mind can betake itself under a sense of guilt;—no human wisdom can answer the inquiry of mighty import, can God be just and yet justify the ungodly. But here we are met by a light from heaven, which has burst upon the scene of doubt and of darkness; and are called to bring down the pride of our reason, in humble submission to the testimony of God. It comes supported by a weight of evidence, which challenges the cordial assent of the most acute understanding, and the power of which will be best appreciated by those, who, with sincere desire for truth, have made the highest attainments in the laws of rigid inquiry. It discloses an atonement made for sin,—and an influence from heaven, calculated to restore the moral being to the purity in which it was formed. It thus meets alike the necessities of man, as in a state of actual guilt, and a state of moral degradation. For the one, it displays a scheme of mercy in which the integrity of the divine character is vindicated, while pardon is extended to transgressors. To the other, it offers power from heaven, which will correct the disorders of the moral constitution, and raise the man anew to the likeness of God. It thus forms a harmonious whole, uniform and consistent in itself,—worthy of the character of God,—and adapted to the condition of man; and, to every one who feels his own moral necessities, and estimates the purity of the Deity, it brings an absolute conviction of its truth.

A participation in the benefits of this revelation of divine mercy is said, in the sacred writings, to be received by Faith; and this expression has given rise to controversies and contending systems, which have involved the subject in much perplexity. While some have restricted the operation of Faith to the mere belief of a certain system of opinions, others have referred to it a series of mysterious impressions, and enthusiastic feelings, at variance with every dictate of sound reasoning. The principle of faith, however, holds so prominent a place in the scheme of Christian truth, that some clear notions respecting its nature must be felt to be of the highest interest. It holds also, as we have formerly seen, a most important position in the philosophy of the moral feelings,—being that mental operation, by which we receive a certain class of truths, of the utmost consequence to us as responsible beings. It is a process which every one feels, but which cannot be defined;—and it can be illustrated only by tracing its influence, in regard to those objects to which it is more particularly directed.

The objects of faith are twofold,—truths addressed to the understanding,—and benefits offered or promised. We have formerly had occasion to trace the action of faith in regard to truth,—especially a class of truths which are calculated, when really believed, to exert a powerful effect upon our moral feelings and conduct. Its operation, we have seen, is to bring these truths before us in such a manner, that they exert the same kind of influence as if the facts or events were objects of sense. The man who believes these truths, so as thus habitually to feel then power, is he who receives them in faith. This is the province of faith in regard to truth;—we have next to analyze its operation in regard to offered or promised benefits,—and this we can best do by means of an example.

Let us take the illustration of a man affected with a disease supposed to be mortal;—he is told that a remedy has been discovered of infallible efficacy; and that a person is at hand who is ready to administer it. Does he perceive his danger;—does he believe the virtue of the remedy;—does he confide in the sincerity of the individual who offers it;—this is faith. The immediate and natural result of his faith is, that he asks for the remedy which is offered;—and this result is inseparable from such belief, according to the uniform sequence of volitions in every sound mind. The man who professes to admit the facts, and does not shew such a result of belief, professes what he does not actually feel. If he perceives not the extent of his danger, he asks not the remedy, because he values it not;—and the same effect may follow, if he doubts either its efficacy, or the sincerity of him who offers it. In this case, it is also to be observed, that a reflection is thrown upon the character of this individual, by imputing to him an offer of what he has either not the power or the intention to perform. But if the man really believes the truths, he applies for the remedy; and he receives it. Thus his faith saves him, because by means of it he bought the offered aid. Could we suppose him merely to admit the facts, without asking the remedy, his belief would avail him nothing.

Such appeals to be the simple view we are to take of Faith, when we apply it to the great benefits which are presented to us in the Christian revelation. This is addressed to us as beings in a state both of guilt and of depravity; and as having no means of our own, by which we can rescue ourselves from condemnation and impurity. It unfolds a dispensation of peace, by which, in perfect consistency with the harmony of his character, the Deity offers mercy and forgiveness,—and an influence from himself which has power to purify the moral being. These benefits are conferred on every one who believes; and who is he that believes:—the man who is convinced of his guilt, and perceives his impurity;—who feels his inability to rescue himself;—who admits the efficacy of the remedy, and confides in the sincerity with which it is offered;—this is he who believes. His faith saves him; because, acting on his conviction, according to the uniform sequence of volitions in every sound mind, he asks the promised aid, and asking receives it. Much of the confusion, in which the subject has been involved, appears to have arisen from metaphysical refinements, by which the various parts of this mental process are separated from each other. They form one harmonious whole, which cannot be broken. The man will not seek the remedy, who believes not its efficacy, and perceives not his moral necessities; but, however he may profess to admit these facts, if he follows not out his belief to its natural result, by applying for the remedy, his mere belief will not profit him. The grounds, on which these truths are addressed to us, are contained in that chain of evidence on which is founded the whole system of Christianity,—taken along with the conviction, which every man receives of his actual moral condition, from the voice of conscience within. A sense of the sincerity of the offer we derive from our impression of the unchangeable attributes of the Deity. Accordingly, he who believes is said to give glory to God,—that is, to receive his statements with absolute confidence, and to form an honourable conception of the sincerity of his intentions. He who believes not, rejects the statements of the Almighty as false,—and treats him with the contempt which we apply to one whom we suppose to promise what he has no intention to bestow. The man who comes to God, with the hope of acceptance, is therefore required to come in the assurance of faith, or an implicit conviction that he is sincere in his intentions of bestowing the blessings which he offers; and whosoever has not this assurance does dishonour to the divine character,—or "maketh God a liar."

It were vain to enter upon the various systems and opinions, in which this important doctrine has been misrepresented by its enemies, and often perverted by those who profess to be its friends. Two of these may be briefly noticed. Some have maintained that the doctrine of an unconditional pardon sets aside the obligations of morality,—because it has no regard to the personal character of the individual,—or holds out the offer of acceptance to faith, without obedience. Others contend that an essential part of faith is an immediate and absolute assurance of a man's own acceptance in the sight of the Deity; and that he who has not this is in a state of unbelief. These two opinions, so different from each other, are equally founded upon misconception of the nature and provisions of the Christian economy.

In regard to the former, it is only necessary to remark, that the revelation of Christian truth is not confined to an offer of pardon to the guilty;—its great object is the recovery and purification of the moral being; and there is an essential and inviolable union between these two parts of the great scheme of redemption. It provides in the most effectual manner for the interests of morality, by the purification of the desires and affections, the springs of action;—it is the morality of the heart. It proclaims a system of morals, more pure and more exalted far than ever was contemplated by the wisest of men;—it exhibits an example of the perfect state of a moral being, in the character of the Messiah;—and it enforces the imitation of this example as indispensable in every one who professes to be his disciple. These different parts of the scheme can never be separated, and there cannot be a greater perversion of reasoning, or a greater misconception of the prominent features of the gospel of peace, than to allege that it does not provide, in the most effectual manner, for the highest interests of morality.

The other opinion is equally founded upon error,—namely, that which considers it essential to faith, that a man be assured of his personal acceptance in the sight of the Deity. It is obvious that this is a sophism clearly opposed to sound reasoning, and to the first principles of the philosophy of the moral feelings. For faith, viewed as a mental process, must always have for its object facts; and these facts must rest upon such evidence, as is sufficient to convince the understanding of their truth. To talk of faith, without such facts and such evidence, is a mere logical fallacy, or an absurdity in terms. But there is no disclosure of the personal acceptance of any individual, and consequently, on no principle of sound reasoning can this ever be considered as the object of faith. This doctrine, therefore, applies a most important principle of the mind, not to facts, which alone can warrant the exercise of faith, but to a vision of the imagination, which admits of no evidence, and cannot be subjected to any test of its truth.

Widely different from all such flimsy and imaginary hypotheses is the great system of Christian truth,—harmonious and consistent in itself, and challenging the approbation of the soundest understanding. It reveals, as we have seen, a dispensation of mercy, in accordance with the highest ideas we can form of the divine perfections. It is supported by a chain of evidence, which carries conviction to the mind of the most rigid inquirer; and thus it is a sound and legitimate object of faith. It reveals also a provision for purifying the moral nature; and this in every case accompanies the dispensation of mercy to those who receive it. The effects of this powerful agency, therefore, become the test and the evidence of the reality of faith. Does a man seek a proof of his acceptance,—the reference is to facts in his own moral condition. He is to look for it in a change which is taking place in his character,—a new direction of his desires,—a new regulation of his affections,—a habitual impression, to which he was a stranger before, of the presence and the perfections of the Deity—and a new light which has burst upon his view, respecting his relations to this life and to that which is to come. He is to seek this evidence in a mind, which aims at no lower standard than that which will bear the constant inspection of infinite purity;—he is to seek it, and to manifest it to others, in a spirit which takes no lower pattern than that model of perfection,—the character of the Messiah. These acquirements, indeed, are looked upon, not as a ground of acceptance, but a test of moral condition; not as, in any degree, usurping the place of the great principle of faith, but as its fruits and evidences. As these, then, are the only proofs of the reality of this principle, so they are the only basis on which a man can rest any sound conviction of his moral aspect in the sight of the Deity;—and that system is founded on delusion and falsehood, which, in this respect, holds out any other ground of confidence than the purification of the heart, and a corresponding harmony of the whole character. Such attainment, indeed, is not made at once, nor is it ever made in a full and perfect manner in the present state of being; but, where the great principle has been fixed within, there is a persevering effort, and a uniform contest, and a continual aspiration after conformity to the great model of perfection. Each step that a man gains in this progress serves to extend his view of the high pattern to which his eye is steadily directed; and, as his knowledge of it is thus enlarged, he is led by comparison to feel more and more deeply his own deficiency. It thus produces increasing humility, and an increasing sense of his own imperfection, and causes him continually to feel, that, in this warfare, he requires a power which is not in man. But he knows also that this is provided, as an essential part of the great system on which his hope is established. Amid much weakness, therefore, and many infirmities, his moral improvement goes forward. Faint and feeble at first, as the earliest dawn of the morning, it becomes brighter and steadier as it proceeds in its course, and, "as the shining light, shineth more and more unto the perfect day."


EDINBURGH: Printed by Balfour and Jack, Niddry Street.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse