Some Psychological Aspects of Regeneration

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The theological terms of the church are largely taken from the vital religious metaphors of the New Testament. Many of those metaphors naturally express the extraordinary initial religious experience of adults passing from heathenism into Christianity. So we have the figure of resurrection-" Ye who were dead in trespasses and sins hath he quickened." Again it is that of purification-" Ye were washed." Again of adoption-" Ye have received the spirit of adoption." Again it is the life in the spirit contrasted with the life in the flesh-" Ye are not in the flesh but in the spirit." Or it is the new birth-"born not of the will of man but of God," "the washing of regeneration." Jesus' word to Nicodemus, "Ye must be born again, " is a striking symbol to express the necessity of a complete re-estimate of values. These expressions in the New Testament are perfectly natural as they relate to the glorious experience of new apprehensions of truth, new moral freedom, new hope and joy. It was a new life with profoundest emotional realization of its renewal. The metaphor of the new birth or regeneration afforded opportunity for theological explanation of the phenomena of the new religious experience. A man was born naturally, reborn spiritually. Before the great event he was not a child of God; ever after it he was. It was a great supernatural crisis, a break sharply separating the new life from the old. To the converts from heathenism this explanation could be applied with sufficient appropriateness, and, of course, with telling homiletic effect. But as the church more and more changed from a community of such converts from heathenism to a community of those reared from childhood under Christian influence, a literal use of this metaphor of regeneration became difficult. Children were instructed from the first years in the Christian faith, and trained in habits of devotion. After a kind of 78



novitiate for careful instruction they were admitted to full membership in the church. At what point did regeneration take place ? When did these children pass from death unto life? Were they at first dead in trespasses and sins, and in need of a divine renewal ? A rigid theological system knows no distinctions. Regeneration means regeneration. To be sure the church might have found other metaphors than those applied to Nicodemus, the traditionalist, and to the Corinthians, fresh from their heathen vices. Theology might have been enriched by terms chosen from Jesus' parables of the Seed and of the Son. Indeed, a suggestive hint might have been found in his reference to the conversion of the already regenerate Peter. But regeneration had been agreed upon as expressive of the status of the Christian. If the facts of a normally developing religious experience do not seem to leave room for a regeneration, so much the worse for the facts. But refuge was found in the dogma of baptismal regeneration. The spiritual change of status takes place in the child through the means of the sacrament, and henceforth his spiritual development is to be expected as a normal growth of this spiritually imparted life. Regeneration is thus saved as a dogma, but lost as a fact of experience. A certain logical advantage is secured. The development of the religious life as a process of experience is recognized, and there is no necessity for any special moment in that development to be singled out for peculiar significance. Evangelicalism vigorously protests against this substitution of a magical formula for the religious experience. The evangelical convert, going back to the New Testament, finds congenial expression of his own experience in the glowing language that speaks of a new spiritual life, the gift of God. A Wesley revival, and every real repentance, afford evidence that the New Testament experience is reproducible today, and happy converts give their testimony of renewal and spiritual freedom. But again the deadening tendency of making all religious experience alike asserts itself. And again the children and youth of Christian families are expected to be the subjects of exactly the same process as adult new converts, and so again regeneration becomes a dogma instead of an experience. And strangely enough, the very insistence upon experiential religion



furthers this end. The believer, desiring to meet the demand that he shall give testimony of his religious life, repeats of necessity the current language of religious expression. He knows no other. Religious experience is very difficult to express in words. Only the religious genius has that power. The common man uses the language which is given him to use. And so, without the least hypocrisy, but by sheer imitation, those who have never known a moment of conversion declare that whereas they were blind now they see, and that what things before they hated now they love, and what before they loved now they hate. And evangelical theology falls into the same error as sacramental theology, for it declares that there is a moment in the life of every Christian whether he be conscious of the fact or not, at which regeneration takes place. When one attempts to follow this theory into the youthful experience of children of twelve, ten, eight, and even six years of age, in order to discover what in any given case regeneration could mean, one reaches the reductio ad absurdum. Yet evangelical faith is founded on the significance of a real religious experience. The practical men and women of our churches always give the primacy to religious experience. Why then should we be embarrassed by this historical bondage of rigid theological terms derived from the living metaphors of Scripture ? We greatly need to return to the New Testament conceptions of religion, not that we may slavishly copy any type of religion there found, but that we may realize that the only religion that has any value is that which is real in the experience of the individual soul. A consideration of the psychology of regeneration is therefore eminently desirable, for the use of the term psychology implies that regeneration is an experience. If regeneration may take place unconsciously to him who is regenerated, either at baptism or in some unknown moment of right attitude, then psychology cannot study it for psychology is concerned with consciousness. But if by regeneration we mean some real experience of life (and that is all that the modern man has the slightest interest to consider), then its psychological study is of the highest importance. From the point of view then alike of the New Testament, of practical religious people, and of psychology, there are no religious



values that are not real to our experience. This is distinctly the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and should be fundamental in all evangelical teaching. If regeneration is a vital doctrine it must be interpreted in accordancewith the facts of life. There is a very true sense in which every significantexperience of life is regenerating. And often that simple experience that is wrongly called conversion in children is far less a new birth than many that come a little later. The first real experienceof suffering sometimes changes a light-hearted youth into a mature Christian. The wondrous experience of motherhood often makes of a gay, frivolous girl a new being. A residencein a social settlement will transform the child of selfish ambition into an apostle of human betterment. A course in biology, opening to the student the real meaning of the evolutionary process, may make the world anew and the student is born again into that new world. An earnest and candid examination of the origin and structure of the biblical books has often revolutionizedthe ideas of a man and shifted his entire basis of religious authority. Persons who have passed through these various experiences know themselves to have been reborn. So profoundin their spiritualquality are such experiences, that nothing but a dogmaticbias could give to some earlierunrecognized religious moment the name regeneration, and deny it to these revolutionizingcrises. We might go a step farther and argue that in point of fact we are all in a constant state of regeneration,and so remove once and for all the artificial distinction between regeneration and sanctification. But the term regenerationaroseas a very naturalattempt to interpret epochal religious experiences. There are such. They are of high importance. They ought to be better understood. The term may well remain therefore as an expression for these crises of the spirit. But epochal religious experiences are by no means all of the same type. It is the vice of a certain kind of theology that it is forever seeking an impossible simplicity by reducing religious experiencesto a very few types. We often hear of two kinds of conversion-sudden and gradual. But the crises of the spirit are of many kinds. And we are greatly in need of a much more thorough



investigation of these experiences than has yet been made. So far investigations have been largely directed to what may justly be called pathologicalcases. And very much is to be learned from such studies. But there are epochal religious experiencesin the normal life, and they ought to be better understood. For our present purpose, and simply to indicate the general nature of the problem, it may be useful to discuss several historical examples of typical religious experiences, well understanding that there are many varieties of each, and that there are very likely other types quite distinct. Let us consider (i) the experience of the boy Jesus in the Temple, the adolescentblossoming; (2) that of Bunyan in his conversion, the adolescent struggling; (3) that of Isaiah in his vision, the adolescent self-devoting; (4) that of Augustine in his conversion, the sensualist awakening; (5) that of Jerry Macauley in his many conversions, the victim gaining hope, and (6) that of Paul at Damascus, the seeker finding light. The first and third of these have not usually been regarded as regenerations, but they were certainly epochal crises of the spirit. The psychologicaltruth of that charmingstory of the boy who has just realized that his place is in his Father's house is immediately evident. Hofman's picture portrays a regeneration. It is not a passing from death to life, but it is the breakingof the bud into flower. It is one of those flashesof self-consciousnessthat are so significant of the young adolescent. There is a certain break from the accustomed home restraint. There is vision of a largerworld. There is a new thought of God. He is "my Father." Why was Mary so surprised? There is nothing expecially surprising in the mere words. It was the tone, the new note of religious meaning. She who had borne the boy finds him born again. Such epochal religious experienceswe are coming to understandas part of that whole newness of life which the great changes of puberty inaugurate. There is undoubtedly a new birth in the early teens. And it is then most naturally that the objective religion of childhood, given by authority and accepted as part of the system of things, becomes the personalpossessionof the youth. Normally there would never be a real break with the past such as the term conversion implies. Edward Everett Hale said that he



had always been a Christian. The blossominghad been so simple, that no moment seemed set off as any more significant than any other. But the psychological study of adolescencewould indicate that there may often be a religious awakening altogether normal and healthy, with greater or less emotional quality. But two causes often make this awakening more tumultuous. The one is the personalsense of failureor wrong-doingand the other is the theologicaldogma of depravity. When these unite the emotional disturbancemay be profound. Perhaps the case of Bunyan is typical of the pathology of youthful regeneration. On the basis of his confessions it would seem that he was a hardened sinner, profligate, blasphemous, godless. In reality he seems to have been a very ordinary careless youth, guilty of some indiscretions, in great need of a kind and healthy friendship which he did not find. Driven in upon himself, his own sense of ill-desert heightened by the dogmatic teachings of natural depravity, his fears kindled by the awful prospect of eternal punishment, it is natural that he should exhibit the excesses so common to the emotional instability of that period of youth. And when the way of escape was seen, and he caught at the glorious hope of forgiveness and freedom, a regeneration was wonderfully apparent. The great experienceof safety after shipwreckhas often seemed such a worthy manifestation of regenerationthat the church has made much of her converted Bunyans. But it is not a healthy experience for youth. It involves an emotional expenditurein the highest degree wasteful. It often results in a distorted idea of the nature of sin and salvation, and in an introspective and even morbid type of religion. A rational psychological study of the experiencereveals at once its pathological character. Bunyan ought to have had some goodly counsel about the foolishness of swearing, some help toward making a worthy use of his Sundays, some good teaching about God's faith in him, some ideals set before him of the glory of a pure manhood, and especially some healthy leadership into service for others. He would have had his struggles, but would have been saved from the Slough of Despond, which is no place for sturdy boys. The real religious awakeningis often vocational. The youth is



reborn when he finds his mission. The wonderful bit of autobiography in the vision of Isaiah reveals one of the most significant types of the crises that determine our lives. The son of the privileged class has a vision of social injustice. The patriot sees that his nation is on the wrong course, is destined to terrible suffering, and must be summoned to righteousness. The youth who has grown up in the conventional religious life suddenly realizes what God is, and what godliness implies. Selfish ambition, national and personal self-complacency crumble into dust. The sense of unworthiness is overwhelming. The longing to be worthy is born. Out of the tumultuous feeling comes the peace of unity with the newfound ideals. Then issues self-devotion. So the prophets of great enterprises are born. It always is a new birth. The church would follow psychological law to her untold advantage if she would use this opportunity of vocational awakening with all its altruistic possibilities in place of the individualistic appeals of current evangelism. In Augustine we have a different experience. It is not the careless youth of Bunyan but a real sensuality. A keen spirit deliberately seeks the pleasure of sense in its most fascinating forms. Yet a real man cannot be satisfied with pleasure, and so there is a sense of strain and discord. The eager student seeks to overcome this discord by finding a philosophy that will give him a harmony by assigning to the sense-loving flesh and to the aspiring spirit each its separate place. But the longed-for unity is not found. Ever before him is the Christian ideal of purity and love incarnate in his mother. At last he sees it in virile form in the great bishop of Milan. The tension becomes unendurable. It is the acceptance of the philosophy of Christianity, it is the break with the life of self-indulgence, it is the achievement of the peace which the Christians experience-these only can give him satisfaction. Psychologically it is the direction of attention to this way toward harmony that makes Augustine a new man. The sensualist sees a better delight, the philosopher sees a more rational system, the distracted spirit finds a way to harmonize all experience. So Zacchaeus, when his attention was held by the friendship of Jesus, found suddenly a new and powerful stimulus. He saw that charity was better than riches and justice than fraud.



This is the type of regeneration that the church has best understood. Paul discusses it with great fulness in his epistles. It is that about which it is easiest to preach. It affords fine opportunity for startling contrasts. The difficulty is, however, that men of the Augustine type are very seldom in congregations. And the effect of preaching to Augustines, when the congregation is composed of conventionally selfish men and women, is the loss of the sense of religious reality. Jerry Macauley is naturally the type of the victim of vice finding a way of escape. He is not the sensualist delighting in his self-indulgence, calculating how it may be enhanced, and seeking to justify his course and thus secure a sense of harmony. He is the wretch whose dire habits have become so set that action has almost ceased to be voluntary. Psychologically, one would say that he has responded so persistently to certain stimuli that the power of inhibition is lost. Response follows stimulus almost without coming into consciousness at all. Professor James has of course given us the classic discussion of the psychology of regeneration as concerns this pathological type. A new idea presented so powerfully to the mind as to occupy attention acts as an inhibition even upon the responses that have become so nearly involuntary. Religion with its tremendous emotional quality may have this effect. The man thinks himself worthless: he learns that God loves him with an everlasting love and believes in him. He believes his habit is invincible: he learns that infinite power will supplement his will to break the habit. He is afraid that his case is hopeless; he learns of thousands who have been saved from worse plight than his. All this fills his mind. Prayer, song, religious occupation and companionship become powerfully attractive. Under the great emotion a kind of paralysis cuts off the old stimuli. New habits are rapidly formed. With every new interest the power to inhibit response to the old stimuli increases. The man is born again. Repeated falls and repeated conversions as in the case of Jerry Macauley mean only that for a moment the occupation of attention was inadequate, the longaccustomed response to stimulus recurred, only to be overcome again by the more powerful stimulus of religious interest. The



psychological justification of the emotional revival lies in the opportunitythus affordedfor the powerfuloccupationof attention. The dangerof excesses is of course very great. Finally, thereis the case of Paul, whichis often quite inadequately interpreted by those who talk of Pauline experiences. It was essentially an intellectual regeneration, of course, with profound moral consequences. Paul's sense of disharmonygrew out of the conflict between the facts of his moral experience and the traditional creed of his church. It was not the regenerationof a selfrighteousPharisee essentially, certainly not that of a great sinner, still less that of a hypocrite. It was the regenerationof a man who having been brought up to accept his religion as sacramentally bestowed, confirmedby adherence to traditional orthodoxy, and worked out by prescriptive rule, suddenly finds that it may be a personal experience. Stephen rejoices in a sense of spiritual freedom that Paul does not know. He ought to know it for he has fulfilledall the prescribedconditions. As Paul puts the problem to himself it would be: If the Christians were right their experience would be understandable; if Jesus were alive after death he would have won the great victory, he would be the Christ, and moral freedomwould be found in discipleshipto him. It was a stupendoushypothesis. Its considerationcaused the profoundest emotional disturbance. The longing for a resolution of the doubt became agonizing. Only the vision of the living Christ could bring the desired harmony. So we have the psychological conditions for the vision. And peace results from throwing overboard the whole mass, or at least the greater part, of the traditional theology, and reconstructinga system with the facts of religious experience as basal. That was the experience of John Wesley. It was the experienceof Gladstonewho began life with "a profound disbelief in the value of liberty." It is the kind of regeneration that ought to be far more common than it is. It need not be so painful or so critical as Paul's. But our young men and women, whose religion consists in a more or less earnest acceptance of traditional dogmas, ought to be born again into the vital religious experiencewhich comes from the discovery of the groundsof religious authority and the real nature of religious obligation.




they are not so born again they are likely to develop as Pharisees, or to join that large number who give a sort of careless adhesion to a religionwhich they have never experienced. The emotionalquality of all these experiencesis their significant characteristic. Psychologically, in every case of regeneration there is an emotional release in connection with the response to a new and powerful stimulus. Religious faith joyfully declares that the stimulus is from the Divine Spirit, that "it is God that worketh in us to will and to do of his good pleasure." Theology therefore very properly discusses regenerationfrom the point of view of the action of the Divine Spirit upon the human spirit. But our present task is to keep within the field of psychology, interpreting the experiences only from the data of human consciousness. There is great value in this, for it enables us to keep clearlydistinct what we know scientificallyand what we believe religiously. There is a larger unity which includes both, but includes them without confusingthem. From the foregoing discussion certain conclusions would seem to be justified. First, a normal religiousdevelopmentis not necessarily an even and uneventful development. It may have its awakenings to truth and duty-moments which outweigh whole years. These may be veritable regenerations, often vocational, sometimesintellectual. The crisismay be more or less momentous, depending upon many conditions. Secondly,and very certainly, these crises are not necessarilythe initiation of the religious life. In a normal religiousdevelopment there may be no sharply defined beginning of religious experience. But there may be flashes of religious iirsight. The religious child may some day find religiona new possessionto him. There may be recurrent emotional crises in early adolescencein connectionwith repentanceforwrongdoingor realizationof a senseof mission. Such regenerationsdo not imply a previous unregenerate state. Jesus was a religious child before he was twelve years old, Isaiah was probably a devout youth, Paul was certainly, like Wesley, of the sincerest piety from his earliest years. He never speaks of his conversion as the beginning of a godly life, but as a revelation of the way of salvation.



Thirdly, these crises are likely to be more intense according to the extent to which the new channels of thought or conduct have to break through long-established habits. A wise religious education will secure such constant intellectual and moral readjustment as to minimize the necessity of violent reconstructions. At the same time, when it is evident that habitual responses to certain stimuli have led to erroneous thinking or unworthy conduct, the essential character of the reformatory process will be evident. A powerful preoccupation of attention must by all means be secured. A Bunyan must find a healthy, virile Christian friend who will lead him by a sheer capture of his loyalty into a happy Christian activity. A Zacchaeus must find a pure, strong man who believes in him and believes in the attractiveness of the social impulse, and knows how to make it alluring even to an unscrupulous tariff official. And fourthly, the emotional element in the experience is not be to sought for itself. It is never to be superinduced. Religious education does not undertake to bring about emotional crises. Its task is the cultivation of appreciation of duty, the formation of right habits by right doing, the stimulus to the understanding of truth by exemplifying the significance of truth. The love of God, the love of men, visions of duty, apprehensions of truth, selfshall come in the gradual process of spiritual devotions-these in or great leaps of spiritual attainment. We cannot development decide how it shall be. Many conditions of environment and temperament may determine. Only we shall not try to promote crises of the spirit as such. We shall only seek to understand them, and then to help our friends to right adjustment in their newborn life.