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Luther Burbank - IMMORTALITY - Part One

   In no phase of his religious belief is Luther Burbank less understood and more inaccurately reported than that pertaining to the subject of personal immortality. His persistent silence in the midst of the angry controversy resulting from his public "Challenge to Thought" exaggerated the misunderstanding. It revealed a striking contrast between the man and his critics. While Luther Burbank was laying stress on the power of religious belief in molding human conduct and developing the more abundant life here and now, his critics were chiefly concerned in demanding from him a statement that would throw light on his personal attitude toward belief in a future state. It so happened about that time that a statement by Henry Ford on the doctrine of reincarnation was published by the daily papers, and widely exploited from the pulpits of the land. A reporter, whose spirit of enterprise exceeded his religious knowledge or accuracy of expression, was responsible for an article in which Burbank was made the victim of gross misquotation relative to that doctrine. We were constant companions in those days, and I am in a position to affirm that Burbank had strictly adhered to the unbroken silence that marked his attitude throughout. Now this negative position on his part was a stand true to type. His Scotch-English ancestry, accentuated by his New England birth and training, helps to explain the habitual reserve that formed a striking trait in his character. He had to be driven into the open. Often he asserted, in my presence, that his right to his personal belief was sacred, and not subject to the blatant challenge of fiery and obtrusive religionists. When they publicly interpreted his silence as conclusive evidence of his "atheistic tendencies," he realized the nature of the influences that were arrayed against him. As a matter of fact, Burbank seldom discussed the subject, and then only in the presence of his closest friends.

   This silence on the part of Burbank had a deeper source. He did not hesitate to affirm that the subject of immortality occupied a secondary place in his religious beliefs. My first prolonged conversation with him on that subject took place during a trip in 1913 through the Northwest and British Columbia, when we were close companions. He was then in his sixtyfourth year, in splendid physical and mental form, and refreshingly wholesome in his outlook upon life. He was delightfully frank with me, expressing his opinions and convictions with freedom, as he discussed the many honest doubts that confronted him in striving to answer that vital question, as old as the book of Job: "If a man die, shall he live again?"

   One day I recall having read quite slowly to him a striking passage from the "Conclusions" by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience, as follows:

   “Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our race means Immortality, and nothing else. God is the producer of Immortality; and whoever has doubts of Immortality is written down as an atheist without farther trial. I have said nothing in my lectures [the Gifford Lectures] about Immortality or the beliefs therein, for to me it seems a secondary point. If our ideas are only cared for in "Eternity," I do not see why we might not be willing to resign their care to other hands than ours.”

   The moment I had finished reading, Burbank spoke with a force of conviction that left a deep impression in my life, because he was so unlike the great mass of believers with whom I came in contact in the course of my ministry. He said:

  "Yes, my dear friend, Professor James has shown remarkable discernment in his position relative to personal immortality, and it is in perfect harmony with both fact and reason. The true goal is missed by the multitude of religionists, because of the abnormal degree of their self-interest. They seem to be blind or indifferent to the fact that our chief concern is life, precious life, here and now. This life is the great adventure. It is the immortal present. To love, even as God would have us love; to be true, for truth's sake; to do, for humanity's sake; to suffer, for duty's sake; to live in the ever-conscious sanctity of life, to plunge into its floodtide, inspired and fortified by those ideals, and take the chance boldly and without concern as to the realities of a future heaven or a future hell, that's LIVING! What shall a man give in exchange for such a life!"

   Only in the light of the foregoing facts may we hope adequately to appreciate Burbank's intimate sentiments on the subject of immortality that follow. They open out a vision of universal interest. Nor must it be forgotten that they reveal in a very vital sense the basic qualities of the man. Of all men whose religious beliefs have come under my personal study during long years of ministry, no man appealed to me whose attitude toward the subject of personal immortality was marked by a greater desire to eliminate all consideration of self-interest.