My friend Luther Burbank has passed on. I loved him very dearly. He was one of the saintliest men I have ever met. To look at his sensitive face with its compassionate eyes and kindly smile was to see a man bathed in a great spiritual radiance.
The keynote of his whole personality was love, great love. His love of the voiceless plants, creepers, and flowers intensified his love for mankind. He had a burning desire to be of service and to help—to bear as much as possible of the world’s burden. His heart especially went out to children; he yearned to see them given an opportunity to express the infinite goodness within them.
A martyr for truth
Just before his death, Burbank dramatically martyred himself by calling himself an “infidel,” so that people might wake up from their sleep of superstition and seek God rationally. As Jesus offered himself for love, so Burbank was willing to be crucified by public opinion for the sake of truth. Many newspapers called Burbank an “atheist,” considering him to be one more scientist without faith in God.
An atheist denies the existence of God, but an infidel is simply a disbeliever in the established religion. To a Turk, a Christian is an infidel. Yet both believe in God. The public, however, does not understand the fundamental difference between the two terms.
To most of them, Burbank had denied God, but how far that is from the truth! His faith in the Great Power that rules the mighty forces of nature was the deepest chord of his being. He declared to his interviewer that he was an infidel only in the sense that Jesus was an infidel—both rebelled against prevailing systems. But let us read Burbank’s actual words as recorded by the interviewer and published by the San Francisco newspaper:
“Christ was an infidel
Religion grows with the intelligence of man, but all religions of the past and probably all of the future will sooner or later become petrified forms…. Until that time comes, however, if religion of any name or nature makes man more happy, comfortable, and able to live peaceably with his brothers, it is good….
The idea that a good God would send people to a burning hell is utterly damnable to me. I don’t want to have anything to do with such a God. But while I cannot conceive of such a God, I do recognize the existence of a great universal power which we cannot even begin to comprehend….
As for Christ—well, he has been most outrageously belied. His followers have so garbled his words that many of them no longer apply to present life. Christ was an infidel of his day because he rebelled against the prevailing religions and government. I am a lover of Christ and all things that help humanity; just as he was an infidel then, I am an infidel today.
Who dares not speak is a slave
Burbank, when asked to state his position more clearly, said later:
Euripides long ago said, ‘Who dares not speak his free thought is a slave.’ I nominated myself as an ‘infidel’ as a challenge to those who are asleep. The word is harmless if properly understood….
Most of us possess discriminating reasoning powers. Can we use them or must we be fed by others like babies? What does the Bible mean when it distinctly says, ‘By their works ye shall know them?’ Works count far more than words with those who think clearly….
I love everybody. I love everything. I love humanity—it has been a constant delight during all my seventy-seven years of life, and I love all the works of nature…. All plants, animals, and men are already in eternity traveling across the face of time….
On all subjects, an open mind
The urge toward infinite realization is in every human soul, but in some, as in Burbank, that urge is keenly felt and actively seeking fulfillment. The stupendous power that guides all creation came very close to Burbank in the course of his chosen work. He felt its overwhelming grandeur, its incomprehensible goodness and beauty.
And he knew that he, as a man, could not define it or know it completely. On all subjects he kept an open mind, certain that the truth could not be so small as to be exhausted and contained in one religion, one age, or one mind.
From East-West Magazine, May-June 1926.