George Lincoln Burr and the Progress of Religion

George Lincoln Burr (1857-1938), historian and librarian at Cornell University, was also a close collaborator of Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918). White had even once proposed that Burr share with him the title page of his  A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Burr declined, but the suggestion shows that both White and Burr shared many ideas.

In 1905 Burr delivered an address to the First Baptist Church of Ithaca on “Religious Progress.” He begins by recounting, and contrasting, two lectures, or approaches to religion, one by Rev. Joseph Cook, “the famous reconciler of theology and science,” the other by Col. Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic.” These two “gladiators,” Burr says, the things that alarmed or angered them, “no longer embarrass or embitter us.” Why? According to Burr, we have simply grown more “honest.”

We should not mistake the sincerity of these men as honesty, however. Their sincerity was partisan. He writes,

We thought that above truth was the Truth; that the God who gave us our senses, our reason, our conscience, had given us through some other channel revelations which these commonplace faculties must not be trusted honestly to test.

In short, “the Ingersolls are as out-of-date as the Cooks.”

Burr told his audience that we are no longer shocked by books like Descent of ManHistory of CivilizationWarfare of ScienceGuesses at the Riddle of Existence, or History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. A kinder reception is testimony to “our more simple-hearted wish to know the truth.” We now welcome such works as “courageous,” as a witness to “free and hopeful inquiry.”

This is not the decay of faith, however. Burr claims that “Faith is not knowledge.” Faith begins where knowledge ends. Doubt is not something to despise. We must face it. We must not put cotton in our ears.

In addition to growing more honest, Burr says, we have also grown more tolerant. Tolerance should not be confused with indifference, however. Burr relates that he first uncovered the doctrine of tolerance in the archives, in the writings of the Anabaptists. This sixteenth-century religious sect believed that every man was able to discern for himself the voice of God. In turn, Burr maintains, they were labelled “ultra-liberals.” But this was the message of Christ himself. He called on his followers to “live in piety and friendliness without strife and should love one another,” Burr writes. Persistent doctrinal divisions are pointless.

This appeal from Christ, Burr goes on to say, is not for learning but for Christian love. Today should be no different. The great broad-church movement in his time, Burr notes, has less to do with any growth in knowledge than to that “humanitarian trend, that new emphasis on conduct and on Christian kindliness, which has confessedly so marked the religious temper of our time.”

To honesty and tolerance, Burr finally adds kindness. To illustrate his point Burr turns to evolution. The central idea behind evolution, he says, is not birth but growth. But this evolution should not be understood in the sense of mere vegetative growth. Evolution is no groping in the dark. It is the germ of a diviner liberty and self-direction, a growth into the “likeness,” the kindness of God. This is the great principle of progress, Burr says.

Do you realize, Christians of Ithaca, that it is scarce a hundred years since men began to know that the Golden Age is before and not behind; that the career of man on earth has been an upward, now downward one,—a thing for hopeful effort, not for despair?

This is the new revelation of God’s love. Old traditions and fears have lost their power. We are no longer to be bound by them. Old ways and old creeds have passed. They must be understood on an evolutionary scale. “Not the discovery of a new world, not the Copernican theory of the heavens, has so deeply influenced our Christian thought.” God has opened the door to a new progressiveness, which will led us to be more and more like him.

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