Reverence for Life

I just finished reading James Brabazon’s definitive biography of Albert Schweitzer. I had heard of Schweitzer before, but had never known much beyond his wikipedia entry. All in all I find reading about extraordinary people such as Schweitzer to be both encouraging and thought-provoking.

Schweitzer was a German who lived from 1875 to 1965. He had doctorates in theology, music, and medicine. He learned Hebrew and Greek and subsequently wrote the Quest for the Historical Jesus (his most famous work), and the actually more theologically significant Mystery of the Kingdom of God. Schweitzer refuted the ‘liberal German theological school’ that had painted a picture of Jesus as a modern liberal, preaching universal love and killed by some mistake or enmity of the Jews. Instead, Schweitzer read the original texts and contemporary Jewish thought to paint a picture of Jesus as an eschatological zealot- convinced that the end of the world was near and that through his own actions he could bring about the Kingdom of God. As the kingdom failed to show up year after year, Paul and Jesus’ other early followers reinterpreted the ‘Kingdom of God’ into a spiritual force in the here and now, and created the doctrine of atonement. (Doctrines such as the Trinitarian concept of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as being a coequal divinity, came much later.) It’s probably one of the most convincing historical pictures of Jesus out there.

I particular enjoyed Brabazon distillation of Schweitzer because it addresses both the shortcoming of the traditional ‘liberal theology’ view of Jesus as a modern liberal saint. I studied the phrase ‘Son of Man,’ which is Jesus’ almost exclusive self-reference in the early gospels. The vagueness of this phrase, with its eschatological overtones from Daniel and contemporary Jewish thought, make it heavily debated among theologians. Schweitzer’s framework takes this and the historical context and wraps it into a coherent view.

Along with his world-reknown in Biblical scholarship, Schweitzer literally wrote the book on playing Bach and building organs in Europe. And then at the age of 30 he chose to train to be a doctor so he could act out his religious and ethical principles. Schweitzer moved to Gabon, West Africa and established a hospital at Lambarene, where he worked more or less constantly until his death at age 90. In the meantime, Schweitzer was detained by the French colony for his Germany citizenship during both World Wars (despite his outspoken early denouncements of both nationalism and the Nazis!), and funded his hospital by organ recital and speaking tours in Europe and America.

He then proceeded to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Africa, and to use his subsequent popularity to jump-start Linus Pauling’s (ultimately successful) campaign to ban testing of nuclear weapons. Along the way he was smeared by the U.S. government and Western press as a commy stooge and a racist. (Certainly he had some paternalistic attitudes that in the 60’s seemed anachronistic, but like all men Schweitzer should be judged partially against the times in which he lived, and by those standards he was both enlightened and an incredible humanitarian).

But possibly Schweitzer’s greatest contribution was his philosophy which culminated in his ethic of “Reverence for Life.” Out of the realization that he was alive and longed to live, and was surrounded by other life that longed likewise, Schweitzer believed that all creatures should be valued and life, existence, and health should be affirmed. Schweitzer was ahead of his time in recognizing the value of environmentalism and ecological balance (without the absurdity of putting animal life on the same plane as human) and a universal ethic of service for individuals in their relationships as social creatures. Refusing to codify his ethic in a list of rules or priorities, Schweitzer set about making his life his argument. I think he proved his point.

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