Schweitzer’s world view was influenced by Spinoza, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Native American religions and aimed at providing a bridge for Christianity to be revitalized; to return to the ancient mystical links for a naturalistic worldview. His ideas embrace life (life affirmation as he calls it) to share with all living things in the world in which we live. His ideas came from his concern about civilization which he thought had lost its spiritual roots because of our lack of reverence for life as in the post enlightenment worldview which had become too reliant on reason. His philosophy was not a utopian ideal nor could it be quantifiable, as was the case for Nietzsche in terms of given values, outcomes, behaviours or morality.
Rather he encouraged a way of thinking which would return us to our spiritual roots, a way of being to share in the communal ancestry of all living things which he referred to as ethical mysticism. His thinking is much more deep seated than a casual observation might first conclude. It requires crucial self-examination, to ensure the values we hold show reverence for all living things, in respect to how we might lead more purposeful lives. His first major work was the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus’ -
“The mistake was to
suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a
man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never
existed. Secondly because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce
a greater clearness into an existing spiritual life, it cannot call spiritual
life into existence.”
History can destroy the present; it can reconcile the present with the past; to a certain extent there was a danger that we should offer them a Jesus who was too small, because we had forced Him into conformity with our human standards and human psychology. To see that, one need only read the Lives of Jesus written since the 'sixties, and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-contemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals, and might tune His denial of the world to our acceptance of it.
Many of the greatest sayings are found lying in a corner like explosive shells from which the charges have been removed. No small portion of elemental religious power needed to be drawn off from His sayings to prevent them from conflicting with our system of religious world-acceptance. We have made Jesus hold another language with our time from that which He really held.
Schweitzer asserted that the historical Jesus stands as a concrete historical personality, but remains a stranger to our time, but His spirit, which lies hidden in His words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct. Every saying contains in its own way the whole Jesus.
The very strangeness and hsi non-
non-judgmental way of thinking makes it easier for individuals to find their
own personal standpoint in regard to Him.
Modern Lives of Jesus are too general in their scope. They aim at influencing, by giving a complete impression of the life of Jesus, a whole community. But the historical Jesus, as He is depicted in the Gospels, influenced individuals by the individual word. They understood Him so far as it was necessary for them to understand, without forming any conception of His life as a whole, since this in its ultimate aims remained a mystery even for the disciples.”
After he had obtained Doctorates in philosophy and theology felt the call to be a jungle Doctor. It was during his time in Africa that he abandoned his incomplete work on the Mysticism of St Paul to return to the Philosophy of Civilization in an attempt to provide a philosophy which would guard against the terrors of war which he witnessed first- hand.
In his work on ‘The Mysticism of Paul Schweitzer’ argues Paul's worldview was based upon eschatology (the expectation of the imminent end of time). Jesus was to reappear to establish the prophesized new Kingdom.
Believers literally were to become a member of the body of Christ by the mystical death and resurrection inherent in baptism. His doctrine of being-in-Christ was meant to be taken literally, to work regardless of whether the newly baptized believer comprehended or not the process or intention.
Schweitzer demonstrated Paul's ideas were all based on a Jewish/Christian eschatology.
Schweitzer in Africa
In 1913 as a qualified Doctor he departed for Lambarene with his wife (whom he had married the previous year) and who was to be of incalculable support in the Hospital and as a research assistant over the next 40 years. His base remained at Lambarene for the remainder of his life except for internment during World War 1.
However it was the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 that triggered within him the change of heart to abandon his nearly completed work for publication on the Mysticism of St Paul and return to the Philosophy of Civilization. His writings in this book contain his famous Insight” on the "Reverence for Life” principle.
His achievements were recognized in 1952 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and later he formed collaborations with the leaders at that time including Bertrand Russell and John F Kennedy.
In 1958 he made calls on radio Oslo for the abandonment of nuclear tests and the production of atomic bombs.
He passed away in 1965 but his spirit continues today in enduring ethical thought and work.
His philosophy – Reverence for life explained in more detail
It is difficult to describe what is meant in a few sentences but his theory acknowledges the reality of our own conscious will to live and all that is around us. Reverence for Life is the end result of a fusing of ethical principles within our conscious will to live and hence world and life affirmation. It is the spiritual act in which one ceases to live unreflectively but adopts a reverence for all life in order to raise its true value. Its aim is to create values, and to realize progress of different kinds, which shall serve the material, spiritual and ethical development of mankind.
At first glance one might regard these ideas as somewhat vague but on further analysis they represent much more deep thinking than appears at the outset and his philosophy becomes very interesting. I will attempt to expand what I think he meant in a little more detail.
Firstly Schweitzer was a believer in rational thought and as a Scientist his philosophy followed a rationale that sought to find a way through the fog of the present day decay of civilization as he saw it evidenced in the ultimate horror of War. Schweitzer abhorred philosophical abstract thinking and believed in the reality of life and the will to live that enveloped all life. I am life he said ‘in the midst of all life that wills to live’.
In that respect as I mentioned in my introduction he shared similar views with Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer insofar as either adopted a will to live or will to power in recognition of our natural biological reality.
But there is where it ended for Schweitzer who contended that such a will to live in itself cannot be confused by attempting to obscure its reality with abstract values that nullify our existence or conclude that the only way forward is withdrawal from the world we live in. Hence he wanted to introduce ethics into philosophy but not of the kind that attempts to define them in the sense they become simplistic rules or represent enslavement to someone else’s abstract values. Similarly Schweitzer resisted any attempt to grade life based upon whether or not that life might have feelings which in turn would determine our ethical stance towards it but rather his ethics were based upon mysticism; a seeming contradiction in itself. Schweitzer contended the values of compassion and empathy for all living things will become self-evident when we adopt a reflective reverence for all life which in essence is a spiritual dimension based upon a practical life affirmation.
Reverence for life harnesses our emotive compassion for all living things that will to live as we will to live in our ongoing relationship in the world which will be manifested instinctively in our service to humanity.
Hence reverence for life includes a reverence for our own lives and Schweitzer was not against self defense and common sense dictating some form of killing but only as was necessary for survival.
Rather what he wanted us to avoid is the ethics of expediency.
Schweitzer’s philosophy concluded that the failure of civilization was due to the failure to show reverence to all life (not just human life) which has led to the decline of civilization and the decimation of our spirituality. In that sense his philosophy has some affinity with Buddhism concerned for all sentient beings but he also contended it made no sense for one to conclude the only sensible thing is to withdraw from the world, since his philosophy is life affirming.
Hence his insight to show reverence to all life involves a change in thinking to embrace the ethic of love in life to live our life to the fullest in the service of life within its midst and to alleviate suffering in the most practical ways possible in accord with our natural spiritual dimension or instinct in harmony with nature.
Selected Quotations and extracts
Schweitzer was also influenced by Goethe who he admired and completed 4 studies into his work.
Here is an extract …..Goethe is well aware that in all the thoughts of guilt and guilt-consciousness with which we are occupied we are touching upon a great secret which we cannot comprehend and cannot fathom. He surmises, however, that the power which guilt seems to have over us is not appointed to destroy us, but in the end must contribute to our purification. ... When guilt begins to operate in a man he is on the way to salvation through the unfathomable secret of love, which penetrates into the darkness of earth like a beam of eternal light."
Anyone who proposes to do well must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they roll a few more upon it.
The most valuable knowledge we can have is how to deal with disappointments.
Religion & Philosophy
Any religion or philosophy which is not based upon a respect for life is not a true religion or philosophy.
It is good to maintain life and further life, it is bad to destroy life. And this ethic, profound, universal has the significance of a religion. It is religion.
When we observe contemporary society one thing strikes us. We debate but make no progress. Why? Because as people we do not trust one another.
Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.
Nature and the Environment
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world any more. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.
The deeper we look into nature the more profoundly we know that it is sacred and we are united to this life.
The effect of his writings on religious and secular communities.
His quest for truth and the spirit of “liberty” as he put it at times led him to conclusions on biblical interpretation at variance to accepted orthodoxy. Indeed they cost him some considerable hardship with the Parisian Missionary Society for his strict instructions as a Jungle Doctor was to refrain from any form of religious discourse with the locals for fear he might introduce them to some doctrinal errors.
However at the insistence of the missionaries at Lambarene the Parisian Missionary Society relented on their embargo as the realization slowly sunk in that his views in no way contradicted the simple gospel of salvation understandable by the local inhabitants.
His attitude to African culture was not to try and change their way of life to ours but to serve their physical and spiritual needs. His approach was the forerunner to to-days generally accepted missionary objectives seeking to include cultural aspects and tradition within worship and Christian life practices.
His life as a devout Christian had a profound effect on the Christian community at large as although the shadow of sacrifice hung over his life he was able to “find his life.”Whosoever loses his life for my sake shall find it”.
When he left for Africa he was prepared to make 3 sacrifices.
1. To lose his financial independence and become reliant for the rest of his life on donations from friends.
2. Discontinue his career as Concert artist.
3. Renounce academic teaching and lecturing activities.
However, to his great joy found himself in the same position.The Paris Bach Society donated a piano with organ pedals specially adapted to the tropics.
He was able to return (between long intervals in Africa) to Europe as an esteemed professional as his performances continued to grow in popularity.
He was only totally reliant on the financial help of others for a short period as his publications and acclaimed recitals soon made him financially independent.He was also highly acclaimed and sought after as a Lecturer in Europe and in the leading universities in the USA.
Effect on Society.
Schweitzer was clearly ahead of his time in calling for the human treatment of animals in medical experiments and in food production and today many such organizations continue to quote selectively from many of his publications.
His reverence for life principle continues under the Albert Schweitzer Foundation supporting ethically based aid and educational projects.His work is of appeal to any group that has a common interest in the general wellbeing of peoples around the world. However in the earlier post 2nd World War period his thoughts were of great appeal to a society ravaged by war and mindful of the need to establish a new “world order” to prevent a recurrence of past atrocities. Invitations flowed to him to give lectures abroad from world-renowned academic, ecclesiastical and musical bodies.
His view was eagerly sought after and at times he must have felt some satisfaction as it is recorded “He dashed off a letter to John F Kennedy congratulating him on his recent peace initiatives”.
His enduring legacy of thought contained within his writings on “Reverence for Life” provides a “Bridge over troubled waters” for to-days contemporary society.
Its enduring interest is in the bridge his philosophy creates between Christian orthodoxy and a naturalistic world view which contends plants, animals, and humans all interact in complex chains of interdependency, thus we are all united with nature and dependent upon it for our existence.
He was a philosopher that both acknowledged that competition and killing were essential elements to the survival of the food chain but perhaps of far greater importance was the cooperation and tolerance which have evolved in the shared struggle of survival. The ethical consideration as to ultimate sustainability can have no better focus than that aligned to the "Reverence for Life" principle. It blends in with concerns over “Mother Earth” and her ultimate sustainability in the face of depletion, waste and pollution attributable to mankind.
The missing link is the principle that establishes our conscious “will to live” that affirms our relationship with the world but requires us to create values that in turn generate outcomes sustainable to all life. In essence Schweitzer was ahead of his times and one of the first modern day philosophers to introduce to us a life affirming bio centered ethics.
The ethical basis contained within the "reverence for Life” principle is then the essence of the way forwards as the global village becomes more and more interwoven. This is essential if globalization is to become civilized and deliver benefits in a uniform manner to all mankind.