Reverence for life is terms not widely used today but a Google search will easily identify those words with Albert Schweitzer.
I was first interested in his writings in my youth, but it wasn’t till much later as a member of a monthly friends philosophical monthly meeting that I revisited that interest to present a brief paper on his life and thought.
I have decided to update that paper which is now included below.
In researching his life I was drawn to a quotation by Sir Winston Churchill: “We shape our strategies and then they shape us,”since that applied to Schweitzer throughout his long and dedicated life devoted to serving others.
Firstly after obtaining Doctorates in philosophy and theology and establishing himself in academia he felt the call to be a jungle Doctor. It was during his time in Africa that he abandoned his incomplete work on the Mystercism 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.
During this period he gained his “insight” on the “Reverence for Life” principles.
I will begin with a brief outline of his life and thoughts, attempt to explain his interesting philosophy, then follow with selected quotations that provide further valuable insight and finally talk about the effect of his thinking and his enduring legacy.
A Brief Outline of His Life and Thought.
Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace in Germany (later to be annexed to France) as the son of a Lutheran Pastor in what was then a predominantly Catholic place. He showed extraordinary skill as a youthful organist under the tutilige of Europe’s finest professionals.
In adulthood he was both an acclaimed concert artist and a sought after speaker of sufficient popularity so that during those brief periods whilst engaged he was able to fund his beloved African Hospital.
His early life was dominated by music and academic research with a brief interruption for compulsory military service before obtaining in 1900 Drs of Philosophy and Theology and a post as Professor of Theology.
In 1903 he became Principal of the theological seminary of St Thomas in Srassburg. At that time in his life he recalls his delight in teaching the simple Biblical truths to students in the hope his teaching would provide a refuge against life’s stormy weather. Students in later life thanked him, stating their faith would not have survived the “cruel sea of doubt” of life’s existence had it not been so firmly secured.
His published theological research at times was contrary to conventional wisdom as he did not accept that the Gospels (Mark, Matthew Luke & John) represented a collection only of Jesus’ sayings interwoven loosely with his life story. He contended that the expectation of the Messianic Jewish belief that the “End of the World” was imminent influenced profoundly many of Jesus’ sayings.
Hence his interpretation was that Jesus and the Gospels can only be understood from the point of view of the false eschatology that permeated Jewish thinking at that time based on the expectation the end of the world would occur within their lifetime.
Schweitzer contended Jesus’ ideal love could be replanted from within the original metaphysics background from which it arose, just as his philosophical insight on the idea of reverence for life could likewise bear fruit.
In 1905 after reading an article in the Paris Missionary Society describing the desperate need for medical doctors in Africa in the region then known as the Congo he decided to enlist and change his life course.
It was to shape the rest of his life.
Once he decided to become a jungle Doctor he was ridiculed by friends and academia that put a fist in his heart so to speak arguing he could do more from his existing privileged position in society than to undertake such a rigorous long course of study.
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 reminder 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 Mystercism 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
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 it 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 become 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 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 involved 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 dependant 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.