Humane Religion Magazine
November - December 1997 Issue
"It was unreasonable to me—this was even before I had gone to school—that in my evening devotions I should pray only for people. So when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me goodnight, I used secretly to add another prayer which I had myself composed for all living creatures: Dear God, guard and bless everything that breathes; keep them from all evil and let them sleep in peace."
Unlike so many children who begin their lives with a caring heart, Albert Schweitzer did not lose his capacity for love and concern when he became an adult. His empathy was all-encompassing, and led to a lifetime of service to all forms of life.
Born in 1875 in Alsace at a time when it was under German rule, Albert was the son of a Lutheran minister. He was a musical prodigy and by the age of nine had been invited to play as guest organist in the church at Gunsbach. A love for the organ and for the music of Bach, remained passionate interests for the rest of his life.
But he did not choose music as a career. Instead,he followed in his father's footsteps and studied theology and philosophy. He earned his Doctorate and was assigned to St. Nicolas Church in Strasbourg. But he was there for only three years.
Because Schweitzer was intellectually as well as musically gifted, by the time he was twenty eight he had been appointed principal of the Theological College at Strasbourg University. But although music and scholarship were bringing him a great deal of satisfaction and renown, he knew that this self-serving lifestyle was not the path he would follow for the rest of his life.
In his autobiography, Schweitzer wrote that when he was twenty-one he woke one morning with the thought that because he had been so blessed in a world of so much suffering and sorrow, he must give something in return. "So with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside the window, I decided that I could justify living my life for scholarship and art until I was thirty." But he promised himself that after thirty, he would devote his life to the service of others.
Albert Schweitzer kept that vow but when the time came, his friends and colleagues strongly opposed his plan. They insisted that he was throwing away his life. They brought great pressure to bear, trying to convince him that he could make a much greater contribution to the world by continuing on the path that was bringing him so much attention and success.
But in spite of the continued pressure, at the age of thirty Schweitzer began the medical studies that would allow him to become a doctor—a medical missionary. At the end of his training he planned to go to Gabon in West Africa and establish a clinic, deep in the jungle, at Lambarene.
He almost didn't go. The French Missionary Society, which was sup-posed to sponsor his African Mission, got involved in a heated debate. Dr. Schweitzer had a reputation for holding unorthodox views, and many doctrinally-correct Christian leaders distrusted him. He had to convince them that his only purpose in going to Africa was to bring healing to those in need. And when he had done that, he had to solemnly swear that he would never try to convert either the missionaries or the natives to his theological beliefs. But the Missionary Society could not keep Schweitzer from thinking, and it was during his African years that he developed his ethic of Reverence For Life.
As his work with the sick became known in Europe and America, numbers of willing workers came to join Dr. Schweitzer, and he was able to make extended trips out of Africa. During those times, as he went about gaining financial support for his medical work, he was increasingly asked to lecture on the spiritual/ethical relationship to the world that he called "Reverence for Life."
His message was: "Reverence for Life gives us something more profound and mightier than the idea of humanism. It includes all living beings (author's emphasis). We reject the idea that man is 'Master' of other creatures, 'Lord' above all others. We must realize that all life is valuable and that we are united to all life. By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the Universe. “
Schweitzer's own "spiritual relationship with the Universe" was based on his understanding that Christianity—or any religion—had value only insofar as it balanced the inward turning of the mystic with the kind of substantive, ethical activity which Jesus called for in the Sermon on the Mount.
He faulted Christianity for not putting into action Christ's "great commandment of love and mercy." Christians had treated this command as a treasured platitude instead of using it as a basis "for opposing slavery, witch burning, torture, and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity."
Reverence for life is a spiritual and ethical relationship to the world
He also faulted Christians for ignoring the reality of the Lord's Prayer: "Only a Christianity which is animated and ruled by the idea and the intent of the Kingdom of God, is genuine. Only such a Christianity is genuine. Only such a Christianity can give to the world what it so desperately needs. It is only through the idea of the Kingdom of God that religion enters into relationship with civilization. "
This Kingdom of God on earth was the goal towards which Christ taught his followers to work and pray. A world in which God's will would be "done on earth, as it is in heaven" was a world in which compassion, kindness and love were the rule. It was a world in which Reverence for Life, meant reverence for all living things.
Schweitzer said that the Christ who called men and women of his own time, is the same Christ who calls us to do the works of mercy and love today. "He speaks to us the same words, 'Follow thou me' and then sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time."
Dr. Schweitzer believed that whatever path of service is chosen, compassion and concern for all creatures must be incorporated into that service. Reverence for Life leaves no breeding ground for cruelty. It is a" boundless ethic" which includes all beings regardless of race, religion, or species.
He lived out this belief. During his lifetime he ministered to "all beings" with compassionate care. It is a matter of record that in the hospital at Lambarene he gave his services to countless thousands of native Africans. And although his care of nonhuman beings is of no interest to those who record a great man's deeds, in his autobiography Schweitzer wrote movingly of his care for the many kinds of creatures who came across his path in the jungle at Lambarene.
In his own time, Albert Schweitzer was as widely known for the extensive network of medical help he established in West Africa as Mother Teresa is known for her ministry to the sick and dying in India. And like Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1952).
In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
The Albert Schweitzer Society is still an active force that continues his work in 25 countries and ministers to "the poor, sick, lepers, and all those suffering from injustice due to race, sex, color..." But Schweitzer's legacy goes far beyond this ministry to suffering humanity. His "boundless ethic" of Reverence for Life, continues to grow in its influence, helping to bring about the kind of world in which all beings can know freedom from the violence and brutality which makes life on earth a misery for so many.
He understood that this freedom is inextricably bound to the way we treat all creatures—human and nonhuman. And his prophetic understanding is both a warning and a guideline for our own time: "Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace." #