Albert Schweitzer: Prophet of Interdependence
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 25, 1999
|In 1924, Albert Schweitzer wrote that his life was conditioned on two overriding factors: One was the amount of suffering he saw around him. The other was the fact that he had been "born into a period of spiritual decadence in mankind."|
In the face of these two monumental challenges-- widescale suffering and universal spiritual impoverishment-- Schweitzer did not despair and turn away from life. Rather, he developed two essentially hopeful ethical principles. The first is "reverence for life"; the second, the idea that "good fortune obligates".
Indeed, Schweitzer himself ranks as a living monument to both of these great principles.
In his memoirs, Schweitzer told the story of his discovery of the principle of "reverence for life":
"Slowly we crept upstream [on one of the long African errands of mercy], laboriously feeling-- it was the dry season-- for the channels between the sandbanks. Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conceptions of the ethical which I had not yet discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our was through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase "Reverence for Life". The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible..."
This is, then, Schweitzer's main message to us: Reverence for Life. Probably the only modern religious theory discovered in the midst of a herd of hippos! The noted psychologist Erich Fromm later mused upon the significance of Schweitzer's idea:
"Schweitzer spoke the word, the key word for [our] survival," Fromm wrote, "the word life. He could have spoken of love, of truth, or justice, values which formed the basis of his existence, By speaking of the "reverence of life" as the principle which ought to govern all human action, as the cornerstone of ethics, he challenged, criticized, denounced a society which had ceased to respect life, for which things rank higher than life..."
In so many ways, in so many instances, the words of Albert Schweitzer were prophetic-- years ahead of his times (and probably, too, of ours). In 1924, when Schweitzer wrote that his was a time of universal spiritual decadence, he seemed so out of step to many, overly pessimistic and hyper-critical. Certainly, the bloodletting of the First World War had seemed a terrible waste, but the 1920s seemed a time of great energy and prosperity, and in 1928, the nations of the world even signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which forever "outlawed" the use of war in settling international disputes. Ha! The ink on the pact was barely dry when Japan invaded Manchuria, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and worldwide Great Depression shattered so many other illusions as well.
In some ways, to return to the life and work of Albert Schweitzer is like going back to a different age. But Schweitzer also helped to establish the ethic and set the tone which opened many of the possibilities so freedom and openness our world witnesses today. So, in a different sense, looking back at Schweitzer is also like leaping forward into an new age of new possibilities and new insights.
Schweitzer was a radical-- in religion, music, philosophy, ethics-- in the sense that in all of these fields, he sought to return to the roots, return to the most basic, more profound, deepest instinct and spirit. But Schweitzer also understood that one who returned to the roots of something must also-- based upon the experience-- point human endeavor forward, toward the future. He was a living exemplar of command of Jesus that in order to find one's life, one must surrender it. He was a man whose life was rich in mystical experience and wonder. But he was also a dedicated thinker, a committed rationalist, who believed that deeply engaged human thought-- human reason-- were the surest, safest ways to a living and helpful faith. He was also a mystic whose sense of spirituality was undergirded by a deep and abiding sense of interpersonal ethics and social responsibility. In Africa, they called Schweitzer "the man with talking hands": He was a man who lived his faith; who lived his credo, as he healed and cured and built his own hospital.
When, in the late 1950s, Rachel Carson wrote her great work Silent Spring-- the first trumpet in the battle for ecological awareness-- she dedicated it to Dr. Albert Schweitzer. In so doing, she quoted his profound and frightening words:
"Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He shall end by destroying the earth."
In 1948, in his interview with Schweitzer in his book Inside Africa, the noted journalist John Gunther could make light of Schweitzer's worry about the use of DDT and other insecticides, and deride as "quaint" and "picturesque" the doctor's insistence on the interdependence of all living creatures. Today, in the light of Love Canal and Times Beach and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Bhopal and the Exxon Valdeez [The list of ecological disasters of our time goes on and on, doesn't it?], we no longer take the old doctor's warning quite as lightly. We ponder his words deeply: "[We] have lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. [We] shall end by destroying the earth." And we pray that we are not too late. For if we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves as well.
But Schweitzer was no bleak prophet of doom and gloom. He was also a man of deep love and mercy and gentleness. Perhaps if we come, at last, to listen to some of the words of this gentle prophet of our century, we will be able to stop stumbling through this Atomic Age, and ponder where we are going, what we are doing, and reflect upon how we can become agents who regenerate the face of our Mother Earth and show proper and true reverence for the great gift of life.
In so many ways, he was a man way ahead of the times in which he lived:
Some were shocked to find that there were no flush toilets at Schweitzer's jungle hospital at Lambarene. Schweitzer responded by saying that he wasn't going to be the first to pollute the Ogowe River. In 1950, he was derided as naive. Within a generation, he would be applauded for his insight.
Others laughed at the "eccentric" old man who changed the architectural plans for a building in order to save a single tree. In the light of the wholescale destruction of the world's rainforests in our own time, few would be as likely to laugh at Schweitzer today.
But Schweitzer's call for interdependence went even further-- beyond the ecosystem-- to engage politics and human society as well. In his last years, Schweitzer became an outspoken opponent of nuclear testing. Growing up in the province of Alsace-- torn from France and incorporated into Germany only five years before Schweitzer's birth-- he sensed the evils of excessive nationalism, and declared himself an "internationalist" at an early age. His interment as a French prisoner of war led to Schweitzer's own dark night of the soul between 1917 and 1924. The accidental death of his mother beneath the galloping feet of German cavalry troops only confirmed his abhorrence of nationalism and warfare.
Schweitzer understood that the deepest and most authentic change came not through institutions and governments, but through transformation and conversion in each individual human heart and mind. To many of the people-- especially young people-- who wrote him about coming to work at Lambarene, Schweitzer would reply: "Every [person] must find his own Lambarene; you do not need to come here." His message was clear: find that Lambarene near where you are, and make it flower. Make your ideals come alive where you are, right now.
For Schweitzer, Lambarene had become his place of service: the place where he demonstrate to the world that even the most demanding values could be lived, in practice-- that one's ethical code and way of life could be so interwoven that it would be impossible to separate one from the other.
None of this is to say that he was perfect. Schweitzer was a living saint, perhaps. But he was an intensely human and practical (and fallible) saint at that. He was aware of the conflict that sometimes existed between the ideal of Reverence for Life and the demands of practical living.
Once, a reporter asked him if he would save even the lives of the microbes and parasites in one of his patients. "No," Schweitzer responded. "[I do not save them.] But I respect them."
Throughout his life, the idealist stood in tension with the practical-- and Schweitzer himself recognized that this tension existed. When his pet boar grew wild and became a chicken thief, Schweitzer had the boar killed. Never wasteful of anything, he had the meat smoked, and served to guests as bacon.
Schweitzer abhorred war, but he was not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. He believed that sometimes violence-- even killing, were necessary. But they were not to be done thoughtlessly, without regard to their consequences. Thus, he approved the labor of a farmer who mowed down a thousand flowers in order to set up grazing land for his cows, yet would rebuke the same farmer for thoughtlessly picking a single flower on his way back home.
Schweitzer also knew that his work had consequences, and that his ideals and actions would reverberate far beyond Lambarene. "Example is not the main thing in influencing others," he once wrote. "It is the onlything." But he was also a man who walked humbly with his God, who refused to let others idolize him. Once, he asked his publisher to redesign the over of one of his books, because it contained a reference to Schweitzer as "the greatest man on earth". That would not do, Schweitzer said, he was really no "better" than any others...
When speaking at a university in Scotland, an anxious host asked him, "How shall I introduce you, Dr. Schweitzer?" To which Schweitzer replied: "Well, point to me and say, 'You see that fellow over there that looks like a shaggy collie? That's Albert Schweitzer.'"
Schweitzer was no demi-god, certainly, and he knew it. But he was a man who made his philosophy come alive-- sometimes in exciting, unexpected, playful ways. One evening, reporters at the hospital kept pestering him with questions, right into the dinner hour. Eventually, Schweitzer reached the limits of his patience and said, "We have been talking [all this time] about reverence for life. I, too, am life. Dinner is waiting. Please excuse me."
They were those who criticized him-- perhaps rightfully so at times. Many people of his own day spoke of his aloofness; his impatience with the people around him; his stubbornness and fits of pique.
Schweitzer was also a man of his own times, and those are not our times in many important ways. The people of the nations of Africa no longer look as kindly upon condescending and paternalistic white men like Schweitzer. Many of Schweitzer's ideas about Africa and her people would, no doubt, be condemned as racist and colonialist under similar circumstances today.
But there are many aspects of the life and thought of Albert Schweitzer which continue to speak to our world today. We need his wisdom now more than ever. In some critical ways, many of Schweitzer's ideas are more "relevant" now than when he formulated them-- fifty, or sixty, or even seventy years ago. (In the sweep of human civilization, of course, even seventy year is not, really, a very long time. On the scale of human history, some of us are of the same generation as he was; many of us are only one generation removed; none of us, I think, more than two. That's not a long time, as far as history is concerned.)
Schweitzer looked out at his world, and saw a culture which had succumbed to mass thinking and feeling-- and so do we.
He feared a society where central authority (and not individual conscience) would become both the source and arbiter of truth-- and so do we.
He witnessed people around him losing confidence in their own powers of reason and judgment-- despairing or heir power to solve the problems their world faced-- and so do we.
And he saw a world civilization which seemed to have lost its sense of spiritual rootedness. He saw a society, too, which was growing cold and impersonal-- which instead of practicing an ethic of Reverence for Life practiced instead a shallow ethic of making money and material accumulation-- and so do we.
Schweitzer identified these manifestations of "spiritual decadence" way back in 1924. Maybe more and more of us are seeing them all around us, in our own time, with our own eyes. Schweitzer was ahead of his time, in so many ways. Perhaps he is still ahead of our time, too. But there are signs, at least, that the times-- the rest of us-- may be catching up with him. So we can at least hope, and so we can at least pray--
--that we can learn the ethic of Reverence for Life-- and live it-- before it is too late.