Dr. Schweitzer’s Commitment to Love and Service Contrary to Social Expectations and Pressures

When speaking of disobedience, the law that would be an impedance to the pursuit of Truth and Justice need not be formally recognized as the written law of society or of some other socially recognized authority.  Sometimes that law is unwritten: an expectation of society, family, the church, of professioin or colleagues. Albert Schweitzer (1875 –1965) is an example of such disobedience.  He will also provide for us a bridge from our discussion of Christianity as a way of life and, more particularly, as it relates to civil disobedience, to modern theology.

In his book, Out of My Life and Thought, Schweitzer wrote,

As early as my first year at the university I had begun to feel misgivings about the opinion that mankind is constantly developing in the direction of progress.  My impression was that the fire of its ideals was burning low without anyone noticing it or troubling about it.  On a number of occasions I had to acknowledge that public opinion did not reject with indignation inhumane ideas which were publicly disseminated, but accepted them, and that it approved of, as opportune, inhumane courses of action taken by governments and nations.

From a number of signs I had to infer the growth of a peculiar intellectual and spiritual fatigue in this generation which is so proud of what it has accomplished.

Elsewhere Schweitzer noted further of the decline of Western Civilization in its retreat from Natural Law and from ethical standards of living:

The ideals of true civilization had become powerless because the idealistic attitude toward life in which they are rooted had gradually been lost to us.  All events that occur within nations and within mankind can be traced to spiritual causes contained in the prevailing attitude toward life.

. . . Only a humanity which is striving after ethical ends can in full measure share in blessings brought by material progress . . .

Schweitzer’s observation of society at the turn of the Nineteenth Century remains true today, but it is intensified.  To the degree that a liberal education still exists, our young read the old idealistic philosophers and theologians.  They read with enthusiasm so-called humanists who saw the possibility for growth – the becoming of which Fromm spoke.  With the excitement of discovery, they think, “How fresh! How exciting!  This is a principle that can illuminate the world!”  But when studies are done, the student is told by the practical world of business and government to put aside those ideals: “Welcome to the real world!”  The message, to the degree that these ideals are recognized at all, is that they were good for their time, but the world has changed.  Such ideas are not now practical!

Schweitzer noted the established society’s lack of vision, its desire to use what it had acquired, to hold onto it and by that grasp to wring from it its vital breath.  His civil disobedience was disobedience to social values, mores and expectations.

Schweitzer met early success as a prominent European organist of world-renown, and as a prominent theologian, minister, and professor.  Having had success in the first thirty years of his life, he decided to give the last years of his life in service to the dispossessed of the world, those of equatorial Africa.  He decided that to do so he must give up that which had proven successful for him, for a new career, as a doctor to Africa: to share in and to help alleviate the natives’ pain.

Schweitzer’s friends and family reacted in horror when he announced his intentions.   “I was a man, they said, who was burying the talent entrusted to him and wanted to trade with false currency.” Widor, the great French organist, composer, and Schweitzer’s teacher, told him he was being like a general who wanted to go into the firing line with a rifle.

A lady who was filled with the modern spirit proved to me that I could do much more by lecturing on behalf of medical help for natives than I could by the action I contemplated.  That saying from Guethe’s Faust (‘In the beginning was the Deed’) was out of date, she said.  Today propaganda was the mother of happenings.

Schweitzer was surprised that Christians read in the New Testament of the power of love preached by Jesus, but that they failed to see the wisdom of that love “sweeping a man into a new course of life.”

I had assumed as a matter of course that familiarity with the sayings of Jesus would produce a much better appreciation of what to popular logic is non-rational, than my own case allowed me to assert.

Schweitzer noted that several times his response to the call of obedience was called conceit.  The critics thought there must be something egotistical about it, some personal defect, and they looked for those reasons.  Schweitzer said, “I was conscious that every start upon an untrodden path is a venture which only in unusual circumstances looks sensible and likely to be successful.”

Consistent with Satyagraha as proclaimed by Mahatma Gandhi, Schweitzer concluded,  “Because I have confidence in the power of Truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.”

 

Generally, Schweitzer is known for his contributions to three different areas of society, the arts, and religion: 1.  In music: he was known throughout Europe as a great organist of his day, and as an authority on Bach; 2. He was known as any theologian and minister;  3. He was known as a medical doctor for his service in Africa, alleviating the marks of pain.  In matters of theology,  Schweitzer is perhaps best known for his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. We will revisit Schweitzer in the next section concerning modern theology.

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