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Did Schweitzer Believe in God?

by Jackson Lee Ice

Dr. Ice is professor of religion at Florida State University, Tallahassee. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 7, 1976, pp. 332-334. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


During last year’s Albert Schweitzer Centennial Symposium at UNESCO in Paris, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm raised a pertinent question: "Is Schweitzer’s religious ethic of reverence for life dependent upon a belief in God?" The question is not as easy as it appears, but it is my contention that, mutatis mutandis, the ethic of reverence for life is not dependent upon a belief in God.

A 1967 journal article by Erwin R. Jacobi discusses a previously unpublished letter from Schweitzer dated three years before his death, in which Schweitzer makes the following statement:

Hence there arises the question whether the religious ethic of love is possible without the belief in an ethical God and World Sovereign, or knowledge of this God, which can be replaced by a belief in Him. Here I dare say that the ethical religion of love can exist without the belief in a world ruling divine personality which corresponds to such an ethical religion ["Fromm Sein. Gedanken zu einem Brief von Albert Schweitzer," Divine Light, Vol. 2, No. i, June 1967].

I

According to Schweitzer’s own words, then, the ethic of reverence for life is not founded upon a belief in a personal God. This conclusion may seem strange to those who regard Schweitzer as one of the 20th century’s greatest religious figures. It is disconcerting enough to realize how theologically unorthodox -- indeed, revolutionary -- he was. He denied, for instance, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement, the miracles, and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. But it may be even more unnerving for some to find that the concept of a Supreme Being apparently does not play a central role in his religious philosophy, at least not in his ethical teachings.

But the answer, as well as the question, contains implications requiring further clarification. First, note the particular terms Schweitzer used: he said that the religion of love is not dependent upon belief in a "divine personality" (Gottespersönlichkeit) or "World Sovereign" (Weltherrscher). The more essential and intriguing question is whether Schweitzer believed in God at all! This must be answered first; for the answer illuminates the secondary issue of the apparent nontheistic basis of his ethic.

For the general reader, the primary question usually comes later, if at all -- partly because of Schweitzer’s "halo image" and his prepossessing style of writing. His ideas are so unpretentiously expressed in familiar language interwoven with biblical phraseology, God-talk and personal spiritual insights that the agnostic, radical outcroppings of his religious viewpoint are ignored. Most readers assume Schweitzer’s belief in God without debate. But with a more critical examination of the deeper structures of his thought, the issue inevitably arises and demands analysis.

Though the question "Did Schweitzer believe in God?" is legitimate, it usually anticipates a Yes-or-No answer which is difficult to give. An attempt to point to the multifunctional meanings of the term "God" is often taken as a dodge. But to ask, "Do you believe in God?" expecting a simple categorical Yes or No is naïve. To continue to draw up -- as many of our denominational leaders do -- battle lines with humanists on one side and theists on the other is specious and still reflects the popular, but otiose, approach to the whole debate. One of the invaluable consequences of the contemporary theological furor, particularly the death-of-God debate, has been the resolve to root out this jejune approach to the God-problem and to search for alternative categories of reflection which match the complexity of the problem.

II

Still the question must be asked. In regard to Schweitzer, the reply has to be Yes and No. If by God is meant the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, who redeems his children by the atonement and sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ according to the predestined plan of salvation revealed in the Bible and ascribed to by the Christian churches, then the answer obviously is No -- Schweitzer does not believe in God.

If by God is meant a Being, supremely conscious, all-knowing, all-powerful, completely self-sufficient, who determines all things by divine moral purpose, the answer is again No. If by God is meant the Ground of Being, the Essence of Being, the Absolute, the Weltgeist, and all similar expressions, the reply is still No, for according to Schweitzer such terms "denote nothing actual, but something conceived in abstractions which for that reason is also absolutely meaningless" (The Philosophy of Civilization [Macmillan, 1949], p. 304).

If by God is meant a conceptual construct used within a certain linguistic frame of reference for the purpose of arousing religious emotions and ethical sentiments, in solemn assemblies, the answer must again be No. Schweitzer gives little indication that he believes that analyzing the function of a term linguistically or sociologically solves the problem of the reality or unreality of God.

What, then, does he mean by God? Schweitzer’s disenchantment with theological conceptions of God and his passionate belief in the reality of human spirituality involved him in a quest that inevitably forced his intellectual and moral concerns to move beyond traditional theism. "It is my fate and my destiny . - . to ponder on the question of how much ethics and religion can be comprised in a Weltanschauung which dares to be inconclusive" (Albert Schweitzer, by Oskar Kraus [Adams & Charles Black, Ltd., 1944], p. 43).

What does he mean by "inconclusive"? He means that he is forced to ponder to what extent humanity can continue to be religious in a universe devoid of pre-established meaning, moral purpose and certainty; he means a religious outlook that must continue to function within the impossibility of using God any longer as a religious a priori, filler of our intellectual gaps, or solver of all problems; he means a world view that must remain painfully honest and open-ended yet at the same time will be optimistic, ethical and life-affirming.

Schweitzer has his own variation on the death-of-God theme. It comes in the form of an ethical mysticism or "ethical pantheism" which he describes as "the inevitable synthesis of theism and pantheism." No mention is made of a Supreme Being in his own religious philosophy, only of a mysterious life-force or universal will-to-live which appears as a creative-destructive force in the world around us and as a will-to-self-realization-and-love within us. Everything is in the grasp of this life-force, this "infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging will in which all Being is grounded" (Kultur und Ethik [Biederstein Verlag, 1948], p. 211).

For several reasons he does not speak of "God" when referring to the "universal will": first, because he arrives at knowledge of the will-to-live through reason and not by revelation or faith; second, because the life-force is not a thing or a person; and finally, because the usual connotations associated with the term "God" misrepresent what he is trying to say. "It has always been my practice," says Schweitzer, "not to say anything when speaking as a philosopher that goes beyond the absolutely logical exercise of thought. That is why I never speak of ‘God’ in philosophy, but only of ‘universal will-to-live’ which meets me in a twofold way: as creative will outside me, and ethical will within me" (Kraus, p. 42).

If Schweitzer speaks of God at all, he does so in human, spiritual terms rather than theological, metaphysical terms. In his typical humanistic, ethicomystical way of thinking, he points to a belief in the "evolution of human spirituality" where "the higher this development in the individual is, the greater his awareness’ of God" (Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene, by Norman Cousins [Harper & Brothers, 1960], pp. 190-191).

III

Now the answer to the original question raised by Erich Fromm can be modified for accuracy’s sake. Because of the multiple meanings which accrue to the protosymbol "God" and because of Schweitzer’s own particular reference to the term, it can be answered both in the affirmative and the negative. This is not equivocation. If one accepts the word God with its usual conventional connotations and traditional meanings, then the answer is No, as Schweitzer himself made clear. He found that the facts do not support such an anthropomorphic or optimistic postulate. On the other hand, if one understands his concept of ethical pantheism -- which holds that the ethico-rational, or spiritual, proclivities of humanity are potentially grounded in, and part of, a universal telos or will -- then the answer is Yes: his ethical philosophy of reverence for life is dependent, in theory as well as in practice, upon a belief in God.

The phrase "reverence for life" is holophrastic; it means and represents many things for Schweitzer. It does not serve merely as an admonition or moral maxim as to what one ought to do. It represents more than just his ethic; it includes his world view; it is the heart of his religious philosophy. That is why he could say, "and this ethic, profound, universal, has the significance of a religion. It is religion" (Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind, by George Seaver [Harper & Brothers, 1947] p. 342). Giving ontological status to the term "life" or "will-to-live," the phrase "reverence for life" becomes a capsulized expression for Schweitzer’s "mysticism of reality" or "ethical pantheism." It signifies a reverence or veneration for the Universal Will or Reality in which all life and all things are grounded. Through this attitude, according to Schweitzer, humanity seeks to become united with the Cosmic Will, and thus strives to overcome the estrangement (Selbstentzweiung) which mysteriously and painfully exists between the blind, groping, truculent forms of energy in the world at large and the purposive, morally concerned form, or will-to-love, which humanity discovers in itself.

IV

This is Schweitzer’s concept of God. It may be a puzzling one -- this strange mixture of theism and pantheism -- but it functions as a God-concept for him and forms the basis of his thought. For many it will fall short of a true theistic belief, and appear too meager to serve as a firm foundation for a religious philosophy of life.

Perhaps the reader can now appreciate the complexities involved in arriving at a univocal answer where Schweitzer’s belief in God is concerned -- or for that matter, the belief of any innovative thinker in the field who has moved far beyond the strictures of traditional theism which still blind us to alternative modes of insight and expression.

Most people, I find, demand a finished edifice of faith before they enter with confidence to pray. Certainly the universe has more to offer by way of guaranteeing their traditional beliefs than what Schweitzer proffers, they contend. But according to Schweitzer, if we are honest -- and our situation demands nothing less -- it does not. He openly admits that his religious philosophy is incomplete, but he insists that it is enough.

The surmisings and the longings of all deep religiousness are contained in the ethics of reverence for life. This religiousness, however, does not build up for itself a complete philosophy, but resigns itself to leave the cathedral by necessity unfinished It is only able to finish the choir. Yet in this, true piety celebrates a living and continuous divine service [Kultur und Ethik, pp. 243-244].

In an age such as ours in which the old theistic idols have died or have been broken, it might be more than important that such pioneers as Schweitzer have had the insight and courage to accept the challenge to take the next steps toward the light and show us, in deed as well as in thought, how to "sing the Lord’s song in a strange land."


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