Reconsidering Albert Schweitzer

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 8, 1975, pp. 874-877. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Once in Africa, Schweitzer gradually came to understand what well may be the most important mistake made by the Europeans (and Americans) since the rise of Western civilization -- namely, their pride in their superindustrialized "mastery" over the forces of Nature, a much-vaunted control which is leading to the destruction of our biosphere.

The hundredth anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s birth has been marked by observances commemorating his contributions to medicine, music, theology and world peace. Perhaps the most notable of these celebrations were the blue-ribbon conference hosted by UNESCO in Paris and the Atlanta Symposium of the Albert Schweitzer Centenary. The latter featured performances by the Atlanta Symphony, working conferences on tropical diseases, discussions of Schweitzer’s ideas by theologians and philosophers, and associated concerts, films, panels and receptions throughout the Atlanta area, all under the leadership of a committee headed by Schweitzer’s daughter, Rhena Schweitzer Miller. Biblical scholars have also taken time to commemorate their famous colleague and his legacy in the field of New Testament research.

Voices of Praise and Scorn

These expressions of gratitude recall the immense wave of admiration which welled up toward the end of Schweitzer’s life. Scholarly tributes, flattering biographies and eulogizing photographic essays poured out. He was the recipient of an unprecedented number of international trophies, awards and honorary degrees.

As might be expected, attending this paean of international commendation were voices of criticism and scorn. Theologians on both sides of the Atlantic had long since written Schweitzer off as an intellectual lightweight who had succeeded in attracting the public eye by striking a dramatic pose: jungle doctor. Musicians had come to find his rendering of Bach dull and stodgy. Doctors visited the hospital at Lambaréné and pronounced it unbelievably filthy and undisciplined. Black African nationalists declared that Schweitzer’s 19th century missionary outlook was offensive. European radicals rejected Schweitzer’s cultural philosophy for its vagueness, and his personal example as a cop-out; he fled when the heat was on. Meanwhile, conservative Christians continued to stigmatize Schweitzer’s ethical pantheism as a betrayal of historic Christianity. In fact, Schweitzer’s declining years were accompanied by a veritable cacophony of praise and blame, during which time he sought to maintain a dignified silence.

Curiously, Schweitzer’s intellectual influence, except among New Testament scholars, is still negligible. For example, contemporary theologians are just beginning to realize that Western thinking lacks any adequate concept of "Nature." It is either something that humanity "subdues" (science) or that God "created" (theology). Yet current discussions scarcely make note of Schweitzer’s perceptive observations on precisely this problem, let alone his solution to this lacuna in modern theology. Likewise, specialists in Asian religions long ago dismissed Schweitzer’s publications in that area: Indian Thought and Its Development (1935) and Christianity and the Religions of the World (1923). The books he himself thought most important -- namely, the first two volumes of his projected four-volume philosophy of culture: The Decline and Restoration of Civilization (1923) and Civilization and Ethics (1923) -- aroused little sustained interest when they first appeared, and are now gathering dust in libraries.

A Foreshadowing of the ‘70s

Despite the publication of numerous Schweitzer biographies, there still remains to be written a critical study that will locate him within the turbulent currents of social protest and religious innovation in Europe at the turn of the century. Clearly Albert Schweitzer foreshadowed many important developments of our own time:

(1) Dismissing academic theology and study of the historical Jesus as blind alleys, he insisted on the freedom to set aside traditional Christian God-talk in favor of a more poetic ethical pantheism, evocative of Asian insights and attitudes, focused on a Christian mysticism. This strange mixture has so far defied attempts to reduce it to neat categories, although one of the better recent studies places Schweitzer among the death-of-God theologians, who exhibit similar kinds of eclecticism (see Schweitzer: Prophet of Radical Theology, by Jackson Lee Ice [Westminster, 1971]).

(2) His discovery of the concept "reverence for life" is a major addition to the contemporary literature aimed at deepening our concern for the cosmic biosphere’s fragile balance. In his day, Schweitzer’s adamant refusal to kill unnecessarily any form of life, no matter how minute, was regarded as a quaint eccentricity. Today, we are finally beginning to see how our callous disregard of the biosphere may have already caused irreversible damage to the environment.

(3) Like many of our contemporaries, Schweitzer read the great Asian religious texts not as a historian only, but as one whose profound sense of the failure of Christianity led him into a genuine religious quest. In fact, the concept of "reverence for life" occurred to him at a moment when, as he later told a friend, he was meditating not upon Jesus Christ but upon the Buddha.

(4) He was completely at one with the thoroughgoing metaphysical skepticism usually associated with modern existentialism. Ridiculing the notion that modern science and/or Christian theology had "explained the universe," Schweitzer insisted upon a rigorous agnosticism:

All thinking must renounce the attempt to explain the universe. . . . What is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror. What is full of meaning is united with what is senseless. The spirit of the universe is at once creative and destructive -- it creates while it destroys and destroys while it creates, and therefore it remains to us a riddle [The Christian Century, November 28, 1934].

(5) Despite his own unconscious racism, Schweitzer was one of the few important European intellectuals of his day who unhesitatingly directed attention to the unpopular issue of Europe’s profound moral guilt in its treatment of the Asian and African colonies.

Physical misery is great everywhere out here. Are we justified in shutting our eyes and ignoring it because our European newspapers tell us nothing about it? We civilized people have been spoiled. If any one of us is ill, the doctor comes at once. . . . Ever since the world’s far-off lands were discovered, what has been the conduct of the white peoples to the coloured ones? . . . Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they have suffered at the hands of Europeans? . . . If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible [On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, p. 115].

(6) Finally, his groping efforts toward fashioning some sort of communal existence in Lambarene, dedicated to service and nonviolence toward all, still rank as one of the noblest experiments of the 20th century. Schweitzer identified and rejected an astonishing range of useless or dangerous Western habits, proprieties, expectations and customs, replacing them with more humane, more spiritual ones in Lambaréné. For example, Westerners visiting the hospital were displeased at Schweitzer’s insistence that the animals be allowed to go wherever they wanted without harm -- animals were in fact often cared for as tenderly and thoroughly as any white settler. Asians and Africans visiting the hospital seemed not at all surprised at this policy. The pictures in Erica Anderson’s beautiful volume The Schweitzer Album (Harper & Row, 1965) illustrate how strikingly Schweitzer’s village and hospital resemble a Hindu ashram with its code of gentleness and hospitality toward all life forms. But Westerners could not grasp the revolutionary idea that health-care professionals must reach out to help more than human forms of life.

These rich and diverse innovations and discoveries, many of them only now beginning to dawn on mainstream Western thought 50 years later, suggest that a thorough reappraisal of Albert Schweitzer is called for, so that we might "rediscover" him as a remarkable index to the religious breakthroughs needed in our own time to revitalize our spiritual vision.

Why Scholars Dismiss Schweitzer

But first certain obstacles to the task of reappraisal must be recognized -- obstacles in the style and content of Schweitzer’s writings. These are, in my opinion, largely responsible for the widespread dismissal of Schweitzer by contemporary scholars. First of all, there is the formidable problem of grasping the unity and consistency of his motivations. A quick survey of his publications indicates the extent of this task. Schweitzer produced two editions of a magnificent two-volume study on Johann Sebastian Bach which is still a classic, as well as a small technical treatise on organ construction. There are five or six books on New Testament subjects, including The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Ironically, it is the first edition of this book which is in wide use among English-speaking scholars, although the second edition is unquestionably more mature and important. There are several speeches on Goethe, two autobiographical books, two volumes of a projected four on a general theory of civilization, smaller tracts on atomic testing and world peace, a collection of sermons, numerous anthologies of his sayings, and a half dozen books and pamphlets on his experiences in Africa.

So diverse are his writings that those who read his contributions in one discipline hardly ever read what he wrote in other areas, and those who do rarely seek to relate Schweitzer’s concerns in one field to his efforts in another. Consequently, few have seen the essential unity and self-consistency of his whole life. To avoid this pitfall, one should first read his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, and the first volume of his theory of culture, The Decline and Restoration of Civilization; these two works supply the background and perspective necessary to understand all the others.

But there are other obstacles. After he left the University of Strasbourg in 1913 to go to Africa, Schweitzer increasingly felt compelled to communicate with the literate public rather than with his academic colleagues. Thus his books and speeches were couched in simple and clear terminology that nonspecialists could understand. One consequence of this otherwise laudable decision is that his later books all suffer from a vague glibness verging on banality, even while the author is discussing the most complex and profound sorts of issues. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that his writings have found scant interest among professional theologians and philosophers, for one can easily arrive at the conclusion that, despite all the fanfare, Schweitzer’s mind was shallow.

But the reader should not be deceived by appearances. As the extremely sophisticated books on Bach and on New Testament problems should warn us, Schweitzer was anything but shallow. He may have used quaint, 19th century language when writing about Life and Will and ethics and civilization (Kultur), he may have dispensed with footnotes and other academic panoply, but what he chose to write about were issues of central importance. I dare say a more informed study of his major theoretical writings will show them to be far more perceptive than they seem from a superficial reading.

Atoning for Europe’s Sins

An equally distressing obstacle is that one cannot read his many books on Lambaréné and the Africans without being continually put off by his unconscious racism, his white male paternalism, and his constant self-serving moralism. Quite apart from the fact that these attitudes were not as objectionable in his own day as they are to us today -- and that does not excuse them -- there are a couple of things that we should not forget. Schweitzer’s decision to go to Africa as a medical doctor stemmed from a powerful urge to counteract the centuries of rape, pillage, murder and hatred "Christian" Europe had perpetrated against the "colored" nations of the world. Schweitzer sensed that medicine was one of Europe’s most prized developments, and so out of his own sense of moral compulsion he decided to give up his other flourishing activities, learn medicine, and use that skill for the benefit of Africans.

Admittedly, he did not root out all of his racist bias or his condescending attitudes, but he did stress repeatedly that he wanted to have done something to atone for Europe’s sins against the Africans; his way of doing that was to offer this gift of highest value: health and freedom from pain. That decision has to count for something, if we are to arrive at a fair estimate of the man. We should not lose sight of the fact that, once he got to Lambaréné he did what he came to do, managing to devote the incredible span of 50 years to the health care of the Africans and Europeans living within a 200-mile radius of his hospital.

Second, despite his sense of European superiority, Schweitzer startled his colleagues by refusing to build a typical white European hospital. From the first, he took the unusual position that since a sick person is in a peculiarly vulnerable situation, the health-care delivery system should place as few extraneous demands upon the patient and his family as possible. He refused to insist that patients wash in strange ways, eat strange food, live in strange, white surroundings, remain isolated from their relatives, and so on. Instead, Schweitzer sought to build a hospital compound that would resemble as closely as possible the villages from which the natives had come, so that whole families could bring their sick and help care for them during convalescence.

Naturally, he incurred the shock and disgust of the other medical missionaries up and down the coast, but time and his meticulously kept medical log proved that his unusually perceptive policy was not as lunatic as it seemed at first. Indeed, even our own doctors and hospital staffs are beginning to admit that there may be much more to health care than white sheets, antiseptic corridors, white gowns and surgical schedules -- namely, the dignity of the patient and attention to the burden of stress on the family.

Overwhelmed by Africa

Whoever reads On the Edge of the Primeval Forest or the chapters in Schweitzer’s autobiography dealing with his life in Africa, as if they were the sort of glib, humorous travelogue stories one finds in National Geographic, is missing a great deal. For everywhere between the lines are signs of shock and personal crisis that began the moment he laid eyes on his African destination: the Ogowe River and, in the distance, Lambaréné. Far away now were the familiar European surroundings, and the doctor’s ego-tripping fantasies about showing Europe a true Christlike example. He was eye-to-eye with Africa -- and the jungle.

Its omnipresent reality came to obsess him more and more as he struggled daily against its unpredictable and unfamiliar powers, its seething maelstrom of submicroscopic organisms, its incredibly lush vegetation, the bizarre animals. His very first day at Lambaréné he discovered to his horror that the abandoned chicken shed given to him for his hospital was crawling with giant spiders as big as his hand and hundreds of poisonous snakes. He had to kill them all. He tells of mould destroying his precious medicines, of endless, heartbreaking epidemics of dysentery within his own hospital wards, of midnight battles with hordes of army ants marching for hours through camp destroying every living thing in their path.

On one occasion he was returning late at night from a sick call to a distant village, navigating , a small tributary of the Ogowe by canoe and hurrying to make Lambaréné before midnight. Suddenly his native paddlers froze. In the murky light of the moon, Schweitzer discerned two large bulks floating in the water ahead: two murderous, unpredictable hippos, "glaring at me," not 15 feet away. A wave of pure terror flooded over him. Somehow the paddlers slid the canoe past without mishap; as Schweitzer later wrote, it was an unforgettable incident. But each such incident was unforgettable, contributing its own indefinable pressure toward breaking down his complacent, civilized façade.

Remember, it is the ultrasensitive and accomplished musician of the Bach volumes who lies awake in the sweaty night listening to nature’s "music" -- the terrifying cries from the forest, the aimless humming of the mosquitoes in his room. And it is the brilliant young theologian, author of a world-famous book on the historical Jesus, who cannot find a way to make his patiently listening native parishioners understand that "Lord Jesus" was an actual person who lived long ago -- or even what the category "history" means in the first place. But notice how laconically he comments upon this problem:

The historical element in Christianity lies, naturally, outside their ken. The Negro lives with a general view of things which is innocent of history, and he has no means of measuring and appreciating the time-interval between Jesus and ourselves [On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, p. 103].

So much for this young theologian’s chief claim to fame -- totally lost on these Africans! In fact, most of the time Schweitzer could not communicate directly with them at all; since he did not speak any of the half-dozen dialects around Lambaréné What is a theologian to do when he cannot speak?

All of these experiences point toward a period of intense culture shock and readjustment. Add to this his despair over the outbreak of World War I just after he arrived in Lambaréné, and his subsequent incarceration, along with his wife, in a French concentration camp, and one begins to understand why Schweitzer in the period after 1913 gradually questioned and then renounced one chunk of Western "conventional wisdom" after another, choosing instead to travel by dead reckoning toward some distant continent of Promise across all sorts of uncharted, trackless wastes.

Out of this period comes his formulation of the concept "reverence for life," which still needs to be rightly interpreted. I suspect that it derives from an observation found at the end of his collection of anecdotes titled From My African Notebooks, where he expresses his amazement at the great contrasts between Europe and Africa. In Europe, in his train journey to the coast, he would pass mile after mile of neat, tidy farms and bustling, orderly villages. When he reached Africa, he was confronted by harsh, forbidding jungle; brackish water; villainous insects; rakish, haphazard villages; illness and misery. In Europe it seemed that human beings could control Nature, but as soon as he arrived in Africa, it became obvious to him that, as he put it, "man was nothing and Nature was everything." That realization gradually worked its way to the very center of Schweitzer’s being, and the sign of its victory was the momentous day on the Ogowe River when the concept of "reverence for life" flashed before him. What a terrible illusion Western society has labored under -- what colossal naivete about "conquering nature"!

The Futility of ‘Historical Jesus’ Studies

The valuable insights available to those who seek to discern the interrelatedness of his writings can readily be illustrated by turning to another of Schweitzer’s major books, probably the most well-known: The Quest of the historical Jesus. In this case, the conventional interpretation of his intentions is virtually 180 degrees away from what he meant to accomplish. The customary view among New Testament scholars and theologians is that Schweitzer set out to delineate the true picture of the historical Jesus because his predecessors and contemporaries had overlooked Jesus’ preoccupation with eschatology. Scholars have tended to ignore the final chapter of the book, assuming it to be no more than the customary pious ending to a scholarly attack on Jesus and the church.

There is little awareness that Schweitzer articulated in this conclusion his central motivation for writing the book. To be sure, Schweitzer stated it in such terse and abbreviated fashion in the first edition that few could grasp it. It was only in the second edition, which appeared six years later, that he spelled out his intentions in considerable detail. But this edition was never translated into English, although Henry Clark tried to remedy the lack by translating all the conclusion’s new material in an appendix to his book The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer (1962).

In this second conclusion, Schweitzer boldly demands a moratorium on all further efforts to achieve a scholarly, historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus; He claims that his research has proved the futility of all such attempts, and in any case, such studies are not what the modern world or Christianity needs. What is needed is a direct and unmediated faith response to the Jesus of the Scriptures! In other words, his book was not intended as a contribution to the "life of Jesus" literature (although that is what it is commonly thought to be), nor was he trying to demonstrate that he could do better what had been poorly done before -- namely, get at the truth of what Jesus was "really" like. The book is actually a summary of the miseries of the "life of Jesus" movement, concluding with a trumpet call to scholars to renounce all further attempts at defining "the historical Jesus" and to return to the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels.

From this perspective, one is amazed to discover Schweitzer’s close kinship with his predecessor Martin Kähler. But how on earth did he come to write such a book as this? For the answer, we need to look at his other writings.

A Pessimistic Turn of Mind

From his autobiography we learn what was going on in Schweitzer’s mind while he was a student at Strasbourg, busily studying New Testament research at the feet of the famed scholar Heinrich Julius Holtzmann.

As early as my first years 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. . . . On a number of occasions I had to acknowledge that public opinion... approved of as opportune inhumane courses of action taken by governments and nations. . . . 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. It seemed as if I heard its members arguing to each other that their previous hopes for the future of mankind had been pitched too high, and that it was becoming necessary to limit oneself to striving for what was attainable. The slogan . . . Realpolitik meant the approbation of a shortsighted nationalism, and compromises with forces and tendencies which had hitherto been resisted as hostile to progress. . .

It seemed to be assumed everywhere not only that we had made progress in inventions and knowledge, but also that in the intellectual and ethical spheres we lived and moved at a height which we had. never before reached. . . . My own impression was that we were not only below the level of past generations, but were in many respects only living on their achievements . . . and that not a little of this heritage was beginning to melt away in our hands. [Thus] I was always, along with my other work, inwardly occupied with another book, which I entitled Wir Epigonen [which one might translate "We Hangers-on," and which was finally titled The Decay and Restoration of Civilization] [Out of My Life and Thought, pp. 146 f.].

It was in this pessimistic and agitated frame of mind that Schweitzer decided to take a careful look at the history of research on Jesus for a course he was teaching. His discoveries appalled him. He felt impelled to spend several years meticulously examining every facet of German scholarship on Jesus to demonstrate how worthless and sterile it had become. This conclusion stands as the very first sentence in the final chapter in both editions of The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

Those who are fond of talking about "negative theology" can find their material here. There is nothing more negative than the result of [200 years of] the critical study of the "life of Jesus."

In his second edition, Schweitzer explained why this great effort had proved so fruitless. His words did not make pleasant reading.

Our age and our religion have failed to apprehend the greatness of Jesus. . . . There was simply no resonance between their worldview and his. . . . His ethical enthusiasm and the directness and power of his thought remained inaccessible to them, because they knew nothing similar to this in their own thought. They continually tried to make of this "fanatic" a contemporary man and a theologian, who would always decently observe the accepted norms of moderation and propriety. . . . [There can] be no vital fellowship between him and a generation utterly devoid of all directness and all enthusiasm for the ultimate aims of humanity. In spite of all its progress in historical perception, it really remained more foreign to him than was the rationalism of the 18th or early 19th century, which was drawn close to him by virtue of its enthusiastic faith in the advancing moral progress of mankind [from the translation by Henry Clark, Ethical Mysticism, pp. 198 f.].

Bitter words indeed! But they presage the opening dirgelike phrases of his Decline and Restoration, the "other book" that weighed upon his heart from his very first days at the university but which he did not actually begin to write until after the outbreak of World War I, in 1914:

We are living today under the sign of the downfall of civilization. . . . It is finally clear to everyone that the suicide of civilization has begun. What still remains of our civilization is no longer safe. It is still standing, indeed, because it was not exposed to the destructive pressure which overwhelmed the rest, but, like the rest, it is built upon rubble, and the next landslide will carry it away [pp. 1, 3].

Once The Quest of the Historical Jesus is set in the context of his other writings, and once we begin to discern the fundamental concerns that weighed upon Schweitzer’s mind during those years; we can only marvel at his prescience -- for we too are finally coming to realize that "the suicide of civilization" is imminent. From this vantage point alone can we grasp why Schweitzer would say, at the end of his survey of the German theologians’ quest for a historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus:

The truth is, it is not Jesus as historically known but Jesus as spiritually arisen within men who is sufficient for our time and can help it. Not the "historical Jesus" but the Spirit that goes forth from Him and in the spirits of men strives for new influence and rule, is that which overcomes the [terrible modern] world [p. 401].

How Affirm the World?

It seems evident that Schweitzer’s dominant motivation, both before as well as during his African mission, was to find a way to bring the nations of the world back from the brink of self-annihilation. And Schweitzer had grasped, from his very earliest days, the truth that all culture, all human interchange and social life, what we comprehensively call civilization, springs from nothing more substantial than our visions and dreams, our religious beliefs and convictions. When these atrophy, then civilization will inevitably collapse.

This insight explains the vehemence of his attack upon the German quest for the historical Jesus, just as it illuminates his behavior’ during his first years at Lambaréné, when he ransacked the intellectual storehouses of the world’s religions in order to find some way to conceive of an affirmation of the world that was not merely mindless hedonism, a way that could motivate a powerful urge toward human betterment, toward perfection within the structures of natural existence. His search impelled him to ask the question of all the other religious traditions (some of which were hardly prepared to entertain such a goal), as well as the great philosophical traditions of the West. But here one sees why his books on Indian and Chinese thought seem superficial and one-sided: he was writing these books not as a historian but, if you will, as a drowning man looking for something -- anything -- to grab onto. His urgency had long since driven him beyond the luxury of mere historical knowledge, just as his sense of moral despair had earlier driven him beyond the luxury of a life devoted to art and music.

Once in Africa, Schweitzer gradually came to understand what well may be the most important mistake made by the Europeans (and Americans) since the rise of Western civilization -- namely, their pride in their superindustrialized "mastery" over the forces of Nature, a much-vaunted control which is leading to the destruction of our biosphere. It was only in Africa that Schweitzer could see the enormity of what was happening, and realize, precisely because of the great contrast, how superficial Western culture had become, and therefore how dangerous.

It was from his African outpost that Schweitzer began calling out to awaken the world. And it may be, as more and more of us begin to understand this man whom so many already willingly admire, that we will be able to do some of the things his example encourages us to try.

A new Renaissance must come, and a much greater one than that in which we stepped out of the Middle Ages; a great Renaissance in which mankind discovers that the ethical is the highest truth and the highest practicality. . . . I would be a humble pioneer of this Renaissance, and throw the belief in a new humanity like a torch into our dark age [Civilization and Ethics, p. xxiii].