Monday, June 8, 2009

Albert Schweitzer and “Reverence for Life”

I have been reading “Out of My Life and Thought,” an autobiography by Albert Schweitzer. One thing that amazes me about Schweitzer is how little respect was given to his “thought” by my bible and theology professors at Wake Forest, Columbia, Princeton, and Vanderbilt. Sure, everyone conceded that he had been a great man, and had done a great thing with his hospital in western Africa, started in the early 1900’s. Schweitzer was an accomplished organist, biblical scholar, and then went to medical school around 30 years of age. And, he kept up his scholarly writing and organ playing even after becoming the overseer of a mission in Africa as its lead doctor for decades.

Two things have really impressed me in reading this book: Schweitzer’s explanation of why he decided to be a “jungle doctor,” and his explanation of how he came to the central conviction of his theological and ethical thought. Schweitzer said of becoming a doctor: “I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk.” He also explains how everybody who knew what a promising scholar and musician he was thought he was crazy for deciding to be a mission doctor. And, later in the book, he explains how he had begun to reflect on the erosion of modern western civilization by the turn of the century (1900)), and that his thoughts had come to full bloom while in Africa during WWI. Schweitzer was driven to diagnose the societal sickness that had resulted in loss of meaning, loss of true ideals, and warring around the world. His reflections show that he was interested in Eastern thought as well as Western. Eventually, one day while he was travelling upstream on a river in Africa to make a house call on a missionary’s wife who was real sick, it came to him: “Reverence for Life.” This was the deepest spiritual and ethical principal that allowed life to thrive in its full material and spiritual aspects. Reverence for life, all life, as he liked to say. Schweitzer puts it this way:

Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not 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 way 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. Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side.

- Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, 1933

I want to let Schweitzer explain in his own words what he means by “Reverence for Life” as the foundational conception for thinking and living.

If man affirms his will-to-live, he acts naturally and honestly. He affirms an act which has already been accomplished in his instinctive thought by repeating it in his conscious thought. The beginning of thought, a beginning which continually repeats itself, is that man does not simply accept his existence as something given, but experiences it as something unfathomably mysterious. Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live unreflectively and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to raise it to its true value. To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will-to-live.

At the same time the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own. He accepts as being good: to preserve life, to promote life, to raise to its highest value life which is capable of development; and as being evil: to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life which is capable of development. This is the absolute, fundamental principle of the moral, and it is a necessity of thought.

The great fault of all ethics hitherto has been that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relations of man to man. In reality, however, the question is what is his attitude to the world and all life that comes within his reach. A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.

-Albert Schweitzer

Earlier in the same book, Schweitzer explains his view on religions and philosophies that deny the will-to-live. He considers the Christianity of the Middle Ages and Eastern thought as world-denying spiritualities. He finds these ways of thought as unnatural and thus unspiritual. Of the detachment of other-wordly Christianity and the detachment taught in Eastern religion he says this:

Man has now to decide what his relation to his will-to-live shall be. He can deny it. But if he bids his will-to-live change into will-to-not-live, . . . he involves himself in self-contradiction. He raises to the position of his philosophy of life something unnatural, something which is in itself untrue, and which cannot be carried to completion. Indian thought, and Schopenhauer’s also, is full of inconsistencies because it cannot help making concessions time after time to the will-to-live, which persists in spite of all negation of the world, though it will not admit that the concessions are really such. Negation of the will-to-live is self-consistent only if it is really willing actually to put an end to physical existence.

-Albert Schweitzer

About this will-to-live, I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the book of Ecclesiastes which discovers this persistent will-to-live even in the midst of a depressing reflection on the fact that death comes to all.

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate man does not know. Everything before them is vanity, since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner; and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost.

Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.

So go eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10

We find this will-to-live as a surprise at times. Times when we thought we were empty of life, it has swelled within us like an invading presence, mysterious and gracious. As Schweitzer says: “as something unfathomably mysterious.”