Fifty years ago one of the world’s most revered men died. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) once held the same moral role as did Mother Teresa in our day, and both Schweitzer and Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, she in 1979, he in 1953. Just as everyone today still recognizes the image of the seemingly frail old nun in the blue and white habit, so everyone once recognized the wiry old man in the pith helmet and walrus mustache. Schweitzer and his medical mission in sub-Saharan Africa used to be synonymous with Christian self-abnegation.
Some Catholics wondered why Schweitzer should get so much attention when journalists seemed to overlook Catholic missionaries throughout Africa. Nevertheless, Schweitzer had Catholic admirers, and in the March, 1946, issue of The Reader’s Digest, Father John A. O’Brien, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, published a tribute to Schweitzer. O’Brien described Schweitzer’s many accomplishments, any one of them enough for one lifetime. By age thirty-five, Schweitzer had made a name for himself both as a biblical scholar and as an organist; he then studied medicine and became a foreign missionary.
Schweitzer had grown up in Günsbach, Alsace, then part of the German Empire, and, being bilingual in German and French, he studied philosophy and theology at Strasbourg, Berlin, and Paris. By age twenty-four Schweitzer was a Lutheran pastor in Strasbourg, and a few years later he joined the theological faculty at the university there. In 1906 Schweitzer published The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a work still in print and still controversial.
In that book, Schweitzer examined earlier scholars’ research into the historical Jesus, and he developed a thesis that Jesus shared the view of His Jewish contemporaries that the end of the world was imminent. Schweitzer believed that Jesus never intended to found a Church and that Jesus’ great insight was that because the world’s end was not far off, He must suffer and die for His people in order to save them from the severe trials of the last days, which that generation would see (Mk 13:30).
Long before Schweitzer, this theory that Jesus gradually figured out His real purpose in life but was mistaken about the future appealed to people who wanted to see Jesus as a great moral teacher but not as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity become incarnate in a first-century Jewish man. In 1907 Pope Pius X condemned this interpretation as one of the many errors contributing to what he called a “synthesis of heresies,” Modernism. Orthodox Catholic theologians and evangelical Protestants have thus kept Schweitzer’s biblical scholarship at least at arm’s length.
Still, Schweitzer’s ingenious but erroneous writings about Jesus are only part of his story. His love for classical music led him to become an organist and establish himself as an authority on the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In addition to performing Bach’s works, in 1908 Schweitzer published a two-volume biography of Bach. After Schweitzer became a medical missionary, he would raise money for his hospital by touring Europe and the United States giving organ concerts of Bach.
Schweitzer often said that the catalyst for his career as a physician was an article he read about Christian missionaries in tropical Africa having no means of helping the natives in their medical crises. Haunted by the thought of people suffering physically even though they were being instructed spiritually, Schweitzer resolved to become a doctor and go to Africa. In the meantime, he continued his Scripture scholarship and also fell in love. The lady to whom he proposed marriage shared his desire to become a medical missionary and trained to become a nurse.
In 1913 Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène, went to Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon, where they worked for four years. The mission station and hospital they had been promised did not exist, so they began literally from the ground up. In 1917 restrictions imposed by French authorities because of the First World War changed to outright arrest, and the Schweitzers, German nationals, were sent to a detention camp in France. After the war ended in 1918, it took six years for Schweitzer to save enough money to return to his post in Lambaréné, by then in ruins.
For the next forty years he worked there, his chapel and clinic built in the native style. For the various tribes around Lambaréné, the low wooden structures with corrugated metal roofs provided a familiar setting for the doctor’s otherwise alien hymns, treatments, and operations. Schweitzer always rejected plans from well-meaning outsiders to build him sleek state-of-the-art facilities, since he saw his role as meeting the local people on their terms.
Although Schweitzer’s mission hospital was criticized for being backward and his theories about Jesus for being heterodox, he made a lasting contribution that all Christians can embrace, an ethical concept he called Reverence for Life. According to Schweitzer’s memoir, Out of My Life and Thought (1933), one day in September, 1915, while going upriver towards Lambaréné, the phrase “reverence for life” occurred to him as, amidst the water and trees and birds and hippopotamus, he suddenly saw with intense clarity the sacred value of all God’s creation.
To sum up Schweitzer’s philosophy, Father O’Brien quoted two passages from Schweitzer’s writings. One: “There is an essential sanctity of the human personality, regardless of race or color or conditions of life. If that ideal is abandoned, the intellectual man goes to pieces and that means the end of culture and even of humanity.” Two: “Only through love can we attain to communion with God.”
As O’Brien foresaw, Schweitzer’s enduring legacy remains his tenacious Christian witness of simplicity and charity. Other missionaries gave the same example, but none matched his varied gifts. Schweitzer’s widely publicized self-sacrificial love contradicted the current manifestations of human selfishness, and his commitment to transcendent musical beauty reflected the best of German culture.
Schweitzer grew up on the often disputed border between France and Germany, and shaped by that frontier, he made his missionary work a meeting point between civilizations. While serving others, his belief in having reverence for all life, and his insistence upon respecting each person as a special creation of God, stood in contrast to secular regimes, some still having admirers, whose red flags heralded streamlined modern utopias of fairness and equality and death camps.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.