Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer : biography

14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965

Schweitzer notes that St. Paul apparently believed in the immediacy of the "Second Coming of Jesus": "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4.17). St Paul spoke of the ‘last times’: "Brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none" (1 Corinthians 7:29); "God … Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son" (Hebrews 1:2). Similarly in St Peter: "Christ .. Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you" (1 Peter 1:20), and "But the end of all things is at hand" (1 Peter 4:7). "Surely I come quickly" (Revelation 22:20). (Again, note N.T. Wright, ibid.)

Schweitzer writes that modern Christians of many kinds deliberately ignore the urgent message (so powerfully proclaimed by Jesus during the 1st century) of an imminent end of the world. Each new generation hopes to be the one to see the world destroyed, another world coming, and the saints governing a new earth. Schweitzer concludes that the 1st century theology, originating in the lifetimes of those who first followed Jesus, is both incompatible with, and far removed from, those beliefs later made official by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE.

Aftermath

The publication of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, effectively put a stop for decades to work on the Historical Jesus as a sub-discipline of New Testament studies. This work resumed however with the development of the so-called "Second Quest", among whose notable exponents was Rudolf Bultmann’s student Ernst Käsemann.

Schweitzer established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar with other theological studies including The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911); and his two studies of the apostle Paul, Paul and his Interpreters, and the more complete The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). This examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and (through this) the message of the New Testament.

Reverence for life

The keynote of Schweitzer’s personal philosophy (which he considered to be his greatest contribution to mankind) was the idea of Reverence for Life ("Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben"). He thought that Western civilization was decaying because it had abandoned affirmation of life as its ethical foundation.

In the Preface to Civilization and Ethics (1923) he argued that Western philosophy from Descartes to Kant had set out to explain the objective world expecting that humanity would be found to have a special meaning within it. But no such meaning was found, and the rational, life-affirmating optimism of the Age of Enlightenment began to evaporate. A rift opened between this world-view, as material knowledge, and the life-view, understood as Will, expressed in the pessimist philosophies from Schopenhauer onward. Scientific materialism (advanced by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin) portrayed an objective world process devoid of ethics, entirely an expression of the will-to-live.

Schweitzer wrote: "True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: ‘I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live’."Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p.253: reprinted as A. Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization, (Prometheus Books, Buffalo 1987), Chapter 26. In nature one form of life must always prey upon another. However, human consciousness holds an awareness of, and sympathy for, the will of other beings to live. An ethical human strives to escape from this contradiction so far as possible.

Though we cannot perfect the endeavour we should strive for it: the will-to-live constantly renews itself, for it is both an evolutionary necessity and a spiritual phenomenon. Life and love are rooted in this same principle, in a personal spiritual relationship to the universe. Ethics themselves proceed from the need to respect the wish of other beings to exist as one does towards oneself. Even so, Schweitzer found many instances in world religions and philosophies in which the principle was denied, not least in the European Middle Ages, and in the Indian Brahminic philosophy.