Translation Tony Dickinson
The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Schweitzer is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of his unconditional insistence on respect for life in all its forms.
This year the region of Alsace is commemorating, with thirty or so events, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Albert Schweitzer. Theologian, pastor, thinker, medical doctor, musicologist, the man and his work have easily passed beyond the borders of Alsace to traverse the world, via Gabon. Many people, in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, have felt the benefit of his reflection and his action, which were as much pastoral as humanitarian.
My first encounter with the “good doctor” dates from my adolescence. I had stumbled across, I don’t know how, the work by Gilbert Chesbon, It is midnight, Doctor Schweitzer. Then, a good few years later, I unearthed on the stall of a second-hand dealer a big book of photographs of the doctor of Lambaréné. You could see him by turns making his fingers play the keyboard of an organ in his native country, talking in his African village hospital to carers and patients, sailing on the river Ogooué, writing at his work-table, preaching with his back against a hut to an attentive audience, and feeding a young antelope with a baby’s bottle. This last print seemed, all in all, to contrast with the photograph alongside it, “picture of Épinal”, in a rather moving way. How could this man, entirely given to suffering children, women and men, also take an interest in the fate of animals? By a real compassion toward every form of life, such as he expressed in a sermon from which this is an extract: “I have already told you that I require something much more universal than compassion towards animals: this compassion has to grow in the soil of a universal respect before everything that is life. Otherwise this compassion remains incomplete and inconstant.” (Sermons 1898-1948) Some have not failed, however, to reduce this complicity with the animal world and the plant world to the level of childishness.
During my theological studies, I made a discovery which produced a powerful impression on me. Suddenly I entered, like an explorer, a new universe, discovering with amazement the possibility of a harmony between living beings which married thought and action to give direction and weight to everyday existence.
I discovered that, well before the creation of humanitarian associations and NGOs, Schweitzer had introduced an ethical relevance in relation to the “living being”. More than ever, I believe, his active concept of “Ehrenfurcht vor dem Leben”, or in English “respect for life” or “reverence toward life”, finds an echo in relation to thought and action in our world where so many of the deployments of technology are not producing, all in all, great advances in the area of respect for human rights and, more broadly, of the living.
“I am life which wants to live, surrounded by life which wants to live. Every day and at every hour this conviction goes with me. What is good is to support and encourage life; what is bad is to destroy life and constrain it.” (Civilisation and Ethics, éditions Alsatia, 1976)
What Schweitzer brings is an ethical proposition which goes beyond simple reflection and does not remain at the level of intention but which implies an effort, a task, a commitment. An ethic which commits to a willingness to live in respectful relationship with every life-form. It is indeed about a committed willingness in the sense that we find ourselves enrolled in a constant struggle to recognise that every form of life demands respect and reverence. If this willingness to live imposes itself increasingly on my consciousness, if it makes immediate happiness arise in me, if I apply myself to conserving this existence threatened by so many contrary winds, then I integrate, by the effort of thought, the necessity of respecting every desire to live that there is around me.
A great thinker, Dr Schweitzer shows that it is in every-day existence and in every moment that this ethic is deployed. It is not about going no further than speculation but in passing unceasingly to action. It is necessary for the human being, fruit of God’s creative evolution and indwelt by a desire to live, to recognise this same desire in every life-form, animal and vegetable.
How then is it possible in our world, where all are engaged in rivalry to preserve their life, where there are unceasing battles between living things in order to survive, to sign up to this ethic of “respect for life”? As far as Schweitzer the theologian is concerned, it seems to me that he fails to acknowledge that the human being is inhabited by a force, a dynamic which unites his thought, makes suggestions to his spirit and which it is fitting, to use the conventional language, to call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. The very same Spirit which leads us to the Gospel.
I think that Schweitzer shows us that it is not possible to enter the gospel message without at the same time and almost immediately finding there the development and the motivation of a concrete commitment to serving the life of every creature. It is not about escape from the world, of extracting oneself from it by a refusal to become involved in the questions of everyday life, in the challenges of relationships, but quite the opposite, of being there in diaconal responsibility. The words and the actions of Jesus of Nazareth are not fixed in one era but do not cease to evolve in order to reach our day. There, for me, is the fruit of the work of the Spirit.
‘”His Spirit (the Spirit of Christ) sums up everything that Christ has come to bring humanity. He travels up and down the world and seeks to bind himself to the human spirit, so as to make of each one a person who will follow up the work begun in Jesus, so that the peace and the joy that were his may spread among those who recognise themselves in him. A tiny spark is dropped into each soul” (The Spirit and the Kingdom, translated from the German by J-P Sorg, Arfuyen, Paris, Orbey 2015).
Today, I am convinced that the only ethical response to be made to so many acts of aggression towards every form of life demands that we humbly nurture “the spark” which dwells in us in order to think that every desire to live must be encouraged. That can be spread only by our efforts, while keeping a consciousness enlightened by the Spirit. Do Schweitzer’s writings still find an echo among many of our contemporaries? Is his thought considered relevant? Some are applying themselves to making known the profundity of his demanding thought which doesn’t leave matters at the level of intellectual elaboration but claims us totally, with humility, for the nonviolent struggle for reverence for all life by committed action.
“Thought which attains true profundity is humble. Its only concern is that the flame of truth which it sustains burns with the fiercest and purest flame, and not to know how far its truth penetrates.” (The great thinkers of India, ed. Payot 1936)
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