Updated: Jun 7, 2021
Today in 1875, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Theologian and Missionary, Albert Schweitzer was born. We look at his remarkable life and mixed legacy in todays podcast. Slighter longer than usual because he made such an impact in so many fields in his life. Covering Bach, the Historical Jesus, Ecumenism, Colonialism and Medical Care its a fascinating and winding journey.
Schweitzer made such an impact in so many fields in his life that his legacy is very rich and difficult to portray accurately in a 5-minute podcast. He won the Peace Prize for his philosophy of "Reverence for Life" which he tried to put into practice through founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon in Central Africa. Born today on January 14th , his formative years were spent under the influence of his father, the local Lutheran-Evangelical pastor who taught him how to play music. His restless Christian faith and his passion for Bach became two of the driving forces in his life. He grew up in an exceptional environment of religious tolerance, their medieval parish church of Gunsbach was shared by the Protestant and Catholic congregations, who held their prayers in different areas at different times on Sundays. Schweitzer developed the belief that true Christianity should always work towards a unity of faith and purpose.
Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, passionate about the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. Alongside this he was excelling in his theological studies, and used these insights to interpret J. S. Bach's religious music. His 2 volume work on Bach has been translated into many different languages. After being ordained a curate and quickly becoming the Principal of a Theological College he published a book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus. This book, which established his international reputation and he became famous in the English-speaking world. The theological world has since developed a more nuanced assessment of what Schweitzer attempt to address the problem of faith and history. Josef Ratzinger, who published his multi volume Jesus of Nazareth whilst he was Pope Benedict XVI, argues that ‘real figure of the historical Jesus’ is not and cannot be identified on a historical level with ‘the divine Christ of faith’, that the historical Jesus is God acting in history. From his viewpoint nearly 100 years after Schweitzer’s ground-breaking work he warns biblical scholars from the ‘self-limitations of rational positivism’.
After this initial impact in the world of theology, towards the latter part of his life Schweitzer’s more mature theological enquiries were focused on St Paul mysticism.
In his thirties Schweitzer answered the call of The Society of the Evangelist Missions of Paris, who were looking for a physician. The committee of this missionary society was not ready to accept his offer, considering his theology to be "incorrect’ and friends and family thought he was crazy and tried to dissuade him. He undertook a three-year doctorate in medicine, during which he got married. and wrote his doctoral thesis on the Psychiatry of Jesus, defending his mental health. Now a qualified doctor, he returned to the Paris mission society. Refusing to attend a committee to inquire into his doctrine, but met each committee member personally and was at last accepted.
Through concerts and other fund-raising, he was ready to equip a small hospital in Gabon. Without doubt he achieved a lot of good, but towards the end of his life the medical world like the theological world had moved on and there was serious criticism about the quality of medical care that was given. Schweitzer betrayed a colonial and paternalistic mindset when he said 'The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.' In the context of his age, use of the word "brother" at all was an unusual expression of human solidarity between Europeans and Africans. However from a contemporary perspective there are certainly paternalistic, colonial and racist undertones to some of Schweitzer’s attitudes. To his credit he eventually emended and complicated this notion with his later statement that "The time for speaking of older and younger brothers has passed". Later he was to acknowledge the limitations of His critics would point out that he proceeded to build a hospital appropriate to the needs of junior brothers with standards of hygiene reminiscent of medical practice in the days before the germ theory of disease came into being." It is also worth noting that after three decades in Africa he continued to rely on European Nurses, and unlike some of his contemporaries neglected to train Africans as skilled workers.
Schweitzer considered his ethic of Reverence for Life, not his hospital, his most important legacy, saying that his Lambaréné Hospital was just "my own improvisation on the theme of Reverence for Life. Everyone can have their own Lambaréné". A certain ambivalence to his work may be indicated by the fact that two significant works by the BBC and Warner Brothers about his life have not been promoted and fizzled out.
The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship was founded in 1940 by Schweitzer to unite US supporters in filling the gap in support for his Hospital when his European supply lines were cut off by war, and Today helps large numbers of young Americans in health-related professional fields find or create "their own Lambaréné" It selects and supports nearly 250 new US and Africa Schweitzer Fellows each year from over 100 of the leading US schools of medicine, nursing, public health, and every other field with some relation to health (including music, law, and divinity).