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"What is significant about Schweitzer's philosophy is that
it is the human being's purpose to give life meaning, to bring ethics into
existence"









Home » Lives of Spiritual Unfolding » Albert Schweitzer

Reverence for Life

Many of his friends and relatives felt that he was foolish to give up his many fine possibilities as professor, minister, writer, and musician. They argued that he could actually do more for the Africans by staying in Europe, speaking about their plight and soliciting donations for their aid. But his decision to go to the African jungle was based on much deeper reasons.

Schweitzer actually had serious doubts about Christian theology, especially its historical inconsistencies. He also felt that Christianity had become too complicated and abstract. Because of these doubts, he felt that he could no longer continue in his role of minister and theologian. Instead, he needed to live the spiritual ideas about which he had been teaching and writing, to translate them into a life of renouncement. He yearned to express his life in a simple way that was consistent with what he believed to be the essential teaching of Jesus: to love.

As he was completing his studies and making plans for the African venture, Albert married Helene Bresslau, the daughter of one of his professors and herself a distinguished scholar. She went with him to found the hospital at Lambarene and worked with him as a nurse. Ill health, however, prevented Helene from staying in Africa. In spite of long periods of separation, she remained his beloved and faithful companion throughout the African work. She accompanied him by raising their daughter, Rhena, in Europe and by traveling and speaking throughout Europe and America to raise funds and gather volunteers for the hospital. Schweitzer dedicated the rest of his life to working as a doctor in Africa, although he too battled illness: bouts with malaria, yellow fever and leprosy. Except for a period during and after World War I, the hospital at Lambarene operated continuously. It was relocated once and eventually developed into a village with several buildings, some containing medical wards, including ones for patients suffering from leprosy and mental illness. Other buildings were devoted to housing the hospital staff and families and friends of the patients. The healthy members of this community were expected to work for the benefit of those who were sick.

Schweitzer designed the hospital to reflect the cultural habits of the Africans and to provide medical services in a comfortable and familiar environment. A sterile modern hospital would not have been appropriate. He became an expert in architecture, designing buildings that could withstand the harsh weather of the tropics, and he made important research contributions in tropical medicine.

In spite of his decision to devote his life to the work in Africa, Schweitzer maintained strong ties to Europe and the rest of the world. He left Africa periodically to visit his wife and daughter and to give speeches and organ recitals. He carried on an enormous correspondence with his friends and admirers from around the world, attempting to write personally whenever possible. Also, he continued to write prolifically on many subjects, including comparisons of the thinking and philosophies of Eastern and Western cultures, often expressing his grave concern for humanity's destiny.

As his work in Africa progressed, Schweitzer painfully observed the disintegration of Western culture in Europe. It was difficult for him to explain to the Africans, whose culture valued community stability and personal worth, the reasons for so much bloodshed and destruction in such an advanced civilization as Europe. He felt that spiritual decadence came about because of the destruction of the individual in an ever-increasing mass society. Western culture was no longer truly life affirming. Schweitzer's response came in his ethic Reverence for Life. In his book by this title, he writes that this philosophy is based on observation that the universe is amoral, neutral.

All thinking must renounce the attempt to explain the universe. What is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror. What is full of meaning is united with what is senseless. The spirit of the universe is at once creative and destructive—it creates while it destroys, and destroys while it creates, and therefore it remains to us a riddle. And we must inevitably resign ourselves to this.

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