I was a child when Albert Schweitzer died. I remember sitting in the kitchen while my Mom puttered around the stove and her sorrowful reaction when the news came over the radio. “Who was Albert Schweitzer?” I asked. I don’t remember what Mom said, other than that he was a very good and exceptional man.
Albert Schweitzer is all but forgotten today. But Mom was right: he was a very good and exceptional man. A concert-level organist primed for a lucrative career in music, he instead devoted himself to Protestant theology — and when his studies led him to the conclusion that the best way to live a Christian life is not to proclaim Christian ideals but to practice them, he enrolled in medical school (at age 30), became a doctor, and moved to Lambaréné, Gabon, where he devoted the rest of his life to treating the destitute.
We live in a time when any white Christian male’s motive for going to Africa is suspect. It’s probably true that Schweitzer harbored racist and colonialist views. But he saw going to Africa as atonement for those evils:
The name of Jesus has become a curse, and our Christianity — yours and mine — has become a falsehood and a disgrace, if the crimes are not atoned for in the very place where they were instigated. For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus’ name, someone must step in to help in Jesus’ name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless.
I’m not religious, but I’ve always felt a kinship with certain Catholics and Protestants. Studying Schweitzer’s theology has helped me understand why. They’re unfailingly people who neither advertise their faith, nor proselytize, nor embrace the authoritarianism of their church, but instead exhibit Schweitzer’s key sensibility: reverence for life. They’re kind and giving even to those deemed least worthy of kindness and generosity.
They’re good to animals, too.
Jesus was no authoritarian, nor was his philosophy authoritarian. Yet we’re beset by a “Christian” sensibility that’s outrageously authoritarian, as Schweitzer clearly saw. My holiday wish is strength, perseverance, and good fortune to all you non-authoritarian Catholics and Protestants out there. I hope you know how wonderful you are!