Three weeks ago, I was among more than 550 people who were profoundly touched by the presentation “Words of Schweitzer and Music of Bach.” As I sat in this sanctuary, listening to the words of Albert Schweitzer, I realized that what he created in his writings on “Reverence for Life” was exactly what we needed in our own times. I began to revisit the writings of Dr. Schweitzer. Today, my sermon is more a reflection on his texts than on God’s inspired texts. I hope this helps you in your daily search to live reverently with all of life.
In his Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, Albert Schweitzer wrote:
"As far back as I can remember (before I was school age), I was saddened by the amount of misery I saw in the world around me . . . One thing that specially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery . . . It was quite incomprehensible to me . . . why in my evening prayers I should pray for human beings only. So when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me good night, I used to add a silent prayer that I had composed myself for all living creatures. It ran thus”: O, heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil and let them sleep in peace.” (Translated by C.T. Campion, 1924, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, England).
With these words, Albert Schweitzer sought to convey to the world the heart he had for all God’s creation. He once wrote, “If ours is an ethic which is only extended from man to man (human to human), we miss the rest of creation in the scope of our care.”
Out of his deep concern for all the earth and every creature great and small, Schweitzer sought to find a way of embracing an all-inclusive ethic of life. Later in life he wrote about the epiphany he had at 40 years old through which he came to form his philosophical insights concerning a reverence for all life.
"While working on my book, The Philosophy of Civilization, I recognized the fact that the central province of philosophy, into which meditation on civilization and attitude toward the world had led me, was practically unexplored land . . . I saw, indeed, the conception before me, but I could not grasp it and give it expression.
"While in this mental condition, I had to undertake a long journey on the Ogowe River in Gabon, Equatorial Africa. It was September 1915, and the only means of conveyance I could find was a small steamer. Slowly we crept upstream, laboriously feeling for the channels between sand banks. Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy.
"Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences merely to keep myself concentrating on the problem. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, Reverence for Life. The iron door (once shut) had yielded: the path through the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side-by-side! Now I knew the world view of ethical world-and-life-affirmation, together with the ideals of civilization contained in this concept, has a foundation in thought."
(From the text of “Words of Schweitzer, Music of Bach” and Out of My Life and Thoughts, translated by C.T. Campion, 1933, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, N.Y.).
But, what is “Reverence for Life?” and how does it arise in each one of us? He believed that if you want to have a clear notion about yourself and your relation to the world, you must look for your foundational belief about something. What is it that is at the core of life? While Descartes makes “thinking” the starting point as he says, “I think; so I must exist,” Schweitzer is critical of this. He believes “thinking” as being places you irretrievably on the road to the abstract. Out of this empty artificial act of thinking, there can result of course, but nothing which relates to any one of us in relation to us and the universe around us.
But, we must think. And what we focus in the midst of our thinking is “the will to live.”
"The most immediate fact of human consciousness is the assertion: I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live, and it is as ‘“will to live” in the midst of “will to live” that man conceives himself during every moment that he spends meditating on himself and the world around him."
(From A Treasury of Albert Schweitzer , edited by Thomas Kiernan, The Citadel Press, New York, NY, 1965, p. 91).
As we move out into relation to all life through our “will-to-live” encountering the “will-to-live” in the other, we experience mysterious exaltation or “pleasure” and “joy” as we meet the life forces of others. We may also experience mysterious depreciation as we encounter fear and pain in this process. The challenge is not to give into the fear but rather respond positively to the joy we encounter.
Each one of us needs to decide what our relationship will be to our own “will to live.” This is often a very existential experience and we may alter this relationship over time. But, the ultimate relationship is one in which you and I have deep and abiding reverence for “the will-to-live” in another. We need to experience that other life in our own. We need to accept that life, preserve that life, promote that life, raise that life to its highest value, believe in it just as we believe in our own life. When we see it as evil, and seek to destroy it, to injure it, to repress it then we have devalued and depreciated the “will-to-live” in the other (drawn from Ibid).
Again, Schweitzer lifts up the greatest fault he finds in ethics and ultimately in humanity is to only deal with human to human relations. The great challenge is to live our lives in relation to the great web of life. He continues:
"A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpful to all life that is in need of help. Only the universal ethic of the feeling of responsibility in an ever-widening sphere for all that lives - only that ethic can be founded in thought. In other words, the relationship of human to human is only a particular ethic that results from the universal one. The ethic of Reverence for Life, therefore, comprehends within itself everything that can be described as love, devotion, and sympathy whether in suffering, joy or effort."
Each one of us must see that we “are life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live.” In relation to one another, this places a challenge before each of us to live responsibly with the freedom we have. In the words of the old bumper sticker, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
First, we begin in relation to the persons most immediately around us. But, this ethic of “Reverence for Life” cannot end there. We must care for and live this ethic beyond the walls of our own homes, beyond the artificial boundaries of our neighborhoods, our city, our counties, our state, our nation, and our community of nations. Second, this is an ethic which is to be lived out in relation to plants, animals, and creatures great and small in our homes, communities and across the globe. It is an ethic of integrity for all creation. It is an ethic of justice for all. As a contemporary of Schweitzer’s and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
To walk away from the misery and pain of another means to weaken our own reverence for life. We injure not only the one in need, but to a certain extent, all in need. To walk away from the earth and the pain and misery of creation crying out for healthy air, water, and land injures each one of us, as well.
When we walk through the Columbus Zoo and see the shadowy signs of creatures now extinct, a “Reverence for Life” calls us to grieve personally and respond ethically to animals we can still save. When we thoughtlessly toss out trash and recyclable items, a “Reverence for Life” calls us to feel our “will to live” snuffing out the “will to live” for generations to come.
At 89 years old, a year before his death, Dr. Schweitzer’s words were published in a World Book article called, “Dr. Schweitzer speaks out.” The year was 1964. He said:
"Whereas the thoughtless modern world walks aimlessly about in ideals of knowledge, skills, and power, the goal of true and profound thought is the spiritual and ethical perfection of man. This requires a new ethical civilization that seeks peace and renounces war. Only the kind of thinking dominated by reverence for life can bring lasting peace in our world. All lesser efforts for peace must forever remain unsuccessful.
"A new renaissance must come, and it must be much greater than the one that lifted the world out of the Middle Ages. This new renaissance must help humankind to advance from the pathetic sense of reality in which it lives, toward the spirit of reverence for life. Only through a truly ethical civilization can life take on new meaning. Only through it can (humankind) be saved from destruction, from its senseless and cruel wars. It alone can bring peace in the world."
In today’s scripture, the Risen Christ calls Peter to follow him “to a place he would rather not go.” It is that place of decision which will make Peter uncomfortable and in which he will have to change how he has done things up to that point. Living this ethic, Peter’s future will be different from his past.
The same could be said for the words of Schweitzer. I believe his words are calling you and me to places of discomfort and growth. I certainly hope so. We must change gears in the way we are relating to this planet and one another. I believe Schweitzer’s ethic of “Reverence for Life” is an intellectual, spiritual, theological, rationale, just, and realistic pathway to peace with one another and with the earth and all its inhabitants.
My “will-to-live” is great. I pray that the way my “will-to-live” encounters your “will-to-live” will produce hope in our lives together and the way ours lives move out into the biosphere and the political/economic sphere of life in which we live and move and have our being in Christ. Amen.