Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was undoubtedly a man of many talents. Born in the German territory of Alsace-Lorraine, later to become Haut-Rhin, France, Schweitzer gained prominence as a musical scholar, organist and medical missionary in Africa.
He is remembered primarily for his work as a theologian, the cornerstone of his work being, the concept of “Reverence for Life” or Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben, a phrase which came to him on a boat trip on the Ogooué River in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).
This idea arose from his conviction that Western civilization was decaying because it had abandoned the affirmation of life as its ethical foundation.
Reverence for life
To remedy this decay, Schweitzer believed we need to look upon the world with new eyes.
To see through the eyes of reverence is to recognise the sacredness of all life on earth.
For Schweitzer, Reverence is:
- Complete and comprehensive – Love and compassion are subsumed within it.
- Not sympathy, it is empathy – It is the embracing of the needs and ambitions of all creatures, as if one’s own.
- Universal – It applies to humans, animals and even plants.
- Does ask questions of value – Every aspect of creation is the sacred outpouring of divine creativity and love.
The ethical man picks no flower, avoids walking on insects, saves drowning insects, etc. He need not feel ashamed of being laughed at for every truth is the subject of mirth until it is generally accepted. (Civilization and Ethics)
A Life of Reverence
Yet just how practical are Schweitzer’s ideas? Can they really be lived out in day to day life?
The word reverence (ehrfurcht) is not to be thought of as a doctrinal directive.
Rather it is a holistic response in which the attitude and motives of the individual are orientated towards the flourishing of life.
Reverence is no moral law, it is more like a mystical experience where one discovers and responds to one’s true and essential created nature.
Awe and Amazement
In Luke 5, Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man. In verse 26 it says:
Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today”.
Seeing the paralyzed man take up his mat and walk must have been an incredible sight. Yet can we be equally amazed and awestruck by God’s creation if we see it through the eyes of reverence?
It is children who are most commonly caught up in this sense wonder at the world.
There is something truly magical about the wide-eyed marvelling of a child visiting a forest or beach for the first time and being so fully absorbed in the moment of joy.
The Challenges of Life
Yet sadly, as time passes, life has a way dulling that sense of awe.
As we grow into adulthood, the people lost, the mistakes made, the promises broken and the ventures failed all take their toll.
Slowly a layer of hardness builds up around the heart.
A layer which ever grows harder and tougher with each blow we take.
Before we know it, a dark cloud has arisen over our mental horizon and, with a roll of the eyes and a crossing of the arms, the beauty of creation becomes grey and faded.
Schweitzer invites us out this state and to be mindful to our flesh and blood encounters with the divine, with people, with animals, indeed with all of nature.
He points us to the Christ who inspires awe and amazement.
The Christ who heals our jadedness and frustration, so that we too might “get up and walk”.
The Christ who when he says “follow me”, calls each of us to recapture our potential, wonderment and fascination in sacred creation.
How might revering creation with the childlike eyes of wonder effect our day to day life? How might it influence the products we buy or the food we eat?
Where might you go to cultivate a sense of amazement at God and His creation?
How might we employ our awe and wonderment of creation in a way that it brings healing to the world around us?
Further Food for Thought
Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34:8)
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. (Albert Schweitzer)
- Albert Schweitzer. Civilization and Ethics. Adam and Charles Black Publishers. 1949
- Andrew Linzey. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press. 1995
- Rob Bell. Rediscovering Wonder. Harperone. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dF-V_t_NSHw