Friday, September 14, 2007

faith or obedience

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Albert Schweitzer in the modern world. Indeed, as George Marshall and David Poling in their work Schweitzer: A Biography, observe, “He is one of the personalities of this century who has become almost a myth” (15). Before he reached thirty years of age Albert Schweitzer had doctoral degrees in Philosophy, Theology and was a concert virtuoso. He was considered by many in the world as the premier organist of his day. Also, Schweitzer is still considered an authority on the interpretation and understanding of the works of Johan Sebastian Bach. Not to mention that his book Quest of the Historical Jesus, originally published in 1906, is still a seminal work demanding the attention of NT scholars for a century and counting. All of this would be enough to concede Schweitzer a place among the giants of this last century, but his radical decision to serve on the mission field of Africa brought out a further dimension of his genius and solidifies his place among the most fascinating people of the modern world.

Schweitzer was born on January 14, 1875 in Kayersberg, Alsace—the border land between Germany and France. As a result of his rearing in Alsace Schweitzer grew up as, practically speaking, a citizen of two countries. Speaking both German and French the province Alsace was an object of political tug-of-war between the two countries since at least the Franco-Prussian War. As a result Schweitzer had strong ties to both German and French culture. Thus, Albert “learned to speak both French and German with fluency (and later wrote in both languages)” (27). Louis Schweitzer, Albert’s father, was a liberal Protestant preacher and greatly influenced his son’s future in academia and music. He grew up playing organ at his father’s church and was encouraged in his academic pursuits. Albert attended the prestigious Universities of Sorbonne in Paris and Strasbourg in Germany. Despite his many achievements at the age of thirty Schweitzer would return to school to become a medical doctor and devote his life to serving on the mission field. A decision his father was not particularly found of (75). In 1906 Schweitzer determined to go to Africa (84), interestingly the same year he published his major book on Jesus. Eventually, when Schweitzer was asked which country he considered home his response was, “I am just an old man who has lived most of his life in Africa” (27).

It seems to me that Schweitzer’s decision to go to Africa was prompted by his study of Jesus. While it is difficult to describe him as a “Missionary” in that he rarely preached or considered evangelism his task he is an example of faithfulness. Furthermore, Schweitzer, ever the product of enlightenment did not fully accept Christianity. After his many years of studying Jesus (from the schools of German liberalism) he concluded, “Christian theology had become overly complicated” (70) and in so doing lost the message of Jesus. Schweitzer believed that Jesus was wrong about his own understanding of his mission, but was correct in his actions to the world. Unsure about the reliability of the Gospels and the teaching of the Church Schweitzer found his ethics in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7) and the actions of Jesus. However, rather than spend his life in a library making arguments about Jesus he said, “I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in terms of the life I lived and what I did” (72). If only I would, like Schweitzer, make my life my argument.

Not surprisingly, Schweitzer’s friends and family did not respond well to his decision to go to Africa. “They could not conceive that he could bury his life and his talent in the jungle while there were others who could easily take the Congo assignment” (75). Yet, he was convinced that his life would be well spent serving as a medical doctor in Africa. He believed that it was worth while to follow the example of Jesus and become a servant rather than live a live of comfortable privilege. The example of Schweitzer that so pierces me is his commitment to serve, after the pattern of Jesus, in spite of the fact that he believed Jesus to be fundamentally mistaken about some important issues of eschatology and his own mission in the world. I think Jesus is right all the time and yet I so struggle to follow his example of service and humility. Schweitzer is famous for saying of Jesus, “He comes to us as one unknown.” What he meant was that Jesus, was inexplicable and yet his example commands obedience.

I find it sobering that Schweitzer was astonished at the response of Christians to his decision to go to Africa. Though committed Christians, “they were aghast that anyone would seriously respond to the words of Jesus Christ. All the days in conference, prayer and study, all the services of baptism, communion and committal, all the sermons and vespers and carols—all added up to a Jesus that for most was forever distant, beautiful and safe. It seemed frankly irrational to find a man in the twentieth century who actually felt constrained to live the words and witness of Jesus” (75). Schweitzer was far from perfect, yet his example is convicting. I pray that God would open my eyes that I might see Jesus. I also pray that God might move my heart that I might follow Jesus. Neither ought to be neglected, but for too long we as a church have condemned Schweitzer for following Jesus rather than believing him while patting Christians on the back for confessing faith but finding their faith is in a Jesus who is just like them. May the Church have the courage to follow the Jesus who comes to us as one unknown and the faith to trust him as Lord and Savior.


Michael DeFazio said...

Great post, bro! I found it informative and moving. Just out of curiosity, what did Schweitzer see as his primary task in Africa (if not evangelism, etc)? How would he have (or did he) explain his reasons for going and purposes once he got there. I don't know much about him, and am just wondering.

Unknown said...

From what I gather from the biography, he went to Africa for two reasons. (1) He went because he believed the example of Jesus was correct. (2) He felt an obligation to serve. I don't think the biography explained why very well, but he felt some burden to serve. The biography was pretty good, though the authors had a humanistic agenda.

As far as his task while there. He just wanted to help people. Later, he developed his thinking into the idea of "Reverence for Life." He thought all life ought to be respected. He would help people indiscriminately. Even when WWII was going on near him he operated on soldiers from both sides. At one point, the island where his hospital sits became a haven where troops from opposing armies would come and play cards at night before going back to war in the day time.