Way back in 1962, Daniel Boorstin prophetically spoke of the day when we would have people who are famous for no other reason than that they are famous. Once upon a time, some people were famous because they were extraordinary human beings – and perhaps none towers over the twentieth century so high as Albert Schweitzer. No mere vapid celebrity, Schweitzer was a man of astonishing ability, achievement, and notoriety – and his grandest accomplishment was giving up a life of fame and acclaim to serve the poorest people on earth.
Born on January 14, 1875 in a little village on the border between France and Germany, where Catholics and Protestants worshipped in the same building – something Schweitzer remembered with pride. Freedom from religious prejudice was a hallmark of his life. Brilliant in all his studies, he had a flair for the organ, although his teacher, Eugene Münich, complained that he was “the thorn in my flesh,” for he improvised new music instead of practicing what was prescribed. So great was his talent that the famous organist, Charles-Marie Widor (of the popular “Toccata”) offered to give him free lessons. A brilliant performer who crisscrossed Europe giving sellout concerts, Schweitzer was the preeminent organ scholar of his day, editing The Complete Organ Works of J.S. Bach, and writing definitive books like Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France.
Schweitzer also became a leading theologian, preaching in Strasbourg: “How wonderful to be allowed to address a congregation every Sunday about the deepest questions of life.” His lectures at the university altered the landscape of New Testament study: his Quest for the Historical Jesus is still read by seminarians today and is the reference point for scholars. Its final paragraph poetically describes Jesus’ mission – which became Schweitzer’s summons: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
This approach of Jesus, and Schweitzer’s wish to obey, his passion for absolute truth, his sense of worship, and his keen mind fostered a restlessness, a keen determination to repay life, and God, for all goodness he had enjoyed. Instead of merely talking about Christ, or lauding him from the organ bench, or trying in any other way to persuade people to be attentive to the goodness of life and the wonder of Christ’s mission, Schweitzer made a revolutionary decision: “I decided that 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.”
He had been reading about mission work in the Congo, and was moved by the desperate need among Africans for medical care. So what did Schweitzer do? He resigned his faculty position in theology, and put aside his music career, and enrolled as a medical student. The fact that he was 30, and was walking away from fame and fortune, troubled everyone; his father was devastated, his colleagues shocked. Marshall and Poling wrote, “What irritated Schweitzer more than anything else was the unexpected shallowness of so many Christian friends and acquaintances. These people were active concerned churchmen. Yet they were aghast that anyone would seriously respond to the words of Jesus Christ… He felt he had to prove his faith by living it – the only method that would, in the end redeem Christianity from its inward, ingrown journey and take it out into the world for the practice of it desired by God.”
His studies focused on tropical medicine, and he began purchasing supplies from his own funds. No mission society would pay his salary, so he simply went as a volunteer, at age 38, to Lambarene, where he established a hospital and lived most of the rest of his life. He cured, and then used his late night hours to reflect and write; his well-known “reverence for life” was first published in his Philosophy of Civilization. Over time, a new kind of fame attached to his stunning life. Albert Einstein befriended him, and wrote, “I have scarcely ever known personally a single individual, in whom goodness and the need for beauty are merged to such a degree of unity as in the case of Albert Schweitzer.” Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, Schweitzer lived on in Africa until 1965, when he read the Bible, and played his old piano, weathered by the tropical climate, and died, and was buried in a grave marked by a cross he had made with his own hands.
Here is a sampling of his wisdom: “I cannot but have reverence for all that is life. I cannot avoid compassion for everything that is called life. That is the beginning and foundation of morality.” “The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” “The most valuable knowledge we can have is to how to deal with disappointments.” “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.” “As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible but more mysterious.” “Any religion or philosophy which is not based on a respect for life is not a true religion or philosophy.” “In the hope of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet.” “Whoever is spared pain must feel himself called to help in diminishing the pain of others.” “There are no heroes of action, only heroes of renunciation and suffering.”