The Wisdom of Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer was a genius. He was a profound theologian, a talented organist, a brilliant scientist, and a deeply empathetic physician. He wrote a book which changed the whole direction of biblical studies and theology (The Quest of the Historical Jesus). He was a gifted musician who wrote the definitive biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. He could have had an enviable career as a scientist and researcher focusing on the healing of the human body. He was a man with so much potential in so many different areas and could have established an awesome reputation among the sophisticates and intellectuals of Europe and lived off of his fame very comfortably basking in the admiration of others. But he shocked his friends and admirers by chucking it all and heading to Equatorial Africa to work and serve among some of the most vulnerable people on earth. When asked why he would make such a radical decision, his answer astonished his friends and critics: “Because Jesus wants me to.” I suppose Schweitzer heeded the truth of the last paragraph in his book on Jesus: 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 thou 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.

Schweitzer realized that he could never truly know Jesus through academic research, theological reasoning, or the worldly Christianity which characterized so much of Western Christianity. The only way he could know his Lord was to follow Him into the depths of suffering, despair, and hope as he found God “in the least of these” in this world. He knew that there was no substitute for discipleship, a lesson too many of us have yet to learn as we play at religion and distort its original purpose of “re-ligamenting” all the loose ends and broken pieces of our world. If we are not about compassion, justice, and reconciliation, we know nothing about the God of Jesus Christ.

I do not doubt that Schweitzer’s answer to his friends’ question was genuine, but I do suggest that there was another reason for his radical decision which is related to his commitment to follow Jesus. That reason can be found in words he wrote elsewhere in his life. Here are three quotes which explain, in part, his decision to turn his back on what so many in Europe would have been eager to embrace and to follow a path seldom traveled:

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought after and found how to serve.

At that point in life where your talent meets the needs of the world, that is where God wants you to be. 

I have pondered the wisdom of these quotes for a long time and believe they speak powerfully to our own time of disruption, emptiness, confusion, and division. We live in a society which has lost its bearings. Our blasphemous and idolatrous emphasis on individualism and greed continues to bear the most bitter of fruits in our world. The constant litany of “me, me, me and my right to do whatever I want” even if it imperils the safety and health of others is fast becoming a lament signaling the death of anything worthy in our culture. And the religious accomplices to this ungodly and self-centered approach to life reveal how invasive this paradigm is within our nation. Among most white Evangelicals, there is absolutely nothing which resembles the teachings and example of Jesus. And among many mainline Protestants, there has been a quiet but deadly embrace of the materialism and self-centered ways of a world that has gone awry. I feel sorry for young people and children today who are living in such ethically bankrupt and shallow times. What are they learning from us and the world around them? What do they see in what we do and what we choose in life as we seek to “become somebody” in a culture which is obsessed with the shallow lives of the likes of the Kardashians? What we say is not nearly as important as how we live and what we do. What example are we setting for future generations? And what eternal truths found in religion have we forgotten or chosen to ignore? 

Perhaps we could all seriously consider Schweitzer’s wisdom in the four quotes above as we reassess our own lives and contemplate what legacy we might leave for our children and their children. Is the purpose of our work to make money and to live for the weekend or prepare for retirement? Or is it to find meaning, happiness, and worthy identity in what we do with the time we have on this earth? Do we really believe that Jesus was correct when he said that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions; that we cannot serve God and money; that even if we gained the whole world and all the recognition that goes with such accomplishments and lose our true selves as children of God, we have gained nothing; that compassion is the truest test of the authenticity of our religious faith; that the criteria for the “Last Judgment” are whether we meet the needs of the “least of these” with whom Jesus identifies so deeply that when we serve them, we serve him. These words from Jesus seem totally unknown among so many who claim to be Christian in our day. They have been seduced and spiritually crippled by the self-centered materialism and loss of compassion that have been building for decades in our nation. 

What might we and the world around us become if our vocations reflected our passions and talents?

So, what might happen if we reexamined our lives and decided to spend our days doing something which will truly make us happy? What might we and the world around us become if our vocations reflected our passions and talents? What might happen if we take Jesus seriously and choose ways to serve others out of compassion and a love of justice? What might happen if we allow our talents and passions to meet the needs of the world and discover the joy of being not only where God wants us to be but where God Herself is? What if we decide to follow Jesus and trust that his way leads to life, love, and joy? And what if we demonstrate to our kids and grandkids the freedom which comes with a life well lived and worthy of our days on this earth? Instead of focusing on financial security and success, we can focus on a life which is in partnership with the Living God. Consideration of such a choice might scare the crap out of us. But let’s be honest: the current choices most American make are not worthy of our humanity, much less our identities as children of God. Authentic joy, genuine community, profound peace, and pride in the blessings our work provides the world are strangers to most who populate this country. We can do and choose better. And as we do so, we will leave a much better legacy to our children and their children. 

But then, perhaps the dominant attitude of materialism and self-centeredness is correct—that such is the only reasonable and prudent course we should take in this life. If we believe that is true, then we should cease claiming to follow Jesus. We should abandon any claim to be seeking a just and compassionate world. But once we have done that, we have abandoned the essence of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its justice.” Seek FIRST—above all else. How many of us can claim to have made that aim primary in our lives? And how many of us miss out on the greatest blessings that can come from serving others in Jesus’ name? I doubt if any of us will make the radical changes Albert Schweitzer made. But if we are serious about our faith, we must realize that when we allow our talents and passions to meet the needs of this world, there we will find God—and nowhere else. 

(I am aware that radical choices made by saints like Albert Schweitzer may not be possible for most people, especially those who struggle just to get by or survive in our world. However, “vocation” need not be the work we do to earn the money we need to support our families. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word for “calling.” Many people through volunteering, sharing their wealth, advocating for justice, and finding ways to be in solidarity with “the least of these” have life and world-changing vocations which reflect the compassionate and just alternative so central to the Christian faith and authentic discipleship. We are all called by God to become the difference this world needs. There are countless ways to fulfill that calling—a calling that joins our passions and talents to the needs of the world—a calling that can bring joy and fulfillment to so many.)

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