Rekindling the inner light
June 10, 2012 by Bill
One of my columns in the Santa Barbara NewsPress some years ago was about animal cruelty. In that column I included a quote from Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “A man is moral and ethical, only when all of life is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow man. This is the absolute principle of the moral and ethical.”
I started getting e-mails before 8:00 a.m. that Sunday morning, continuing over the next three days, all saying, in one way or another, “thank you for that column.” But what surprised me, and in a way shocked me, were many who said: “who is Albert Schweitzer?” I write this column as an answer to that question.
When Norman Cousins was a professor of medical humanities on the medical faculty of the University of California in Los Angeles, he wrote these words: “Albert Schweitzer is a spiritual immortal. Albert Schweitzer has done more to dramatize the reach of the moral man than anyone in contemporary Western civilization. Long after the hospital at Lambarene is forgotten the symbol of Schweitzer will be held high. If there is a need in America today, it is for the Schweitzers among us. We are swollen with meaningless satisfactions and dulled by petty immediacies.”
Only one word can describe his education: AWESOME. He earned four Doctorate degrees in the most difficult universities in Europe. With his Ph.D in Music he became known as one of the great Bach scholars of his time. His Doctorate in Philosophy was from the Sorbonne in Paris. He later received his Doctorate of Theology where his thesis on “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” set the bar so high in scholarship that all future books on Jesus were judged in comparison. His being a brilliant Greek scholar contributed to the profound depth of that book.
He shattered the rigid crusts of orthodox doctrines and dogmas with his biblical studies. He left in shambles the trinity…virgin birth…resurrection…and other orthodox doctrines. He wrote this: “the historical Jesus claimed none of the things that the church has claimed for him.” And again: “Jesus was drenched in Judaism and a claim to be God or a Son of God would have been utter blasphemy.” What Schweitzer did was what the “Jesus Seminar” of our day is trying to do, “to free the historical Jesus from all the trappings and fantasies created by theologians” in Schweitzer’s words.
At age 30, true to his promise to himself, he told his friends he was entering Medical school and upon graduation would spend the rest of his life in Africa helping those with no medical services available. Upon graduation he now had his fourth Doctorate, in Medicine. Over a span of fifty years he ministered to blacks in Lambarene. He wrote that he did this “because the historical Jesus moves me deeply. Jesus made no claim to being divine. But the spirit of love that comes through in the historical Jesus moves me.”
By the time he was 60, he had written 36 volumes dealing with animals, organs, music, Bach, Mysticism, ethics, civilization and Goethe whom he looked upon as his role model and muse. At age 75, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chevalier Legion of Honor, the Gold Medal of Paris and the Sonning Peace Prize of Copenhagen University.
On the one hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s death at Frankfurt, Schweitzer was invited to lecture. One of the prized books in my library are those lectures, published under the title of “Goethe – Four Studies by Albert Schweitzer.” When I reviewed that book for my Sunday Symposium here in Palm Springs, almost everyone present wanted a copy. We got them from Amazon.
Schweitzer had a wonderful sense of humor. On a train one time some students came up to him and said, “Dr. Einstein will you please give us your autograph.” He did not want to disappoint them he said, so he signed “Albert Einstein, by his friend Albert Schweitzer.”
The inner lights that have been rekindled by Schweitzer’s life include thousands. William Mellon, the heir to the Andrew Mellon fortune, with his wife, was in the jet set world of the most elite financially. He and his wife had a 150,000 acre ranch in Arizona. They had homes in the most beautiful place in the world and with their private planes and yachts their world was like a fantasy to many.
One night, he later wrote, he could not sleep, and so started walking. He said the superficial life they were living, the lack of significance, the mostly trivial, loomed before him like a vision that night. He went back to his library and pulled out a book about Albert Schweitzer. He read all night and asked his wife to come into his study. They talked for hours about doing something with their lives that had significance. They decided to follow the example of Schweitzer. And so at age 40 they entered the prestigious medical school at Tulane University. They described it as the “most demanding years of their lives.” After graduation he took money from his fortune and they went to Haiti and built their hospital in an impoverished area and went to work doing what Schweitzer did in Africa.
Several of my favorite quotes from Schweitzer are: “The beginning of all spiritual life is a fearless belief in truth, and its open confession.” “I intentionally avoid technical philosophical phraseology as mostly meaningless.” And my all time favorite and most significant to my own life and perhaps as well to yours, dear reader:
“Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being.
Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled our inner light.”