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Archive for December, 2017

Two Rivers, One Spirit

In the Middle Eastern wilderness of the Jordan River, in the third decade of the first century, the Holy Spirit is said to have appeared at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove. In the African wilderness of the Ogawe River, in the second decade of the twentieth century, this same Spirit, I submit, reappeared to an unorthodox follower of Jesus in the form of a herd of hippopotamuses. Despite the intervening two millennia of doctrinal dispute about the third person of the Trinity, a debate which shows no sign of abating, one thing seems clear: the Holy Spirit is attached to animals. Such is the natural segue into the subject of this essay: Albert Schweitzer’s concept of reverence for life as an inbreaking of continuing revelation.

As Schweitzer’s river barge avoided a hippo collision near his jungle hospital in equatorial Africa, the missionary doctor had an epiphany that, he believed, completed the teachings of Jesus as those teachings had completed the law and the prophets. As in its first visitation, the Spirit’s message was liberation from the world by more intimate connection to it, but now came an elaboration amid the carnage of the First World War. Confined to human society, focused solely on how people treat one another, ethical standards had withered in the raging fever of global conflict. Schweitzer had been forced to face the obvious: “The Christian ethic has never become a power in the world. It has not sunk deep into the minds of men. What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is only a beginning, full of mistakes, not full blown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.”

Suddenly, however, Schweitzer understood why traditional ethical teachings had failed to root in human hearts and minds. Ethics were not essentially rules of personal and social behavior but something of far greater scope and magnitude: “an inward relation to the world, a reverence for the mysterious will-to-live which is in all things.” Despite its awe-inspiring grandeur and intricate interconnection, nature was an enigma, “a ghastly drama of will-to-live divided against itself” in which one life form fed upon another. Yet Schweitzer grasped the significance of the fact that “in me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live. There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal. By making me think and wonder, it leads me ever upwards to the heights of reverence for life, in which we stride out beyond all knowledge of the world.”

For one in whom this reverence has taken hold, “life as such becomes sacred. If in summer he is working by lamp light, he prefers to keep the window shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table. If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm which has strayed on to it, he lifts it from the deadly stone surface and puts it on the grass.” This is not sentimentality. Schweitzer is instead envisioning a subtle, overlooked avenue of mystical experience through solidarity with all living things. “And this ethic, profound and universal, has the significance of a religion. Reverence for life is the ethics of Jesus, philosophically expressed, made cosmic in scope.” Here, Schweitzer was certain, lay the path to “liberation from the miserable obsession we call reality,” which had culminated in the realpolitik of world war.

Regardless of its sweep of vision and elemental clarity—or rather because of them—reverence for life as explained in Schweitzer’s masterwork, Philosophy of Civilization, made barely a ripple in the first half of the twentieth century. A new barbarism reigned, in which the masses were reduced to “merely raw material” from whom was expected, and who expected of themselves, nothing but “vigor in productive work.” The polymath, who by the age of thirty had earned several doctorates and authored seminal works on wide-ranging subjects from the music of Bach to the Jesus of history, found himself “a stranger amidst the intellectual life of (his) time.” Reverence for life, grounded in idealism and mysticism, could gain no traction in a new world order where historical forces were seen as fixed and irresistible, where “one fact merely followed another as a kind of natural happening.”

And there were personal as well as social impediments to living with reverence for life. It contained inherent tension and contradiction, the discomforting awareness that one unavoidably caused injury and death in the course of everyday existence by breathing microorganisms, eating meat or vegetables, or stepping on tiny insects as one walked. A sense of futility also haunted such a way of life, and Schweitzer himself gave it voice. “What is the use of it? you think. Your most strenuous efforts to prevent suffering, to ease suffering, to preserve life, are nothing compared to the anguish remaining in the world around you, the wounds you are powerless to heal.” Schweitzer was well aware that in a blizzard of pain and death, the temptation was strong and persistent to give up and “sit in the snow.”

If Schweitzer was right, however, that civilization is built not only upon material progress but even more upon ethics universally understood and experienced, then reverence for life, difficulties notwithstanding, remains for us what it was for him: “the light that shines in the darkness.” Indeed, it was this light that inspired Rachel Carson, in the second half of the twentieth century, to write Silent Spring and launch the environmental movement from her deathbed. In this movement, we hold our future in our hands, for it will either prevail and lead to a sustainable world or fail and allow our suicide by ecocide. Carson caught her own fire from Schweitzer’s words: “Man can no longer live for himself alone. We must realize that all life is valuable, and that we are united to all this life. In no other fire than that of the mysticism of reverence for life can the broken sword of idealism be forged anew.”

Did Schweitzer’s encounter with the holy hippopotami open the door not only to environmentalism but also to a new metaphysics? No more than did the Jordan River visitation by the heavenly dove, but it did crack open a door to a new mode of being human—one tenderly, yet tenaciously, in touch with creation and the full capacity of compassion latent within us. Reverence for life “does not build up for itself a complete philosophy, but resigns itself to the necessity of leaving its cathedral unfinished. It furnishes the chancel only, but in this chancel piety celebrates a living and never-ceasing divine service.” So may we in this 21st century finally come to worship in this cathedral of the Holy Spirit, ever under construction by continuing revelation. There may we find our salvation from the death-grip of “reality” and its violent realpolitik, find liberation—and true civilization—in loving and bonding with all living things, including each worm we gently return to the grass.

Note to the reader: Some Schweitzer quotes are spliced for increased readability, but nothing is taken out of context.

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