Reviews of and Quotes From Dr. Schweitzer's Books

Here is my review of a book about Dr. Schweitzer. All the books I review are in English. Many of them are out of print, but generally can be found by a book search from a good used-book dealer. See The Albert Schweitzer Page for links to my reviews of books written by Dr. Schweitzer as well as other related information.

Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought

Written By: Ara Paul Barsam
Edition: Oxford University Press, Oxford   2008
Hardcover, 195 pages

ISBN 9780195329551


Table of Contents

This the first scholarly work that integrates and analyses Schweitzer's philosophy and theology. Usually his Reverence for Life is presented as a moral ethics, with Schweitzer's theology either left in the background or omitted altogether. Likewise, when discussing Schweitzer's theology, scholars generally focus on Schweitzer's historical analyses of Jesus and Paul and his eschatology without tying them strongly to Reverence for Life. Barsam does an excellent job of showing how Schweitzer's Reverence for Life, eschatology, and emphasis on the mystery of God are all inter-related.

Written in an academic but understandable style, Barsam engages with critiques of Reverence for Life that other scholars have offerred. He notes that he is aided in this by recently published (or obscurely published) copies of Schweitzer's sermons to his congregations in Germany and Lambarene. In his scholarly writings, Schweitzer never used theological language, and in fact rarely mentioned God, preferring terms such as "eternal will-to-love". The theological--specifically Christian--roots of his ethics are much clearer in his sermons (see A Place for Revelation, Reverence for Life, and The Africa Sermons). I was particularly interested in Barsam's comparison of Schweitzer's views with those of Paul Tillich. Barsam is not afraid to point out problems and inconsistencies in Schweitzer's work, but overall clearly has great respect for Schweitzer and Reverence for Life.

Barsam may be overreaching when he accuses Schweitzer of, in essence, covering up or denying his debt to Jainism for the ethics regarding animal life incorporated into Reverence for Life. In Indian Thought and Its Development, Schweitzer acknowledges the that Jainism was the first to expand ethics from concern for humans to concern about all living things. However he implicitly denies that Reverence for Life is connected to Jainism because Jainism, like other Indian religions, is founded on life-negation; that is, the idea that the world is the source of pain and therefore withdrawal from the world is the greatest achievement. Reverence for Life is founded on life-affirmation, where ethical action is required to engage and improve the world. Barsam points out that a strain of Jainism, added long ago but well after its founding, promotes life-affirmation and engagement with the world. That would not surprise Schweitzer, because the whole of Indian Thought is an analysis of the inherent conflict between foundations of life-negation and impluses for life-affirmation in India religions. While Barsam finds the similarities between Jainist thought and Reverence for Life to be too strong to be a coincidence, for me it is hard to envision Schweitzer recognizing a great idea in Jainism and grafting it onto his own theology. As Barsam himself shows, for Schweitzer respect for all life is deeply embedded in Christian theology. But this is a minor point, and I encourage anyone interested in a scholarly review of Reverence for Life to read this book.

Quotes from Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought:

[Quoting Schweitzer, from a sermon published elsewhere] "Where the active, suffering will seeks peace with God, there heart and mind are preserved in Christ Jesus... There is one happiness in life: the peace of God, which passeth all understanding." [ellipsis in original]

"Schweitzer believes that by serving other life, our human will remains in accord with the Will-to-Love, making the divine Will no longer external to us. In this sense, the Spirit can appropriately be seen to disclose the will of God to humans as the will-to-love: 'The Holy Spirit would prevent us from killing.'"

"He readily and regretably admitted that it is sometimes necessary to make choices between various forms of life, but he wanted to underscore the essentially subjective and arbitrary nature of such decisions. What Schweitzer objects to is any fixed conception of a moral hierarchy." [emphasis in original]

[Regarding Schweitzer's "practical eschatology"] "[Schweitzer] sees the coming kingdom being prepared in a double movement in heaven and on earth, the actual decision lying not with this world but resting on God. If the kingdom is to come, God ultimately has to bring this about, but humans can do their part through moral action. The kingdom did have ethical and social implications for life in the present. But it could not be reduced to these as in liberalism."

"...Schweitzer locates the value of beings not in any specific faculty or capacity limited to a certain species, but rather in the will-to-live common to all life. He presents a rival idea to the scholastic and reformed views: life has inherent worth independent of human calculations." [emphasis in original]

Table of Contents of Reverence for Life: Albert Schweitzer's Great Contribution to Ethical Thought


  1. The New Quest for Schweitzer
  2. Conversations across a Doorway
  3. The Voyage to India
  4. Seeking the Kingdom
  5. Knowing the "One Unknown"
  6. Rediscovering Lambarene
  7. The Quest Goes On
Selected Bibliography

Click here to return to the Albert Schweitzer Page.