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An Interpretation of Dr. Albert Schweitzer's Essay,
"Religion In Modern Civilization".
By John B Isom,
Spartanburg, South Carolina,
March 10, 1949.
(This article was published, I believe, in the Southern Baptist Courier on March 10, 1949.).
In 1934, in an article published in the Christian Century, Albert Schweitzer is quoted as saying; " religion is not a force in the spiritual life of our age. " Schweitzer admits that Christianity, " can still point to works of love, and to social works of which it can be proud, and that there is a longing for religion among many who no longer belong to the churches. " Yet, he declares, " we must hold fast to the fact that religion is not a force. " Dr. Schweitzer points to the war as proof of the spiritual weakness of religion in our firstname.lastname@example.org
"Religion," Schweitzer said, " was powerless to resist the spirit through which we entered the war. It could bring no force against the ideals of inhumanity and unreasonableness, which gave birth to the war, and when war had broken out, religion…joined in helping to keep up the courage of the peoples. ,Religion helped give people the conviction, "they were fighting for their existence, and for the spiritual treasures of humanity." It is easy to understand why religion did this. At the time, "It seemed a necessity," but in doing so religion lost its purity and authority. "It joined forces with the spirit of the world, and one of the victims of defeat was religion." Religion is seems, emerged from the war with authority to protest, but not to command.
Writing in 1934, Dr. Schweitzer was of course, referring to the First World War. Nothing however has happened since, that would subtract from his argument, that religion is not a force in the spiritual life of our age. What has happened since then has multiplied his proof. He now has the Second World War and the present Cold War that substantiate his observations.
I remember the week after Pearl Harbor. "The Unnecessary Necessity" was the headline of an editorial in the Christian Century. I recall one sentence in that editorial. "War is hell, and when you are in hell you have no choice but to engage in hellish business." Fortified with such helplessness, I joined the Army. As a chaplain in the Army, I spent my time trying to find the moral and spiritual shortcomings in our past, that made the unnecessary war a necessity. I tried to get the few soldiers who attended my chapel to make the same search. I told them frankly that I could not, and would not, try to harmonize their war activities with the teachings of Jesus. I armed them with the dope of helplessness by reminding them of what the Christian Century editor had said - "War is hell, and in hell you have no choice but to engage in hellish business." And then I challenged them, along with myself, to try to find a religion that would arm us, with ethical ideals that would help us overcome the inhumanity, and unreasonableness, that had forced us into such hellish business.
The present "Cold War," with all the fears and hatreds that it produces, is proof that we have not yet found such a religion. Anyone who listened closely to the President's inaugural address will have to agree with the editor of the "New Republic," who said, "the President's remarks about the Communist philosophy, and what America proposes to do about it, appear to be calling this country to a holy crusade against Russia and her satellites, which could have no conclusion except war."
The tragedy is we have no religion (ethical ideals) with the power even to protest, to say nothing of offering ideals that demand any other action, than what our blind fears of reality demand. The important question that Schweitzer raises and tries to answer is this, "How did it come about that ethical ideals could not oppose the inhuman ideals of war?" The great moral ideals of Christianity and democracy are talked, and sung about, in every community, every week, in the western half of the world. Why then are we powerless to use these great and powerful ideals, to oppose the inhumanness and unreasonableness that has plunged the world into two world wars, and are shoving us toward the third? Schweitzer said religion lost control of man's thinking in the 19th century, and lost faith in the power of ethical ideals, to change reality, and thus became reality's slave. Schweitzer calls attention to a time in the 17th and 18th centuries when our thinking was controlled - commanded by - the ethical ideals of the teachings of Jesus. At that time he declared, "Ethical religion and thinking formed one unity. Thinking was religious, and religion was a thinking religion."
" Thinking " of that period possessed ethical ideals and went out to transform reality into the likeness of those ideals. "Thinking" undertook great works of reform. It waged war against superstition and ignorance. It obtained recognition for humanity in the eyes of the law; formulated in America for the first time the rights of man; abolished slavery; "represented the thought that even politics must submit to the principles of ethics; dared even to grasp the thought of lasting peace on earth.
It was, in Schweitzer's judgment, the age of the spirit of idealism. People possessed ethical ideals that were so powerful and commanding that they undertook to control reality. "We will," they said, "transform reality so as to make it consistent with the demands of our ideals."
But today, Schweitzer believes, we no longer have faith in the power of ethical ideals to change reality. We no longer believe in the possibility of social or spiritual progress, but face reality as helpless, and as powerless, as though we were in hell with no choice, but to submit to what is. Proof? In addition to the two World Wars and the present "Cold War," there are countless smaller examples of proof that we have lost faith in the power, and influence, of ethical ideals to change reality - to change what is.
Last summer, for example, in the political campaign to my knowledge, there was not one man running for office in South Carolina who had enough faith in the influence of the great ideals of democracy and equal rights for all men, to stand upright and enthusiastically support such ideals in his campaign. Instead, they felt helpless before the reality of race prejudice, and our undemocratic traditions. They either jumped on the governor's bandwagon of race baiting, or straddled the fence talking out of both sides of their mouth at the same time.
A man of much learning, who holds an honorable position in our city, when confronted with the proposition of resisting, by means of ethical ideals, the spirit of our age - the spirit of helplessness before what is - said, "one must be careful not to lose his position, for with his position goes two thirds of his influence." What was he saying? What was he confessing? Simply this -- that a man's ideals, however great and noble they may be, have no influence in our time. Gone from us is the faith in the influence of the ethical ideals that prompted Lincoln, a hundred years ago, to stake his political life on the influence of great ethical ideals, rather than on his position in Congress.
If our loss of faith in ethical ideals - that has left us helpless before reality - were brought about by religion losing control over man's thinking, then what contributed to religion's failure to control thought in our age? If I understand Schweitzer he would answer that question by saying, that religion divorced itself from ethics, and philosophy abandoned the religious approach to life. In so doing, both modern religion and modern thinking, became powerless to provide us with the faith, in ethical ideals, that would "help us get on with reality." Right at the most terrible moment, just when man had won power over the forces of nature, and by that became superman, religion and thinking separated, leaving man like a deserted child, armed with all the forces of nature, but without any ethical ideals to enable him to make the right use of such powers.
Schweitzer reminds us that "the religious-ethical spirit of the 18th century, desired to make the Kingdom of God a reality on earth." Religion preached the great ideal of the Kingdom of God. But in the "19th century the spirit of realism arose against this spirit of idealism." The ideals of the Kingdom of God were dismissed as sentimentality, "of which no use could be made in the world of reality." So, declares Schweitzer, when religion abandoned the ideals of the Kingdom of God and joined hands with the spirit of realism, it lost its only power and authority to shape our ethics, and in turn determine the course of civilization.
After the reformation the idea arose that we must understand the religion of Jesus, so as to "endeavor to make the kingdom of God a reality in this world." It was to the influence of that one idea that Schweitzer gives credit, for the great reforms that were accomplished in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, Schweitzer claims, by the beginning of the 19th century the ethics of the Kingdom of God had been abandoned. Why? Simply because religious leaders, having separated religion from thinking, were unable to "take the ethical ideals of Jesus out of the setting of His world-view and put it into their own." Such religious leaders specialized in devising ways and means, by which to assure believers, of a better place after death, rather than concerning themselves with making a better world here and now.
"In recent times," he asserts, "a tendency has appeared in dogmatic religion, which completely turns its back on thinking, and at the same time declares religion has nothing to do with the world and civilization." Schweitzer names Karl Barth as an example of such a dogmatic religious leader. He quotes Barth as saying, "it is not religion's business to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. Religion has nothing to do with thinking. A religious person does not concern himself with what happens to the world. The church must leave the world to itself."
Schweitzer concludes that such a conception of religion is a tragedy - that it is "something terrible to say that religion is not ethical" - that it has no moral ideals to guide the "thinking" of our age concerning the problems of life here and now. Yet, he says, that is what religion did, when it failed to give meaning to the ethics of Jesus, in the world-view of our age.
Religion and thinking having separated did not have the religious-ethical ideals of the Kingdom of God, to demand and direct it. Man's thinking in modern times has, according to Schweitzer, "tried to arrive at a religion - an ethic for life in this world - along four paths." First, it tried the path of materialism. The materialist made war on all metaphysics. They threw away as worthless all but what one can really know, and tried to develop the ethics that would explain the purpose of life by saying, "You must live for the good of the community." But, Schweitzer says, this path led to the state destroying the individual in order to make the individual its servant.
"The second path was followed by Kant, and nearly all of the major philosophers of the latter half of the 19th century." These 19th Century philosophers did not, "venture to say that from ethics we derive the idea of the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul. They only asked: Does thinking arrive at anything we call God? They seek to show that the existence of an ethical God is necessary, and try to prove to the materialist that without this idea, man cannot rightly live." However Schweitzer observes, "What is ethical in such teaching has no force. It lacks compulsive power and enthusiasm, and it is too delicate, too cautious, and utters no commands."
The third path, by which our thinking has tried to arrive at a theory for life, is the way of William James, which may be defined thus: "Every idea that helps me to live is truth." It is a philosophy of values that has given up all standards of ethics. Anything that helps me is good and true - period. Expediency is the God. It permits men to take their ideals, not from a vision of an ethical God and his Kingdom, but from reality - from things as they are - rather than from a vision of things, as they ought to be.
The fourth path trodden by modern thinkers, he says, is a form of mysticism. Such thinkers are characterized as obscure thinkers. They try to get at religion by denying the value of any of the knowledge of the world obtained by science. They affirm that we can know the mystery of life by knowing the essential nature of the universe, which is to be learned by intuition, not by reason. "But," says Schweitzer, "ethics plays no part in this form of thought. The great problem of what man is aiming at, plays no part in it."
So Schweitzer concludes that modern thinking, like modern religion, "renounces the idea of giving us ideals to help us get on with reality." Man's thinking has failed him at a time when man's power has increased a thousand fold, and his need for ethical ideals to point the way is a thousand fold greater. Such is the spiritual poverty of our age.
Does Schweitzer hold out any hope for a revival of spiritual prosperity, in which we will find the ethical ideals by which we can get on with the terrible reality that is ours? Yes he does! That hope is best defined, I think, by Herman Hagedorn. In his description of the physical features of Schweitzer there is this revealing sentence. "The eyes are black wells of concentrated sorrow and compassion, faintly lighted by hope."
Schweitzer's thinking is faintly lighted by the hope, "that in our age we are all carrying, within us, a new form of thought that will give us ethical ideals," - ideals we will need, if we are to save ourselves from self destruction. Now, what is the nature of this new form of "thought", in which he faintly hopes we will find the spiritual power that can change the reality we face, into what it ought to be? The following is a short outline of what I understand it to be.
It is "thought" that makes religion and thinking a unity. "Thinking is religious, and religion is a thinking." It is a form of "thought" that has the honesty, and humility, to confess that the ways of the universe, are still a riddle. It recognizes the necessity of finding a purpose and ethic for life, without knowing what happens in the universe, or why "what is glorious in it is united with what is full of horror." This new form of thought he speaks of is "thinking", that keeps contact with reality, and "looks up to the heavens, and over the earth, and dares to direct its gaze to the barred windows of a lunatic asylum."
What does Schweitzer mean by that? He means a "thinking" that will face the terrible reality, that the mental and spiritual, as well as the physical, can be destroyed. It means thinking, with a world-view, that takes into account that, "the earth existed before man came upon it," and admits the possibility, "that the earth will circle around the sun once more, without man upon it." It is thinking, that looks up to the stars, and "understands how small the earth is in the universe, and looks upon the earth, and knows how little man is upon it. And is humbled by the obvious fact, that man is not the center of the universe." It is "thinking" that has come to know, all that is known through belief, is little compared with what is not known. It faces the reality that we are surrounded by mystery.
This new form of thought is discovering, from what is being learned about nature, that nature is full of life, "that all life is a secret, and that we are united with all life that is in nature." It is "thought" that has come to know, "man can no longer live his life for himself alone;" that all life is valuable, and that we are united to all of this life.
This new way of thinking that Schweitzer advances knows, "there is "no other relationship to other life, as full of sense, as the relationship of love." It is "thought" that enlarges the circle of ethics to include all humanity, and indeed, dares to extend the circle to include all life forms. It accepts the mystery of life in the universe, and recognizes our conscious will to love, as the ultimate source of ethics. It holds all life sacred, and generates ethical ideals within the thinker that demand he respect all forms of life, and that he, under no circumstances, be less concerned with the lives of others, than he is with his own. It is "thinking" that recognizes "the most sacred thing we have to deal with is life itself." It is a "thinking religion", that demands, "reverence for life."
Link to The Albert Schweitzer Page maintained by Jack N. Fenner
Link to Albert Schweitzer and "The Philosophy of Civilization"
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