Is Schweitzer Dead?

CORNELIUS SCIPIO, under another name, participated in the recent Albert Schweitzer International Convocation at Aspen, Colorado.

THE international do-good jet set, Albert Schweitzer division, landed in Aspen, Colorado, for the Memorial Day weekend. They came in search of their fallen leader’s living spirit and tried to assess his present financial, intellectual, moral, and spiritual strength. It was quite a weekend.

Albert Schweitzer, physician, theologian, philosopher, and musician, died on September 9, 1965, at the age of ninety. He died in Lambaréné, Gabon, Africa, at the hospital he started to build fifty years earlier. During his lifetime he wrote books on philosophy, religion, and music and attracted countless thousands of people to his humble hospital. They journeyed to French Equatorial Africa to get spiritual rather than physical medicine. Some went because they had read his books, others because he had been billed as a Protestant saint, and still others because he was said to talk sense to those who found no sense in most formal religions. At the time of his death there was a cult of Schweitzer buffs with a worldwide membership.

The more than four hundred people who gathered in Aspen amply demonstrated that the cult has very loose admissions requirements. There were rich widows who neither knew nor cared what the doctor was talking about but were passionately attached to him; there were hard-nosed Unitarians who saw in his ethical theories the salvation of mankind; there were skeptical philosophers who understood his every contradiction but couldn’t shake the man’s personality; there were medical doctors who were ashamed of his primitive and dogmatic medical notions but saw him as almost the last of those doctors motivated by sacrificial service rather than by making a buck; there were theologians who thought he was right in his ethics and absolutely wrong in his assessment of Jesus; there were musicians who thought he interpreted Bach in a good fashion in his book but that his organ technique was only fair to poor; there were African experts who thought his attitudes toward black people were Victorian, autocratic, and shamefully condescending and yet felt he did excellent work.

On the first day, this mixed bag of individuals participated in an emotional binge of large hangover proportions. Sentimental ladies and gentlemen made speeches that variously described Schweitzer as the wittiest man who ever lived, the most lovable man to see daylight, the most charming conversationalist who ever dropped a bon mot, the most fearless foxy grandpa who ever braved the terrors of the jungle; in short, the most divine of human creatures. After a few hours of such wondrous praise, a documentary fundraising film was shown to the exhausted and happy crowd. In the film the doctor came to life, wandered among his natives, patted children’s heads, led us to see a big-breasted black woman give birth, watched a Christmas play and a church service, and pointed out lepers’ sores. When the lights came up, women were weeping and men were clearing their throats. The bar of the Meadows Inn was full until after 1 A.M.

The next day (Saturday) dawned with incomparable mid-Rockies spring sunshine. The circling snow-capped peaks and the bright thin air conspired with a good breakfast to convince everyone that all must be right with the world. However, when the 9:30 A.M. general session started, it became clear that there were disbelievers in the world and that they were going to be decisively answered. No one had mentioned the unwashed in the opening session Friday evening. An uninitiated observer would have thought that there were no pagans in the bushes knocking out windows in the House of the Lord. But the pagans arc out there, and Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, organized the first offensive against them.

Perhaps it is true, he began, that Schweitzer was an autocratic and paternalistic German who ordered the natives of Gabon around like little children. So what? asked Cousins. It was Schweitzer’s right to have any kind of personality he wished, and his detractors have no business running around the world saying that he had feet of clay just because he was authoritarian by nature, upbringing, and desire. This doesn’t change the fact that the editor of the Saturday Review went to Lambaréné and convinced the good doctor to speak out against atomic testing and the pollution of the atmosphere with strontium 90. The achievement of the anti-testing treaty was, according to Cousins, the greatest single success of the Kennedy Administration, and, he implied, it could never have been done without Schweitzer’s help. What then could be the importance of other matters like flies in the operating room, inadequate water supply and sewage, and a colonialist attitude toward blacks when compared with this help for Kennedy’s mighty deed? Cousins filled out this theme and sat down amid thunderous applause.

The other two speakers Saturday morning were supposed to speak of Schweitzer’s contribution to humanity through medicine. They were hard put to find anything modern, clean, or progressive about the hospital at Lambaréné. Consequently, they talked of his great spirit and his philosophy.

Some of the faithful were getting uneasy and restless. They had expected more from the medical gentlemen because they had always assumed that there was some great discovery at work at the Lambaréné Hospital which should be emulated everywhere tropical medicine is practiced. To be told, obliquely yet clearly, that Le Grand Docteur had been dogmatically educated in the best nineteenth-century medicine and had never changed his views or supported research or incorporated tropical medicine experts in his staff was not a pleasant experience. And the two who did the telling were not imported skeptics, but rather hardshell Schweitzer buffs. The mood was changing.

The rest of the day was devoted to organizing four panels which were to meet at intervals between the remaining general sessions, to some papers on Schweitzer and music, and to some descriptions of different activities that he inspired. The panels were to concern themselves respectively with music, medicine, theology, and philosophy. The speeches on Schweitzer and music and the arts turned out to be of little interest to the majority of the faithful and the skeptics. Everyone knew that Schweitzer loved to play the organ and that he did not have a proper instrument or the time in Lambaréné for the practice necessary to be a first-rate organist. Everyone also knew that his two-volume work on Bach sparked a Bach revival in the early part of this century and made music program planners give their customers larger amounts of Bach. This was a good thing, but not the dramatic culture-shaking geniuslike achievement the faithful wanted to hear about. In addition, the only organ around Aspen that could be used for illustration was a small electric one, which was about as suited to Bach as a gut bucket is to Mozart. The bar at Meadows Inn was almost empty by twelve o’clock.

SUNDAY dawned as beautifully as had Saturday, and sleep had restored hope. Beyond the restorative power of sleep was the fact that there were to be two addresses that morning on Schweitzer’s philosophy and theology. It was obvious that these two speeches were going to proclaim the intellectual greatness of the man who gave so many a reason for being alive. The faithful all had special quotations from Schweitzer’s works for life’s troubled situations, and they were eager to have them put together and declared to be a sound, defensible, and clearly the true philosophic system. Since very few of the skeptics had spent much time with Schweitzer’s writings, they seemed to expect nothing other than some hopefully interesting information. Both groups lost.

The philosophy paper was given by John R. Everett, president of the New School for Social Research in New York, who is obviously not one of the faithful. He started out by saying that Schweitzer could not get a job teaching philosophy in a reputable university and ended by saying that Schweitzer was a religious existentialist and not a philosopher in the Greek tradition at all. In between that beginning and that end, time was spent showing the contradictions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes which seem to lie in great abundance in Schweitzer’s writings. At one point Everett said something to the effect that Schweitzer’s position can only appeal to people who have the same kind of ethical nature, religious consciousness, rational demands, and sense of mystery as he possessed. In other words, Schweitzer’s philosophy is for Schweitzer.

The theologian, Dr. Henry Clark of the Union Theological Seminary, agreed with Everett and added that Schweitzer’s great contribution was to separate the ethics of Jesus from metaphysical theism. In other words, a person can, if Schweitzer is followed, have the ethics of Jesus without recourse to support from church doctrine or a metaphysically established God. The death-of-God theologians in current Protestantism would do well, he said, to take Schweitzer’s agnostic position regarding the possible existence of an intellectually provable God. This would at least leave the question open and allow people with religious experience to use the traditional language of Christianity. Clark seemed to be saying that if Schweitzer could live with unresolved paradoxes and the ethics of Jesus, so can anyone else.

Sunday wore on with a film calculated to bring once again the man’s magic into full view, and this was followed by large panel discussions which gave hard-core buffs a chance to give personal testimony of the way Schweitzer had changed their lives. Anyone familiar with the old Southern revival institution known as “protracted meeting” could not fail to see the similarities. There were those who began — indirectly, of course, in this well-bred assembly — “I was a sinner until . . . ” and others with “My life was empty until ...” and still others who could not testify until they took some emotional potshots at those who had given the earlier critical papers. One paper-giver was heard to mutter, “Why did they invite me? I feel as out of place as Bertrand Russell at the War College.”

THE last general session was held on Monday morning, and it started at 9:30 A.M. The first paper was given by Waldemar Nielsen, head of the African-American Institute in New York. This paper quickly disposed of the critics who spoke of Schweitzer as a cranky, autocratic, Teutonic patriarch, who loved humanity in the abstract but not in the flesh, by quoting the magazine editor’s “so what?” Nielsen wanted to judge Schweitzer in the only way he should be judged — what did his life and work stand for? After all, the good doctor himself had said, “My life is my argument.” What then was the argument?

Africa was the locale of his life, or at least the part of his file that was his argument. How does black Africa view Schweitzer? According to Nielsen’s paper, black Africa views Schweitzer’s argument as neocolonialism, where the white man continues to see the black man as an irresponsible child of nature wholly unequal to the white man in matters of virtue, wisdom, and intelligence. “Bad" white men exploit black men for their labor and their birthright natural resources, and “good" white men, like Schweitzer, minister to their religious and medical needs. The basic attitude of superiority is the same in both “good” and “bad” white people. Africans are so affronted by this attitude that they refuse to honor a man just because he has service impulses. The proof, according to Nielsen, is seen in the fact that representatives from all African states had been invited to the convocation and only one arrived.

The Africans can hardly be expected to have rhapsodic enthusiasm for a white man who only broke his silence on African political questions to defend the French in their bloody war in Algeria and to defend a white man’s paid-for puppet in Katanga. South African apartheid and many other examples of white exploitation of blacks were never mentioned by the good doctor.

Schweitzer’s argument, said Nielsen, will not stand up as a prophetic statement in politics any more than it stands up in philosophy, theology, musicology, or medicine. In all of these things he was clearly a child of his time and perhaps subject to his time more than most men of genius. How then is he to be judged?

Nielsen ended by saying that Schweitzer must be judged by how well he employed his many talents in the service of authenticating his own existence and of helping others as he saw his help needed. Against this standard Schweitzer comes out a giant among men. No one could doubt that Schweitzer was an integrated, authentic, selfsacrificing human being. This is his power.

The faithful were upset by Nielsen’s harsh words, but they cheered the conclusion. The skeptics were worried about how his paper had moved from a devastating attack to such a happy and soul-satisfying conclusion. It was almost like saying that it doesn’t make any difference if you are wrong in deed and word just as long as you are well integrated and self-sacrificing.

The general sessions of the convocation came to a rollicking conclusion with a wholly irrelevant and irreverent sermon-speech by the Right Reverend James A. Pike, then Episcopal bishop of California. It was irrelevant because it had nothing to do with Schweitzer, except that every once in a while Pike would hold up Schweitzer’s book The Quest for the Historical Jesus and recommend that people read it. It was irreverent in that Pike took the occasion to announce that the Christian churches in their present form were finished and had suffered a total collapse of plausibility. To prove his point he told the assemblage that he was getting out and was taking up employment with a Southern California think-tank, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

An interesting feature (unplanned) of the panels was the wandering correctors of the major session speakers. A British missionary doctor who had spent thirty years in the Congo regularly corrected anyone who said or implied that the actions of the white man in Africa had been less than benevolent. He sternly lectured each panel on the fact that black Africans had no right to complain when they saw bars of copper leaving the country because they had forgotten all the money that white men had spent in Africa on roads, medicine, and schools. His finest moment came when he responded to the criticism that many white missionaries had gone to Africa to become little potentate gods. “When I first went to the Congo,” he said, “I was carried on a litter through the jungle and the bearers were crying, ‘Come see the white god of the forest who has come to save us.’ It is clear that I did not ask for such treatment; they did it themselves because they wanted to, without my request and without my permission.” This established the incontrovertible fact that the white man’s burden is indeed heavy.

By and large the panels demonstrated the same conclusion as the main addresses — if you take Schweitzer apart he disappears, but if you leave him in one piece he is an excellent example of what some consider the best that Western civilization can produce.

It was not a good weekend for the operators of the various Schweitzer-inspired philanthropic industries. They had traveled to Aspen not only to pay homage to the great man but also to assess the damage his death had done to their fundraising potential. While Schweitzer lived, money came from around the world to support the hospital at Lambaréné, and a letter from him each year was sufficient to make up the deficit of the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland. Would the Schweitzer Fellowship, a loose worldwide confederation of buffs, come forward with an organized plan for raising hard cash to keep the hospitals (there are others that bear Schweitzer’s name) and the college operating? A cold-eyed look around the room certainly did not reveal either the organizational skill or the big givers necessary for the enterprise. And all the talk did not indicate that the image of Schweitzer could be pumped up to fly high enough to produce serious money for all the causes bearing his name. The managers of these enterprises were the saddest on the day of departure. Their future was the exact opposite of the beautiful clear sky of the springtime Rockies.

One rather dejected lady made her closing comment on the way to the airport. “It was too soon to have an evaluation. These last nine months have barely gotten me used to the idea that he is no longer over there showing man how he ought to act toward man. Maybe 1975 would be a good time to look at him again. I can’t now; I still live with him.”

Another person who had spent some time visiting at Lambaréné said as she was leaving, “I am glad I came. Schweitzer still holds up for me. After I had been at Lambaréné I told him when the time came to leave that I didn’t want to go. He said, ‘Go and find your own Lambaréné.’ It is still the best advice I ever got. Some of my Lambaréné is working with handicapped children, some is reading and studying, and some is my home. It isn’t as dramatic as his and it isn’t as unified, but it is mine and he made me see it.”

One of the skeptics said in the Denver Airport as he waited for a plane to take him East, “I know more details of his life and thought than I did when I got to Aspen. And I have certainly seen the power he exercised over a large number of different kinds of people. To me he remains a man I cannot understand. His words don’t make sense to me, and his life in Africa looks like the life of any other of hundreds of devoted medical missionaries — neither better nor worse. Yet so many seem to see so much more. I wonder why.”

So, they left very much as they came. All except the fund-raisers. The convocation gave them an understanding of the magnitude of their problem. Life is going to be tough without the doctor’s living magic. For the faithful he remains a symbol of greatness, for the skeptics an enigma.

Did the weekend indicate that the dead Schweitzer would become a new evangel for an intellectually and religiously confused world? Most independent observers at the convocation seemed to think the chances were very slim. Schweitzer was great and universal for some of those who knew him, but the convocation made it abundantly clear that his charisma was not transferable to others on any basis his followers have so far discovered. History has once again swallowed up another fine and talented man. The convocation was supposed to have evaluated the man, and it did.