Albert Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought is a spiritual autobiography in that it is both an account of spiritual progress and an expression of it. His book could very well have been entitled “Out of My Thought, My Life,” for the thinking he calls “elemental” concerns itself with the fundamental conditions and opportunities of life and is itself an expression of the will-to-live. It is Schweitzer’s thesis, exemplified in the course of his creative life of service, that elemental thought, in aiming at truth, effects a transition from the will-to-life to the will-to-love. His autobiography is an account spiritualized by just such a process—a course of fundamental thinking leading to the will-to-love and, accordingly, to a religion of love that proves itself in life-affirming service to others.
A gifted organist, philosopher, theologian, pastor, and writer, Schweitzer decided, at the age of thirty, to become a medical doctor and to devote his life to the service of natives of equatorial Africa. He had conceived the idea during his days as a student, and he reports that “It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering.” At Gunsbach in 1896, while on holiday away from the university at Strassburg, Schweitzer decided that he would be justified in living until he was thirty for science and art, and then should devote the remainder of his life to the “direct service of humanity.” His decision to become a doctor and to serve in Africa was prompted in the autumn of 1904 by his reading an article on the needs of the Congo mission, published in a magazine of the Paris Missionary Society. A few months later, on his thirtieth birthday, January 14, 1905, he decided on equatorial Africa as his place of service and, despite the opposition of his friends and relatives, began planning to enter medical college. He persevered despite being told that he was throwing away his many talents in order to bury himself in the jungle. He writes that “it moved me strangely to see them [people who passed for Christians] so far from perceiving that the effort to serve the love preached by Jesus may sweep a man into a new course of life.”
Schweitzer’s account of his life experience (to 1931, when he still had thirty-four years to live) alternates reports of significant events in his life with reviews of his thoughts and commitments. It becomes apparent as one reads that the events of his life stimulated thought, thought gave rise to commitment, and commitment showed itself in action. The thesis he argues is proved in the life he led.
While at Strassburg studying philosophy and theology, Schweitzer undertook an inquiry that later assumed the title Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesus Forschung (1906; The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1910). Schweitzer’s studies led him to the conclusion that Jesus accepted the late-Jewish Messianic worldview involving the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the kingdom of God. The idea that Jesus held views later shown to be false is repugnant to many Christians, Schweitzer points out, but he argues that the religion of love that Jesus taught need not be dependent upon the worldview in which it first appeared. Although we cannot accept the dogma involved in the late-Jewish Messianic expectation, Schweitzer writes, “the spirituality which lies...
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