Review Article: The Quest for the Historical Schweitzers

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 1/2 (June 2017)

Review Article: The Quest for the Historical Schweitzers

By Andrew Chandler, University of Chichester

James Carleton Paget and Michael J. Thate (eds.), Albert Schweitzer in Thought and Action: A Life in Parts (Syracuse University Press, 2016).

Patti M. Marxsen, Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own (Syracuse University Press, 2015).

Albert Schweitzer is, perhaps, the most truly, and even magnificently, awkward of figures. He was a product of the nineteenth century and in unique ways embodied many of its intellectual and moral achievements and possibilities. Yet he left that age behind and sought to claim a new one, even when he struggled to understand what the twentieth century had brought. Schweitzer was an internationalist who evidently remained entirely confident of the superiority of the culture that had produced him even as he repudiated it. He was a thinker of enduring value, but he founded no school and his very range deprived him of a secure place in conventional academic categories. He was a figure of history but today historians, by and large, overlook him (his name does not even feature in the final volume of the Cambridge History of Christianity). He was known to the world as a missionary, but those who worked for the missionary societies were often critical of him in almost every respect. He was, as the admirable Introduction to Albert Schweitzer in Thought and Action: A Life in Parts remarks, apparently familiar to us but also essentially strange to us, and if he is relevant at all it remains a ‘strange relevance’. He was a follower of Jesus and in this sense wholly and devoutly a Christian, and yet in many ways he had left the Church behind. A scholar and musician of famous virtuosity, he chose obscurity but maintained it with his celebrity. He was, deeply, an intellectual, but a public intellectual—an elitist, no doubt, but a figure who flourished in a popular, democratic imagination. His immensity and complexity provoked, and deserved, both praise and criticism in equal measure, for superficially he was as easy to criticise as he was to praise. Seldom, perhaps, have egocentricity and self-sacrifice been so intensely fused.

Today Albert Schweitzer continues to attract a lively interest in theological faculties, particularly in North America. The argument that he continues to deserve a serious critical engagement from scholars and thinkers at large is surely firmly justified by these two books. But Schweitzer is an unruly presence wherever he turns up, and his extraordinary ambition, range and generosity look more and more remote in these days of safe, interior specialization. Indeed, in some ways he has never looked less conventional, more challenging, and more unapologetically disruptive.

In their book, Albert Schweitzer in Thought and Action: A Life in Parts, James Carleton Paget and Michael J. Thate have managed bring together a rich collection of authors to consider the many diverse (and demanding) gifts of their subject. The basic premise of the enterprise is that a new discussion is called for in what is an established area of interest (though not a ‘subject’, in the conventional sense), one in which new research continues to yield new perspectives. It is all the more to be welcomed that this is really is an international collection, presenting work from the United States, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and China. It is impossible not to observe that all the contributors are men, and to wonder why. Inevitably, diversity in authorship and approach and style creates some unevenness in such a volume and the essential challenge can lie in achieving a happy integration of the opportunities and riches of that diversity. By and large, this is achieved here. It is, altogether, a fine, vigorous and valuable volume which repays serious reading and thought. Some essays are immensely intricate and even densely argued while others are more relaxed in approach and a little more generalized. Some of the essays have no footnotes while others have copious references, some of them long and intricate with textual discussion, piling up at the bottom of the page rather dauntingly. There are shades of repetition here and there but this is surely unavoidable and every contribution establishes its own integrity.

One of the useful achievements of the whole collection is to show the present state of Schweitzer scholarship internationally, with a considerable amassing of footnotes and an extensive bibliography at the end. But the book also presents a range of distinctive new emphases and approaches and they are fruitful. Furthermore, all essays show a fine, and necessary, critical sensitivity to the issues of translation which must arise in any treatment of Schweitzer and his works. By the same token, much here is owed to Ana Ilievska, Ellen Widmann and Monique Cuany, who have translated a number of the pieces from German into clear and lucid English.

The book is organized in three parts: Schweitzer as New Testament scholar, theologian and musician; Schweitzer the philosopher; Schweitzer and the wider world. The introduction proposes a succession of contexts in which we may find him, placing them all within a plea for his continuing ‘relevance’. There follows a discussion of The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Steven J. Kraftchick, while R. Barry Matlock is solid and effective in placing Schweitzer’s Mysticism of Paul the Apostle in the field of subsequent scholarship. Robert Morgan sets out on an involved discussion of Schweitzer’s ‘challenge’ to New Testament theology at large, along with the responses that have followed. Christophe Chalamet’s exploration of Schweitzer and modern theology is, in the best sense, provocative. Harald Schűtzeichel explores the interrelationships of music and ethics in Schweitzer while Predrag Cicovacki’s chapter begins to navigate not only Schweitzer’s interest in Indian thought but the significance of Schweitzer in an India context. Claus Gűnzler’s essay begins to open up the broader picture of the various philosophical references at work behind Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life’, while Ulrich Körtner’s contribution turns to the same theme and places it in the midst of contemporary ethical debates. Michael Thate examines the intellectual rapport of Schweitzer and Nietzsche and Thomas Qu Xutong offers a clear presentation of Schweitzer’s fascination with Goethe. Thomas Suermann explores Schweitzer and politics profitably in the context of Schweitzer’s celebrity, drawing significantly from government archives in making Schweitzer a subject of history. Anthony Steinhoff’s excellent chapter on the Alsace which nurtured Schweitzer is so deeply and extensively a discussion of context that one almost loses sight of Schweitzer himself. Werner Zager discusses Schweitzer’s liberal piety and theology, looking back firmly to his youth and formation. Michael Thate’s second article locates Schweitzer firmly—and problematically—in Lambarene, French Congo (now Gabon), and establishes a provocative counterpoint with the criticisms of WEB DuBois. Nils Ole Oermann’s essay on Schweitzer’s post-war celebrity is certainly lively, even journalistic in tone. Ward Blanton’s essay ‘On Schweitzer and a Miraculating Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy’ looks forward to new territories altogether, exploring messianic preoccupations, ‘rogue causalities’, ‘passivist activisms’, and ‘strange immanence’, and finding Schweitzer ‘strikingly prescient’ in a post-Kantian landscape inhabited by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida and Georgio Agamben.

But there is more to be said, even so, and we should not be surprised to find it in quite a different form. Patti M. Marxsen’s elegant biography of Helene Schweitzer was published by Syracuse University Press in 2015. Marxsen herself is journalist, essayist, translator and independent scholar who divides her time between Switzerland and Maine. The eminent American Schweitzer scholar A.G. Rud praises her book as ‘a great advance in Schweitzer scholarship’, and so it is, drawing new fruits from a variety of international archives and creating a sensitive biographical narrative, suffused by a rigorous, undogmatic and compassionate judgement. Here, the impression is not of a solitary, heroic figure labouring against disease and wilderness with a modest collection of inspired deputies, but of a brilliantly creative union of two unconventional individualists whose friendship and marriage represented an intimately shared, and sustained, vision.

Helene Bresslau was born into a cultivated and intellectual Strasbourg home. When she and Schweitzer first met it was he, the son a rural pastor, who was the outsider. While he began to flourish, the early work of Helen Bresslau also prospered; indeed, it was nothing if not prolific. Repudiating a conventional bourgeois marriage, she became a fluent linguist, a student of art history and music, a teacher and a trained nurse. A spell in Britain introduced her to the work of Dr Barnardo. By now she was translating texts from Russian into German and sending them off for Schweitzer to use in Strasbourg. On her return she was appointed the first woman inspector of the City Orphan Administration, becoming a brilliant, active element in the social reforms orchestrated by the progressive city mayor, Rudolf Schwander. Soon she was responsible for the welfare of hundreds and young, needy children across the city. She was also reading, editing and criticising what was becoming The Quest of the Historical Jesus. When, with another young reformer, Helene Fehling, Helen Bresslau founded an innovative home for unmarried mothers she was still not yet thirty. Little wonder that an admiring Schweitzer would remark, ‘You seem to be Someone.’

In a sense, both Albert and Helene Schweitzer were firmly independent, richly gifted idealists who found a new moral freedom in each other. The reckless vision to go to the French Congo was a shared vision. The work that followed there was, in the early, heroic, years a shared labour. ‘It was our common feeling’, Helene Schweitzer later remarked, ‘to find our own way, to take what was given and what we had learned and give it to others to help humanity’ (127). But, in truth, the matter of personal health, or ill-health, would come to determine a great deal. Africa both united and divided them. Although there would be shocks, Albert Schweitzer proved to have the constitution of an ox, while the health of Helene Schweitzer was vulnerable, above all to tuberculosis. For a European of the early twentieth century the French Congo was one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

War also defined much of what followed. The Schweitzers were interned and deported together in the First World War, and as young parents were caught up in the mayhem of Alsace in the years in which it became again a part of France. With the advent of the Nazi regime in 1933 Helen Schweitzer moved to Lausanne while her husband re-established himself, for a time, at Gunsbach. In 1937 he returned to Lambarene, and this time for over a decade. When, a year later, Helene Schweitzer arrived in Lambarene once again, it was only for a few months. After German forces invaded France in 1940 she managed to reach the French Congo again, via Lisbon, a refugee. This time she would remain there for five years. In 1946 she left, exhausted.

In the early post-war years, the phenomenon of Schweitzer’s celebrity grew by leaps and bounds. By the early 1950s he was a widely renowned and much awarded man: a Noble Peace prize came to him almost inevitably. Schweitzer may have been admired and lauded across the English-speaking world but it was Helene Schweitzer who spoke the language and had the ability to commend what they had both created to that public. Indeed, as Marxsen observes, it was not in films or magazines but in Helene Schweitzer’s lecture tours that many Americans first learnt of Lambarene. Yet how to interpret such a woman? In the west public assumptions remained solidly conservative. In the international press Helene Schweitzer found herself cast as the ‘Angel in the Jungle’, or, increasingly, as a fragile remnant only indistinctly glimpsed in the wash of a great ship. There is little reason to think that she enjoyed, or accepted, any of this. ‘Helene Schweitzer Bresslau’, observes the German biographer of Helene Schweitzer, Verena Műhlstein, ‘was just as versatile as her husband … When in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of those around Albert Schweitzer were full of uncritical admiration, she remained his critical counterpart’ (141-5). Schweitzer himself did rather little to acknowledge her continuing contribution. Was this proof of egocentricity or merely of a conventional reticence? It is hard to judge. At the same time, his need for industrious, loyal and supportive female company, something that had always been fundamental to him, remained very much alive. Schweitzer himself was both patrician and immensely responsive and companionable. That he respected women, and worked so well with them, was one of his most conspicuous qualities. In all that he did he also needed the devotion that could be known in daily practical assistance. At all events, present or absent, acknowledged or unacknowledged, Helene Schweitzer remained a fundamental presence in his work, and not merely in private. When she gave her final public lecture, at the University of Freiburg in June 1952, eight hundred people came to hear her. Always sharply interested in contemporary political debates, one of her last labours was to help Albert Schweitzer to write his famous lecture, ‘Peace or Atomic War?’ Marxsen is surely right to sense that in her careful preservation of their letters and many other materials Helene Schweitzer was steadfastly insisting upon her own significance and commending it to future generations. She died in June 1957 and it was in Lambarene that her ashes were later interred. Albert Schweitzer died there in September 1965 and his remains were placed beside hers.

The Schweitzer history has still the power to disturb our most settled perspectives and conventional expectations. Yet if he remains a challenging figure, Albert Schweitzer also endures as an eirenic presence who assures us that everything is, in the end, interrelated and made whole—even if he himself cannot make it a satisfactory whole, through force of charisma, heroic moral narrative or intellectual power. He puts academics in their place, too. Indeed, if we are tempted to incarcerate such an ungovernable force in the seminar rooms and lecture theatres of our universities, he will always manage to break out of the building and make off, probably through a local park or two, towards the nearest airport. We should expect to find the figure of Helene Schweitzer already there before him, tickets in hand.