Albert Schweitzer, OM (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was a German and then French theologian, organist, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary. He was born in Kaysersberg in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, at that time part of the German Empire. Schweitzer, a Lutheran, challenged both the secular view of Jesus as depicted by historical-critical methodology current at his time in certain academic circles, as well as the traditional Christian view. He depicted Jesus as one who believed the end of the world was coming in his own lifetime and believed himself to be a world savior. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life“, expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa). His “Reverence for Life” principle was also a precursor to modern biocentrism (ethics). As a music scholar and organist, Schweitzer studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ reform movement (Orgelbewegung).
Schweitzer’s passionate quest was to discover a universal ethical philosophy, anchored in a universal reality, and make it directly available to all of humanity
The phrase Reverence for Life is a translation of the German phrase: “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben” (more accurately translated as: “to be in awe of the mystery of life”). These words came to Albert Schweitzer on a boat trip on the Ogooué River in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), while searching for a universal concept of ethics for our time.
Schweitzer made the phrase the basic tenet of an ethical philosophy, which he developed and put into practice. He gave expression to its development in numerous books and publications during his life and also in manuscripts which have recently been published; the main work being his unfinished four-part “Philosophy of Culture” (German: Kulturphilosophie) subtitled: “The World-view of Reverence for Life”. He also used his hospital in Lambaréné in Gabon (Central Africa) to demonstrate this philosophy in practice.
He believed that Reverence for Life is a concept that develops from observation of the world around us. In ‘Civilization and Ethics’ he expressed this in these words:
“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
— Albert Schweitzer
James Brabazon (Author of the Biography of Albert Schweitzer) defined Reverence for Life with the following statement:
“Reverence for Life says that the only thing we are really sure of is that we live and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass—and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect, that we wish for ourselves.”
— James Brabazon
Albert Schweitzer hoped that the ethic of Reverence for Life would make its way in the world on the basis of his explanation of it in his books and talks, the example of his life and the force of its own argument based on the depth of fundamental thought. To some extent this is taking place as is evidenced by the growth of the environmental movement. (The book Silent Spring, by Rachael Carson, which is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement, was dedicated to Albert Schweitzer). Reverence for Life can also be seen in the explosion of ethical, charitable organizations of all kinds in many parts of the world.
In 1931 Albert Schweitzer wrote this Epilogue for his major autobiographical volume, Out of My Life and Thought (trans. by Antje Bultmann Lemke [New York: Henry Holt, 1990], 223-45). A dominant theme of this Epilogue is the ethical principle of Reverence for Life. In his discussion Schweitzer suggests, “The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as a logical consequence of thought.” The Epilogue is reproduced here with the permission of Rhena Schweitzer Miller and the translator of the Epilogue, Antje Bultmann Lemke.
Two observations have cast their shadows over my life. One is the realization that the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering, the other that I have been born in a period of spiritual decline for mankind.
I myself found the basis and the direction for my life at the moment I discovered the principle of Reverence for Life, which contains life’s ethical affirmation. I therefore want to work in this world to help people to think more deeply and more independently. I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought. We have come to doubt whether thinking will ever be capable of answering questions about the universe and our relationship to it in a way that would give meaning and substance to our lives.
Today, in addition to that neglect of thought, there is also a mistrust of it. The organized political, social, and religious associations of our time are at work convincing the individual not to develop his convictions through his own thinking but to assimilate the ideas they present to him. Any man who thinks for himself is to them inconvenient and even ominous. He does not offer sufficient guarantees that he will merge into the organization.
Corporate bodies do not look for their strength in ideas and in the values of the people for whom they are responsible. They try to achieve the greatest possible power, offensive as well as defensive.
Hence the spirit of the age, instead of deploring the fact that thought seems to be unequal to its task, rejoices in it and gives it no credit for what, in spite of its imperfections, it has already accomplished. Against all evidence it refuses to admit that human progress up until today has come about through the efforts of thought. It will not recognize that thought may in the future accomplish what it has not yet achieved. The spirit of the age ignores such considerations. Its only concern is to discredit individual thought in every way possible.
Man today is exposed throughout his life to influences that try to rob him of all confidence in his own thinking. He lives in an atmosphere of intellectual dependence, which surrounds him and manifests itself in everything he hears or reads. It is in the people whom he meets every day; it is in the political parties and associations that have claimed him as their own; it pervades all the circumstances of his life.
From every side and in the most varied ways it is hammered into him that the truths and convictions that he needs for life must be taken away from the associations that have rights over him. The spirit of the age never lets him find himself. Over and over again, convictions are forced upon him just as he is exposed, in big cities, to glaring neon signs of companies that are rich enough to install them and enjoin him at every step to give preference to one or another shoe polish or soup mix.
By the spirit of the age, the man of today is forced into skepticism about his own thinking, so that he may become receptive to what he receives from authority. He cannot resist this influence because he is overworked, distracted, and incapable of concentrating. Moreover, the material dependence that is his lot has an effect on his mind, so he finally believes that he is not qualified to come to his own conclusions.
His self-confidence is also affected by the prodigious developments in knowledge. He cannot comprehend or assimilate the new discoveries. He is forced to accept them as givens, although he does not understand them. As a result of this attitude toward scientific truth he begins to doubt his own judgment in other spheres of thought.
Thus the circumstances of the age do their best to deliver us to the spirit of the age. The seed of skepticism has germinated. In fact, modern man no longer has any confidence in himself. Behind a self-assured exterior he conceals an inner lack of confidence. In spite of his great technological achievements and material possessions, he is an altogether stunted being, because he makes no use of his capacity for thinking. It will always remain incomprehensible that our generation, which has shown itself so great by its discoveries and inventions, could fall so low in the realms of thought.
In a period that ridicules as antiquated and without value whatever seems akin to rational or independent thought, and which even mocks the inalienable human rights proclaimed in the eighteenth century, I declare myself to be one who places all his confidence in rational thinking. I venture to tell our generation that it is not at the end of rationalism just because past rationalism first gave way to romanticism and later to a pretended realism that reigned in intellectual as well as material life. When we have passed through all the follies of the so-called universal realpolitik, and because of it suffered spiritual misery, there will be no other choice but to turn to a new rationalism more profound and more effective than that of the past. To renounce thinking is to declare mental bankruptcy.
When we give up the conviction that we can arrive at the truth through thinking, skepticism appears. Those who work toward greater skepticism in our age expect that by denouncing all hope of self-discovered truth, men will come to accept as true whatever is forced up on them by authority and by propaganda.
But their calculations are mistaken. Whoever opens the sluices to let a flood of skepticism pour over the land cannot assume that later he can stem the flood. Only a few of those who give up the search for truth will be so docile as to submit once and for all to official doctrine. The mass of people will remain skeptical. They lose all desire for truth, finding themselves quite comfortable in a life without thought, driven now here, now there, from one opinion to another.
But merely accepting authoritarian truth, even if that truth has some virtue, does not bring skepticism to an end. To blindly accept a truth one has never reflected upon retards the advance of reason. Our world rots in deceit. Our very attempt to manipulate truth itself brings us to the brink of disaster.
Truth based on a skepticism that has become belief has not the spiritual qualities of truth that originated in thought. It is superficial and inflexible. It exerts an influence over man, but it cannot reach his inner being. Living truth is only that which has its origin in thought.
Just as a tree bears the same fruit year after year and at the same time fruit that is new each year, so must all permanently valuable ideas be continually created anew in thought. But our age pretends to make a sterile tree bear fruit by tying fruits of truth onto its branches.
Only when we gain confidence that we can find the truth through our own individual thought will we be able to arrive at living truth. Independent thought, provided it is profound, never degenerates into subjectivity. What is true in our tradition will be brought to light through deep thought, and it can become the force of reason in us. The will to sincerity must be as strong as the will to truth. Only an age that has the courage of conviction can possess truth that works as a force of spirit and of reason.
Sincerity is the foundation of the life of the mind and spirit. With its disdain for thinking, our generation has lost its feeling for sincerity. It can therefore be helped only by reviving the voice of thought.
Because I have this certainty, I oppose the spirit of the age and accept with confidence the responsibility for contributing to the rekindling of the fire of thought.
The concept of Reverence for Life is by its very nature especially well qualified to take up the struggle against skepticism. It is elemental.
Elemental thinking starts from fundamental questions about the relationship of man to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good. It is directly linked to the thought that motivates all people. It penetrates our thought, enlarges and deepens it, and makes it more profound.
We find such elemental thinking in Stoicism. When as a student I began to study the history of philosophy, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Stoicism and to make my way through the utterly different thinking that succeeded it. It is true that the results of Stoic thought did not satisfy me, but I had the feeling that this simple kind of philosophizing was the right one. I could not understand how people had come to abandon it.
Stoicism seemed to me great in that it goes straight for its goal, is universally intelligible and at the same time profound. It makes the best of what it recognizes as truth, even if it is not completely satisfying. It puts life into that truth by seriously devoting itself to it. It possesses the spirit of sincerity and urges men to gather their thoughts and to become more inward. It arouses in them a sense of responsibility. It also seemed to me that the fundamental tenet of Stoicism is correct, namely that man must bring himself into a spiritual relation with the world and become one with it. In its essence, Stoicism is a natural philosophy that ends in mysticism.
Just as I felt Stoicism to be elemental, so I felt that the thought of Lao-tse was the same when I became acquainted with his Tao-te-king. For him, too, it is important that man come, by simple thought, into a spiritual relation with the world and prove his unity with it by his life.
There is, therefore, an essential relationship between Greek Stoicism and Chinese philosophy. The difference between them is that the first had its origin in well-developed, logical thinking, the second in intuitive thinking that was undeveloped yet marvelously profound.
This elemental thinking, however, which emerges in European as in Far Eastern philosophy, has not been able to maintain the position of leadership that it should occupy within systems of thought. It is unsuccessful because its conclusions do not satisfy our needs.
Stoic thought neglects the impulse that leads to ethical acts that manifest themselves in the will to live as it evolved with the intellectual and spiritual development of man. Hence Greek Stoicism goes no further than the ideal of resignation, Lao-tse no further than the benign passivity that to us Europeans seems so curious and paradoxical.
The history of philosophy documents that the thoughts of ethical affirmation of life, which are natural to man, cannot be content with the results of simple logical thinking about man and his relationship to the universe. They cannot integrate themselves. Logical thought is forced to take detours via which it hopes to arrive at its goal. The detours logic has to take lead primarily to an interpretation of the universe in which ethical action has meaning and purpose.
In the late Stoicism of Epictetus, of Marcus Aurelius, and of Seneca, in the rationalism of the eighteenth century, and in that of Cong-tse (Confucius), Meng-tse (Mencius), Mi-tse (Micius), and other Chinese thinkers, philosophy starts from the fundamental problem of the relationship of man to the universe and reaches an ethical affirmation of life and of the world. This philosophy traces the course of world events back to a world will with ethical aims, and claims man for service to it.
In the thinking of Brahmanism and of the Buddha, in the Indian systems generally, and in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the opposite explanation of the world is put forward, namely that the life that runs its course in space and time is purposeless and must be brought to an end. The sensible attitude of man to the world is therefore to renounce the world and life.
Side by side with the kind of thought that is concerned with elemental issues, another kind has emerged, especially in European philosophy. I call it “secondary” because it does not focus on the relationship between man and the universe. It is concerned with the problem of the nature of knowledge, with logical speculation, with natural science, with psychology, with sociology, and with other things, as if philosophy were really concerned with the answers to all these questions for their own sake, or as if it consisted merely in sifting and systematizing the results of various sciences. Instead of urging man toward constant meditation about himself and his relationship to the world, this philosophy presents him with the results of epistemology, of logical deduction, of natural science, of psychology, or of sociology, as if it could, with the help of these disciplines, arrive at a concept of his relation with the universe.
On all these issues this “secondary” philosophy discourses with him as if he were, not a being who is in the world and lives his life in it, but one who is stationed near it and contemplates it from the outside.
Because it approaches the problem of the relationship of man to the universe from some arbitrarily chosen standpoint, or perhaps it bypasses it altogether, this nonelemental European philosophy lacks unity and cohesion. It appears more or less restless, artificial, eccentric, and fragmentary. At the same time, it is the richest and most universal. In its systems, half-systems, and nonsystems, which succeed and interpenetrate each other, it is able to contemplate the problem of philosophy of civilization from every side and every possible perspective. It is also the most practical in that it deals with the natural sciences, history, and ethical questions more profoundly than the others do.
The world philosophy of the future will not result in efforts to reconcile European and non-European thought but rather in the confrontation between elemental and nonelemental thinking.
Mysticism is not part of intellectual life today. By its nature, it is a kind of elemental thought that attempts to establish a spiritual relationship between man and the universe. Mysticism does not believe that logical reasoning can achieve this unity, and it therefore retreats into intuition, where imagination has free reign. In a certain sense, then, mysticism goes back to a mode of thinking that takes roundabout routes.
Since we only accept knowledge that is based on truth attained through logical reasoning, the convictions on which mysticism is founded cannot become our own. Moreover, they are not satisfying in themselves. Of all the mysticism of the past it must be said that its ethical content is slight. It puts men on the road of inwardness, but not on that of a viable ethic. The truth of philosophy is not proved until it has led us to experience the relationship between our being and that of the universe, an experience that makes us genuine human beings, guided by an active ethic.
Against the spiritual void of our age, neither nonelemental thought with its long-winded interpretations of the world nor the intuition of mysticism can do anything effective.
The great German philosophical systems of the early nineteenth century were greeted with enthusiasm, yet they prepared the ground on which skepticism developed.
In order to become thinking beings again, people must rediscover their ability to think, so they can attain the knowledge and wisdom they need to truly live. The thinking that starts from Reverence for Life is a renewal of elemental thinking. The stream that has been flowing for a long distance underground resurfaces again.
The belief that elemental thought can lead us today to an affirmative ethic of life and the world, for which it has searched in the past in vain, is no illusion.
The world does not consist of phenomena only; it is also alive. I must establish a relationship with my life in this world, insofar as it is within my reach, one that is not only passive but active. In dedicating myself to the service of whatever lives, I find an activity that has meaning and purpose.
The idea of Reverence for Life offers itself as the realistic answer to the realistic question of how man and the universe are related to each other. Of the universe, man knows only that everything that exists is, like himself, a manifestation of the will to live. With this universe, he stands in both a passive and an active relationship. On the one hand he is subject to the flow of world events; on the other hand he is able to preserve and build, or to injure and destroy, the life that surrounds him.
The only possible way of giving meaning to his existence is to raise his physical relationship to the world to a spiritual one. If he remains a passive being, through resignation he enters into a spiritual relationship with the world. True resignation is this: that man, feeling his subordination to the course of world events, makes his way toward inward freedom from the fate that shapes his external existence. Inward freedom gives him the strength to triumph over the difficulties of everyday life and to become a deeper and more inward person, calm and peaceful. Resignation, therefore, is the spiritual and ethical affirmation of one’s own existence. Only he who has gone through the trial of resignation is capable of accepting the world.
By playing an active role, man enters into a spiritual relationship with this world that is quite different: he does not see his existence in isolation. On the contrary, he is united with the lives that surround him; he experiences the destinies of others as his own. He helps as much as he can and realizes that there is no greater happiness than to participate in the development and protection of life.
Once man begins to think about the mystery of his life and the links connecting him with the life that fills the world, he cannot but accept, for his own life and all other life that surrounds him, the principle of Reverence for Life. He will act according to this principle of the ethical affirmation of life in everything he does. His life will become in every respect more difficult than if he lived for himself, but at the same time it will be richer, more beautiful, and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a genuine experience of life.
Beginning to think about life and the world leads us directly and almost irresistibly to Reverence for Life. No other conclusions make any sense.
If the man who has begun to think wishes to persist in merely vegetating, he can do so only by submitting to a life devoid of thought. If he perseveres in his thinking he will arrive at Reverence for Life.
Any thought that claims to lead to skepticism or life without ethical ideals is not genuine thought but thoughtlessness disguised as thinking. This is manifested by the absence of any interest in the mystery of life and the world.
Reverence for Life in itself contains resignation, an affirmative attitude toward the world, and ethics. These are the three essential and inseparable elements of a worldview that is the result (or fruit) of thinking.
Because it has its origin in realistic thinking, the ethic of Reverence for Life is realistic, and leads man to a realistic and clear confrontation with reality.
It may look, at first glance, as if Reverence for Life were something too general and too lifeless to provide the content for a living ethic. But thinking need not worry about whether its expressions sound lively, so long as they hit the mark and have life in them. Anyone who comes under the influence of the ethic of Reverence for Life will very soon be able to detect, thanks to what that ethic demands from him, the fire that glows in the seemingly abstract expression. The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as a logical consequence of thought.
Some object that this ethic sets too high a value on natural life. To this one can respond that the mistake made by all previous ethical systems has been the failure to recognize that life as such is the mysterious value with which they have to deal. Reverence for Life, therefore, is applied to natural life, and the life of the mind alike. In the parable of Jesus, the shepherd saves not merely the soul of the lost sheep but the whole animal. The stronger the reverence for natural life, the stronger also that for spiritual life.
The ethic of Reverence for Life is judged particularly strange because it establishes no dividing line between higher and lower, between more valuable and less valuable life. It has its reasons for this omission.
To undertake to establish universally valid distinctions of value between different kinds of life will end in judging them by the greater or lesser distance at which they stand from us human beings. Our own judgment is, however, a purely subjective criterion. Who among us knows what significance any other kind of life has in itself, as a part of the universe?
From this distinction comes the view that there can be life that is worthless, which can be willfully destroyed. Then in the category of worthless life we may classify various kinds of insects, or primitive peoples, according to circumstances.
To the person who is truly ethical all life is sacred, including that which from the human point of view seems lower. Man makes distinctions only as each case comes before him, and under the pressure of necessity, as, for example, when it falls to him to decide which of two lives he must sacrifice in order to preserve the other. But all through this series of decisions he is conscious of acting on subjective grounds and arbitrarily, and he knows that he bears the responsibility for the life that is sacrificed.
I rejoice over the new remedies for sleeping sickness, which enable me to preserve life, where once I could only witness the progress of a painful disease. But every time I put the germs that cause the disease under the microscope I cannot but reflect that I have to sacrifice this life in order to save another.
I bought from some villagers a young osprey they had caught on a sandbank, in order to rescue it from their cruel hands. But then I had to decide whether I should let it starve, or kill a number of small fishes every day in order to keep it alive. I decided on the latter course, but every day the responsibility to sacrifice one life for another caused me pain.
Standing, as all living beings are, before this dilemma of the will to live, man is constantly forced to preserve his own life and life in general only at the cost of other life. If he has been touched by the ethic of Reverence for Life, he injures and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness.
Devoted as I was from boyhood to the cause of protecting animal life, it is a special joy to me that the universal ethic of Reverence for Life shows such sympathy with animals – so often represented as sentimentality – to be an obligation no thinking person can escape. Past ethics faced the problem of the relationship between man and animal either without sensitivity or as being incomprehensible. Even when there was sympathy with animal creation, it could not be brought within the scope of ethics because ethics focused solely on the behavior of man to man.
Will the time ever come when public opinion will no longer tolerate popular amusements that depend on the maltreatment of animals!
The ethic, then, that originates in thinking is not “rational,” but irrational and enthusiastic. It does not draw a circle of well-defined tasks around me, but charges each individual with responsibility for all life within his reach and forces him to devote himself to helping that life.
Any profound view of the universe is mystic in that it brings men into spiritual relationship with the Infinite. The concept of Reverence for Life is ethical mysticism. It allows union with the Infinite to be realized by ethical action. This ethical mysticism originates in logical thinking. If our will to live begins to meditate about itself and the universe, we will become sensitive to life around us and will then, insofar as it is possible, dedicate through our actions our own will to live to that of the infinite will to live. Rational thinking, if it goes deep, ends of necessity in the irrational realm of mysticism. It has, of course, to deal with life and the world, both of which are nonrational entities.
In the universe the infinite will to live reveals itself to us as will to create, and this is filled with dark and painful riddles for us. It manifests itself in us as the will to love, which resolves the riddles through our actions. The concept of Reverence for Life therefore has a religious character. The person who adopts and acts upon this belief is motivated by a piety that is elemental.
With its active ethic of love, and through its spirituality, the concept of the world that is based on respect for life is in essence related to Christianity and to all religions that profess the ethic of love. Now we can establish a lively relationship between Christianity and thought that we never before had in our spiritual life.
In the eighteenth century Christianity in the time of rationalism entered into an alliance with thought. It was able to do so because at that time it encountered an enthusiastic ethic that was religious in character. Thought itself had not produced this ethic, however, but had unwittingly taken it over from Christianity. When, later on, it had to depend solely upon its own ethic, this proved to have little life and so little religion that it had not much in common with Christian ethics. As a consequence, the bonds between Christianity and active thought were loosened. Today Christianity has withdrawn into itself and is occupied with the propagation of its own ideas in agreement with thought, but prefers to regard them as something altogether outside of, and superior to, rational thought. Christianity thereby loses its connection with the elemental spirit of the times and the possibility of exercising any real influence over it.
The philosophy of Reverence for Life once again poses the question of whether Christianity will or will not join hands with a form of thought that is both ethical and religious in character.
To become aware of its real self, Christianity needs thought. For centuries it treasured the great commandments of love and mercy as traditional truths without opposing slavery, witch burning, torture, and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity committed in its name. Only when it experienced the influence of the thinking of the Enlightenment was Christianity stirred up to enter the struggle for humanitarian principles. This remembrance ought to keep it forever from assuming any air of arrogance vis-à-vis thought.
Many people find pleasure today in recalling how “superficial” Christianity became in the Enlightenment. It is, however, only fair to acknowledge to what degree this “superficial” character was balanced by the services Christianity rendered in this period.
Today torture has been reestablished. In many countries the system of justice quietly tolerates torture being applied before and simultaneously with the regular proceedings of police and prison officials in order to extract confessions form those accused. The amount of suffering thus caused every hour surpasses imagination. To this renewal of torture Christianity today offers no opposition even in words, much less in deeds.
Because Christianity hardly acts on its spiritual or ethical principles, it deceives itself with the delusion that its position as a Church becomes stronger every year. It is accommodating itself to the spirit of the age by adopting a kind of modern worldliness. Like other organized bodies it tries to prove itself by becoming an ever stronger and more uniform organization, justified and recognized through its role in history and its institutions. But as it gains external power, it loses in spiritual power.
Christianity cannot take the place of thinking, but it must be founded on it. In and by itself it is not capable of overcoming thoughtlessness and skepticism. Only an age that draws its strength from thought and from an elemental piety can recognize the imperishable character of Christianity.
Just as a stream is kept from gradually drying up because it flows along above underground water, so Christianity needs the underground water of elemental piety that issues from thinking. It can only attain real spiritual power when men no longer find the road from thought to religion barred.
I know that I myself owe it to thought that I was able to retain my faith in religion.
The thinking person stands up more freely in the face of traditional religious truth than the nonthinking person and feels the intrinsic, profound, and imperishable elements much more strongly.
Anyone who has recognized that the idea of love is the spiritual ray of light that reaches us from the infinite ceases to demand from religion that it offer him complete knowledge of the metaphysical. He ponders, indeed, the great questions: What is the meaning of evil in the world? How in God, the source of being, are the will to create and the will to love one? In what relation do the spiritual life and the material life stand to one another? And in what way is our existence transitory and yet eternal? But he is able to leave these questions unanswered, however painful that may be. In the knowledge of his spiritual union with God through love he possesses all that is necessary.
“Love never faileth: but whether there be knowledge it shall be done away,” says Paul.
The deeper is piety, the humbler are its claims with regard to knowledge of the metaphysical. It is like a path that winds between the hills instead of running over them.
The fear that a Christianity that sees the origin of piety in thought will sink into pantheism is without foundation. All living Christianity is pantheistic, since it regards everything that exists as having its origin in the source of all being. But at the same time all ethical piety is superior to any pantheistic mysticism, in that it does not find the God of love in nature, but knows about Him only from the fact that He announces Himself in us as the will to love. The First Cause of Being, as He manifests Himself in nature, is to us always impersonal. To the First Cause of Being that is revealed to us in the will to love, however, we relate as to an ethical personality.
The belief that the Christianity that has been influenced by rational thought has lost its ability to appeal to man’s conscience, to his sinfulness, is unfounded. We cannot see that sin has diminished where it has been much talked about. There is not much about it in the Sermon on the Mount. But thanks to the longing for deliverance from sin and for purity of heart that Jesus has included in the Beatitudes, these form the great call to repentance that is unceasingly working on man.
If Christianity, for the sake of any tradition or for any considerations whatever, refuses to let itself be interpreted in terms of ethical religious thinking, it will be a misfortune for itself and for mankind. Christianity needs to be filled with the spirit of Jesus, and in the strength of that shall spiritualize itself into the living religion of inwardness and love that is its destiny. Only then can it become the leaven in the spiritual life of mankind.
What has been presented as Christianity during these nineteen centuries is merely a beginning, full of mistakes, not a full-grown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.
Because I am deeply devoted to Christianity, I am trying to serve it with loyalty and sincerity. I do not attempt to defend it with the fragile and ambiguous arguments of Christian apologetics. I demand from Christianity that it reform itself in the spirit of sincerity and with thoughtfulness, so it may become conscious of its true nature.
To the question of whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.
I am pessimistic because I feel the full weight of what we conceive to be the absence of purpose in the course of world events. Only at rare moments have I felt really glad to be alive. I cannot help but feel the suffering all around me, not only of humanity but of the whole creation.
I have never tried to withdraw myself from this community of suffering. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain that lies upon the world. Even while I was a boy at school it was clear to me that no explanation of the evil in the world could ever satisfy me; all explanations, I felt, ended in sophistries, and at the bottom had no other object than to minimize our sensitivity to the misery around us. That a thinker like Leibnitz could reach the miserable conclusion that though this world is, indeed, not good, it is the best that is possible, I have never been able to understand.
But however concerned I was with the suffering in the world, I never let myself become lost in brooding over it. I always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of it to an end. Thus I gradually came to the conclusion that all we can understand about the problem is that we must follow our own way as those who want to bring about deliverance.
I am also pessimistic about the current world situation. I cannot persuade myself that it is better than it appears to be. I feel that we are on a fatal road, that if we continue to follow it, it will bring us into a new “Dark Ages.” I see before me, in all its dimensions, the spiritual and material misery to which mankind has surrendered because it has renounced thinking and the ideals that thought engenders.
And yet I remain optimistic. One belief from my childhood I have preserved with a certainty I can never lose: belief in truth. I am confident that the spirit generated by truth is stronger than the force of circumstances. In my view no other destiny awaits mankind than that which, through its mental and spiritual disposition, it prepares for itself. Therefore I do not believe that it will have to tread the road to ruin right to the end.
If people can be found who revolt against the spirit of thoughtlessness and are sincere and profound enough to spread the ideals of ethical progress, we will witness the emergence of a new spiritual force strong enough to evoke a new spirit in mankind.
Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind. Ethical acceptance of the world contains within itself an optimistic willing and hoping that can never be lost. It is, therefore, never afraid to face the somber reality as it really is.
In my own life, I had times in which anxiety, trouble, and sorrow were so overwhelming that, had my nerves not been so strong, I might have broken down under the weight. Heavy is the burden of fatigue and responsibility that has lain upon me without break for years. I have not had much of my life for myself. But I have had blessings too: that I am allowed to work in the service of compassion; that my work has been successful; that I receive from other people affection and kindness in abundance; that I have loyal helpers who consider my work as their own; that I enjoy health that allows me to undertake the most exhausting work; that I have a well-balanced temperament, which varies little, and an energy that can be exerted with calm and deliberation; and that I can recognize whatever happiness I feel and accept it as a gift.
I am also deeply grateful that I can work in freedom at a time when an oppressive dependence is the fate of so many. Though my immediate work is practical, I also have opportunities to pursue my spiritual and intellectual interests.
That the circumstances of my life have provided such favorable conditions for my work, I accept as a blessing for which I hope to prove worthy.
How much of the work I have planned shall I be able to complete?
My hair is beginning to turn gray. My body is beginning to show signs of the exertions I have demanded of it and of the passage of the years.
I look back with gratitude to the time when, without having to husband my strength, I could pursue my physical and mental activities without interruption.
I look forward to the future with calmness and humility so that I may be prepared for renunciation if it be required of me. Whether we are active or suffering, we must find the courage of those who have struggled to achieve the peace that passeth all understanding.
Back to readings
…the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering…
I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought.
Man today is exposed throughout his life to influences that try to rob him of all confidence in his own thinking.
In fact, modern man no longer has any confidence in himself.
I declare myself to be one who places all his confidence in rational thinking.
Living truth is only that which has its origin in thought.
Sincerity is the foundation of the life of the mind and spirit.
The concept of Reverence for Life is by its very nature especially well qualified to take up the struggle against skepticism.
Stoicism seemed to me great in that it goes straight for its goal…
This philosophy traces the course of world events back to a world will with ethical aims, and claims man for service to it.
The world philosophy of the future will not result in efforts to reconcile European and non-European thought but rather in the confrontation between elemental and nonelemental thinking.
The thinking that starts from Reverence for Life is a renewal of elemental thinking.
In dedicating myself to the service of whatever lives, I find an activity that has meaning and purpose.
The only possible way of giving meaning to his existence is to raise his physical relationship to the world to a spiritual one.
Beginning to think about life and the world leads us directly and almost irresistibly to Reverence