by Moritz Hendrik Hemsteg
On February 17, about 25 people gathered in Stokes Hall to listen to Slovenian theologian, Fr. Roman Globokar as he reflected on German theologian and ethicist Albert Schweitzer. The event was hosted by the Boston College Jesuit Institute and Globokar was introduced by Fr. James Keenan, SJ, president of the Institute.
Schweitzer, known to a broader audience for his studies on the life of Jesus, was, in fact, an eclectic genius. Not only was he a critical exegete and Christian historian, but he was also an innovative ethicist, a highly accomplished organist, and, ultimately, a dedicated medical doctor.
After Schweitzer had earned his degree at the University of Strasbourg, he abandoned theology, only shortly after he had led theology into a new era of critical historical thinking. His colleagues did not like the idea of his leaving academic theology, but the philanthropic young professor headed off to Africa. He served as a doctor for over 50 years in Gabon and other colonial countries.
Besides the biographical data, Globokar went on to present the ethics that Schweitzer had developed throughout his life. Schweitzer was influenced by Protestant culture and thinking. Hence, his ethical system focuses on the individual moral act, while entirely neglecting the social dimension of justice and change. He is therefore, often criticized for not having spoken out against National Socialism and the colonial suppression of Africa.
Schweitzer is known for his ecologically friendly ethical theory. At his time, this was a novelty among academics, something that had not been thought of. However, as a Christian, he was aware of humanity’s impact on nature. He valued each creature’s life to such an extent that he would not let any creature be harmed or killed by a human. Although he knew that only humankind was able to make consciously moral decisions, he believed that the “ethical world” is to be seen beyond human society. Human responsibility refers to something bigger than just humankind – due to the very fact that one knows about one’s involvement in a greater nature.
Although Schweitzer claimed not to be influenced by the culture that surrounded him, he could not escape his own background. He enjoyed being in Africa as this enabled him to reflect upon the occidental background from a greater distance. He liked Africa for its natural richness, but did not like African culture – he himself doubted that there is one – nor did he like the Black Continent for its people, he simply enjoyed being a helping hand. Such a paternalistic approach may well be regarded to be European, if not, colonial.
Schweitzer was a man of the Enlightenment and the great epoch of European classicism. He wrote a musicological book on Johann Sebastian Bach and admired the ethics of Kant. He felt like an older brother who brought culture to people who themselves had none. Above all, he claimed to set up his ethics independently from what he had experienced.
After Globokar finished speaking, he opened up the talk to questions. The audience was curious about Schweitzer’s background, and, as it turned out, very critical about his individualistic emphasis in ethics. Nevertheless, Schweitzer’s thinking was, both in theological as in ethical thinking, way ahead of his time. His writings very much began the new “historical Jesus research” (Historischer-Jesus-Forschung), and his emphasis on ecological responsibility was entirely new in the early twentieth century.