Rediscovering Orthopraxy

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was unique.  A theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was a Christian who lived out his faith in an intensely practical way.

After giving up a career as a distinguished theologian, Schweitzer dedicated his life to serving God as a physician in the West African mission field, more specifically Lambaréné, now in Gabon, but then in French Equatorial Africa. It was there that he built a hospital that served a multitude of people from far and wide.

I first came across Schweitzer when I read his famous ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, then ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’ and the intriguingly titled ‘The Psychiatric Study of Jesus’. A talented and insightful writer, I always got the impression that as a man, Schweitzer was rather modest and avoided couching his thoughts and philosophies in the strident language of a self-assured academic.

Most impressive though for me, was Schweitzer’s ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy, which adopted the principle of non-violence and concern for others as a consistent ethic to live by.  And live by this he did, although he was pragmatic enough to entertain slight deviations from these principles when circumstances dictated.

Also noticeable was Schweitzer’s distaste for colonialism.  Indeed he once wrote:

“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they (the coloured peoples) have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.”

That said, by today’s standards he would still be judged as somewhat paternalistic, but judged by the standards of the time, he was socially progressive.

The film ‘Albert Schweitzer’ is a study in Christian Orthopraxy and explores Schweitzer’s journey, showing his ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy. Part biographical drama/part documentary, this captivating film (with actors playing the characters), traces Schweitzer’s life from birth to about the age of 30 when he makes the decision to devote his life to medical missionary work. The latter half of the film looks at Schweitzer’s busy schedule in the hospital-village and portrays a man who cares deeply for the humans and animals that surround him.

Schweitzer’s ethic is as relevant today, if not more, than it was in his lifetime. In an era of environmental degradation, human and animal exploitation, we surely need to rediscover the power of orthopraxy.

A good place to start is by watching the film which can be accessed here via YouTube:

One thought on “Rediscovering Orthopraxy

  1. I started school at about the time Schweitzer died and so was taught what was basically a hagiography about him. Needless to say when I discovered the truth about his patronising attitudes towards Africans, the way he treated the black staff at his clinics and his general avoidance of social contact with those he had been ‘called to serve’ his feet turned to pretty mucky clay and I doubt his image can ever be rehabilitated in my eyes.

    I’m an Australian Aborigine and my people have a long history with those who have been ‘called to save us’ even if only to ‘smooth our dying pillow’. If you want to help people you start by respecting them. Then there’s a chance you may actually start listening to them and hearing what they need rather than what you need to give them.

    Schweitzer may have been against the worst excesses of colonialism but he lacked insight into his own part in it. In Aboriginal Australia we have a saying: “When the white man came his left hand held a bible and his right hand held a gun”.

    Schweitzer was the left hand of colonialism.


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