Today the church honors someone theologians have called “a better doctor,” and who doctors have called “a better theologian,” Albert Schweitzer, Physician and Theologian.
St. Albert was born in Upper Alsace (which is now a part of France, but was German land at the time) in 1875, the eldest son of a Lutheran pastor. He studied philosophy and theology, and was even known to tickle the organ keys during his schooling at Stasbourg. He earned his doctorate in philosophy, and was a lecturer in the field. He then earned his doctorate in theology, and was also ordained as a pastor.
He, apparently, had a lot of time on his hands.
He also found the energy to study organ performance in Paris and, while there, wrote a book on the life and art of J.S. Bach. Around that same time he also wrote his seminal Quest for the Historical Jesus, which remains a foundational text for the historical-critical study of theology. He dared to suggest that Jesus’ own working theology was shaped by his belief in a “soon and very soon to be realized eschatology.” In other words: Jesus thought the world was going to end pretty quickly.
In 1905 St. Albert did a nice little pivot in his life and career and announced that he was going to become a medical missionary. He abandoned his lecture circuit and his scholarly appointments, married a nurse, and went to medical school.
One wonders about the amount of debt he incurred…
On Good Friday in 1913 he and his partner embarked on a journey through French Equatorial Africa and constructed a hospital near the Ogooue River.
During the first World War, Schwietzer was interned as an enemy alien due to his German heritage. While imprisoned he wrote Philosophy of Civilization which encouraged a “reverence for life” in all its forms. After the war he eventually returned to Africa to rebuild the hospital, and added a leper colony as part of the expansion.
He won a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952.
Though he was sometimes known for being patriarchal and difficult to work with, and despite the fact that his medical knowledge appears to have been, er, lacking and lagging behind the best advanced practices, he was an undeniable humanitarian. The world was not ready for most of his thoughts, in both theology and in medicine, where he focused more on the comfort and dignity of the patient over cold progress. He spoke against the practice of using atomic bombs in the years after the second World War, and stuck to his belief that all humanity deserved dignity.
St. Schweitzer died at the age of 91 in 1965.
Fun fact: my internship parish had a statue of him in the sanctuary.
He is a reminder to me that it is never too late to follow the interests of your heart, and that dignity is worth fighting for.
Even if it takes a lifetime.
-history gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations