ISSUES OF FAITH: Calling on Albert Schweitzer and his ‘stand to reason’

DISDAIN FOR SCIENCE, the splitting off of reason from religion, “fake news”!

For solace and hope, I turn to the life and thought of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

A scholar with groundbreaking accomplishments in three different academic disciplines — theology, philosophy and music — Schweitzer, 1875-1965, was most well-known for his humanitarian work as a physician in bringing modern medical treatment to the tropical rainforests of Gabon in Equatorial Africa and in working to bring about nuclear disarmament. (He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.)

And, importantly for our times, Schweitzer insisted that thought and religion belong together, that the deepest truths of religion should “stand to reason.”

Subject to reason

What this means is that one’s most comprehensive beliefs, highest ideals, deepest values and ultimate allegiances ought to be grounded in thought; they ought to be subject to human reason.

It means that one’s authority in religion, as for life in general, should ultimately be based on one’s own deep reflection, reason and experience rather than on inherited scriptures, creeds, confessions or councils.

This is not in any way to disparage the value of received tradition or past revelations of truth, but simply to signify that a person’s religious philosophy must pass through the refining fire of one’s individual exploration and reflection.

Now, obviously we do not have the time or resources to test and examine everything ourselves; we must rely on the research and experience of others.

But in Schweitzer’s approach, one must never abdicate the right to question, to doubt, to subject any opinion to the bar of reason and deep reflective thought.

Schweitzer, an ordained Lutheran minister, wrote: “From my youth I have held the conviction that all religious truth must in the end be capable of being grasped as something that stands to reason.”

He continued, “I, therefore, believe that Christianity, in the contest with philosophy and with other religions, should not ask for exceptional treatment, but should be in the thick of the battle of ideas, relying solely on the power of its own inherent truth” (Christianity and the Religions of the World, pp. 18-19).

Schweitzer believed that the person who approached traditional religious teaching with an open and free mind could more easily assimilate the profound and imperishable elements contained in it while letting the rest go.

For him, the life of the spirit and the life of the mind ought to be in partnership — as in the following statements:

“Nothing but what is born of thought and addresses itself to thought can be a spiritual power affecting the whole of mankind” (The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, p. 86).

“The most profound religious experience, too, is not alien to thought, but must be capable of derivation from this if it is to be given a true and deep basis” (The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, p. 102).

“All deep religious feeling becomes thoughtful, all truly profound thinking becomes religious” (“Liberal Christianity,” Le Monde Religieux, p. 41).

Schweitzer believed that “renunciation of thinking is a declaration of spiritual bankruptcy.”

He said, “When there is no longer a conviction that individuals can get to know the truth by their own thinking, skepticism begins.”

And where such skepticism is present — that is, where “the hope of self-discovered truth” has been lost — then people “will end by accepting as truth what is forced upon them with authority and by propaganda” (Out of My Life and Thought, pp. 222-223).


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]

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