Sunday, 4 October 2015

Reverence for Life

Albert Schweitzer on “Altruism”

'Wherever we find the love and sacrificial care of parents for offspring…we find this ethical power. Indeed, any instance of creatures giving aid to one another reveals it. Let me tell you of three instances which have been brought to my attention.

The first example was told me by someone from Scotland. It happened in a park where a flock of wild geese had settled to rest on a pond. One of the flock had been captured by a gardener, who had clipped its wings before releasing it. When the geese started to resume their flight, this one tried frantically, but vainly, to lift itself into the air. The others, observing his struggles, flew about in obvious efforts to encourage him; but it was no use. Thereupon, the entire flock settled back on the pond and waited, even though the urge to go on was strong within them. For several days they waited until the damaged feathers had grown sufficiently to permit the goose to fly. Meanwhile, the unethical gardener, having been converted by the ethical geese, gladly watched them as they finally rose together, and all resumed their long flight.

My second example is from my hospital in Lambarene. I have the [opportunity] of caring for all stray monkeys that come to our gate. Sometimes there will come to our monkey colony a wee baby monkey whose mother has been killed, leaving this orphaned infant. I must find one of the older monkeys to adopt and care for the baby. I never have any difficulty about it, except to decide which candidate shall be given the responsibility. Many a time it happens that the seemingly worst-tempered monkeys are most insistent upon having this sudden burden of foster-parenthood given to them.

My third example was given me by a friend in Hanover, who owned a small café. He would daily throw out crumbs for the sparrows in the neighbourhood. He noticed that one sparrow was injured, so that it had difficulty getting about. But he was interested to discover that the other sparrows, apparently by mutual agreement, would leave the crumbs which lay nearest to their crippled comrade, so that he could get his share, undisturbed...

(With thanks to Rev Feargus O'Connor for these words by Schweitzer on "Altruism")

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Albert Schweitzer, one of the great figures of the twentieth century. He was incredibly gifted. By the time he was thirty he had achieved more than most of us could even dream of doing in our lifetimes. He was an accomplished musician, minister, theologian and university professor. Then in his early thirties he qualified as a medical doctor and devoted the rest of his life to serving the medical needs of the people of Africa. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

In 1915, while interned in France during the First World War, Schweitzer began to struggle to understand what made life “purposeful”, eventually he came up with his universal ethical principle “Reverence for Life” He said “I am life that wants to live in the midst of other life that wants to live.” He recognised a universal “will to live” in all living beings and claimed that ethical humans would feel compelled to approach all life with the same reverence they have for their own lives. Claiming “‘good’ means to maintain life, to further life, to bring developing life to its highest value. ‘Evil’ means to destroy life, to hurt life, to keep life from developing.” This laid the foundation for his simple universal ethical principle. He saw that "Reverence for Life contains all the components of ethics: love, kindliness, sympathy, empathy, peacefulness, power to forgive." Reverence for life became the by-word of his life and teachings, he promoted the concept that to be an ethical person required us to honour all life and to be a friend of the world, cherishing all aspects of creation. As he wrote “Profound love demands a deep conception and out of this develops reverence for the mystery of life. It brings us close to all beings.”

“Reverence for Life” though is more than ethics, it is a religious imperative. Hence the appropriate use of the word “Reverence”. “Reverence” is a word of real power. “Reverence” literally means “profound, adoring, awed, respect”. “Reverence for Life” has the power to transform, to change the way that life is experienced. Through it an ethical person not only respects life but experiences awe and adoration for every aspect of creation. It is the “Golden Rule” in its purest and most universal form. Through it you see all life as your neighbour and and you love all life as you would wish to be loved yourself.

Nothing in life is separate, everything is interconnected. “Reverence for Life” speaks of life as being interconnected that nothing is separate. Therefore when we disrespect one aspect of life we are disrespecting all and when we revere one aspect, we revere all life. Or to paraphrase Jesus What you do to the least of them, you do to me. Everything is interconnected, nothing lives separately from all life and I believe that is all connected by a Great Universal thread from which all life exists. I call this thread God.

The Great twentieth century theologian and Process philosopher Charles Hartshorne recognised this and as a result urged people of faith to widen their circle of kinship beyond the confines of their own species. He described the universe as a living network rather than a collection of inert forces or senseless objects, He asked: "Is it likely that God takes no delight whatever in the more than a million other living forms on this planet, yet does delight in, derive value from contemplating, the one human species lately emergent on the planet? If such an idea is not sheer anthropomorphic bias, what would be such bias?" Schweitzer did not suffer such speciesism, even as a young boy he recognised God’s love for the animals as he wrote “As a small child, I could not understand why I should pray for human beings only. When my mother first had kissed me good night, I used to add a silent prayer that I composed for all creatures.”

“Reverence for Life” helps us to recognise the importance of everything. It helps us see that everything matters. Every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. It helps us recognise the intrinsic value of our own lives too. It reveals how we see life and how we live in life impacts on everything, including our own souls, our own beings. I am recognising this more and more as I live and breathe and enjoy my own being and that in which I live and breathe and share my being. In recent weeks as I have simply enjoyed walking round where I live I have felt more connected to the people and the nature that I pass and interact with. As my reverence and love for life has grown, so has my love for my own being too.

Today on the day that the congregations I serve pay homage to the animals and the gifts that they freely share with all life I would ask you the reader to also pay homage to Albert Schweitzer and his lasting legacy. When he died, more than 50 years ago, on 4th September 1965 he left a legacy which in my belief is very much at the core of liberal religious thought. This great humanitarian, musician, theologian, medical doctor and ethical philosopher believed that all life should be revered. That life really mattered, that each and every one of us matters, that this world matters and every living creator living in it matters too. That we do not live purely from or for ourselves and that we are connected and held together in so many ways. That if we share our suffering that we can together begin to lift ourselves from this suffering. That we, each of us, have within us the power to make the difference. I did not say change the world, but make a difference. You never know one small act of compassion might just begin a tidal wave of compassion that can impact throughout all life.

It can happen you know. You’ve just got to believe and then make that belief an action. It simply begins by recognising the Divine in all life. It begins with “Reverence for Life”

I'm going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with the following meditation by Kenneth Collier. I have grown to love the stillness of deer in recent weeks, they bring out an awe filled reverence in me...

“The Deer” by Kenneth Collier

You must stand perfectly still and look like a peculiar tree. And if you move, it must look like it was the wind that blew your hand to your face. And the deer will look back at you without moving their tails. They will look right back at you without moving their tails. They will look, and you wil think that maybe they are not really there. But then, they will move their ears, and you will know they are real.

And that is what it is like. It is like the sweet, almost immovable deer. It sounds green, like rain falling through leaves. It sounds blue, like wind across the bay and the sea. It sounds silver and black, like the sky when there is nothing left of the day but sleep and soft sounds of breathing and dreams that drift upwards like smoke and disappear.

It moves as slowly and carefully as a heron stepping deliberately through the still water of the pond. And it is almost silent. Almost. Not quite. Silent like the falling snow is silent. It whispers against the window, or sings, or even hisses like a fire made of apple wood hisses.

Or maybe you won’t know it is there until it stops. Until the whispering is hushes. Maybe you won’t know it is there until it is not there. And then you will long for it, like the dry grass longs for the rain, And all you can do is be still and wait.

But do not worry. And do not hurry. For the clouds will gather eventually and the rain will fall with a rattle into the grass. The whisper will return like the deer that moved its ear and you will sigh a long, sweet sigh, And I know that it is there.

The throaty sound of knowledge, the sudden splash of understanding, washes over you like a waterfall, like starlight, like a dream that makes the day come alive. And you will know it in the little daily things; the smell of coffee, the touch of hands, the sound of light falling on grass, the taste of air after rain. You will never know it and never forget.

But maybe you ask, “What is this thing?” What is it that moves as silently as snow?”

And what shall I answer? It is nothing but the deer.


  1. Lovely, thank you for this. Albert Schweitzer was a man everyone should look up to, and still, his principle of Reverence for life is something that not many people accept and implement in their lives. I watch people throw out and hit helpless animals, sick kittens, squish a bug fur going it`s own way, out in the open. Disrespect is the principle we live by. Disrespect and entitlement. I wish more people knew about Albert...Him, and the Kant`s principle "Sapere aude" or "Dare to think" would really make a difference in this world...But, I cannot find anyone who acts by them. Sorry for the rant, but I so desperately need to see reverence and thinking in my surroundings...And I don`t.

  2. Thank you Zvezdana for your lovely comments. Best wishes Danny