Cultivating Moral Leadership in a Secular Age: Reflections on the Life of Albert Schweitzer (2005) - Elinore Barber
Is it possible to cultivate moral leadership in a predominantly secular society? Do such states of being as "profane nobility" or "ethical worldliness" really exist apart from the world of the falsely attempted oxymoron?
Before we seek to answer such questions, we had best define our terms. "Leadership" implies "followers," and one cannot very well assume that the term accurately describes any given person unless there is evidence that this person does (or at least did while living) have a following. Concerning "moral": when employed as an adjective, the term implies that the person, or project, or ethic so described is (or was) "principled" — that is, was in possession of the qualities of character that one could accurately define as "just," "righteous," "seemly," or "noble."
Our basic concern, then, should be focused on whether or not it is likely, or even possible, in a secular society to cultivate leaders who attract followers, not only because of personal magnetism, but, more importantly, because the character traits of such leaders include a full measure of such qualities as those defined by society as righteous, seemly, or of good report. It is to be assumed that the followers of whom we speak will quite naturally possess many, or at least some, of the qualities of their leaders, and thus will pass on to a younger generation, or to a different group of potential leaders, both the desirability, the core advantages, and the details of cultivating a high degree of moral leadership. They will at the same time oppose all forms of mediocrity, insofar as leadership is concerned.
I realize that one might reasonably question the likelihood of such a project being successful, given the high degree of secularization to which our present society has succumbed. However, I am convinced of the naturalness and the effectiveness of leadership emulation. I am also certain that within any worldwide assemblage of human beings there will most likely continue to be a few individuals whose personal standards, skills, experience in living productively, and willingness to act in protection of the positive good, equip them to assume leadership of the highest order.
Society must seek out such individuals, conferring with them and other proven leaders on the degree of support and freedom of action they will need in order to accomplish the elevation of moral leadership that is desired. My experience tells me that such a formula for promoting moral leadership will work. And what of my experience? What situations or events have led me to have confidence in the workability of this "emulative formula" for achieving the moral leadership we desire?
It was my privilege to have had the priceless gift of knowing and working under the guidance of such a leader. I refer to my friendship and the mentor/mentee relationship with the Alsatian philosopher, theologian, medical missionary, and musician, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Dr. Schweitzer's personality and accomplishments not only influenced my aspirations, my activities, and my way of knowing the world and my place in it, but they also convinced me that the successful cultivation of the high degree of moral leadership that we need so desperately today can come to fruition. This will happen when the greater population emulates those men and women whose personalities reflect the qualities of compassion, goodness, and honor which are central to the calling of moral leadership.
For the benefit of those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Schweitzer's career — as director and founder of what was to become the 450-bed Gabonaise hospital and leprosarium, and also as a philosopher, theologian, pastor, musician and university professor — I would note that Albert Schweitzer was the man whom the editors of Time magazine once honored, not as their customary "man of the year," but as a man for whom the biblical quotation, "He that loses his life shall find it" applies most eminently. He was the man whom the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, when conferring an honorary degree, described as "one who has revived for his own generation the vision of greatness." We are speaking of a man who, during his lifetime, was the recipient of more than one hundred medals of distinction, including that of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, the highest honor that the citizens of the world can offer to one of their number. We are describing a man who, in 1951, in the Assembly of the Union Francaise, was addressed with these words: "Your country salutes you as one of the most valiant and noble figures of our time, honoring you not only for the Union of France, but for all mankind."
Let us then take stock of the rich heritage that Dr. Schweitzer has bequeathed to us. As a musician, Schweitzer truly grasped the genuine "spirit of Bach" and was among the first to sense the importance that Bach placed upon the meaning and implication of his compositions, especially those that were constructed around choral melodies. It was Schweitzer who turned the attention of the musicians of his time to the beauty and musical worth of the approximately 200 extant Bach cantatas, and it was largely through his efforts that a new interest in the performing of these cantatas began to take place.
And what of Albert Schweitzer the physician? The more than fifty years of service that he contributed as a medical missionary to equatorial Africa commands our deepest respect. Schweitzer's willingness to give himself fully to a cause which sorely needed his help, and his consequent renunciation of a potentially brilliant European career in the field of philosophy, theology, or music, in order that he might serve in the jungle, is a well-known story.
Throughout his medical career, which spanned over five decades (1913-1965), Schweitzer never sought to avoid the duties and responsibilities that he encountered on a daily basis: he practiced medicine; he built, rebuilt, greatly extended, and kept in repair his hospital plant; he raised most of the funds necessary for the project's continuation; he gathered together sufficient medical supplies, food and equipment to keep the hospital functioning; he recruited doctors and nurses; he planted and tended gardens and orchards; he set up a training program for native nurse's aides. He also preached simply on the Christian tenets of God as Father and Jesus as loving shepherd and Savior. Finally, while carrying this heavy load, he managed to remain current and active in the fields of his basic interests: tropical medicine, philosophy, and the music of Bach. The tens of thousands of lives that Dr. Schweitzer touched as a physician in his gentle, unassuming way, and the completely tireless and selfless manner in which he gave himself to healing the tribesmen of a wide area, must surely constitute one of the most remarkable historical examples of a man's fullest support of his most deeply held ethical and religious convictions.
Let us now consider Dr. Schweitzer's religion. Some have claimed that Schweitzer actually gave up his Christian faith as he got older. This was not the case. In answer to that charge, I would like to share a short letter written in 1954 by Dr. Schweitzer to one of his Godchildren:
. . .You are confirmed and have made the decision to walk through life as a child of God. . . . Remain true to yourself and Jesus! . . . Read for yourself in the New Testament . . . And hold to the Church! If you can be active in the service of religion, do not let the opportunity go by. . . . 1
Perhaps the most enduring legacy that Albert Schweitzer has left to the world is his Ethics of Reverence for Life — a concept which, because of its ideal of humanity, enables men and women to see themselves as spiritually related to the entire universe. One of the rare qualities of this ethic is the fact that in this relationship one can remain active, and thus able to endow his or her culture with an ethical spirit. Schweitzer held that all things were connected by a common "will-to-live," and this became for him the most rudimentary foundation for a moral sympathy for, and ethical consideration of, all living creatures:
What shall be my attitude towards [another] life? It can only be of a piece with my attitude towards my own life. If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence. For I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do myself. Therefore, I see that evil is what annihilates, hampers, or hinders life. And this holds good whether I regard it physically or spiritually. Goodness, by the same token, is the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.
This is the absolute and reasonable ethic. ...Whatever is reasonable is good. This we have been told by all great thinkers. But it reaches its best only in the light of this universal ethic, the ethic of reverence for life....2
Having described some of Dr. Schweitzer's many honors, I think that I might logically be asked: what of Albert Schweitzer the man? What were the most salient qualities of his character? What were the essential elements of his personality? I can only summarize those facets of his character that made a deep and lasting impression on me when I lived for a time in his household. I was continually amazed, for instance, by his relentless self-discipline, his powers of concentration, and his phenomenal memory. I was impressed by his penetrating mind and by both the breadth and depth of his knowledge. I was always delighted by his sense of humor and his joy for life. But most of all, I was deeply moved by his compassion for all about him, by the genuine concern and affection that he showed for each person with whom he came in contact, and by his ability to bring out the best in those who knew him. These, the marks of a great individual, were some of the most outstanding qualities of the man.
Was Albert Schweitzer a great moral leader? Indeed he was. Did he have many followers, despite his spending more than half of his life in the primitive forests of West Africa? Yes, he did. His books and other writings presented his thoughts concerning many of the great moral dilemmas of his time, and his habit of not tearing down the foibles and careless reasoning of his time without suggesting corrective substitutes made his criticisms much more valuable than they otherwise would have been.
Finally, Albert Schweitzer was a man who followed his own philosophical and religious precepts. His life and his life's work reflected his philosophy of reverence for life. He was, indeed, a great leader whose example should be followed, emulated, as we seek to do what some in this present century might consider impractical — that is, cultivate moral leadership in a secular age.