By Dr. Gregory Allen Robbins
Last summer I began preparing for a continuing education course I would teach for three weeks in September for the University of Denver’s Enrichment Program for life-long learners. The course would be focused on the life and work of Albert Schweitzer. September 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of his death.
Born in 1875, Schweitzer was an accomplished theologian, musician, and missionary. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. Even at the age of 26 Schweitzer had established himself as a New Testament scholar of unusual promise. His 1906 watershed work, Quest of the Historical Jesus, has had a lasting impact on historical Jesus studies. His 1908 biography of J.S. Bach was also considered definitive. Five years later, after adding medical degree to his impressive résumé, Schweitzer commenced on a life devoted to missionary service in Africa, during which time he not only continued his biblical and musical studies but also fostered the renaissance of tracker organ building. There he also articulated a worldview he characterized as “reverence of life,” one that, drew out the ethical and ecological implications of what he saw to be at the core of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Consider the overall shape of the argument in Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus. Like some of his contemporaries, Schweitzer sought to distinguish the historical Jesus from the Christ of dogma. In doing that he found it necessary to assert what many in his own day had overlooked: Jesus was a Jew. More importantly, Schweitzer maintained, Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew who preached an eschatological message and lived accordingly. By his reading of the Gospels, Schweitzer was convinced that Jesus’ ministry betrayed a consistent eschatology. The beginning and the end of that ministry were keys to the middle.
Jesus began his career by being baptized by John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet. He was crucified at the hands of the Romans who considered him an insurrectionist. The historically reliable traditions of Jesus’ deeds make sense only against the backdrop of an apocalyptic self-understanding: his choice of twelve disciples, his association with outcasts, his reputation as a miracle worker, his cleansing of the Temple. The teachings (parables) and radical ethic were consistent with an apocalyptic worldview that limned both an ending of the evil age in which he found himself and hope for God’s righteous rule he both expected as imminent and enacted as if present. That worldview set him on a collision course with Jewish religious leaders and with Roman authority.
Reading Schweitzer in late July meant that Advent 2015 came early for me. In the dog days of summer I was caught up in the same welter of texts the lectionary now asks us to contemplate as autumn gives way to the shivering blasts of winter. What might we learn from these passages with their dire language of endings and their fervent messages of hope in the face of so much darkness? How do they function? Reading Schweitzer and others (especially the work of my late teacher Rowan Greer as he guides us through the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Augustine, John Donne and Jeremy Taylor), here is what I’ve come up with.
Eschatological and apocalyptic thinking, with their concomitant elements of endings and beginnings remind us that hope necessarily exposes what is tragic in human life. We cannot hope to know what hope itself is unless first we come to terms fully with what we might agree is hopeless in our world—the inevitability of death and affliction, the ways in which we make war on one another and on ourselves, the sense of meaninglessness and lovelessness that often overwhelms us. Hope that is truly hope-full requires that we see evil for what it is.
Wrestling with endings and with hope also turns a searchlight on and reveals those aspects of our lives in this world that we know will and must last, those things that will find their completion and perfection the age to come. For example, apocalyptic and eschatological writings have a clear eye for the beauty and order of the physical creation; they delight in it. Why else would the Book of Revelation end as it does with the repristinization of the cosmos?
We sense, too, that we can and do experience fellowship with God and with one another in this life, and that our fellowship in the Church gives us a glimpse of what is surely perdurable. Eschatological and apocalyptic visions are not without an emphasis on continuity; in the midst of chaos, mysteriously, our destiny is adumbrated.
Visions of endings and of hope have also to do with the moral life. Their promise carries a demand. How shall we respond to hope? How shall we live our lives meaningfully in the meantime? Had Jesus and the Jewish seers in whose line he stood only announced doom and gloom, what would have been the benefit?
Reading Schweitzer before and thinking about him again during Advent helps me recognize that at this season I am/we are caught between paradigms of discontinuity and anticipation on the one hand, and paradigms of continuity and participation on other. We see – both things that can’t last and those that must be. Schweitzer thought that to be thus placed, on an Archimedean point, so to speak, was to be liberated from the tyranny of a world that always finds a way of affirming itself as the best of all possible worlds, and to begin to grasp the meaning of the Incarnation of the One “who comes to us as unknown.” May it be so for us in this season.
Dr. Gregory Allen Robbins is the Director of the Anglican Studies Program at Iliff School of Theology, Canon Theologian at Saint John’s Cathedral–Denver, and an Associate Professor of Christian Origins / Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.