Honest to Jesus


          The Quest of the Historical Jesus, by Albert Schweitzer


It is strange how quickly people who have been celebrated in one generation are forgotten in another.  The name of Albert Schweitzer probably means nothing now to many people, yet twenty or thirty years ago he was almost universally admired and respected for his work as a medical missionary in central Africa, and indeed was awarded a Nobel Prize towards the end of his long life.  Here was a man, a philosopher and musician as well as a doctor, who gave up a promising career in Europe for the care of the weak and afflicted in the depths of what was then called "the dark continent"


If people have so forgotten Schweitzer's humanitarian work, they have even more forgotten its  roots in his radical commitment to the following of Jesus, one that was focused in his most famous book, published a century ago this year – "The Quest of the Historical Jesus".


Schweitzer grew up in a liberal Christian home, his Father being a Lutheran pastor in Alsace, and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Strasburg.  From the very beginning his was a questing and seeking faith, one that was always on a journey, and which recognised the necessity of commitment to truth, wherever it might lead him.  In later life he wrote that he was certain "that truthfulness in all things belongs to the Spirit of Jesus". A faith which refused to do this was not worthy of a Lord who is called "the Truth"  (John 14:6)    


His book, which followed on earlier studies of the language and imagery of the Gospels, was a response to the nineteenth century enthusiasm for "lives of Jesus".  Various scholars, including on the continent men such as Strauss, Lessing, Renan and Wrede, had attempted to write what were effectively biographies of Jesus – such works were very popular.  Schweitzer's concern however was that they ran the risk of accommodating the Gospel picture of the historical Jesus to the prevailing culture – so often the Jesus presented in these "lives" was effectively an embodiment of the values of the writer and his times.   Schweitzer observed that so often the writing of these "lives" was like a man looking down a deep well and seeing his own reflection at the bottom.


Against such unconscious domestications of Jesus Schweitzer stressed the strangeness and otherness of Jesus' teaching in the first three Gospels. The Jesus we meet there, he said, is one who speaks of the contrast between the ways of God and those of the world, and whose vision of the Kingdom of God is of one which will collide with and challenge human values. The Jesus of the Gospels and the God he reveals is one who at times is a comforter but is also a disturber, who speaks of God's power breaking in on human lives.


Now, biblical scholarship has moved a long way from Schweitzer, and would want to question his very black and white description of the teaching of Jesus, not least how much Jesus in his human nature expected and proclaimed an imminent end of this world when the Kingdom of God would appear.  However, he was surely right to warn against our attempts to domesticate Jesus, to make his teaching manageable and "safe", and to limit and confine his working to the ways that we find congenial and acceptable. This domestication is subtle and often only semi-conscious, but is none the less real.  Rowan Williams in one of his early books ("The Wound of Knowledge" – a survey of Christian spirituality) has written that the history of Christian thought could be described as "an attempt to domesticate the strange and alien God of Gethsemane and Calvary"   - and that it is an attempt doomed always to fail.


Schweitzer's following of Jesus was a disturbance to his own life, leading him, through his ethic of "reverence for life" to the work in the depths of central Africa, and to the surrender (sacrifice ?) of his academic career.  In that we can see something of the costliness of New Testament discipleship, and also, Schweitzer would add, its joy.


How comfortable (as opposed to comforting) is our image of God in Jesus ?  Instinctively we prefer those parts of the Gospels that present images of God's Kingdom being like a process of growth (eg the seed growing secretly), or which speak of the Kingdom already being present in the midst. We find it much harder to accept the images of challenge, disturbance and judgment of the church or of individual lives, and the call to turn around and be made new.

The centenary of "the Quest of the Historical Jesus" has largely passed un-noticed, but its challenge remains. At the end of his book Schweitzer wrote movingly of experiencing the call of Jesus:

"He comes to us as one unknown, as of old by the lakeside He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: 'Follow me', and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts and the sufferings they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience who He is. "



Roger Clarke

September 2006