A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975) is acknowledged as one of the “greatest achievements of modern scholarship.” Toynbee’s book, huge in scale, achieved wide prominence but he was more admired by the history reading public than by his fellow historians, who criticized him for contorting information to fit his alleged patterns of history. I suspect this criticism stems largely from the fact that Toynbee likely viewed the patterns of history through the redemptive theme of Scripture.
In A Study of History, Toynbee details the rise and decline of twenty-three civilizations about which he wrote, “Of these, sixteen are dead and nine of the remaining ten—all, in fact, except our own are shown to have already declined.” He did suggest then that we may have passed our zenith. Were he alive today he would likely move Western civilization into the category of those in decline.
Toynbee’s over-arching analysis centered on the moral and religious challenges within a given society, and the response to such challenges, as the reason for the health or decline of a civilization. He described parallel life cycles of growth, dissolution, a “time of troubles,” a universal state, and a final collapse leading to a new genesis. Toynbee argues that our own time of troubles began during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which produced a tolerance, “based not on the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity but on the Mephistophelian (devilish schemes) maladies of disillusionment, apprehension, and cynicism.”
I dare say that these devilish schemes have, with nearly unabated force, led us to the tolerance of that which was once thought to be morally repugnant such as abortion, pornography, sexual licentiousness and more recently the legitimization of homosexual behavior at the expense of marriage.
Toynbee added that civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty prompting “creative minorities” to devise solutions that would reorient the entire society. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Conversely civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively or with wisdom. Our culture today is rife with moral and religious challenges and scarcely do our leaders demonstrate a coherent understanding of the challenges much less offer real wisdom. All too frequently, the emphasis within the church tends toward technique and methodology instead of intelligent theological teaching and wisdom. Toynbee points out that in the wake of such an inadequate response, the civilizations in question sink due to nationalism, militarism or the tyranny of a despotic minority.
It seems that we, as a nation, have arrived at the level in which a “despotic minority” is in the process of reorienting our entire society, that minority being those who advocate a natural and now constitutional right to homosexual behavior.
At the heart of this debate lies the question, “Why does it matter?” Those in favor of same-sex marriage claim that the inclusion of gays in the marital relationship will not affect anyone else and in doing so, the sky surely won’t fall! Those opposed argue that the very act of redefining marriage will render the institution meaningless and thus nullify its essential societal benefits.
In trying to ascertain the truth, history offers invaluable insight. In Gibbon’s famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire we learn that the breakdown in sexual morality began after the Punic Wars ended in 146 B.C. In the ensuing years, sexual immorality became so widespread that it likewise threatened the institution of marriage. As one historian noted, “There was nothing in which they [the Romans] did not indulge or which they thought a disgrace.” So severe was the effect on marriage and society that Caesar Augustus enacted lex Julia de Adulteriis in 18 B.C., a law aimed at curbing the people’s licentious behavior. Of course this law had little effect and the descent continued. I think laws protecting marriage today, while I support them, will fail similarly because they cannot arrest the broader moral decline that initiated the shift to begin with.
Alvin J. Schmidt, Illinois College professor of sociology, points out that as a result of sexual extravagance, “Roman marriages had greatly deteriorated; they had become a loose and voluntary compact and religious and civil rites were no longer essential” (How Christianity Changed the World, p. 80). In essence, marriage became meaningless and its resultant social benefits disappeared. Family dissolution increased—fracturing the cornerstone of society—crime exploded, productivity and creativity diminished, cynicism and apathy ensued; the Empire began to crumble.
As if utterly blind to the past, the American empire is now following the Roman road to self-destruction, proving again what Toynbee said, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” However, that was not the end of the story, for out of the collapse of one kingdom there arose another kingdom without end: the Kingdom of God. Despite the sexual anarchy of the Roman world, the Christian church stood in stark contrast to the decaying culture and would go on to flourish while the former would fall. This is the “new genesis” that Toynbee observed, which would proceed to shape and build a better civilization to come. Not perfect but a society in which Christianity would rise to become the dominant philosophical and moral influence, an influence that at its best would promote peace, prosperity and justice.
Just like the early Christians in the Roman Empire, we may not live to see the restoration of our civilization. Morally and spiritually, this nation may continue to deteriorate, ushering in an insurmountable host of deleterious effects. On the other hand, the Lord may pour out His mercy upon this nation as he has in prior Great Awakenings. Toynbee himself observed that within history, this cyclical pattern of rise and fall has been broken. Regardless of what the Lord in his providence may do, our mission and calling remains the same: “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14).
Next week, I will address the “spotted” nature of the church as one possible cause of our ineffectiveness in arresting the culture’s moral decline.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.