SIR Arnold Toynbee, an Oxford-University educated English historian who taught for years at the University of London came to a most startling and foreboding conclusion sixty years ago. He wrote a twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of world civilisations entitled, A Study of History.
In this voluminous study, he painstakingly analyses the histories of 21 different world civilisations — from ancient Rome to imperial China, Babylon, the Greeks, the Aztecs, the Japanese and on. On that basis, he writes the 712 pages of volume five, which bears the subtitle, “The Disintegrations of Civilisations.”
There he shares with us six unmistakable evidences for the disintegration and collapse of a world civilisation. What is so deeply troubling with Sir Toynbee’s six evidences is that they seem so ominously prophetic. As we go on we should ask ourselves the following questions: are the six characteristics we are about to discuss all in place for the civilisation you and I live in today? Is this civilisation, our civilisation about to collapse and disintegrate?
Characteristic 1, Schism: According to Toynbee, societies in disintegration are seldom simply overrun by some other invading civilisation — rather they commit a kind of cultural suicide, suffering what he calls a “schism [a breakage or fracture] of the soul.” Prior to the fall of a civilisation, something down deep inside of the corporate psyche of society snaps, something breaks. The soul of society turns upon itself, imploding on itself.
The Roman Coliseum stands as a reminder of that. For the sake of entertainment — to wile away their leisure hours — the citizens of that doomed civilisation gathered in the grand stands to watch and cheer as humans were slaughtered and slashed, gutted and gored before their gaping eyes and applauding hands. It was an orgy of blood and guts, whose only difference with Hollywood was that instead of stuntmen or dummies with artificial blood and plastic entrails, the Romans opted to use “living cadavers” instead — men, women and children who were butchered for entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.
I can’t imagine any thinking man or woman anywhere in the world today not being able to sense in our society’s bloodthirsty hunger and voracious appetite for human violence — and all of it for the sake entertainment. Just this morning, I read about yet another knife murder of a 15-year-old girl in a lift, stabbed at least 10 times. A second story was that of a mother who killed three of her children with a knife.
Characteristic 2, Truancy: Toynbee describes a sense of what he calls “truancy.” Truancy is another word for “escapism,” a mental running away from society’s problems by retreating into a world of distraction and entertainment. The result is addictions of all stripe.
The cover story of U.S. News and World Report said it all in a piece on the popularity of extreme sports: “The peril, the thrill, the sheer rebellion of it all. High-risk sports add spice to the humdrum of American lives.
“Adored by a young America hungry for thrills, these sports, popularly known by the Madison Avenue-created moniker ‘extreme sports,’ are popping up on urban streets, off-road trails, and television screens … capturing an ever growing chunk of the $40 billion plus that America spends on sporting goods annually.”
From inline skating on earth at 30mph to jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet to sky surfing, or closer to earth, jumping at night from buildings, bridges, antennas and cliffs with a parachute strapped to your free-falling back — extreme sports have become a global obsession.
A couple of years ago, I watched a ‘new thrill’ among some South African youths. They have invented a ‘sport’ called ‘train surfing’. They get on top of a train and as the train moves, they find joy in dodging electric lines and bridges. Different styles are constantly evolving and becoming more daring. One mistake, the train surfer is dead. No second chances.
Add to the statistics the trillions of pounds that are spent globally in the East and the West on the escapism of alcohol, drugs and frenzied partying — and Toynbee could certainly rest his case for characteristic number three.
Characteristic 3: There is a “sense of drift in which people yield to a meaningless determinism [nothing we do can make a difference now, fate has decreed it], as if their efforts do not matter and as if they have no control over their lives.
Low voter turnout globally is evidence enough that the public, the masses, have not only become cynical about politics, but have succumbed to a “it doesn’t matter, what can I do?” mentality that reflects this “sense of drift.”
One of the favourite shrugs of this generation is, “Oh well, after all, we inherited a messed up world, there isn’t much we can do to change it, so we might as well max it out here and now — what good or difference can we make in the long run?”
My van runs on diesel and the price has been going up everyday and we’re all silently bearing it and trying to carry on despite. The other day, my wife Nomathemba and I went shopping and she kept remarking on how some prices have almost doubled. Yet we bear it all with a patient shrug!
Characteristic 4: There is a “sense of sin,” a self-loathing and guilt that come from civilisation’s moral abandon. Watch our late night talk show hosts and feel the sense of guilt that is cloaked behind the giddy laughter and ribald joking.
Ask the psychiatrists and psychologists of the world how many of their clients are crushed by a personal sense of guilt. Toynbee noted from his research that this mass sense of guilt and sin preceded the collapse of the doomed civilisation, because while the society bemoans its guilt and sin it seems paralysed to extricate itself from that downward spiral.
Watching the Big Questions on UK TV last Sunday, I felt that folks knew when they were sinning but just don’t want to accept that. Probably they fear that there could be an offended God to account to and that thought scares them. But the guilt remains. It will not just go away.
Characteristic 5: Toynbee described it as a “sense of promiscuity” that infiltrated a dying society, not meant so much in the sexual sense but rather describes a state of mind that indiscriminately accepts anything and everything in an effort to find meaning and perhaps stave the impending doom. This promiscuity is an uncritical tolerance, an unfocused embrace of the melting pot in religion, literature, language, art, manners and customs.
Bright educated human beings grasping for meaning and hope and assurance from the most bizarre sources, blending their grasped straws into a strange concoction of magic and hope! It is truly, “the triumph of the mass mind”
Characteristic 6: Toynbee describes how disintegrating societies fall into a sense of “abandon … a state of mind that accepts antinomianism [old English word for lawlessness] … as a substitute for creativeness.”
He describes a rank disregard of morality, the rules of society – a total abandonment of the law. How else shall we describe the sudden, swift strike of terrorism — whether on a subway in Tokyo or Paris or in buses in London, or the world Trade Centre in New York, or outside a pub in Belfast, or train station in India? Lawlessness.
What about the genocides of Rwanda, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda that have left millions dead or dismembered? What about the withholding of election results by a President in Zimbabwe? How else shall we describe the full-colour, big-screen glorification by Hollywood of human brutality, murder, mayhem, violence — the inexplicable glorification of lawlessness by our entertainment industry?
Lawlessness is also evidenced in the countless ways citizens daily wink and hoodwink their way through life — petty thefts from hotel rooms, small intentional inaccuracies on income tax reports, lying, cheating, stealing. Every civilisation has learned too late the ancient truth that it is the little holes in the dike that precipitate the eventual collapse of the entire structure!
I will not mention the debate about abortions and similar decisions by our MPs on IVF babies to the effect that “Fathers not required” as the Daily Mail put it on its May 21, 2008, edition. In Christianity, we believe that father and mother are necessary for child development. I know that not all of us have had that privilege but nonetheless, both parents are necessary.
Twenty one deceased world civilisations have undergone a post-mortem analysis by Sir Arnold Toynbee and the unmistakable evidence we see today of rampant lawlessness in our own society is a final harbinger or sign of civilisation’s imminent doom and destruction!
God has a solution to this sick world and He says in His word: “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice: Fear God, and give glory to him for the hour of his judgment is come, and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (Revelation 14:6-7).
We must get ready for Christ’s soon return. This is not ‘pessimism’ if anyone would think it that but optimism rather. Humanity has no answers to what is happening today. Not even for the credit crunch, let alone the knife and gun violence.
For me my friends, the solution is simple; these things are prophesied in the Bible “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” (Luke 21:28)
Where is your hope today? My hope is in Jesus Christ, the solid Rock, all other ground is sinking sand.