Towards the end of his life historian Arnold Toynbee said some remarkable and some would say prescient things. He believed that religion and spirituality give civilization its vitality, but that there can be bad religion that sucks the life out of civilization.
He believed it was always more than material things alone that shaped civilisation.
He wrote that If the future was in the hands of a privileged minority things could move in two directions. The most common one was
1: To spend the civilization’s surplus on frivolity and luxury and sometimes on the appearance of superficial spirituality and religious liturgy.
If though, the minority was authentically spiritually alive
2: They would then be more inclined to spend their surplus time and energy on theology, more effective administration, and things like new public architecture, growth in the visual arts, the production of good literature, philosophy and science. He was of the opinion that ”A sound religion well led can help people rise beyond their self interest, build community and help them form the basis of the meaningful use of their life.”
A collective purpose matters.
He said, “I’m convinced that the people creating the civilisation must be helped to become aware of the purpose of their collective actions. The labours of those who build the civilisation must be shaped by a profound spiritual awareness.” This will give the people the ability to grasp both the meaning of their lives and of the shared direction in which they must travel.
A lack of spirituality to help transcend self-interest, produces the diseases that destroy civilisation.
In his view there were ”Two congenital social maladies for civilisations – war, and social injustice caused by ‘inequality. Religion has been the spiritual force that has held each civilised society together in spite of the drain on its vitality caused by the two deadly social diseases previously mentioned.”
By religion he doesn’t mean going to church a mosque. He says ”By religion I mean an attitude to life that enables people to cope with the difficulty of being human, by giving spiritually satisfying answers to the fundamental questions about the mystery of the universe, and the purpose of a man’s role in it. And also by giving practical precepts about living functionally and harmoniously in the universe.”
Disaster strikes when people lose faith in their religion.
Each time a nation has lost faith in its religion its civilisation has succumbed to domestic social disintegration , foreign military attack or economic enslavement. The civilisation that has fallen as a result of the loss of this faith has been replaced by a new civilisation inspired by a different faith or religion.
Civilisations fail if they cannot give their people spiritually satisfying lives to live.
“I believe that human beings cannot live without religion and philosophy and there is next to no clear-cut distinction between these two approaches to life.”
In the late seventies Toynbee could see a spiritual crisis on the horizon. He wrote, “I believe the modern West has not lost, but sadly has changed its religion. I believe the new religion is based on its greed, its aspiration toward wealth, and also its blind belief in the progress that it imagines that will be brought about by technology and science . If it’s true and I believe that it is, that religion is the source of any civilisation’s vitality, any loss of faith in that religion leads to the civilisation’s downfall and eventual replacement. “
Well I believe he’s right and there is already evidence of our loss of faith in science and technology when they’re driven solely by greed and blind market forces. However he then went on to say something quite haunting .
We can glimpse the world’s future by looking at the West’s own market-based pseudo religion.He believes that capitalism had been too powerful, because it has appealed to mankind’s lower nature. Whether it is Japan ,China, India, Europe, even significant parts of the Islamic world and the old communist world, everybody seems to be buying into the west’s materialistic pseudo religion and commitment to market forces. Who would blame them? Those that don’t buy in eventually look like North Korea, Zimbabwe and other failed states.
The global economic crisis has shown our materialistic religion has failed us.
I think Toynbee would have a great empathy with those who are demonstrating around America, about the greed and selfishness that has been encouraged by the love of money without morality.
I believe he was prescient when he predicted that science and technology in the service of greed would eventually disillusion us and have us all lose faith.
The need for a new kind of religion.He said ”I feel the need for a new kind of religion, because all the current religions have proved unsatisfactory. it need not be an entirely new religion. It might be a new version of one of the old religions, but if one of the old religions were to be revived in a form that met and answered mankind’s new needs, it would be transformed so radically that it would be almost unrecognisable. It will need have to have the will and wisdom to enable mankind to contend with, and to overcome, the evils that are a serious and present threat to human survival.”
“There is a need to overcome the natural tendency of the ego to attempt to dominate and exploit the rest of the universe.” We need a spirituality that can train the ego to devote itself to focus on people and things other than itself, but this altruism will require a significant spiritual transformation of both individuals and cultures.