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The Fall of Empires

June 23, 2011
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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 ascertaining the truth, history offers us 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 under Rome, 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

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Response from : Janelle Yanishewski  

June 27, 2011 1:52 PM

This article and as you admit Toynbee's book have many flaws. Including the assumption that the end of a civilization is a bad thing or unnatural.
Your focus on marriage also fails to recognize that marriage was not linked to religion for many years and still is not linked to religion for many. Relgions have tried to claim marriage as something sacred, but yet they remain a legal space.
Additionally this does not discuss the injustice of not allowing homosexual marriage. It creates a hierarchy of power where some of all their opportunities open to them and others do that. Injustice acts to a hindrance to peace and love. Not allowing homosexual marriage creates injustice and through such creates a climate of dissension, inequality and increased liklihood of civilization ending as you so dramatically put it.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

June 27, 2011 2:11 PM

Dear Janelle,

Personal opinions and "feelings" aside, history would disagree with you. The fall of civilizations has always proven detrimental to their inhabitants. Second, I actually don't suggest that marriage is a "religious" institution. Actually, it is an institution upheld by natural law and inextricably linked to procreation—a result that homosexual acts are inherently incapable of achieving.

Response from : Julie Larson  

June 27, 2011 10:02 PM

I am delighted to read your study and
wisdom of the current dissolution of our
culture and morals. May God help us


Response from : Karen Vandermeer  

June 28, 2011 9:27 AM

Michael, you always cut to the chase. We've known that the demise of marriage and the family, a core Christian unit, leads to the downfall of a society. Loved learning about this author's writings. Gives even more credibility to the obvious. Thanks for your continued thoughtful and thought-provoking writing.

Response from : Bruce Guenter  

June 28, 2011 11:16 AM

While I won't dismiss the effects of potentially several "despotic minorities" in north american society, I think it would be ignorant to also dismiss either nationalism or militarism as a cause of the fall of this civilization. While the past decade is not unique in those two aspects, particularly after the propaganda of the many actual wars and the cold war, the US is also not seeing any kind of decrease in them neither.

Response from : James A. Glasscock  

June 28, 2011 6:50 PM

Interesting article. Suggest you might enjoy Pitrim Sorokin's "The Crisis of Our Age" and Harold O.J. Brown, "The Sensate Culture." We are between a rock and a hard place in this society.
Decline is obvious; where does the Church stand?
Thank you.
James A. Glasscock
49 Cottonwood Lane
Canyon, TX 79015-2131
Web Site:

Response from : Greg Bullen  

June 29, 2011 11:46 AM

When I was young, America was compared to Rome and I didn't buy it. I thought we were much more moral and upright than Rome in the 1st century. Well, in the last 30 years we have been sliding down and now it's very difficult to see us thriving in the future. But you offer a great perspective, because what is good for America may or may not be good for the Church or the cause of Christ. We know that the Church is growing in dark places such as China these days, even as we apparently rot on the vine in America. This article gives me hope AND perspective. Good stuff!

Response from : Tim Childs  

August 25, 2011 11:42 AM

The rise and fall of empires has been with us since empires first began way back when! For us British, we have lived through in the last couple of hundred years, of owning and controlling a quarter of the world, and all the people and commodities and wealth therein, to really now being a third-rate player in a changing world. But, in some respects, it was inevitable. It is more than just a lack of morals in some respects, because all empires are built on subjugation of one form or another, and all involve exploiter and exploited, in whatever form that may take. In Britain, it was class and the colonial exploitation of millions of people throughout the empire, in America it was about slavery. The decline of any empire from one aspect can only then be seen as a good thing, certainly for those oppressed anyway, or those who didn't benefit from it, as was often the case.

But, as you say, the decline of genuine godly morals, in the name of progress, perhaps has seen the rise of a kind of selfishness, and a me-first culture, lacking consideration for others, and lacking consideration for right moral conduct. Anything goes today it seems.

We may have seen the end of empires in Western Europe and even America, but if we hold onto godly values and put our faith in Jesus, it really doesn't matter; His Kingdom is the only Empire Christians need to concern themselves with.

Response from : Lewis Thomas  

September 4, 2013 10:52 AM

The Boiling Frog

America is a boiling frog about to die!
That is something that makes me cry!

She sits calmly as the immoral heat increases!
Without a clue that she is being cooked to pieces!

She can no longer feel or sense the pain of sin!
As she is being cooked slowly from within!

Her beauty and greatness are falling away!
As the flames of hell take her soul away!

She can no longer recognize right from wrong!
Where did she falter and go wrong?

It began when she forsook God and virtue!
To embrace Sin that will always hurt you!

Sin is cooking America slowly to death!
America is about to take her final breath!

Does sin have you boiling in its pan?
Jump out and run to Jesus while you can!

Lewis E. Thomas as given by God on 9-4-2013


Response from : Scott sm  

June 27, 2015 7:51 PM

Jenelle let' see you pull a created being from a males behind. Once you realize Scripture is the infallible Word of God and put your feelings for others towards the intent of creation then right wrong won't matter if God said then so be it. We all must find a better way to find solutions other than condemning what we think is the opposition and speak about our passions instead of our man made condemnations.


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