For Those Who Wish to Save Civilization

October 9, 2014

The celebrated historian Arnold Toynbee said it plainly: civilizations come and go. From his life-long study of the subject, he concluded that (conceding the difficulty of drawing neat lines around, or even defining, such entities) over twenty civilizations have existed, and all are now in history’s cemeteries except four---the Oriental, the Hindu, the Muslim, and “western Christendom.”  He also observed that, in principle, that which determines why some live and some die is what he calls “challenge and response,” that is, the continued existence of  a given civilization depends on how it responds to the challenges to its life and health in its own particular historical context. 

What about us, “western Christendom?” Is what we in the west are experiencing today vis-à-vis Islam epic or episodic, all-encompassing or anecdotal, a burial ground or a bump in the road?  To put it another way: at what point in the trajectory from birth to death do we stand today, specifically, in the light of our confrontation with Islam. 

Many voices (Oswald Spengler, Jacques Barzun, Arthur Koesteler, the authors of The Columbia History of the World, Toynbee are notables, along with dozens of lesser lights) say western civilization is obviously and measurably in a decline mode. We see such things clearly only in retrospect, when both the apogee and the nadir of a civilization have passed which, among other factors, makes our question difficult to answer. 

But it remains: of what significance is our confrontation with Islam? It all began early in the seventh century when the Muslims arose from the Arabian Peninsula, over-ran the entire Mediterranean world and a sizable slice of Europe, being stopped in their northward march in France in 732. Its ultimate aim, from its beginning, has been to establish a world-wide caliphate under Sharia law. Allah must reign. (Remember: of all the world’s religions, only Christianity and Islam seek world-wide acceptance.) We are told that no one can correctly call himself a Muslim who does not want, by one means or another, that end-game. That fact, if Islam is not altered fundamentally by Muslim “moderates,” promises that the confrontation can be expected to last for perhaps the next half-century. Or even longer. And if it does moderate, immoderate Jihadists will assuredly continue, endlessly, to arise from its midst.


Islam may well possess a long-term life-or-death commitment to establish a global caliphate, but it is not certain that the west (like our forebears, the Greeks and Romans) has sufficient will-power to save itself. Some (not all) of our leaders talk as if they do, but then, they must. In any case, leaders alone can never compel a civilization to care enough to preserve itself. The western “coalition of the willing” is, at this writing, vacillating and equivocal. Time, maybe a little, maybe a lot, will finally tell. Toynbee again: “Every dead civilization died by suicide.” And Churchill is apt here: “An appeaser diligently feeds the alligator hoping he’ll be the last one eaten.”

Your personal response? (a) Do all you can to positively affect the larger culture, remembering Thomas Carlyle’s word, when asked who caused the French Revolution. It was every Frenchman, he said, who didn’t do his duty to his country. Individuals can make a difference. (b) Invest in the civilization of your church. After all that is what it is. Or ought to be! (c) By all means, work for the health of that yet smaller but more important civilization, your family. (Civilizations have language, rules, morals, beliefs, celebrations, symbols, etc., and thus your family constitutes a civilization writ small. But very large in significance!)  (d) Of greatest import is the civilization of you, your own self. If you and I cannot civilize anybody else, we can choose to become civilized ourselves. And only civilized people can become civilizers of others!

Bill Anderson

Grapevine, Texas

PS: Every student of civilization will enjoy two recent books by Rodney Stark, recently recognized as one of the “25 most influential Evangelicals in America,” by Time. They are “For The Glory of God” and “The Victory of Reason.”  Both are serious, and seriously interesting, and demonstrate conclusively that---although he doesn’t use the precise words---the Judeo-Christian God is the only God in history who ever did, or can, civilize human beings.

PPS: For all pessimists regarding our civilization, get Peter Kreeft’s “DARKNESS AT NOON”: THE ECLIPSE OF “THE PERMANENT THINGS” from the web.  It is a treasure, a gold-mine of ink on paper. God, he said, may not be through with us in the west just yet, and suggests several surprising possibilities in that regard.