An Historian's Approach to Religion  (1958)

An Historian's Approach to Religion (1958)

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An Historian’s Approach to Religion is divided into two parts. The first charts the evolution of religion. From the earliest manifestation in nature worship, Toynbee notes a shift to worshipping local communities represented by the deification of the city-state (like Athens or Sparta). Eventually this local identity succumbed to worship of ecumenical communities, generally incarnated in a ruler (as the emperors of Rome were deified) before the worship of external deities.

The benefit of external deities was that they offered external and transcendent authority. This progressed to liberating humanity from the natural world through worship of the philosopher and represented the self-sufficiency of humankind and the deification of human power. Ultimately, however, this failed to address the shortcomings of society and the needs of the masses, because humanity continued to be driven by self-centredness; either individual or communal. According to Toynbee, ‘the members of a disintegrating society whose normal human sufferings have been intensified to an abnormal degree by the social breakdown and disintegration resulting from the failure of parochial-community-worship’ gave rise to the higher religions.  aa

These higher religions, exemplified according to Toynbee in Christianity and Mahāyāna Buddhism, offered a way blazed by a supreme being, centred the universe beyond the self and, most important, accepted suffering as good. As such, their great contribution to human history is their direct challenge to humanity’s ‘worship of collective human power’.

The rise of the higher religions represented a new epoch in human history, yet they came to face fundamental challenges with which they would struggle. For instance, in the face of persecution Christianity and Mahāyāna Buddhism thrived, yet when they no longer represented opposition to the old order they gradually lost their zest and were hijacked for ‘mundane’ purposes and empire building.

Similarly, when faced with the intercourse of philosophy, Christianity and Islam consciously embraced being defined in terms of Hellenic metaphysics. This had the awkward consequence of the religions defining themselves in terms of truth. Since ‘Intellect progressively improves its comprehension of the Universe’s time, culture and scientific advances inevitably put great strains on the truth claims entrenched in metaphysical dogma.

In order to free these traditions from unnecessary baggage, Toynbee calls for stripping Christian and Islamic religion ‘of their incongruous and outworn Greek scientific dress’; resisting the temptation to replace this with ‘an alternative scientific dress of a Western cut’; and to embrace the truth they espouse in their natural ‘non-scientific poetical sense’.

The second part of Toynbee’s significant work focuses on ‘Religion in a Westernizing World’ and the expansion of modern Western civilization across the globe, which he deems ‘the most prominent single feature in the history of Mankind during the last four or five centuries’.

The consolidation of Western influence grew to its height in the seventeenth century and coincided with the rise of secularism. Thus it was secularism that Europe exported. The momentousness of this export is magnified tenfold by a consequence of the literally worldwide expansion of Western civilization and of its progressive reception, in its secularized form, by the non-Western majority of the human race.

Toynbee argues that the forced conversions of the Spanish and Portuguese empires facilitated a fusion of cultures and stability that failed to emerge in the similar but less dogmatic endeavours of the English, Dutch and French. This is partly due to the fact that the Iberian missions occurred earlier, taking place under a unified religious sanction and within a more homogenous religious context less disturbed by Protestant disillusionment.

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