15 JANUARY 2006

A wise person once said, “Religion refashions itself with endless diversity, down to the single believer,” meaning that even two people in the very same pew don’t believe exactly the same thing, that it’s humanly impossible, and that we should be aware of this when we make our truth claims and try to extend them to others.

Once of the most interesting people in regards theological self-diversity is Arnold Toynbee as described in “The Measure of God: Our Century-Long Struggle to Reconcile Science and Religion: The Story of the Gifford Lectures,” by Larry Witham, a wonderful book!


Toynbee’s life mission was his “A Study of History,” which he wrote and revised for decades. He had his disciples and his critics, but his family simply referred to his lifelong obsession as the “nonsense book.” He started out as a typical historian, but took a turn to god after two powerful experiences. Once while traveling abroad he said he felt a powerful presence that liberated him from a dangerous temptation; and he said he felt a divine presence as he bent over his dying son, who had committed suicide over being spurned in love. His Gifford lectures were called, “An Historian's Approach to Religion.”


“Toynbee moved from culture to culture in his lectures, explaining one form of idolatry or another, and in the last two talks reveled his provocative conclusion. … As history moved on, he said, the many different religions began to merge in a common religious impulse. The ‘annihilation of distance’ between cultures allowed the merger, which in turn demanded a psychological shift of each culture around the globe. This movement of history foretold a time when the seven higher religions — Hinayana Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, post-Buddaic Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism — might ‘coalesce into a common heritage.’ Toynbee argued that their ‘essential truths and essential counsels’ were about the same already. They held that: the universe is mysterious; man is not the greatest spirit; knowledge is a means to action; and life should center on Absolute Reality.”


“Around the essentials, however, every religion had developed nonessential accretions such as holy places, rituals, taboos, and social conventions. With a final provocative flair, Toybnee argued that for the sake of the future, religions must throw off these accretions, many of them cherished sacred myths. ‘The stuff of which myths are fashioned is mostly local and ephemeral,’ he said. Emotional attachment to locality is strong. Still, such prejudices should be given up in favor of ‘primordial experiences,’ shared by all humanity. Whereas communing with god is primordial, for example, the bread and wine of Christianity are local, rooted in Mediterranean wheat fields and vineyards. Finally, the hardest belief for religions to relinquish is that ‘we alone have received the revelation,’ Toynbee explained. Indian religion had weaned itself from this idea, but a ‘traditional Pharisaism’ still colored Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“Still a classicist at heart, Toynbee ended by quoting the fourth-century Roman pagan orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. When Rome became Christian, Saint Ambrose demanded that all pagan gods be removed from public buildings, included the altar of Victory in the Senate House. Symmachus appealed for its return. ‘The heart of so great a mystery cannot ever be reached by following only one road,’ he pleaded to Ambrose, but to no avail. The many roads of Symmachus could be embraced ‘without being disloyal to Christianity,’ Toynbee argued. ‘For what Symmachus is preaching is Christian charity.’”


“At the time of Toynbee’s Giffords, he was active in the Christian ecumenical movement. In 1954 he served on a panel for the World Council of Churches. Yet by using the Giffords to argue a common essence in higher religions, a topic he ‘left unfinished’ in volume seven of ‘A Study,’ Toynbee revealed his gradual transition from a focus of Christianity to a broader, more tolerant view of all religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, which he lauded for their tolerance. In his Giffords Toynbee came very ‘close to abandoning his Christian philosophy of history,’ according to his biographer, but he retained Christianity at the pinnacle of higher religions. In later years, however, the abandonment became more obvious, and it may have started earlier in his life when his first wife left him as a convert to Roman Catholicism, which she then went on the public-speaking circuit to defend. In the end Toynbee could not reconcile the diversity of revelation in religion with the exclusive claim of any one. His Giffords equated the essence of all higher religions, and in his last years he spoke of himself as a post-Christian.”



©jonfobes 2005