Toynbee’s Approach

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, by Arnold Toynbee. Oxford. 1956. $5.00.

Arnold Toynbee’s fame as a historical prophet has already spread far beyond the limits of the academic world. Although perhaps relatively few people have read all ten volumes of his Study of History, a great many have enough acquaintance with some of his ideas through works of popularization and criticism, to appreciate something of his wide knowledge and brilliant generalizations concerning man’s history.

For this reason, the present work under review should be of no little interest to many, particularly Christians, for in his Gifford Lectures of 1952 and 1953 Professor Toynbee has attempted to apply to the history of religion the same techniques he has already used on history in general. He is here endeavouring as he, himself says, to give “The glimpse of the Universe that his fellow-historians and he are able to catch from the point of view at which they arrive through following the historian’s professional path.” (p. 3). And, one might add, this glimpse is both interesting and stimulating, even if one is obliged to disagree.

Toynbee has divided his book into two distinct parts. The first of these divisions deals with “The Dawn of the Higher Religions,” attempting to outline the evolution of man’s religious consciousness from the time that he began his spiritual quest by worshipping nature. He states that man proceeded from that point to the worship of himself, first in “the idolization of parochial communities,” then in the “idolization of an oecumenical community,” and finally in the “idolization of a self-sufficient philosopher.”

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