The theory of the transference of knowledge has been formally rejected by educators. At the same time the reading public continues, in many cases, to proceed on the hidden assumption that an author’s proficiency in one specialized area qualifies him to speak in other fields. In few cases has this principle been applied with more enthusiasm than to Arnold J. Toynbee. The massiveness of his historical research seems to have persuaded many readers (and perhaps Professor Toynbee himself) that he possesses a special capability in religion and theology.

Certainly his studies in history, to which he has recently added his twelfth volume entitled Reconsiderations, are impressive. Sections of this volume do, however, tend to raise the guards of the reader. With great forthrightness he expresses as a canon for his religious interpretations that the Incarnation must be rejected as being unworthy of God. To him, any loving overture made by God toward man would need a priori to be made in an unspecialized and universal manner. He rejects categorically any view of a unique (that is, given at one time or in one place) movement of God toward the human race.

This proposition involves Toynbee in other problems, to which Edward Whiting Fox calls our attention in “The Divine Dilemma of A. J. Toynbee” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 1963). The dilemma proves ultimately to be a multiple one. In this article we propose to draw attention to three of its aspects.

First, in his analysis of sainthood—an element to which he attaches great historical importance as well as great significance for man’s future—Toynbee observes that sainthood requires a belief in the perfectibility of the self. At the same time he notes that this element, involving as it does the belief that man is the highest in the scale of finite spiritual reality, represents the most damaging form of hybris or pride. This contradicts in principle the second element in sainthood, namely the denial of the self. Toynbee is thus faced with a vexing initial problem.

This turning back upon itself by humanism leads to yet more serious trouble. Toynbee sees springing from man’s innate capacity for self-centeredness the quality that leads to what he deplores as the pretension to uniqueness by religious systems. To him, this is a most objectionable feature of classical Judaism, of historic Christianity, and of militant Islam.

Despite earlier indications in his works that he estimated highly the creative role of Christianity in the development of the West, here is later evidence that he carries his dislike of the Christian claim to uniqueness to a point which causes him to minimize the manner in which the Church contributed to the culture of the first six or eight centuries of our era.

Article continues below

A second problem arises for Professor Toynbee from the relativism implied in his rejection of the category of uniqueness as valid for Christianity. Now it is quite possible that he believes that by demanding that the Christian abandon the claim to the once-for-allness of the Incarnation, he will save Christianity from inevitable conflict and consequent loss, as the shrinking of today’s world brings it into close touch with other religious systems. If he conceives his task in this way, he is not the first who felt it essential to come to Christianity’s rescue.

In reality, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Toynbee’s philosophy of history is very much akin to Hegel’s. Now if he hopes to serve as a saviour in the same way Hegel sought to be one, he will probably be disappointed. There will arise in our time, as in the early nineteenth century, some perceptive thinker who will, like Kierkegaard, ask no quarter and give none, and who will point out, in a manner so clear that all will be able to see, that relativism and synthesis have little in common with the Christian message. Such a voice will confront Toynbee’s desire for syncretism with a reassertion of the claims of the Unique and Unrepeatable One.

In his book, Christianity among the Religions of the World, he earlier (in 1957) assured us that since the consequences of Original Sin are now worldwide and since the world of modern technology is “small,” the Western world must approach other religions upon the basis of what all systems have in common (p. 92). Here he implies that for Christians to assert the uniqueness and potential universality of their religion amounts to religious tribalism. In the light of the currency of such claims, it is heartening in the extreme to note the voices raised against syncretism, particularly by such men as Hendrik Kraemer and Hans Küng.

Thirdly, Professor Toynbee creates for himself a king-sized dilemma in his own proposal for a substitute “Faith” that he feels might avoid the hybris he sees betokened by the claim to religious uniqueness.

In his development of this theme, Toynbee takes as established the older views of Old Testament criticism. To read his interpretation of the history of Israel’s religion, one would suppose that he felt that Wellhausen had spoken the last word in Old Testament scholarship. He appears never to have heard of the researches of such men as Walther Eichrodt or Oscar Cullmann.

Article continues below

Following the conventional trend of the older scholarship, Toynbee believes that in the “pure and undefiled religion” of Deutero-Isaiah can be found the system best capable of universal extension. Granting his thesis that there was a specific form of Deutero-Isaianic religion, and that it was the genial sort of system he seems to need if he is to eliminate the explosive element from the world religious scene, he is still inextricably involved in a problem. He admits that the behavior of the contemporary heirs of this religious tradition has shaken his faith in human nature as a whole. (See the article by Fox mentioned above, pp. 124 f.)

Professor Toynbee seems scandalized at the “chosenness” manifested by Zionism. Why, he seems to be asking, cannot this group of men who have inherited so much not share their treasure with all men? The poignancy of the dilemma now appears: he is asking a religio-ethnic group to sacrifice their “chosenness” as a whole, while elsewhere he emphasizes the crucial nature of individual human activities and achievements in the progress of societies.

Moreover, does he not, in his summary rejection of the Incarnation, actually reject the major creative role of the One who came to perform history’s most crucial individual task? And regarding his insistence that individual men and women “undertake sainthood,” is not the indispensable prerequisite to such an undertaking an act of personal faith in a unique act, performed by a unique Person? We submit that this can come, not through any supposed “loss of the self,” as theoretical Buddhism prescribes, but rather through an identification of the self with the One who is transcendently unique.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.