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ColumnistsPilgrim's NotesThe Twenty-First Century: Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain

The Twenty-First Century: Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain


by Jack McLean

“Oh, where is the sea?” said the little fish as they swam along. In attempting to assess the bigger picture of where we might be standing at this juncture in the world’s history, I feel like one of those little fish. Objectivity comes hard in the face of total immersion, whether it be in the waters of a historical or personal situation.

Nonetheless, I would like to examine briefly the prospects for the future of our global society, glimpsed through the eyes of some of the visionaries who had long ago, and more recently, foreseen the emerging world we now inhabit and what lies beyond.

Based on their insights, we might look at our present and future with long and short term optics. The short-term outlook of our world-situation does indeed look dark, as anyone who is a media-watcher knows. I am suggesting, nonetheless, that the long-term is much brighter than the sceptics, those who have lost hope, and those who are too complacent to care, might suppose.

During the latter-half of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, perceptive writers, philosophers, poets, and historians had foreseen the collapse of western civilization. To mention only a few, the Swiss cultural historian, Jakob Burckhardt, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the great Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Count Leo Tolstoy, and the German historian, Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West, all variously predicted the fall of western civilization.

As Christian nation rose up-in-arms against Christian nation, you could argue that two catastrophic world wars in the 20th century have accurately fulfilled their predictions. Roughly 80,000,000 military combatants and civilians died in the First and Second World Wars. Can you imagine more than twice the population of Canada sent to their graves as casualties of war?

The immensely prolific British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), best known for his 12 volume magnum opus of universal history, A Study of History, wrote: “Of the twenty-two civilizations that appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”

But in nature as well as in history, there is no death in absolute terms. New life springs from the death and dissolution of previous life forms, and new civilizations are built on the ruins of the old. If western civilization is moribund, as Toynbee suggests, perhaps the creative remnant of which he writes will survive the collapse to produce the unified world-state of tomorrow. This remnant motif fits into Toynbee’s pattern of “challenge and response” for the survival of civilizations.

Unlike Spengler, Toynbee did not believe that the death of civilization was necessarily fated, as it is for all other organic life forms. Toynbee believed that the future of humanity depended on a collective act of will; that the future of our race (humanity) depended on a vital moral order in which religion played a major role. This was one of the main conclusions from his A Study of History.

The idea of a future world-state, that is, a world-federation of national states, is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In the last 6,000 years, human society has successfully and successively achieved the constitution of the family, the tribe, the tribal confederacy, the city-state, and in more recent history, the nation-state.

Politically speaking, nation-building has come to an end. We are already witnessing the signs of universal anarchy, one of the main warning-signs of the breakdown of liberal democracies. Nationalism, the excessive love of one’s country, rather than love of one’s kind, wreaked havoc during the 20th century.

We have the prophets and the poets to thank for the vision of a peaceful and prosperous future world order. (Space is lacking here to fully develop this theme.) In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the peaceful world they promise is called the Kingdom of God on earth. The secular version of that same vision is the federation of world states, a federation in which war will have been abolished.

However, the promise of a future peaceful and united world is not restricted to the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel alone. All of the world’s independent religions speak of a transitional, apocalyptic age of strife, which shall be followed by a peaceful world without end. Many believe that the “signs of the times” indicate that we are living in the promised, dreaded apocalyptic age.

The implementation of this peaceful world, these same scriptures prophesy, will be accomplished by the return of their prophetic figure: the Messiah or Lord of Hosts for the Jews; the return of Christ for the Christians; the advent of Shah Bahram for the Zoroastrians; the tenth incarnation of Krishna for the Hindus; Buddha Matraiya or Buddha Amitabha (the glorious Buddha) for the Buddhists; the return of the Mahdi and Jesus Christ for the Sunnis; the return of the 12th Imam or Qa’im (He who will arise) for the Shia.

The rise of a new world order that would eventually “ring in the thousand years of peace” appears in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s celebratory poem In Memoriam: A.H.H. (Section 106). In that poem (1850), Tennyson moves from the acceptance of the premature death of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, to the larger vision of a regenerated world that is at last reconciled unto itself. The last three verses read:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

In the Chinese language, two characters compose the word for “crisis”: danger and opportunity. We live in dangerous times, but for the spiritually dedicated and the socially active, the opportunities are many for what the Jews call tikkun olam: repairing the world.





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