Beginning in the 1980s, apparently starting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and then extending to dozens of cities, appeared unusual graffiti, Toynbee Tiles. A kind of mosaic, these so-called tiles tend to be bits of linoleum embedded in the asphalt of a city street. While the creator of the tiles remains unknown, the text of each tile always runs along the lines of, “Toynbee Idea/Resurrect the Dead/Planet Jupiter.”
Sometimes the tiles mention Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by referring to 2001 and to Jupiter, it becomes clear that the maker of these tiles enjoys science fiction. Invoking the name of Toynbee, presumably Arnold J. Toynbee, adds a dimension to the mystery.
Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) loomed large in the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. He studied and taught history at Oxford, became director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and served on commissions for the British government. His twelve-volume A Study of History provoked academic debate, and its two-volume abridgement became a best-seller. In March, 1947, Toynbee made the cover of Time magazine, where a lengthy feature summed up his ideas. In the 1950s and 1960s he appeared on television as a talking head, one of the Wise Men of the age. Nevertheless, few readers are now apt to go on a bookish safari to track down any of Toynbee’s numerous writings, nearly all out-of-print.
Throughout his historical work, Toynbee grappled with the role and significance of religion. That grappling continued into his personal life, where he had to come to terms with his wife and his sister converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Toynbee himself spoke several times with a Roman Catholic priest as he mulled over but then rejected conversion.
Late in life, Toynbee accepted a publisher’s request to compile and edit a large, richly illustrated volume, The Crucible of Christianity: Judaism, Hellenism, and the Historical Background to the Christian Faith. It appeared in 1969, and Toynbee wrote an Introduction and chose the topics for the chapters and found scholars competent in various academic disciplines to write those chapters. Among those scholars were his sister, J. M. C. Toynbee, an authority on early Christian art, and Jean Cardinal Daniélou, who wrote the chapter on missionaries and martyrs in the early Church.
In his Introduction, Toynbee condensed thoughts about Christianity that he had been developing over many decades in his earlier and larger works. “Why did Christianity and Pharisaic (i. e. modern) Judaism,” Toynbee mused, “make their appearance in the world when and where they did?” He remarked that the two thousand years since Christianity and modern Judaism emerged were “no more than the twinkling of an eye” in geological or astronomical timescales. In the grand scheme of things, then, the beginnings of those religions are relatively recent, almost yesterday.
According to Toynbee, this subject “is so clearly one of the clues to human destiny that it is a major concern, not only to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who worship, all alike, the God of the Jews, but also for a Christian-educated religious-minded agnostic, like the writer of this preface.” He further asserted that this question is “a concern for all human beings, of all races, civilizations, and nationalities, who are intellectually and spiritually awake.”
As he looked over recent years, Toynbee saw in several countries “this intellectually and spiritually awakened public growing in numbers.” He noted as an example “increasing numbers of people in responsible positions in the business world,” who have recognized a need for “a humanistic understanding of life if they are to do their professional work as it ought to be done,” but those same leaders in business were “wanting to acquire this increased understanding for its own sake,” since they saw themselves as “responsible human beings living at a critical time in human history.”
Of course, all times are critical times, just as they are all times of transition. What Toynbee meant was the readership for whom books such as The Crucible of Christianity were intended. Toynbee and his publisher had in mind middle-brow readers, people curious about the past and who bought the abridged Study of History, but who were not going to seek out the twelve-volume edition.
Yet, it would be they, in their daily decisions and in their voting habits, who would determine a pattern that Toynbee had discerned and made famous in his Study of History, how civilizations survive or decay based upon how they respond to challenges. This pattern of “challenge and response” Toynbee traced across twenty-six civilizations, from antiquity to his own day, from the Sumerians to the Maya, from ancient Egypt to Eastern Orthodoxy. Accompanying that pattern, Toynbee believed, was a tendency towards a “universal state” served by a “universal church,” both broadly defined. One example was the Roman Empire with its pervasive and cohesive cult of gods and deified emperors.
From Toynbee’s perspective, Christianity distilled Greek and Jewish thought and stood poised to become a universal religion at the service of a new world order. As Christopher Dawson observed, however, in his review of Toynbee’s book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion, although Toynbee anticipated “the friendly coexistence of the different religions within a single universal society, the religions envisaged the coexistence of different societies within one universal religion.” Dawson added that those religions were unlikely “to divest themselves of their theologies and doctrines, since it is the very essence of a higher religion to be a true faith, the organ or minister of divine truth.” Most trenchant was Dawson’s sharpest point: “If the early Christians had regarded their religion as a kind of anthology of the highest spiritual intuitions of the Hellenistic world, Christianity would never have existed.”
Over time, Toynbee’s panoramic fascination with the world’s religions, as well as with how the spiritual needs of humans related to their success or failure at challenge and response, captured the imagination of writers of science fiction. A classic example occurs in Ray Bradbury’s short story from 1984, “The Toynbee Convector.” In it, a man hailed as a time traveler describes Toynbee as “that fine historian who said any group, any race, any world that did not run to seize the future and shape it was doomed to dust away in the grave, in the past.” Such an appreciation of Toynbee’s idea now shows up in hundreds of cryptic mosaics dotting our city streets.