Grand Narratives and the Bahá'í Writings Part 4


       Toynbee and Pitirim Sorokin 


7: Toynbee and the Bahá’í Grand Narrative


            Arnold Toynbee is one of the most controversial historians of the 20th Century, the main reason for this being his twelve volume magnum opus A Study of History, published between 1934 and 1961. In the years before he died, Toynbee, with the aid of Third Reich historian Jane Caplan, released a huge one volume abridgement of his twelve volume magnum opus in which he gave his final responses to criticisms and made final adjustments to his ideas. This is the text to which we shall generally refer because it represents Toynbee’s thought in its final form. When necessary, we shall consult his original twelve volume work. An incredibly prolific author, Toynbee also wrote more than a dozen works about history and historiography. It is worth noting that Toynbee was highly critical of the West’s representation of Islamic cultures decades before Edward Said.


            The reception of Toynbee’s A Study of History was and remains sharply divided. He is the only historian to have been on the cover of Time magazine (March 17, 1947) which indicates just how famous he had become – and still is – among the general public. During the 1990’s, his advocacy of a civilizational rather than national approach to history has gained “renewed currency”[1] with the rise in academia of Big History, Global History, World Systems Theory and the World History Association . Sebastian Conrad’s book, What is Global History? suggests that in light of social, economic and cultural globalization, civilizational not national studies of history not only will but must come to the fore. Particularly noteworthy on this issue of the words of J R McNeil and William H McNeil, who write in The Human Web that history shows clear patterns of increasing development and expansion in communication, trade, ideas, and competition throughout history. They write, “So the general direction of history has been toward greater and greater social cooperation – both voluntary and compelled – driven by the realities of social competition.”[2] This statement strikes a Bahá’í ‘note’ for three reasons. First, it asserts that history has a “direction” or goal; second, it harmonizes with Shoghi Effendi’s statements about the expansion of the social units, i.e. the expansion of co-operation; third, this development will occur with or without the consent or wishes of the historical actors. As the Bab says, “All are His servants and all abide by His bidding!”[3] From a Bahá’í standpoint, the only major omission here is failure to refer to the Manifestations. These new developments in historiography suggest that Toynbee – and Spengler and Sorokin – dogs have simply been too far ahead of his time for a majority of academics. 


            Among academic historians, however, the response to his work rangers from open hostility and even mockery to respectful and carefully reasoned disagreement. According to H. Trevor-Roper, Toynbee was “the Messiah” of his own concocted “religion of Mish-Mash …

 his mind is . . . fundamentally anti-rational and illiberal.”[4] Trevor-Roper misreads Toynbee as saying that we should “all creep back under the skirts of a received medieval church.”[5] In contrast to Trevor-Roper’s spleen, we have the respectful but rigorous critique of W.H. Walsh, an important philosopher of history who asks if “any amount of historical knowledge can serve as an adequate ground of such deductions about the meaning of history as are drawn here?” [6] The problem with this question concerns what is included “historical knowledge.” Toynbee, like Spengler, answer this important question by showing the limits of strictly empirical knowledge and the need for empathy, intuition, and judgment in understanding history and acquiring “historical knowledge.”  Pieter Geyl is similarly meticulous but respectful in his criticism of “apriorism”[7] i.e. Toynbee’s imposition of his ideas upon the historical materials. There is one major problem with this critique. First, it is easy to make but virtually impossible to prove. The extreme wealth of historical data in Toynbee’s twelve volume opus does not support the belief that Toynbee’s schema did not develop from or engagement with his empirical studies. It is not credible to assert that such breadth and depth of engagement did not play a major role in the formation of his schema. In fact, we know empirical evidence played a key role in shaping his ideas because they led Toynbee to revise his conclusions in Volume 12 and in his personal one volume abridgement. Second, the apriorism critique can be made of almost any historical study, because bare facts seldom simply ‘speak for themselves’ – they must be evaluated and understood and doing so requires bringing other, external concepts to bear. The Holocaust provides a classic example. There is no physical document of any kind linking Hitler personally to the Wannsee Conference (January, 1942) when the decision to annihilate European Jewry was made. The diaries of Goebbels, Hitler’s closest confidant, and Hitler’s Table Talk mention nothing about this. What does this fact tell us by itself? Contrary to what Holocaust deniers say, this fact tells us very little. To understand this fact, we must bring in, among other things, our empathy, intuition and “Einfuehlung” – all non-empirical factors – to make sense of this.


            Let us now turn to Toynbee’s grand narrative in outline. One of the most obvious similarities concerns the structure of the historical process. As we understand them, the Bahá’í Writings combine a two-fold pattern in the unfolding of civilizations: the “circle of life” as The Lion King calls it, with a cycle of seasons, birth and death, and the linear progress as seen in “progressive revelation.” We have previously described this as an expanding stretch out spiral, or, in Toynbee’s terms as a chariot’s wheels and axle. In Toynbee’s words, the wheel and axle of a chariot is such that “under the repetitive movement of the wheel . . . the vehicle . . . attains its unique realization . . . and its unique goal.”[8] This common structure of the historical process is significant for three reasons. First, it means that history is not a random process, a mere sequence of events without any long-term structure, direction or goal. Appearances to the contrary, history is teleological and has order. This is significant because of the tremendous effect the realization of such order will have on the world-views of both individuals and collectives. In turn, this affects life choices, values, motivation, conduct and virtually all other aspects of the human psyche. For proof we need look no further than the tremendous motivating effect Marx’s equally teleological theory of history had on his followers and their willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

Second, these models of history mean that history – at least in its broad strokes – is predictable, especially if we are aware of our position – such as winter or a period of moral disintegration – in the process. We can, as a minimum, know what sort of developments to expect. Finally, because we can, at least broadly, predict future developments, we are also better equipped to serve the needs of our time. As Bahá'u'lláh says, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”[9]


            The heart of Toynbee’s theory is the concept of “challenge-and-response,”[10] i.e. the belief that all cultures and civilizations face challenges to which they must respond successfully if they are to continue their growth and development. The image he uses is that of mountain climbers scaling a cliff: some succeed and reach the next challenge; some remain stuck, or “arrested” at a certain point; and some barely get started and are “abortive,” i.e. stop. Failure means either repeatedly facing the same challenge until they are conquered or succumbing to them or giving up and ‘aborting’ their climb. However, no response is pre-determined – challenge-and-response is not the same as cause-and-effect[11] – and neither tools nor race[12] nor other physical advantage guarantee success. As with the Bahá’í Writings, personal and collective free will are essential features of Toynbee’s grand narrative. What matters ultimately in the success or failure of a civilization is “the vision, initiative, persistence and above all, self-command . . . [and] the spirit in which Man responds”[13] to the challenges s/he faces.[14]


            Toynbee applies the challenge-and-response criteria to 28 civilizations. Nineteen of these are major: Egyptian, Andean (Incan), Sinic or Shang, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indian, Hittite, Western or European, Russian Orthodox Christian, Far Eastern (China, Korea, Japan from 500 CE to 1912 CE), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican or Aztec, Yucatec and Babylonic. Some of these civilizations are related or “affiliated” to earlier predecessors in the same region as for example, the original Sinic civilization around the Yellow River and the later Far Eastern civilization. The Yucatec and the later Aztec civilization are another example. Among the aborted civilizations, he includes the Irish[15] and Scandinavian,[16] and among the “arrested” civilizations i.e. those which attained a certain point and never moved on to the next challenge, he includes the Inuit or Eskimo and the Ottoman.[17] There is, of course, controversy about some of what he designates as separate ‘civilizations’ – e.g. the Sinic and the Far Eastern – but the list is sufficiently long and varied to preclude criticisms of having too narrow a base and being tainted by racism.


            Another  major similarity is the most essential criteria of growth in a civilization is

inward, spiritual growth not material progress. 'Abdu'l-Bahá reminds us that


            no matter how far the world of humanity may advance in material civilization, it is             nevertheless in need of spiritual virtues and the bounties of            God. The spirit of man is not       illumined and quickened through material sources.[18]


Elsewhere he reminds us that


            hearts must receive the Bounty of the Holy Spirit, so that Spiritual civilization may be        established. For material civilization is not adequate for the needs of mankind and cannot             be the cause of its happiness. Material civilization is like the body and spiritual          civilization is like the soul. Body without soul cannot live.[19]


This statement clearly establishes the primacy of the spiritual over the material in the development of civilization. Without inward spiritual development, true civilization cannot arise or thrive. It is possible to be “materially advanced but spiritually backward.”[20] Toynbee has similar views regarding what he calls the “movement of transference”[21]:


            True growth consists in a progressive change of emphasis and transfer of energy and             shifting of the scene of action out of the field of the macrocosm and into that of the             microcosm ; and in this new arena victorious responses to challenges do not take the form    of overcoming an external obstacles but manifest themselves instead in a progressive     self-articulation.[22]


Toynbee’s term for this “transfer of energy” from the outer phenomenal world to his inner psycho-spiritual nature is “etherialization . . . in which challenges do not impinge from the outside but arise from within.”[23] This, too, corresponds with the primacy of inward growth over external, material development in the Bahá’í Writings. “Etherialization” is a sign of growth because


            Growth means that the growing personality or civilization tends to become its own             environment and its own challenge and its own field of action. In other words, the             criterion of growth is progress towards self-determination[24]


'Abdu'l-Bahá shows a similar connection between inward freedom – becoming one’s own challenge and thinking for one’s self – and growth:


            When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail -- that is to         say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs             -- development and growth are inevitable.[25]


 The material factors present the human and natural environmental challenges but the human spirit – in both its secular and religious sense – decides whether or not to confront the challenges and how and with what persistence. This spirit cannot be reduced to material explanations and consequently, purely materialist explanations are inadequate to explain why civilizations arise or fail. Here, too, Toynbee’s thought converges with the Bahá’í Writings insofar as both are premised on religion as essential for an adequate understanding humankind. Moreover, Toynbee’s “trans-rationalist”[26] views – reason can tell us some things but not everything – agrees with the “moderate rationalist”[27] views found in the Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Writings. Both the Writings and Toynbee agree that the understanding and wisdom about human experience gathered by the “Higher Religions”[28] has relevance to our interpretation and understanding of history which is, after all, the record of human actions. In other words, both the Writings and Toynbee recognize that non-material factors, i.e. spirit are definitive in civilizational success or failure. As Toynbee says, “the spiritual progress of individual souls in this life will in fact bring with it much more social progress than could be attained in any other way.”[29]


            The issue of spirit inevitably raises the question of God or the divine in Toynbee’s theory of history. Toynbee certainly recognizes the transcendent and imminent as ontologically real forces in history. He borrows his term for this ground-of-being from Henri Bergson, i.e. the “elan vital.” Toynbee writes that he has


            attained the conception of one omnipresent power which manifests itself in the             performance and achievements of all Mankind and all Life.  We may conceive of this      power as a transcendent first cause and call it God, or as an imminent source of             continuous creation and call it (as Bergson calls it) Evolution Creatrice or Elan Vital.[30]


Like the Bahá’í Writings, Toynbee recognizes that a non-material power is manifesting itself through the phenomenal world and that ‘what we see is not all that we get.’ This elan vital, which is referred to throughout A Study in History serves as the ground-of-being of all things. Like the Bahá’í  concept of God, Toynbee’s elan vital is both a “transcendent final cause” and an omnipresent “immanent source of continuous creation.” It is important to note that the elan vital is the immanent source of creation and is not creation itself as in pantheism. As in the Writings, creation is an on-going process. `Abdu’l-Bahá informs us that the “creation thereof [the universe] is without beginning and without end”[31] and Bahá’u’lláh says, “Endeavour now to apprehend from these two traditions the mysteries of "end," "return," and "creation without beginning or end."[32] In other words, the concept of God in the Writings and in Toynbee is ontologically similar but not necessarily the same inasmuch as Toynbee’s concept does not include an exact counterpart of the concept of divine Manifestations as messengers of God. However, he has an analogous concept, i.e. the creative individuals who provide the creative impulse at the start of a civilization. They 


            are superhuman in a very literal for they have attained self-mastery which manifests itself    in a rare power of self-determination . . . they are privileged human beings whose desire it is . . .  to set the imprint of the elan upon the whole of mankind . . .  The creative             personality feels the impulse of internal necessity to transfigure his fellow men by             converting them to his own insight[33]


Elsewhere he states that it is “creative personalities . . . [who are] in the vanguard of civilization.”[34] From statements such as these, we can observe that Toynbee’s thought was moving in the direction of recognizing Manifestations as originators of civilization. Like the Writings, Toynbee recognizes that strictly materialist explanations of the birth of civilizations are inadequate. While such explanations can describe the conditions under which a civilization started to grow, they cannot explain why in similar or even the same conditions, the civilizational process begins in one place but not in another. In fact, the creative elan or drive of a civilization requires what Toynbee calls a “creative minority” which devises solutions to the challenges and unifies a shapeless social mass to give it direction and a new spirit. A good example of such a creative minority would be Charles Martel and his grandson Charlemagne – although the ultimate source of their power comes from Christ Who is the fountainhead of Western Civilization. When civilization starts top breakdown, the “creative minority” is replaced by a “dominant minority” which cannot rule by attraction and loyalty but rule through violent oppression, marginalizing or even ‘crusades’ as did Catholicism during the Albigenisan campaigns (1209 – 1229 CE). 


            The importance of spiritual and religious aspects of civilizations is also evident in the later development of civilizations. Toynbee uses the term “higher religions that liberate human beings from their servitude to their ancient civilizations.”[35] In other words, they are explicitly, i.e. consciously addressed to all of humanity and not to a portion of it. (This, of course, creates a confusions with Judaism which has elements of both insofar as some groups stress universal appeal and others stress the matrilineal blood-line to determine ‘Jewish identity.’) Interestingly enough, Toynbee’s definition bears some resemblance to the Bahá’í teaching of overcoming ancestral imitations in the process of progressive revelation. To break out of an ancestral religious mindset and culture obviously requires that we abandon at least some inherited attitudes, beliefs, laws, formulations and practices by recognizing them as growth-inhibiting or even harmful.  


            The challenges faced by civilizations are not necessarily external military threats but could also involve the natural environment as in droughts, floods, human or animal disease or internal problems with governance, economics, technology, culture or spiritual issues. For this reason, according to Toynbee, when civilizations fall, the external military attacks usually finish off a culture that is already fatally weakened from within. The fall of a corrupt Rome to the Germanic barbarians in 410 CE, 450 CE and finally in 476 CE is an obvious example of fatal inward weaknesses inviting conquest by vigorous external enemies. Here, too, is a strong convergence with the Bahá’í Writings inasmuch as both agree that the inner life of a civilization i.e. its spiritual and moral life, its “spirit” plays a decisive role in deciding whether a civilization collapses or survives to face a new challenge. Material means are secondary. To remind us of this truth, 'Abdu'l-Bahá says,


            I want to make you understand that material progress and spiritual progress are two very

            different things, and that only if material progress goes hand in hand with spirituality can

            any real progress come about.[36]


This strong emphasis on the inward mental, spiritual and moral condition of a civilization as the crucial element in its rise or fall is another reason why strictly materialist understandings of history are inevitably inadequate. The information they provide is necessary but is not sufficient. Empathy, intuition and “Einfuehlung” are also necessary. We shall discuss this issue in greater depth later.


            In Toynbee’s grand narrative, all civilizations go through a “time of troubles” i.e. a period of conflict between members of a civilization – e.g. WW I and WW II – for example. This time of troubles ends with the establishment of a “universal state” which is the guarantor of order and relative peace within a particular civilization, e.g. the United States after WW II. However, we must not forget that the “universal state” is only a stop-gap measure to prevent an inevitable decline of a particular civilization. Two consequences follow. One is the rise of an “external proletariat” whose aim is to bring down the “universal state” in one way or another. The Germanic tribes were the “external proletariat” to Rome which they wore down until the final conquest in 476 CE. The other is the “internal proletariat,” the excluded classes within the civilization, the disenfranchised and marginalized, but within the proletariat, we often find a “chrysalis”[37] which are the form of a new religion, or what Toynbee calls a “universal church.”[38] “Our survey . . . has shown that principle beneficiaries of universal states are universal churches . . . [and that] the church is flourishing while the state is decaying.”[39] In short, “universal churches lead to new civilizations. Let us, therefore, take note of the following quote from Shoghi Effendi who reminds us of the “twin processes of internal disintegration and external chaos are being accelerated every day and are inexorably moving towards a climax.”[40] This “twin process[ ]” is what Toynbee observes when he refers to the “universal church” growing amid the tumbling ruins of the “universal state.” Shoghi Effendi refers to the


            steadily deepening crisis which mankind is traversing, on the morrow of the severest           ordeal it has yet suffered, and the attendant tribulations and commotions which a           travailing age must necessarily experience, as a prelude to the birth of the new World      Order, destined to rise upon the ruins of a tottering civilization[41]


Here, too, the Bahá’í Writings are in general agreement with Toynbee’s theory.


            Having examine some of the factors that make civilizations grow, let us now examine their breakdown and decline. Let us start by recalling that the Bahá’í Writings  assert that “the

source of his calamities . . . resides within Man himself; he carries it in his heart.”[42] Bahá’u’lláh reminds us that, “Every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.”[43] In other words, we cannot blame the decline of a civilization on God. As already noted, both the Writings and Toynbee agree that the spirit within people determines our creative or destructive reactions to events in the material world. Individuals and collectives have free will, i.e. the power of self-determination, and, therefore, are responsible for their fates.  In his examination of the characteristics that encourage and/or carry forward the process of disintegration, Toynbee lists behaviors that the Bahá’í Writings describe as being “imitations” and, therefore, to be rejected. He defines imitation as an orientation towards the elders and a simultaneous turn away from “the pioneers.”[44] As a result, a passive attitude develops and there is a loss of flexibility and freedom in dealing with new challenges. He also says that idolatry has its roots in


            intellectually and purblind worship of the part instead of the whole, of the creature             instead of the Creator, of Time instead of Eternity; and this abuse of the highest faculties          of the human spirit . . . has its fatal effect upon the object of idolization . . .In practical          life this moral aberration may take the comprehensive form of an idolization of the   idolator’s own personality or own society . . . or may take the limiot3ed form of             idolization of some institution or particular technique[45] 


Bahá’u’lláh earns us about the dangers of imitation, saying


            Imitation destroys the foundation of religion, extinguishes the spirituality of the human             world, transforms heavenly illumination into darkness and deprives man of the       knowledge of God.[46]


He adds, “The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation” [47]  'Abdu'l-Bahá points out that “Man must leave imitation and seek reality”[48] The notion that imitation is a way of avoiding reality is one that plays an extremely important role both in the Bahá’í grand narrative as well as Toynbee. Simply imitating past beliefs and past practices destroys the prospects for human progress by making impossible the actualization of new personal and collective potentials. In the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá:


            Therefore, we learn that allegiance to the essential foundation of the divine religions is         ever the cause of development and progress, whereas the abandonment and beclouding of that essential reality through blind imitations and adherence to dogmatic beliefs are the             causes of a nation's debasement and degradation.[49]


As the foregoing quotation shows, what makes A Study of History especially interesting for Bahá’í is that it explores in great detail the various forms of imitation and how they destroy a civilization. The first of these is “mimesis,”[50] i.e. following examples in behavior, thought and attitudes. To a certain extent mimesis is necessary for social cohesion. The problems with mimesis begin with its inevitable “mechanization of human movement and life.”[51] The essential danger is that it prevents taking original and creative, often tradition-breaking action to engage new problems and situations. It destroys the flexibility, strength, willingness as well as daring needed to succeed in a constantly changing historical process in which new challenges are the rule and not the exception. Too much mimesis, i.e. too much of a good thing, can apply to social relationships, financial and economic structures, military thinking, religion and values and technology among other things. Too much mimesis also destroys individual freedom and all the advantages it brings.   


            A second form of mimesis or imitation is what Toynbee calls “the idolization of an ephemeral self.”[52] Civilization is self-satisfied and content to be what it is instead of seeking new and creative ways to secure inward growth and/or meet external challenges. Toynbee’s main examples are Athens and Venice both of which ‘worshipped’ themselves in their most successful form until they were destroyed. This “idolization” can also affect “ephemeral institutions.”[53] In other words, institutions are so convinced of their perfection that they cannot conceive of any

reason to change their thinking and/or modus operandi. Toynbee’s prime examples are the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. As shown by His letter to Pope Pius IX, Bahá’u’lláh shows the need for Catholicism to abandon its self-adulation as it is and to make the changes necessary to serve humankind. The current Pope, Francis 1, highlights Bahá’u’lláh’s epistle in the changes he has announced for the Vatican’s curia.


            A third kind of imitation is the “idolization of an ephemeral technique.”[54] For Toynbee this applies chiefly to military techniques as seen in the story of David and Goliath. The Philistines relied on slow moving but heavily armored warriors who were successful against all enemies – except a man with a sling. We observe this story even today with the success of asymmetrical, i.e. low-tech warfare against the highly sophisticated war machinery of the First World. Of course, Bahá’u’lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá do not specifically mention this vis-à-vis warfare, but They does deal with it in another form, i.e. the West’s continued reliance on material methods, i.e. technology to solve problems that can only be solved by spiritual means. There are no material and technological remedies for spiritual problems. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, 


            No matter how far the material world advances, it cannot establish the happiness of             mankind. Only when material and spiritual civilization are linked and coordinated will      happiness be assured.[55]

            Pitirim Sorokin, was a Russian-American sociologist and founder of the sociology department at Harvard, is regarded as one of the foremost sociologists of the 20th Century. Employing quantitative, i.e. statistical methods to support his qualitative judgments and conclusions about world history, he developed a cyclical theory of history based on the identification of three types of ‘culture complexes’ which alternate as the dominating force in a society. Sorokin calls these three types the sensate, the ideational and the idealistic or integral culture complex. Each of them presents a complete world-view with its own


            metaphysics or theory of reality;

            epistemology or theory of truth and knowledge:

                        logic or beliefs about rationality and reasoning;

methods of validation;

philosophy of human nature;

ethics, justice and law;

theory of governance and politics;

aesthetics or theory of beauty and art;

theory of science;

            theory of society, its nature and requirements;


We shall explore these three forms of culture complexes in more detail below. Before beginning, we must note that Sorokin goes to great lengths to show how his three culture complexes manifest in philosophy, especially in epistemology; in science; in religion; in the fine arts; in ethics and law; and in politics, government and economics. In a paper such as this, it is impossible for us to follow him across this broad swath of human activity. We shall, therefore, focus most of our      attention on the philosophical aspects of his studies because the “defining characteristic of each type derives from its principles of ultimate truth through which it organizes reality.”[56] In short, Sorokin’s central principle is philosophical and we shall follow his lead.


            Perhaps the most unique feature of Sorokin’s philosophy of history is the voluminous use of statistics. Historian Richard L. Simpson, states,


He and his assistants did a more complete and systematic job of classifying cultural items and tracing their fluctuations than anyone before or since has attempted. Staggering numbers of artistic and literary works, legal and ethical codes, and forms of social relationships are classified, and their changing proportions of Sensatism and Ideationalism are graphed. Sorokin has shown quantitatively, where others have only argued qualitatively, to what extent fluctuations in thought patterns parallel fluctuations in other departments of life. His numerical time charts should enable historians in the future to delineate the boundaries of such periods as the Middle Ages and the Hellenistic Age with a precision never before possible.[57]


This statement calls for several comments. The use of quantitative and statistical methods makes a significant contribution to bringing history and the methods of science closer together. Through the statistical analysis of large numbers of events in the sciences, arts, philosophy, religion, economics and so on, Sorokin and his collaborators were able to identify large scale patterns and trends in the historical process. In other words, despite seemingly overwhelming amounts of data, Sorokin provided scientific, i.e. quantitative proof that patterns and trends exist. The existence of such patterns and trends opens the possibility of making the same kind of statistical predictions used in the life insurance industry. Despite virtually endless amounts of data generated by millions of customers all making independent decisions, actuarial tables are able to identify patterns and groups among policy holders. They use these patterns to make predictions about mortality among various groups. Although actuarial tables cannot predict the death of any individual, they can accurately predict when people with a defined set of health and life-style attributes tend to die. Using this information, they set your life insurance rates. The enormous profitability of the life insurance industry is quantitative proof that this method works. Sorokin’s use of statistical methodology provides quantitative, i.e. scientific proof that Popper, Geyl and Montagu are factually wrong in their rejection of historical patterns and trends as well as the absolute unpredictability of historical patterns and trends. 


            Sorokin and his co-workers discovered that there are three basic types of culture complexes and that the “defining characteristic of each type derives from the principles of ultimate truth through which it organizes reality.”[58] On this basis, we can deduce a significant portion of a culture’s attributes. Sorokin writes,


the distinguishing of one variable of a culture enables us to construct logically a large network of connections with many of its other variables; to forecast what will be the nature of each of these variables if the culture is logically integrated; and, in this way, to comprehend quickly the enormous diversity of its traits, qualities, quantities, in one united and all-embracing system  . .  .  If we discover that this culture does contain the appropriate body of traits and variables, by one stroke we obtain several important cognitive results: (1) a highly intimate and certain understanding of many of the important aspects of the culture; (2) an insight into the nature and workings of most of its significant components; (3) a knowledge of the spectrum of its dominant  mentality; (4) a comprehensive grasp of the very complex network of relationships between many of its traits which otherwise would escape us ; and (5) an answer to the question as to whether or not, and to what extent and in what parts, the culture is indeed logically integrated. [59]  


In his numerous works, Sorokin demonstrates how these culture-complexes manifest in actual societies. It shows not only the alternating dominance of one culture-complex or another but also that the dominance of one culture-complex is not absolute, i.e. vestiges of the other complexes remain active. We shall discuss this “superrhythm”[60] of history in more detail below.


Ideational Culture


The first of Sorokin’s three culture complexes is the ideational or spiritually oriented culture. Sorokin writes,


By Idealism as philosophy, metaphysics, or mentality is meant a system of ideology which maintains that the ultimate, or true, reality is spiritual, in the sense of God, of Platonic ideas, of immaterial spirit, of soul, or of psychical reality[61]


In other words, the most obvious – and most important – is the existence of God, or a ground of being, or a mysterious and unknowable Tao, or a cosmic process of dependent origination as the origin and ultimate governor of the universe. Of course, this transcendent orientation may be expressed differently in different cultures but is ultimately the same everywhere: “truth is one, although its manifestations may be very different.”[62] The Bahá’í Writings are clearly ideational in this regard. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, “That which we imagine, is not the Reality of God; He, the Unknowable, the Unthinkable, is far beyond the highest conception of man”[63] and Bahá’u’lláh reminds us that God is “the Inaccessible, the Omnipotent, the Omniscient, the Holy of Holies.”[64] The foundational importance of the Transcendent is significant because it means that ideational cultures views human existence sub specie aeternitatis i.e. in relationship to the Transcendent and not only in relationship to the phenomenal world or human ambition, desire and convenience. Indeed, human desires and ambition take second place not only because it is the Transcendent Who determines truth, beauty, justice, goodness and all other genuine values but also because the omniscient and omnipotent Transcendent knows our nature and understands our best long-term advantages better than we do. As Bahá’u’lláh says, “It is incumbent upon everyone to observe God's holy commandments, inasmuch as they are the wellspring of life unto the world,”[65] i.e. they bring true life to us. Furthermore, ideational cultures, have a long-term time perspective on existence; they think and evaluate in terms of eternity and not in terms of short-term effects.


According to the ideational world view, the ultimate truth and ultimate basis for truth is an inherently unknowable Transcendental entity, process, power or ground of being. It is absolutely independent of any other beings although these individual beings are completely dependent on this Transcendental whatever it may be. Since its existence does not depend on itself alone, creation is not ‘fully’ real. Some like Plato regard the world as a shadows of a transcendent ideal world; others as an illusion or a dream or as a sinful distraction from the quest for salvation for the soul. While the Bahá’í Writings do not denigrate the phenomenal world, they make it clear that it is of secondary importance insofar as it is only a stage, a transition period on the journey of our existence. It is not the final stopping point and, therefore, cannot be an ultimate value. That is the inescapable conclusion that follows from our spiritual nature. Throughout the Writings we find reminders that we shall not find our final destiny in this world:


Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out. A shadow hath no life of its own; its existence is only a fantasy, and nothing more; it is but images reflected in water, and seeming as pictures to the eye.[66]


Because of its transcendental orientation, the ideational culture regards intuition, spiritual insight and mystical experiences as valid sources of knowledge and concomitantly places little trust in sensory or empirical knowledge and values logic only insofar as it supports intuition or revelation or the quest for salvation: “Pure logical reasoning and the testimony of the organs of sense have only a subsidiary role and only insofar as they do not contradict revealed Scripture.”[67] Knowledge about the empirical or sensory world is secondary (but not worthless) to knowledge about personal salvation or one’s ultimate destiny. The Bahá’í Writings also recognize the importance of intuition in the quest for knowledge. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá declares,


True distinction among mankind is through divine bestowals and receiving the intuitions of the Holy Spirit. If man does not become the recipient of the heavenly bestowals and spiritual bounties, he remains in the plane and kingdom of the animal.[168]

Elsewhere he refers to the necessity of receiving the bounties of the Holy Spirit to make reason effective.[69] This harmonizes with ideational cultures which are more open to what Sorokin calls “the supraconscious mode of cognition”[70] which comes from the “supraconsciousness” an aspect of the mind above the unconscious, the ego or super-ego. It is “egoless”[71]  i.e. beyond all sense of individuality. As a sociologist, Sorokin avoids explicitly drawing any metaphysical conclusions from the existence of the supraconsciousness (which he deduces from cultural evidence) but it is clear that he believes in the reality of a Transcendent with which all cultures try to harmonize. The supraconsciousness which puts us into touch with the Transcendent is the source of human inspiration not only in religion but also in the arts, sciences and social relations.


From the ideational perspective, humankind is essentially spiritual in nature and, therefore, a spiritual destiny beyond the material world. Our destiny is not here. The challenge of

attaining our proper destiny is to achieve the “ennoblement of character.”[72] Bahá’u’lláh states,


From the heaven of God's Will, and for the purpose of ennobling the world of being and of elevating the minds and souls of men, hath been sent down that which is the most effective instrument for the education of the whole human race.[73]


Either acting through Manifestations or inspiring the supraconscious, the Transcendent sets the standards of what is or is not true, good, just and beautiful; human considerations about utility, pleasure, convenience or rationality are simply irrelevant because the underlying assumption is that God knows us – and what is good for us – better than we know ourselves. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may be referring – at least in part – to the supraconscious when he instructs us “to awaken spiritual susceptibilities in the hearts of mankind, to kindle anew the spirit of humanity with divine fires and to reflect the glory of heaven to this gloomy world of materialism.”[74] The “spiritual susceptibilities” like the supraconsciousness connects us to the Transcendent or God and thereby helps us understand ethics (the good), law (the just), art (the beautiful) and knowledge (the true) are based on revelation or divine commands or the inspiration of the supraconscious through which we are connected to the Transcendent.  This means that ideational ethics are not utilitarian in the material sense, but rather, in a spiritual sense, seeking to bring us closer to God[75] by actualizing above all our spiritual potentials. They do not aim at “the greatest happiness or comfort or self-esteem for the greatest number” but rather at living harmoniously with the will of the Transcendent.


Sorokin identifies two kinds of ideationalism. “Ascetic ideationalism” seeks to suppress physical and social needs as much as possible, and often seeks to dissolve rejects the ego or sense of self. The Bahá’í Writings, of course, prohibit extreme asceticism and permanent withdrawl from the world.[76] Sorokin also recognizes what he calls “active ideationalism”[77] which seeks to fulfill its spiritual mission by minimizing and controlling but not suppressing physical needs and by seeking to transform or spiritualize itself and the world and everyone in it.[78] This, of course, is the mission which all Bahá’ís undertake as their life’s work. Indeed, towards the end of his life Sorokin published The Ways and Power of Love (1954) in which he extolls altruistic and universal love, not only as a necessary social feeling but as an organizing principle for societies and the world as a whole. The affinities with the Bahá’í Teachings are too obvious to require in-depth discussion. 


            Ideational cultures share other important characteristics. They value self-control of the senses and emotions. They do not view self-expression of feeling as necessarily intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Nor do they see liberty or freedom as an ultimate value in all aspects of life. Rather, they emphasize what Sorokin calls “ideational liberty” or an “inner liberty”[79]  which concerns reducing demands and restraining desires or surrendering our will to the Transcendent. This emphasis on self-control is clearly evident in Bahá’u’lláh’s statements regarding freedom or liberty.


Liberty must, in the end, lead to sedition . . . Know ye that the embodiment of liberty and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man is submission unto such restraints as will protect him from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness.[80]


In short, liberty must be [t]rue liberty [which] consisteth in man's submission unto My commandments.” [81] God’s commandments are “true liberty” because they bring our thoughts and actions into alignment with our true nature or essence as human beings.


Ideational economic beliefs and practices must also reflect or be compatible with revelation and intuition. For example, in the Middle Ages taking interest or usury was forbidden to Christians and the principle of a “just price” was applied to sales of all kinds. The modern principle that price is what the traffic will bear i.e. what people are willing to pay is viewed as an invitation to limitless greed – and, therefore, as damaging to the soul. The Bahá’í Writings also present economic teachings to enact spiritual values in the phenomenal world. Economic principles must reflect that human beings are spiritual entities made in the image of God and in whom “are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed. All these names and attributes are applicable to him.”[82] In other words, Bahá’í teachings recognize that in economics more than strict economic matters must be taken into consideration. To a certain degree, economics are always a matter of psychology and spirituality, and when these change so will the economic operations. Bringing economics more into line with a spiritual outlook is precisely what ideational cultures do.


            From the foregoing survey of the major attributes of ideational cultures, it is clear that the Bahá’í Writings have many ideational attributes. However, for reasons to come, we would not describe the Writings as ideational. What this survey of ideational attributes also demonstrates


Sensate Culture


            Sorokin asserts that “Sensate culture is the opposite of the Ideational in its major premises.”[83] It asserts that reality is strictly material/physical and that there are no super-sensory beings and processes of any kind. Truth is wholly empirical and sensory, i.e. all truth-claims  must be based on sensory or material evidence that can be subjected to the scientific method with its requirements of quantifiability; objectivity; repeatability and falsifiability. In Sorokin’s words,  “The Sensate mentality, knowledge, science, is characterized by materialism, empiricism, mechanisticism, determinism, quantitativism.”[84]  In other words, all knowledge has a material basis; all material processes are explainable in mechanistic, i.e. cause-and-effect terms which enshrine determinism and reject free will; and only things that can be counted and quantified are real.  Conversely, “inner experience — divine inspiration, mystical union, revelation, pure meditation, ecstasy, trance”[85] as well as the assistance of the Holy Spirit in acquiring knowledge[86] are rejected as delusional. At this point it is already clear that the sensory culture-complex and the Bahá’í Writings are incompatible at the most fundamental level vis-à-vis metaphysics, ontology and epistemology. The dismissal of non-sensory, i.e. transcendental ‘being’ like God is not reconcilable with belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscience God Who is the willing creator and organizer of all things; Who gives all things their nature and Who is, therefore, the source of all knowledge. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, of course, rejects materialism as an adequate world-view in his talks at Stanford and compares it to the natural outlook of animals. “Then why should we go to the colleges? Let us go to the cow.”[87]


            For the sensate cultures, humankind is an entirely physical being which can be studied and known completely by strictly empirical methods. Because we have no soul we have ‘spiritual needs’ which will be shown to have biological explanations nor need we be concerned about the after-life.  Furthermore, all values, e.g. ethical, theological, societal values must be based on sensory evidence; must be testable by scientific means; and must be justified by tangible utilitarian benefits such as health, pleasure (“hedonism”) convenience, power, wealth or other tangible [88] They define ‘good’ and ‘right’ in strictly practical terms. Sorokin writes that the “sensate mentality


chooses and emphasizes predominantly the sensate, empirical, material values. Eudaemonism, hedonism, utilitarianism, sensualism; the morals of “ Carpe diem,” . . . Man should seek pleasure and avoid pain; utility is positive, disutility is negative. The maximum pleasure for the greatest number of beings, this is in essence the motto of Sensate moralists. The second characteristic of the moral systems of a Sensate culture type is that they are never absolute, but are always relativistic, varying “ according to circumstances and situations.” They can be modified, have no sacred, unalterable, eternal imperatives.[89]


Obviously, sensate moral relativism is logically incompatible with Shoghi Effendi’s statement that the Manifestation “insists on the unqualified recognition of the unity of their purpose, restates the eternal verities they enshrine . . . distinguishes the essential and the authentic from

the nonessential and spurious in their teachings”[90] In relativism, “eternal verities” are logically impossible because verities that are eternal are true under all circumstances and from all perspectives. According to the Bahá’í Writings, the accidental outward expression of the verities might change, but the essential truth always remains. In practical application, the philosophy of materialism supplies the principles on which society, law, economics, science and technology and even the arts are built. In a sensate culture people think primarily in materialist terms on such issues as ‘the good life,’ ‘success,’ a ‘good person,’ a ‘good job;’ the soul or spirit is reduced to physical brain function or to computer soft-ware, spirituality is reduced to feeling good or strong self-esteem and belief in God to childish fear. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they reduce ‘value’ which is not necessarily sensory with ‘price’ which can easily be measured. [91]  Naturally, sensate cultures have a strong, natural tendency to atheism and secularism, often in militant forms, as seen, for example, in the new atheist movement. In our view, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sums up the sensate perspective when he says,


Mankind is submerged in the sea of materialism and occupied with the affairs of this world. They have no thought beyond earthly possessions and manifest no desire save the passions of this fleeting, mortal existence. Their utmost purpose is the attainment of material livelihood, physical comforts and worldly enjoyments such as constitute the happiness of the animal world rather than the world of man.[92]


How compatible is the sensate world-view with the Writings? Insofar as the sensate culture’s thorough-going materialism in metaphysics, ontology and epistemology are concerned there is no compatibility. The denial of any non-sensory beings, entities or truths cannot be reconciled with the assertion that a non-sensory God, soul and spiritual truths exist – they are logical negations of one another.[93] Claiming that each is valid from its point of view does not actually reconcile their specific contradictions but simply compartmentalizes them in separate boxes where their actual contradictions remain unresolved. However, we might ask if there are certain issues on which the two might be seen as compatible, i.e. two aspects of a whole like the yin/yang symbol. For example, the Bahá’í Writings do not deny the need for an existence free from physical deprivations and disease, a sense of well-being, security and opportunities to earn a reasonable living. Nor do they deny that to some degree utilitarianism, i.e. “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” or the good of the community as a whole is an important consideration. Because of their underlying metaphysics, ontology, epistemology and philosophy of human nature, the Writings proclaim that these goals cannot be attained by strictly material means but must include the spiritual aspects of existence. In short, the sensate beliefs are necessary but not sufficient. Here is where the reconciliation breaks down because the sensate view cannot by virtue of its materialist metaphysic admit that spiritual entities and beliefs have any role in the quest for well-being. The Bahá’í Writings have no difficulty including the material needs of mankind despite their spiritual foundations whereas the sensate view is logically unable to make any such accommodations.


            This last point brings us to Sorokin’s integral culture which is precisely a synthesis of the ideational and sensate.


Integral Culture


            Sorokin’s third culture is the integral culture which dominated Greece in 4th and 5th century BCE and Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries CE. Naturally, we must recall that no one culture-complex dominates society absolutely but always exists with ideational and sensate undercurrents at work. In Greece during this time the most influential philosophers were Plato and Aristotle, both of whom combined the ideational, intuitive “truth of faith” with the empirical “truth of the senses” to form a coherent philosophy or world-view. Plato’s intuitive “truth of faith” concerned the Ideal Forms of which all phenomenal things are shadows as noted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place [the phenomenal world] is only its shadow stretching out.”[94] In other words, the phenomenal world merely an image that is dependent on the original and, thereby, less real than the Kingdom which “is a spiritual world, a divine world, and the center of the Sovereignty of God.”[95] For Plato, the Ideal Forms can only be understood by intuition within the limits of human capacity. For Aristotle the “truth of faith” was in the ‘forms’ i.e. Platonic ideas that are embedded within things, just as the Names of God are immanently reflected from within things. Plato, Aristotle (and later Thomas Aquinas) and the Bahá’í Writings unite these kinds of truth into a rational and coherent world-view.[96] Moreover, because integralist truth “combines into one organic whole the truth of the senses, the truth of faith and the truth of reason”[97] it has a more complete understanding of reality, and, thereby, is closer to the truth. He writes,


the integral truth is not identical with any [one] of the three forms of truth, but embraces all of them. In this three-dimensional aspect of the truth of faith, of reason, and of the senses, the integral truth is nearer to the absolute truth than any onesided truth of one of these three forms . . . The threefold integral system of truth gives us . . . a more adequate knowledge of the reality . . . . . Each of these systems of truth separated from the rest becomes less valid or more fallacious,[98]


In practical terms, this means that the current Western, i.e. predominantly sensate culture has an inadequate and thereby misleading concept of reality. 


the major premise [of integral culture is] that true reality is partly supersensory and partly sensory – that it  embraces the super-sensory and the super-rational aspect plus the rational aspect and finally the sensory aspect, all blended into one unity, that of the infinite manifold, God.[99]


On the basis of this statement, one might conclude that the one-sided sensate view of reality also presents obstacles to thinking about God. As the contemporary debates about God demonstrate, a one-sided view of reality makes it especially difficult to think coherently about God. A question like ‘Can God lift an object heavier than Himself?’ is a good example of such confusion of the material with the spiritual.[100]


            Continuing with epistemology, we note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá states, the “four criteria according to the declarations of men are: first, sense perception; second, reason; third, traditions; fourth, inspiration.”[101] He includes “tradition” as a source of knowledge which Sorokin does not acknowledge formally but admits implicitly in his sharp critique of the compulsive quest for the up-to-date [102] which is uncritically assumed to be superior. 'Abdu'l-Bahá also informs us that the only way to acquire real knowledge is through the “prompting s of the Holy Spirit which is light and knowledge itself.”[103] As a sociologist, Sorokin does not appeal to the Holy Spirit but refers to an analogous concept which has a similar function in his work  – the supraconsciousness in mankind by which we acquire inspiration and knowledge from the Transcendent. He writes that the supraconsciousness has a “transpersonal source . . .  providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan.” [104] In other words, Sorokin also recognizes the need for transcendental assistance in the quest for adequate knowledge. He believes this supraconsciousness connects us to an “infinite manifold, God” Who cannot be known by the finite human capacities of senses, reason or faith but Whose presence and action can be experienced through the supraconsciousness. In the same way, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá,“the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable.”[105]


            Finally, both the Writings and Sorokin view humans as dual in nature – as material and spiritual with the spiritual being our higher nature. Sorokin notes that man is “a supersensory and superational being,” [106] who possesses a “supraconsciousness” connecting him to a transcendental reality from which he draws inspiration and understanding. 'Abdu'l-Bahá informs

us that “In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone.”[107] For both the Bahá’í Writings and Sorokin ignoring our spiritual or supraconscious we is a devastating mistake because we fail ourselves by not actualizing all our potentials for knowledge and spiritual development.


The kinship of integral culture and the Bahá’í Writings is obvious insofar as they agree on the foundations of metaphysics notably on the dual nature of ‘existence’ which has two aspects or ‘levels.’ The first and primary aspect is the Transcendent i.e. “transpersonal source . . . [that is] providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan.” [108] In other words, the integralist culture not only recognizes a superior Being Who is the source of phenomenal reality and all knowledge about it. It also plays a role in “guiding” human history according to a plan of some kind, i.e. plays a role in humankind’s unfolding history through the inspirations of the supraconscious in particular people. Sorokin’s descriptions of integral culture make no mention of Manifestations of God or prophets; the gifted people inspired through the supraconscious are the closest to that exalted position. The second aspect or level of reality is the phenomenal world, i.e. physical existence, which, as we seen above, is a “shadow” i.e. an image of something more real than itself. Like a shadow it is completely dependent on its original. Both the Bahá’í Writings and integral culture reject any extreme denials or mortifications of our physical nature as a proper response to living in this shadow world. They advocate a moderate, i.e. balanced approach to self-discipline or self-control. As we shall see below, the Writings and Sorokin’s theories also agree that metaphysics is includes by a potentialist ontology that

characterizes all individual things.


            How, we may ask, is Sorokin’s theory of culture-complexes relevant to the philosophy of history and the subject of grand narratives and to the Bahá’í grand narrative in particular? Sorokin’s answer is clear: cultures and history have empirically demonstrable patterns, they go through empirically demonstrable cycles and show empirically demonstrable progress in our understanding of reality – albeit not in a simple linear form as the Enlightenment thought.  Moreover, the three culture complexes dominate societies in an oscillating pattern whereby the decline of one leads to the rise of another. The periods of domination are not always of the same length and no one culture complex is ever absolutely dominant; the two remaining culture-complexes remain active as undercurrents one of which will be ‘ready’ to take the dominant position by meeting the needs. These three culture-complexes and their alternating periods of dominance in a society constitute what Sorokin calls the “superrhythm”[109] of history.


            This “superhythm” brings up the issue of progress. Does Sorokin’s philosophy of change in history include the concept of ‘progress, i.e. improvement in knowledge or social practice? Does history have a direction or is it subject to divine guidance? He clearly rejects the Enlightenment view of an “Omnipotent Evolution and Providential Progress unerringly lead mankind ever nearer to some goal or toward some ‘bigger and better’ state.” [110]  Obviously this conflicts with the Bahá’í teaching of “progressive revelation” and belief in an “ever-advancing civilization” under the guidance of the Manifestations.

            However as Barry V Johnston points out, in effect, Sorokin re-introduces the concept of progress in another form that turns out to converge with the Bahá’í Writings. Sorokin wanted a solution for the problem that the “superrhythm” of three culture-complexes would simply go on forever without any movement towards ultimate truth or at least towards improvements, expansions, of knowledge and understanding. Without such a direction, without improvement the cycles of history would be rather pointless. Sorokin sees the solution in the periods of integral culture which embrace and connect ideational, sensate and integral views of truth i.e. connected the “truths of reason, senses and faith”[111] and thereby gained a broader and deeper understanding of reality. Consequently,  integral culture more accurately reflects human nature with its intellectual, sensory and intuitive faculties. Insofar as our understanding of reality has improved, there has been and will be progress in history, although it is not necessarily an unbroken linear progress as imagined by the Enlightenment. Consequently, we conclude that like the Bahá’í Writings, Sorokin recognizes epistemological progress which, in turn, leads to progress in other areas of humanity’s existence as new knowledge is applied. In this sense it seems clear that over the long term humanity has advanced beyond its ancestors.  This is at least a partial reconciliation between the Writings and Sorokin.

There are several reasons why the dominance of the three culture-complexes oscillates. According to Sorokin, the most important is that in each culture-complex, “the system of truth is partly true and partly false”[112] and as the falsities expand a society has “either to continue the dangerous drift and suffer fatal atrophy or else to correct the mistake”[113] by adopting a more adequate system of truth. He adds, “Some cultures, like the Graeco-Roman and the Western were able to make such a shift several times; others could not do so.”[114] In other words, the inadequacies in each culture-complex help drive the historical process forward.

Furthermore, another reason for change occurs from within the three culture-complexes as well as all other things. The basis of this change is the potentialist ontology the Bahá’í Writings and Sorokin share. The Writings recognize this in their references to the “potential in the seed;”[115] of the sun awakening “all that is potential in the earth;”[116] of the “virtues potential in mankind;”[117] of the inventions “potential in the world of nature;”[118] and of the embryo progressing until “that which was potential in it--namely, the human image—appears.”[119] Sorokin’s sociology and philosophy of history is also potentialist. He discusses this under the “principle of immanent change”[120] by which he means that the basis of change is in the potentials or essence immanent in a thing. Each thing possesses “ ‘immanent self-regulation and self-direction.’ ”[121]  The environment can stimulate change but it cannot determine the kind of change we will see.  No amount of environmental influence can make a duck manifest the attributes of a donkey. The potentials for such a change are not present. Things are not simply the passive playthings of the environment. [122] As Sorokin says, Sorokin puts it, the essence of a thing “the determining potentialities of the system are the system itself and are its immanent properties”[123] The Bahá’í rejection of “environmentalism” is found not only in its potentialist ontology but also in the spiritual guidance we received from Bahá’u’lláh: the “the faith of no man can be conditioned by anyone except himself”[124] even if all others in society oppose him or her. Elsewhere Bahá’u’lláh says of the true believers that they will persevere in faith “even if all the powers of earth and heaven were to deny Him.” [125] Logically, if “environmentalism”[126] or “externalism”[127] are false, then all things – but at least humans – must have some degree of free will. 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that

Some things are subject to the free will of man, such as justice, equity, tyranny and

injustice, in other words, good and evil actions; it is evident and clear that these actions

are, for the most part, left to the will of man.[128]


In the phenomenal world, we are subject to the laws of physical existence but we have the capacity to be spiritually free. Sorokin does not specifically discuss free will but a reading of his texts clearly shows that he assumes it as real and effective.


            Finally we should note that more than any other historian – even Toynbee – Sorokin has made a careful study of the “over-ripe” conditions of our sensate culture and its ills.




            Because – as Shoghi Effendi urged us to do – we have examined so many correlations

vis-à-vis grand narratives in history, we believe it is fitting to end with a review of some of the

aspects which make the Bahá’í grand narrative of mankind’s history unique and especially suitable for the religious and cultural divisions in the contemporary world. From our perspective, the doctrine of progressive revelation is the ‘flagship’ teaching of the Faith in regards to a global metanarrative. Numerous other teachings are implicitly present in this doctrine. First, is its hitherto unprecedented religious inclusiveness. Other religions are not merely recipients of good will and toleration, they are incorporated as equal, necessary and essential parts of a single global “meta-religion” of which the Bahá’í dispensation is the latest but by no means the final phase. It is difficult to imagine a more rational and more morally satisfying alternative to the problem of religious and cultural disunity among humankind. Second, embedded in progressive revelation is the concept of progress primarily in spiritual progress but also in material progress. This also shows that in the Bahá’í Writings, the idea of progress has a theological basis as a necessary part of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation The sequence and nature of different divine revelations depends on the degree of spiritual progress a society has made: “Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity.”[129] In this way their progress is expedited to the next stage. Furthermore, “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization,”[130] a statement which, in effect, makes spiritual and material progress a religious duty for all. This is doctrine is especially suited to a world harshly divided by sectarian prejudices and horrible material inequities. From the foregoing, we observe the objective ethical standard to evaluate individual and collective acts. This avoids the quagmire of ethical relativism which creates confusion because it can justify anything.


            Because religion and culture are so intimately connected, progressive revelation leads logically to the conclusion that eventually humankind will be united into a federal global commonwealth united by “one common faith.” Religious history – and history in general – exhibit a clearly foreseeable purpose. The clarity of this purpose leads to the next implicit concept in progressive revelation: the Universal House of Justice. If we have a clear goal, then the obvious question is ‘How shall we get there?’ As noted in our Introduction, the Bahá’í Writings are not limited to mere diagnosis of human history but also provide a prescription for healing the world’s ills as well as the institution for putting the healing into practice.  Recommending universal love – as Toynbee and Sorokin do – is not in itself a prescription except in the vaguest sense especially in the contemporary world. What humankind requires is a program of practical steps on the practice of love and an institution or vanguard to guide this practice. This is especially true when we think on a global inter-cultural and international scale. While good will and good feelings are necessary, they are not sufficient in humanity’s new situation. Moreover, the Universal House of Justice develops plans to bring both individuals and societies closer to the goal of unification. Such planning and coordination are necessary because individual action while necessary is not sufficient at this time in history.  


            In addition, the teaching of progressive revelation also implies the essential oneness of human nature. We cannot expect the world to become united if we do not believe that human nature has certain universal aspects that can be the common basis for unity. The essential oneness of humankind also points to the “eternal verities” i.e. the universal ethical principles on which unity can be established to become the foundation for spiritual evolution. Finally, the harmonization of science and religion as part of our material and spiritual progress since both of them are necessary and inescapable aspects of human existence. The apparent conflict between science and religion is symptom of short-sightedness and lack of true understanding that must be over come because both of them are undeniable aspects of human nature.  




            Our conclusion consists of four major points.


First, the Bahá’í Writings present a well-developed, spiritually based grand narrative of human history that lays the foundations for the unification of humankind. 


Second, the Bahá’í Writings share numerous similarities with the historical theories of Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin but go much farther in developing spiritual and practical responses to the problems explored in these other grand narratives.  Unlike the other grand narratives, the Bahá’í Writings provide not only a description or diagnosis of the historical process but also a prescription or plan of action and an institution to put these plans into action as guided by Bahá’u’lláh, the Manifestation of God for this age. This institution is the Universal House of Justice.


Third, the grand narratives we have studied show that provided one adopts a “world-embracing” vision identifiable patterns and trends exist in the historical process and that using these patterns it is possible to make testable predictions about future trends. The existence of these patterns based on a universal human nature allows greater understanding of our position in the historical process.


Fourth, the various attempts to undermine and invalidate grand narratives are often logically self-contradictory; unscientific vis-à-vis the use of statistics; inaccurate in their presentation of human nature; and motivated more by political than scholarly concerns, especially in the case of Popper and the postmodern philosophers. None of the arguments against grand narratives present insuperable obstacles for advocating the Bahá’í grand narrative.


[1] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History?, p. 57.

[2] J.R. McNeil and William H. McNeil, The Human Web, p. 6.

[3] The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 216.

[4] Stephen Epstein, “History Man” in The Weekly Standard, December 13, 2010,

[5] Hugh Trevor-Roper, “Testing Toynbee’s System” in Ashley Montague editor, Toynbee and History, p. 122.

[6] W. H. Walsh, “The End of a Great Work,” in Ashley Montague, editor, Toynbee and History, p. 125; original emphasis.

[7] Pieter Geyl, Debates with Historians, p.185.

[8] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 4, p. 36.

[9] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CVI, p. 213.

[10] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 97; also A Study of History, Volume 1, p. 271.

[11] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 97.

[12] Arnold Toynbee, A Study in History, Volume 1, p. 233, states “we must infer that the capacity for civilization is not a monopoly of an fraction or fractions of the human family  . . . there is no warrant for supposing that one particular fraction – the Black Race – has been born without this birthright and is congenitally incapable of civilization just because it has failed to make one of these creative contributions so

far.” Toynbee would probably not have written this if knowledge about the Kingdoms of Kush or Benin or the Empire of Ghana had been prevalent in his time. It would be fascinating to see how his theories fit these civilizations. In his final, one volume abridgement, Toynbee refers to “the philosophies of the African Civilizations” p. 161; also p. 71.

[13] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 96.

[14] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 3, p. 192

[15] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 2, p. 322 – 392.

[16] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 2, p. 291.

[17] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 132.

[18] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 58.

[19] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 'Abdu'l-Bahá in London, p. 29.

[20] The Universal House of Justice, Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1968-1973, p. 57.

[21] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 138.

[22] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 137.

[23] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 3, p. 192.

[24] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 140.

[25] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 197.

[26] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 12, p. 75.

[27] Ian Kluge, “Reason and the Bahá’í Writings,” in Lights of Irfan # 14, 2013.

[28] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 12, p. 81.

[29] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 328.

[30] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 1, p. 249; Volume 1, p. 270; Volume 3, p. 125; emphasis added. 

[31] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 378.

[32] Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 168; emphasis added.

[33] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 140.

[34] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 166.

[35] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 334. 

[36] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 108.

[37] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 326.

[38] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 326.

[39] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 326.

[40] Shoghi Effendi, This Decisive Hour, p. 23.

[41] Shoghi Effendi, The Citadel of Faith, p. 39.

[42] CF Volney, Les Ruins, in Oevres Completes, p. 12 – 13 in Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 161.

[43] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LXXVII, p. 149.

[44] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 4, p. 245.

[45] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 4, p. 261.

[46] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace,” p. 161.

[47] Bahá’u’lláh,  Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 156. 

[48] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace,” p. 169.

[49] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace,” p. 363.

[50] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 161.

[51] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 162.

[52] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 171.

[53] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 180

[54] Arnold Toynbee and Jane Caplan, A Study of History, p. 194.

[55] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 108.

[56] Barry V. Johnston, “Pitirim A. Sorokin on Order, Change and the Reconstruction of Society: An Integral Perspective” in Comparative Civilization Review,

[57] Richard L Simpson, “Pitirim Sorokin and His Sociology” in Social Forces, (Oxford University Press)

[58] Barry V. Johnston, “Pitirim A. Sorokin on Order, Change and the Reconstruction of Society: An Integral Perspective” in Comparative Civilization Review,

[59] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 15; emphasis added. 

[60] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 682.

[61] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 284.

[62] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 128.

[63] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 25.

[64] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, I, p. 5.

[65] Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 126.

[66] 'Abdu'l-Bahá,, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 177.

[67] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, II, p. 9.

[68] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 316; emphasis added. 

[69] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 302.

[70] Pitirim Sorokin, The Basic Trends of Our Time, p. 29.

[71] Pitirim Sorokin, The Basic Trends of Our Time, p. 30.

[72] Pitirim Sorokin, The Reconstruction of Humanity, p. 38.

[73] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, XLIII, p. 93,

[74] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 7.

[75] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 111.

[76] Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 195.

[77] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 27.

[78] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 27.

[79] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 143.

[80] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, CLIX, p. 335; emphasis added.

[81] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, CLIX, p. 336.

[82] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, XC, p. 177.

[83] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 28.

[84] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 34.

[85] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 33.

[86] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 302.

[87] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 361.

[88] Pitirim Sorokin, The Basic Trends of Our Times, p. 18; also Social and Cultural Dynamics, p. 14.

[89] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 35.

[90] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108.

[91] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chp. IV,

[92] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 335.

[93] Claiming that each is valid from its point of view does not actually reconcile them but simply compartmentalizes them in separate boxes without solving the contradictions as required by genuine reconciliation.  Separating two antagonists does not actually remedy their differences.

[94] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 178.

[95] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 241.

[96] Ian Kluge, “Reason and the Baha’i Writings” in Lights of Irfan 14 (2013) or

[97] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 68.

[98] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 690 – 691.

[99] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 18; emphasis added.

[100] The assumed premise is that God is heavy, i.e. is material. That reduces God to a physical object among others which is obviously not God as being discussed.

[101] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 20.

[102] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 319 – 320.

[103] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 21.

[104] Pitirim Sorokin in John Ubeursax, “Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin,” in Satayagraha, Dec. 10, 2010. ; emphasis added.

[105] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 296.

[106] Pitirim Sorokin, The Basic Trends of Our Time, p. 38.

[107]'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 61. 

[108] Pitirim Sorokin in John Ubeursax, “Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin,” in Satayagraha, Dec. 10, 2010. ; emphasis added.

[109] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 682.

[110] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 652. 

[111] Barry V. Johnston, “Pitirim A. Sorokin on Order, Change and the Reconstruction of Society: An Integral Perspective” in Comparative Civilization Review,

[112] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 94.

[113] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 94.

[114] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, p. 94.

[115]  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 91.

[116] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,  The Promulgation of Universal Peace 74.  

[117] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 70.

[118] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 309.

[119] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 359.

[120] R.F. Braun, “Sorokin, Popper and the Philosophy of History” in Intercollegiate Review, Winter-Spring 1972.

[121] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 18.

[122] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 631; emphasis added.

[123] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 641.

[124] Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LXXV, p. 143.

[125] Bahá’u’lláh, Gems of the Divine Mysteries, p. 55.

[126] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 631

[127] Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, (abridged), p. 631

[128] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 247.

[129] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, XXXVIII, p.  87.

[130] Bahá'u'lláh Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CIX, p. 214.

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