"A civilization of the spirit"

Over the centuries, many powerful nations and empires have risen up, often in the face of extremely harsh conditions and hostile surroundings. The record of history includes remarkable accounts of the triumphs of human ingenuity, courage, and industry. Yet not only has the long course of civilization included the dramatic rise of great societies but obviously there have also been substantial periods of decline and, at times, even the complete collapse of a culture.

There is no question that the material benefit to mankind of civilization's forward advances has been tremendous. But material benefits, of themselves, have not been sufficient to save some of the greatest of all empires, like those of the ancient Persians, Babylonians, Aztecs, and Romans. Many of the most powerful societies the world has ever known have long since passed from the scene of living history.

And what of our own civilization? Faced with the hard challenges of our present era—the extreme stress placed on the environment, economic instability in many areas of the world, signs of spreading moral deterioration, the threat of annihilation—it's little wonder that people have serious concerns about the future of contemporary society. Perhaps the safety and progress of civilization need a different sort of base, or direction, than one which primarily pursues material development. Don't security and human progress, as well as certain other kinds of essentials, such as individual purpose, reason for living, and fulfillment, ultimately depend on spiritual development? From a rather radical perspective the theologian Karl Barth once put forward a stirring call for civilizing the world. "Let a civilization of the spirit," he said, "take the place of a civilization of things...." The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher, 1978), p. 160 .

December 19, 1988

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