Marks of the Death of a Civilization

Greg Strand – November 28, 2012 5 Comments

This is a fitting follow up post from yesterday, which focused on the importance of faith in the public square. If yesterday’s post emphasized what is important to enable the public square to flourish, this post focuses on the steps towards the demise and death of a civilization.

Ben Mitchell, “What Happens When Civilizations Die?,” The BibleMesh Blog (October 18, 2012), refers to a recent book by Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (Schoken, 2012), in which he spells out the implications of a public square without faith, or when religious faith is swallowed up by secularism. He notes five key entailments when religious faith is marginalized or absent:

First, belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life is eroded. “This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights . . . But eventually people discover that in the new social order they are more vulnerable and alone. Marriages break up. Communities grow old and weak. They become members of the lonely crowd or the electronic herd.”  Ultimately, Sacks says, “life itself becomes disposable, in the form or abortion and euthanasia.”

Second, politics loses its covenantal quality where we understand society as a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good. Citizenship “involves loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others.” But as civilization collapses, individualism trumps covenantal duty. “Society dissolves into a series of pressure groups and no longer deeply enters our identity. Being British or French or Italian comes to seem more like where you are than who you are.”

Third, morality is lost. “This does not mean that people become immoral. Some people do that, whether they are religious or secular; most do not, whether they are religious or secular . . . What happens, though, is that words that once meant a great deal begin to lose their force—words like duty, obligation, honour, integrity, loyalty and trust.”

Fourth, when a civilization is dying the institution of marriage dies. “The idea of marriage as a commitment, a loyalty at the deepest level of our being, becomes ever harder to sustain. So fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce, fewer people—men especially—have a lifelong connection with their children, and the bonds across generations grow thin.”

Finally, people lose the belief in the possibility of a meaningful life. People see life as a personal project but there is no sense of vocation, calling and mission. “The universe is silent. Nature is dumb. Life makes no demands on us. The concept of ‘being called’ is one of the last relics of religious memory within a secular culture. A totally secular order would not have space for it or find it meaningful.”

This, once again, reveals the importance of religious faith to and for the public square. Based on these five implications, how many would you identify as a reality here in the United States?

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

5 responses to Marks of the Death of a Civilization

  1. What civilizations from the past are you using as exemplars? I can certainly see parallels from the Roman collapse, but an effective argument probably requires more clarity. What do you consider to be an example of a death of a civilization? Is Rome the prime example? Or perhaps Israel in the time of the judges, or the Babylonian captivity? The fall of Persia to Macedonia? The Russian revolution? The Mayan collapse? The Chinese Great Leap Forward? Some clarity there may be helpful.
    I do agree that the symptoms you list are troubling, I’m just not convinced that there are clear examples of collapse that parallel all of these concepts outside the Western Roman Empire.

  2. Amen! The church needs to be on its knees now more than ever. If ever there was a time for the truth of God to be proclaimed boldly and without compromise, it is ours. Our church just finished up 1 Peter, a sobering look at what happens when the culture is hostile to the gospel. Still, a beautiful promise to those that are willing to hold fast to the promises of God and keep the faith. Here we are, 2000 years later, still talking about about a small group of churches that survived and flourished in a hostile environment. God always has a remnant. Today, it may be us!

  3. Thank you for the reply, Dan and John. Dan, I agree that more would need to be said to establish causality, or at least referring to past instances in which this has happened which would support the point. I only included the five main entailments. You came up with a pretty good list yourself.

  4. Thanks for your reading, brother, and passing on this important information to us. I am glad to see it published in the latest EFCA update. We could use more of this kind of calling to new reformation needed in our churches and in our society.

    • You are welcome, Chuck.

      As I ponder this, I think of the truth as spoken by the author of Hebrews 12:28-29:

      Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,for our God is a consuming fire.

      We live in the world, but we are not of the world. Though we are earthly citizens, that citizenship is formed and shaped by our heavenly citizenship. And though we do what we can as faithful stewards here and now, we ultimately acknowledge it is temporary and we look forward to and long for the kingdom that will not be shaken, a truth that is at the heart of our acceptable worship of God.

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