The desire to know what tomorrow will bring, to know the future, is as old as the human race itself But how? Who among us has the “gift of prophecy”? The book of history might seem to offer guidance, but human expectations and prognostications often mislead. When the most brilliant generals, industrialists, scientists, and politicians of Nazi Germany planned for World War II, it was not their intention or expectation that all of them should end up either dead, under arrest as war criminals, or in bitter exile, with Germany conquered and overrun, split into four “zones,” her industry in ruins, and millions dead, maimed, and expelled from their homes. When the “best and the brightest” of the United States ruling establishment decided to intervene militarily in Vietnam, it was not their intention or expectation to end with 50,000 young Americans dead, their political leaders in disgrace, the economy in recession, and the nation they sought to protect completely overrun by its adversaries. When the Trojans decided to pull down their walls to admit the “votive offering” horse into their city, they did not expect it to end with the city burned, the men killed, the women and children in slavery. What can we expect? If we cannot see what lies ahead, how can we tell which turning of the road to take?
Can the past be our guide? He who does not know history, it is said, is destined to repeat its mistakes. But what can one who does know history do to help us avoid repeating them? Much indeed, if we have the wisdom to listen and the courage to act. What is so often missing is the combination of incredibly thorough data-gathering and genuinely prophetic insight that characterized the work of Professor Pitirim Sorokin. Today, as we stand almost at the end of the second millennium, it will be instructive to look once more at what he thought and wrote concerning the shape of things to come.
Let me tell you how I discovered the prophetic gift, if we may call it that, of this great thinker. In 1941, as the European war was under way but before it engulfed Russia and the United States, the expatriate Russian scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) accurately predicted not the outcome of the world conflict that was brewing, but the world culture of half a century later, in a lecture series which became a little book called The Crisis of Our Age. I bought this book in 1956, when I first saw it Professor Sorokin, whom I had heard speak but did not know, had a formidable reputation, and I bought his little book thinking that it would be quite “up to date.” When I saw the publication date, I was disillusioned, as it seemed to me that something 15 years old would be obsolete. I am not sure that I read it, but I put it into my bookcase. In 1991, 50 years after its original publication, it fell out of my bookshelf as I was looking for some light reading while recovering from pneumonia. I read it in bed, amazed at the incredible accuracy with which the old professor described the beginning 1990’s.
Before proceeding to discuss his predictive skills, let us think for a moment about the original meaning of “prophet.” In the Old Testament, a prophet was not necessarily a predictor of the future, and certainly never merely one. A priest addressed himself to God on behalf of the people; a prophet addressed the people on behalf of God, bringing “the word of the Lord.” It is a simple matter to show that Professor Sorokin had a gift for foretelling future developments, but others do that too, although seldom so well as he. What I would like to propose to you is this; There is at least a trace of prophecy of the biblical type in Sorokin. The words of the Hebrew prophet Micah—”He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee” (Micah 6:8)—apply to Sorokin, as he warns of the dies irae and prays for the grace of understanding.
But to return to territory more familiar to the sociologist and the historian, namely, the course of worldly events: With hardly an exception. Professor Sorokin’s detailed predictions of the direction our society would take in the remainder of the century have turned out to be almost completely accurate. The accuracy with which he made short-term predictions of things that have now actually taken place far outstrips that of most other prognosticators, many of whom find their prophecies disproved only a few years after they were made.
What most attempts to predict the future have in common—besides their inaccuracy—is a pronounced pessimism. Examples abound. Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) predict a terribly bleak and dismal future for mankind. Paul Ehrlich, with The Population Bomb, and the “Club of Rome,” with The Limits of Growth, predict an increasingly crowded world with growing poverty, loss of freedom, and hopelessness. Demographer Pierre Chaunu predicts exactly the opposite of Paul Ehrlich, namely, that the world’s population will go into decline and that the entire human race will die out sometime around the year 2500—a different line of reasoning, but the same sense of inevitable disaster. As Austrian sociologist Hans Millendorfer observes, what all of the futurologists think is needed, and what we do not have, is a different kind of man from the kind of humans that we seem to be.
These bleak and hopeless visions are also spread by some of the great philosophers of history, such as Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History) and, the most famous of all (although not many have actually read his complex and difficult work), Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West). Spengler, and to some extent Toynbee, looked on societies as living organisms and believed that each society passes through stages from birth through growth, youth, maturity, old age, decrepitude, and ultimately death. Both of these writers, like many others, see our own society, especially Western Christendom, in a late stage, either totally decrepit or nearly so. Consequently, they issue gloomy prognostications or at best present Utopian visions of what the future could be if only . . . if only we were not the kind of human beings that we are.
Even scholars (and dabblers) in biblical prophecy usually focus on visions of the “Great Tribulation” that is to precede the “End of the Age” rather than on the attractive features of the Kingdom of God where the lion is to lie down with the lamb. Pessimism has become the rule whenever people speculate about the future today, whether they do so on the basis of secular data or biblical interpretation. From science fiction writers to excited Christian interpreters of the Apocalypse of St. John, the general attitude can be summed up by those words of Louis XV, “Après moi, le deluge.”
Yet at the close of this 20th century, many nations and peoples ought to have much to make them happy. Those in the West are awash in material benefits. There seems to be hardly any danger of a major war. Entertainment is available virtually everywhere at the touch of a TV remote or VCR button. Never have so many young people (and, increasingly, the middle-aged and older as well) enjoyed the “advantages” of higher education. Restraints on personal behavior, even in public, have all but vanished in many places. Yet none of this seems to make people either happy or confident. The age of the greatest human “liberation,” of anti-authoritarian education and complete sexual freedom, is not characterized by optimism and hope for the future, but by a sense that the conditions of life will probably continue to deteriorate.
This dramatic loss of confidence, of hope for the future, is typical of the kind of culture that prevails across most of the world today. With respect to what ought to be humanity’s “fine arts,” Sorokin wrote in 1941, “Contemporary art is primarily a museum of social and cultural pathology . . . operating mainly on the level of the social sewers. If we are forced to accept it as a faithful representation of human society, then man and his culture must certainly forfeit our respect and admiration.” In art, in sports, in building, in merchandising, we are in an era of colossalism. Big is good, bigger is better. Religion and education are in the grip of what Sorokin calls “chaotic syncretism.” We have a crisis in law, a crisis in systems of truth. His work preceded the rise of what is called “postmodernism,” but that movement corresponds exactly to his predictions.
For our contemporary society, there is a danger that, after all these bleak prophecies have been fulfilled, there is worse to come. People who are convinced that their prospects are hopeless and that their best efforts will ultimately prove to be in vain will not be inclined to make much of an effort to forestall such a future.
In order to break out of the pessimistic mold that our problems are beyond us, it is necessary to step back behind the current phase of our own particular culture, to understand it, and to see where it is situated on the great canvas of human history. We should be delighted to encounter someone who, having lived through two world wars and a bloody revolution in this bloodiest of all centuries, tells us that a fiery dies irae is not predestined. Sorokin is fully aware of the danger of a culture-wide catastrophe—a catastrophe that was incipient when he wrote and which has now almost overtaken us—but he nevertheless challenges us to hope. This does not have to be our fate.
Dramatic improvements may even be probable, provided we understand the present situation well enough not to waste our energy in minor improvements and temporary expedients, and are given the discernment to see and to follow the right road out of the impasse of our late second millennium culture. In order to avoid catastrophe and to fulfill what Sorokin calls “man’s unique creative mission on this planet,” a real understanding of the crisis is necessary, and to that he helps us. But more is required: a measure of grace, and grace is not something that we can manipulate or generate on our own; it must come from God.
No one man’s work, nor the work of any group or even of whole societies, is sufficient in itself to solve our systemwide crisis of the greatest magnitude. But Sorokin has helped us to see what the crisis really is and not be paralyzed by the awful vision, but inspired to search for ways to resolve it. We do not see it yet, but if Sorokin’s hope is even partly as reliable as his analysis and prognosis, there is reason to take heart. Let me conclude, as he does, Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominil
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