This blog is the last of three examining the cultural conclusions reached by two 20th century scholars, British anthropologist J.D. Unwin, author of Sex and Culture, and Pitirim Sorokin, author of The American Sex Revolution and the founder of the sociology department at Harvard University. The first two blogs on this subject can be found here and here.
To summarize: Throughout history, the process of societal success and expansion has the same root cause, according to Unwin and Sorokin: monogamy in marriage and a strong moral code limiting sexual activity to the married life. As this custom unravels, the process of decay sets in.
A nation coming apart at the seams, rent by strife and factionalism. Founding principles are jettisoned, replaced by a cynical “will to power” that engenders graft and corruption. The people, having rejected moral traditions and embraced relativism, become obsessed with sex, heartily applauding sexual anarchy and perversion. Monogamy is disregarded, and marriage as an institution begins to disintegrate. A declining birthrate threatens eventual extinction as the use of contraceptives and abortion abounds as a means to limit the number of children. Unemployment grows and a flagging creative spirit haunts a once robust economy.
All these symptoms of a sick society are everywhere evident in America, but according to Unwin and Sorokin, these symptoms have been repeated countless times in human history.
A trans-generational process of decline
These researchers found that the pattern of cultural decay did not develop overnight. Unwin, for example, found that there was roughly a period of a hundred years – or three generations – for the initiation of a sexual revolution to “have its full cultural effect; and if we happen to observe a society which is beginning, or has just begun, to extend [sexual promiscuity], the full effects of the change have not yet been felt.”
The reason for this is simple. Sorokin said, “This lag between the development of sex freedom and the decline of creativity is due to the fact that the younger generations need time to be ‘educated’ in the new patterns of behavior.” Once those new ideas take root, however, the cultural decay begins.
‘Morally heroic’ counter-revolutionaries
There was another reason for the fact that decline occurred over a decades-long period of time, rather than more swiftly. Historically, there were always some within a culture that resisted the initiation of sexual revolution, and these people hindered the corruption process.
While neither Unwin nor Sorokin were religious men, both argued from their research that a decaying society might be saved – but only if there remained within it a stratum of citizens who were willing to hold to the culture’s moral traditions.
Sorokin explained that, as the ideas and consequences of a sexual revolution become evident, the members of this moral resistance “become more religious, morally heroic, and sexually continent in the periods of disorders and great calamities.”
If they remained committed to sexual restraint and monogamous marriage; and if these counter-revolutionaries did not themselves succumb to the rising tide of immorality; “the process of decline may be halted,” Sorokin said, and the society “may regain its mental and moral sanity; may halt the dangerous drift through complete deterioration.”
Christians should see the clear biblical parallels in the research of Unwin and Sorokin. Believers are called by Jesus to be salt and light in their culture (Matt. 5:13-16). Using Sorokin’s words, Christians must be willing to be that “morally heroic” stratum in an otherwise decaying populace if there is any hope for a reversal of cultural decline.
Enduring persecution and pain
Of course, being salt and light is not an easy thing to do. Jesus repeatedly warned His disciples that they would endure pressure, ridicule, and even persecution for remaining faithful to His word.
Not surprisingly, the research of Unwin and Sorokin validate this as well. Sorokin, for example, said that the majority, up until the very brink of disaster, failed to understand the dangerous path upon which it had embarked.
“Most peoples and leaders of decaying societies were unaware of their cancerous sickness,” he said. “Most of them were sanguine about their present state and future prospects. They continued to live cheerfully in a fool’s paradise, and hopefully looked forward to the realization of their unrealistic dreams. Their leaders attacked all honest appraisals of the situation, and called them false prophecies of doom and gloom.”
Ironically, then, the sexual revolutionaries didn’t appreciate the warnings of the counter-revolutionaries. As George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, famously said, “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Even if outright persecution does not break out against faithful Christians, they must still be prepared to endure the hardships of living in a society that is deteriorating. The Bible is filled with the examples of godly men and women who had to live through the pain and anguish of cultural corruption – and often the judgment that followed.
For example, Jeremiah – the “weeping prophet” – cried out as his nation disintegrated all around him: “My eyes run down with streams of water because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lam. 3:48).
True renewal is the answer
In the past, Christians have answered the call to be salt and light, and sometimes their decaying societies have returned from the brink. Perhaps the most impressive historical example of the power of Christianity to rescue a culture was its influence in the Roman Empire.
Sorokin noted: “Some three centuries had to pass before Christianity was discovered, recognized and legalized; it then came to dominate philosophy, ethics, and science. At the same time, it proved itself the only way of salvation from the grave catastrophe of the Roman world, and the only moral and spiritual power that could stem the demoralization of the Romans and civilized and ennoble the Teutonic and other barbaric tribes.”
Still, such spiritual renewals are not easy, Sorokin admitted, and historical movements far too often involved only surface transformation of individuals and thus society.
“[T]ransformation is never easy,” he said. “It must always involve many a painful effort, many a dark night of despair and doubt; it demands strenuous labor, pure love, and unstinting sacrifice for weeks, months, and even years before the true religious transfiguration and moral ennoblement of body, mind and behavior are achieved. Quick and easy ways of conversion hardly change anything.” He said that even includes superficial religious renewals that do not reach deeply enough to heal the disease that’s killing the culture.
The wise Christian knows this about himself, but must also encourage himself thereafter about his culture, too. Rolling up the sleeves to help the victims of societal upheaval, enduring the slings and arrows of the adherents of debauchery, preparing for a long renovation of overturned foundations – this is the workload that will fall upon the shoulders of those called by Jesus Christ to be salt and light.
Obviously, no society is eternal and all cultures eventually weaken and die. But the research of Unwin and Sorokin provide real world examples of the pain of disobedience to God – whether done in ignorance or rebellion – and the power of renewal to restore.
As another prophet said of the coming time of Christian influence: “Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will raise up the former devastations, and they will repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations” (Isa. 61:4).