Sir John Glubb was a British soldier, scholar and author. He was born in 1897, and served in France in the First World War from 1915 to 1918. In 1926 he left the army to serve the Iraq Government. From 1939 to 1956, he commanded the Jordan Arab Legion. In his retirement he published many books and essays and lectured widely, chiefly on the Middle East.
I recently read an essay by Sir Glubb entitled, “The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.” In it, he argues that our study of history is very often skewed by the limited perspective of our own country of origin or nation state. If we take the time to zoom out and include other periods and places in history, we can see patterns and trends which transcend time and place, which in turn may assist us in our own unique pursuits in the present.
“Our piecemeal historical work,” Glubb writes, “is still mainly dominated by emotion and prejudice.” Whereas, “If we studied calmly and impartially the history of human institutions and development over [the past] four thousand years, should we not reach conclusions which would assist to solve our problems today?” He goes on in his essay to recount some astonishingly uncanny similarities in the rise and fall of empires throughout human history. The examples he sites for his own study include the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, Rome (which he breaks up into two periods, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire), Spain, Romanov Russia, and Britain.
He sites a pattern of ages which occur within any given empire.
It begins with The Age of Pioneers, this is the initial “outburst” of energy, enthusiasm, courage, and passion. He writes, “The new conquerors are normally poor, hardy and enterprising and above all aggressive. The decaying empires which they overthrow are wealthy but defensive-minded.”
This is followed by The Age of Conquests, which he describes as “A period of amazing initiative, and almost incredible enterprise, courage and hardihood. These qualities, often in a very short time, produce a new and formidable nation.” This expanse of a young empire is then followed by the Age of Commerce. As the territory expands, so does the opportunity and benefits of trade. As new resources pour into an expanding empire, the commercial classes begin to amass more and more wealth, which leads directly to the Age of Affluence.
The Age of Affluence is a double-edged sword. While it is a period of flourishing for the arts and growing infrastructure of an empire, it also marks a shift away from the virtues and ideals which enabled the earlier generations to establish the empire in the first place. Glubb observes, “Men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and ambitious is no longer fame, honor or service, but cash.”
With enough wealth to satiate the luxuries of life, ample funds become available for the pursuit of knowledge. Thus emerges The Age of Intellect. Colleges and Universities are established and great strides and discoveries are made in the arts and sciences. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Age of Intellect. In fact it has produced marvelous fruit throughout human history. However, according to Glubb’s observations, it inevitably leads to what he calls the Age of Decadence. The tendency to think that we can solve all our problems by our own intellect tends to devalue the essential characteristics of loyalty, unselfishness, self-dedication, and self-sacrifice which have produced the empire, and without which it cannot survive.
The Age of Decadence marks the beginning of the decline of the empire. An empire in decline is morally bankrupt; looking out for the interests of the self over and above the other. Too long a period of wealth and power invariably leads to an increase in selfishness. Symptoms of an empire in decline include pessimism, frivolity, and a weakening of religion. Glubb observes, “Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds.” The overall posture of the now aging empire becomes one of defensiveness and self-preservation.
For the past three thousand years, the languages, tools, technologies, political systems, religions, and geography of empires have been wildly diverse. But each one follows the same trajectory of stages in their creation, development, decline and ultimately, their fall. Perhaps the most interesting and eerie observation of all, is their lifespan. Throughout the ages, across time and space, the average length of a nations greatness is 250 years. Or, as Glubb also observes, 10 generations. Some are a few years more. Some a few years less. But the average is 250. It is impossible not to ponder these observations in light of our own nation’s history … as we enjoy our 243rd year.
Why, you may ask, have I gone on about the strange similarities and terminal nature of the kingdoms of this world? Frankly, for the sake of contrast … and context. Because the vantage point of the Christian purview completely transcends the kingdoms of this world.
As St. Paul writes to the Colossians, God the Father “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1.13).
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. Christ our God and King is the most gracious, most loving, most giving and self-sacrificing Sovereign the world will ever know. His Kingdom is not enslaved by human selfishness which leads always to destruction.
His Kingdom is not of this world, but it has broken into this world through His body the Church. Everywhere that Christ is acknowledged as King his Sovereignty extends. His reign has begun, and His kingdom will have no end.
It’s easy to think we live in this big blue world and our life in the church is a little tiny piece, a little sliver over here in the corner. It’s one little piece of the whole pie of our life, our family, our vocation. In reality it is the other way around. The Kingdom of God is the cosmic domain within which our lives, families, and vocations are situated. These are two radically different perspectives on reality, and they radically affect the decisions we make and the kind of lives we choose to live.
It is exhilarating on the one hand to imagine ourselves as little marbles rolling around this big world with boundless opportunity and freedom and choice. But just beneath the surface, this view leaves us vulnerable to the anxiety and fear and pressure of having to figure it all out; of having to construct our own empires, our own systems within which to live and make sense of the world. The temptation of the criminal on the cross next to Our Lord rings in our hearts every day, “Go on … save yourself.”
But we cannot. It is impossible. And the pressure is too much to bear.
On the other hand, what if there was a cosmic empire, that God Himself has created and rules with mysterious and unfathomable graciousness? In fact there is! It is the Kingdom of God, and Christ is the eternal King.
In Christ, the pressure to be God, and to figure it out, and to construct meaning out of the madness of this world, and to save ourselves … all that pressure dissolves like the morning mist in the rising sun. We cannot save ourselves. God is the one who “qualifies us, and delivers us, and transfers us” into His Kingdom.
How freeing it is to know that our lives and families and relationships and vocations are situated within the Kingdom of God, under the Lordship of Christ Our God and King. What tremendous meaning, and purpose, and joy and salvation life in this world now affords. This is not just a concept to ponder, it’s a way of seeing reality that informs who we are. This is not fiction. This is not fantasy. This is the promise of life we have through Our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are not floating in a galaxy of random matter and atomic collision. We are children of the most High God, heirs of his eternal kingdom, standing alongside a multitude of saints in light.
May God in His mercy and by His grace qualify us, and deliver us, and transfer us into the Kingdom of His Son. Where we are gloriously freed from the pressure of having to save ourselves, and instead are empowered to play our own very unique and particular part in His plan of salvation for the world.
May His Kingdom come, and His will be done, on earth, in us, as it is in heaven.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.