British historian Arnold Toynbee believed civilizations could be renewed because they have a spiritual dimension. It’s manifest in the “creative minority.” What’s that?
Historians have long differed on whether civilizations can be restored. Oswald Spengler, a German historian, said no. They are born, grow, and then age, decline and die. No exceptions. Toynbee disagreed. Civilizations have a spiritual dimension, visible in the creative minority. It can renew a society.
In 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) said Europe’s renewal depended on the creative minority. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted this in his 2013 Erasmus Lecture, saying America’s renewal depends on the creative minority. He cited the sons of Judah as history’s first creative minority, which raises a question in my mind.
Why only a minority?
The answer lies in the nature of paradigm shifts. Thomas Kuhn coined paradigm shift in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He described how the scientific world shifted from Ptolemy’s geocentric (earth-centered) model of the universe to Copernicus’ heliocentric (sun-centered) formulation. It wasn’t easy, for a scientific community is rightly based on a set of received beliefs. Kuhn wrote that these beliefs exert a “deep hold” on the mind, forming an “assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” Scientists take great pains to defend that assumption, often suppressing novel views “because they are necessarily subversive.”
Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus was subversive. But it wasn’t novel. Aristarchus of Samos had proposed a heliocentric model centuries before. But it hadn’t caught on because Europe was drawn to Hellenistic thinkers like Aristotle and his earth-centered model. Copernicus’s system upended Aristotelian physics and Ptolemy’s system. If Copernicus was correct, Ptolemaic scientists were wrong. Their jobs were at risk.
I know it sounds base, but this is why most folks resist disruption. It can cost you your job. Only a few are willing to run that risk. We see this in the Copernican Revolution. De Revolutionibus first appeared in 1543. But it was the works of Kepler and Galileo (1609–10) 70 years later that produced a paradigm shift. Before then, probably no more than a dozen converted to the Copernican model. They were the creative minority.
Uber is a recent example of a paradigm shift. It’s upending the taxi business. London’s Black Cab drivers are resisting, defending their turf. We’re talking livelihoods here.
Another example is our shift into a post-Christian age. It’s similar to the Babylonian exile, with churches becoming outsiders in Western society. The root of the problem is Western churches relying on Hellenistic ideas like Aristotelian rationalism. Think right, act right. That gave us the Enlightenment. It exerts a deep hold on the minds of church leaders who often taking great pains to defend their views. They resist what might prove subversive, such as neuroscience upending the Enlightenment take on human nature.
I witness this in meeting with seminary leaders. When they learn how findings from neuroscience upend their Enlightenment educational model, they routinely tell me “We can’t change. We’d lose our financial patrons.” Ministry leaders tell me they’d lose their foundation funding. Pastors tell me they’d lose some of their congregation. Can’t go there. I might find myself out of work.
The good news is that Toynbee was right. All civilizations have a spiritual dimension. When a nation faces a problem that threatens its continued existence, a small group of leaders comes up with an innovative solution. If the Babylonian exile is a precedent for our post-Christian age (I think it is), a few Christians—modern-day sons of Judah—will step up as the creative minority. They will place themselves at the service of their neighbors, seeking their flourishing. They are the hope for the Western church.