The Creative Minority

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. All can be creative. Sadly the promotion of ‘teaching’ often prevents ‘self-education’in your own Holy Spirit temple. Institutional and structural depression can prevent the resonance of unique celebration of each individual’s perception of the body. Words before attitudes creates it’s own lexicon of emptiness.

  2. Mike,

    Another helpful article- thank you!

    Have you considered the language of “post-Christian”? I have been thinking about this term recently and I’m not sure that it is the best way to describe where things are (in some contexts) and headed (in others).

    Recently a couple in our church came to me and told me they can’t invite their friends to our church. Even though in some ways our church is not as traditional in form as other churches I completely agreed with them because I know their friends, where their friends spend time together and when they spend time together. I know how they process information and come to “believe something to be true”. There is no doubt in my mind they are not likely to attend our church. However, I’m not certain they are post- Christian because what this couple didn’t say is that their friends would never come to identify with Jesus. They have an allergy to church but not to Christianity.

    I suppose it depends on how you define “Christian” but if you are talking about content I think a better term would be “post-church ” or “post-Western church form”. I don’t think the content of Christianity exists without form but the beauty of the content of the message that Jesus incarnated to the world is that it travels through a range of forms.

    Therefore, while some aspects of “Christianity” are no doubt being rejected, I find it is often the form of church that many have an allergy to. “Christianity” has and will continue to find form because of God’s renewal project design. Can the world or any part of the world ever definitively be “post-Christian”? Maybe “Post church?”.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks!


  3. Joey

    Without a doubt, “post-Christian” has limited value. But since it us the language of sociologists, it’s a convenient and useful handle to raise the question “post-what?” What age comes after this present form of Christianity?

    “Post-Christian” doesn’t mean these people will never embrace Jesus. Rather, it means the present forms that most churches use to frame the gospel are inadequate (I’d add unbiblical). In most cases, these frames are didactic, disembodied. So, yes, the forms that most churches use are creating larger and larger numbers of people thinking “been there, done that.”

    In this sense, there is a prevailing culture that is so over Jesus and the church. I contend that the church has not always found improved forms in every epoch in history however. The rise of Islam marked a long, long, long age when the light of the gospel was almost extinguished.

    Renewal is possible, but it requires heeding the prophet voice. You reminded me long ago of a church that drove out the prophets.

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