Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said the sons of Judah in Babylonian exile were “history’s first creative minority.” You might be surprised to learn who were the second creative minority.
Six years ago, I wrote about the creative minority. In 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) said Europe’s renewal depended on the creative minority. In 2013, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said America’s renewal depends on the creative minority. Sacks cited the sons of Judah as history’s first creative minority. In Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland recounts the story of what looks to me like the second creative minority.
The story begins one morning in the summer of 1629 as the sky began to darken over the largest city in the world, Beijing. It was an eclipse, a big deal, for Chinese scholars believed nothing ever happened in the heavens that didn’t affect the pattern of events on earth. To neglect the movement of the stars was to risk calamity for the empire. To avert disaster, the Ministry of Rites was established. It sponsored astronomers who were tasked to correctly calculate a calendar that included accurately keeping track of eclipses.
This hadn’t gone well in recent years. The Ministry of Rites had made a succession of embarrassing mistakes. In 1592, its prediction of an eclipse had been off by an entire day.
The next eclipse was predicted for June 23, 1629. But Xu Guangqi, vice-president of the Ministry of Rites, had come to mistrust the methodology of Chinese astronomers. He had heard of another way of understanding the cosmos, developed in the barbarian lands of the furthermost West. It had recently been introduced in Beijing. Xu Guangqi thought he’d give these western astronomers a chance, holding a competition pitting his astronomers against what many Chinese considered the “barbarian” astronomers from the West.
Sure enough, the eclipse of June 23 came and went, and daylight returned to Beijing. The forecast of Chinese astronomers was compared to that of the barbarians. The barbarians won. Their reward came in September, when the Chinese emperor himself commissioned the western astronomers to take over Beijing’s Ministry of Rites and run it. Their work was so superior to that of Chinese astronomers that Xu Guangqi soon came to faith in Christ.
And who were these “barbarian” astronomers? “All of them were loyal servants of the Catholic Church,” Tom Holland writes. They were Jesuits.
This story sounds reminds me of the sons of Judah in Babylonian exile. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon. He was frightened by his bad dreams. The Babylonians believed the gods spoke through visions and dreams. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to know what these dreams meant. His advisors couldn’t interpret them. So Nebuchadnezzar pitted his advisors against the sons of Judah. Their interpretations were so superior to that of Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors that he came to recognize Yahweh as the One True God.
If the sons of Judah were history’s first creative minority, and America’s renewal depends on the creative minority, and Catholic astronomers in China were the second creative minority, then I’m praying for a third creative minority. The Books of Jeremiah and Daniel provide some of the details regarding becoming the creative minority. They parallel what Tom Holland writes were the initial steps Catholic missionaries took in China.
For example, in Babylon, the sons of Judah were tasked to learn the language and literature of the Babylonians. Holland writes that the first step that Catholic missionaries took after crossing the ocean was to learn the language and literature of China. The Jesuits recognized that “they could not afford to be defined as European. The Christian message was universal, or it was nothing.” The third creative minority must do likewise. The gospel, as it shared in America, cannot be defined as American or European.
Second, Catholic missionaries in China earned cultural capital, having learned a way of understanding the cosmos developed in the West. In like manner, the third creative minority can earn cultural capital by learning the language and literature of today’s western world. Social scientists such as Charles Murray say it’s neuroscience, supplanting the role that Christianity used to play in America’s Great Experiment in self-governance. You may not agree with that, but even religious skeptics such as Iain McGilchrist write that neuroimaging uncovers an age-old biblical understanding of human nature.
I know a handful of Christians who are committed to developing the third creative minority. One friend characterizes them as spiritual entrepreneurs. I like that. The sons of Judah were spiritual entrepreneurs, young people who today’s social scientists would characterize as innovators and early adopters. I’m committed to resourcing these spiritual entrepreneurs, but I can’t do it without financial help. To donate, please click here.
 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 348.