Pastors: A Surprising Source of Innovation

Rev. Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom.

I’ve been revisiting one of my favorite books of the last 2-3 years, the densely erudite Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. At times combative, enlightening, mind-bending, and frustrating, the book has much to offer. Taleb’s Big Idea resists simplification, but at the core he’s saying that much of our world is highly fragile, and vulnerable to the improbable and unpredictable. Rather, the antifragile is the class of things that not only survive chaos and disorder, but actually profit from it. There’s some very interesting overlap here with much of the missional/organic discussion, and I plan on writing more about antifragile implications for ministry. But not now.

Rather, I wanted to share this little gem on pastors (or more specifically, the English parish priest or rector). Taleb’s goal is to debunk the thesis that theory –> practice, arguing instead that practice (and constant tinkering) –> theory, and that true innovation and progress is made by the outlying tinkerers.

So let us start by debunking a causal myth about the Industrial Revolution, the overstatement of the role of science in it. Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish academic to produce cosmetic knowledge…There were two main sources of technical knowledge and innovation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the hobbyist and the English rector…An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality. The enlightened amateur, that is.

I’d probably challenge Taleb’s description of any pastor as someone with “no worries,” but you get the point. Taleb draws on Bill Bryson’s At Home to find “ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors.” This list includes:

Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russell bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell invented modern archaeology; Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge was the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garret invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M.J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more.

Some takeaways:

1) Real, valuable innovation often does not occur in the Ivory Tower or the centralized R&D departments; rather it comes from the fringe, from the “enlightened amateurs.” We’ve seen the same phenomenon in church/ministry circles for two millennia. Ironically, the ministry area located closest to the secular Ivory Tower, college ministry, has often been more of a fringe enterprise and therefore a fruitful source of innovation and revival for the church.

2) These enlightened amateurs need gainful employment and the means (including time) to pursue their interests. Being overly busy and obsessed with making every minute count may be efficient, but not effective in the most important ways. This concerns me, since so few of us ever allow ourselves to stop working, get bored, or have other interests.

3) Finally, an apologetic point. The role of the erudite English parish priest in scientific and societal advance has largely been ignored. While Thomas Jefferson’s polymathic gentleman farmer/scholar/inventor has been held up as an enlightenment ideal, not so the country priest. This should not be. The divide between the Christian religion and science is not as wide as it has been made out to be, particularly during the formative years of the Industrial Revolution.

Where does the fault for this division lie? Historically, it’s often been laid at the feet of Christianity, at those very same priests who contributed so much to knowledge. Taleb has an answer for this as well:

…Organized science tends to skip the “not made here,” so the list of visible contribution by hobbyists and doers is most certainly shorter than the real one, as some academic might have appropriated the innovation by his predecessor…Much of all this is a religious belief in the unconditional power of organized science, one that has replaced unconditional religious belief in organized religion.

In other words, faith. Yeah, I thought so.


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