The pursuit of truth, beauty, excellence—whether in art, science, or spiritual growth—has rarely taken its cue from John Q. Public or from Mr. and Mrs. Average. It aspires to the standards of the few and the exceptional—the great masters, the inspiring heroes, and the extraordinary saints. Generous patrons have often been a fruitful part of the story, but grand masters, great models, and generous patrons were seldom found in the crowds in their day. Lovers of truth, beauty, excellence, and spiritual growth do not bother to curry favor with great numbers or any majority, and their accomplishments defy all quantifying. Too often, as Søren Kierkegaard declared, the crowd is “untruth” and “the public is chimera.” Or as the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote even more bluntly, seconded later by the great Polish scientist Copernicus, “I never wanted to please the people. What the people want, I ignore, and what I know, the people do not realize.”
If the danger of the tyranny of numbers was evident in the 19th century, how much more so is it today? We are in the age of gargantuan numbers, truly instant information, ceaselessly hyperactive social media, when the worldwide web has become a flood-driven Niagara of raw, uninterpreted information and emotion that pounds down on us by the minute with its ceaseless roar and its drenching deluge. Who can hear themselves think, let alone make sense of it all with genuine reflection and seasoned judgments?
No wonder it is tempting to give up and go with the flow, rushing along with the crowds and swept past the best as we chase after the most. It is all too easy to get caught up in the sensational and forget the significant. Those who make this mistake miss the important for the urgent and become attuned to popular approval rather than divine authority. They count opinions rather than weigh them. The imprimatur they covet is to be called “in,” “cool,” “relevant,” or better still, one of “the hundred most influential” or part of a new “emerging majority.” For heaven’s sake, read anything and everything that is “in” at the present moment. But we must pray always and unceasingly that we are never, God forbid, “out of fashion” or fear being caught on “the wrong side of history.”
Fooled by Fashions
And now, to make the idolatry of numbers worse, our earnest and scientifically rigorous foundations lean on us heavily and require that we provide “measurable outcomes” for every project, plan, and possibility that dares to knock on their door, when often the desired outcomes are quite unquantifiable, at least in advance, and at other times we can only fill in the application forms with wild guesses, wishful thinking, or downright fabrications. In short, with their unfailing encouragement and blessing, we are invited either to deceive them or deceive ourselves and so become schooled in the art of lying to get their money.
Every age is fooled by its own fashions, and it is time to subject this modern idolatry of opinion and numbers to decisive Christian thinking. For modern people, numbers are the key to control, but humans are more than aides de camp to the almighty computer. We would of course scorn anyone who put their half-baked preferences, momentary whims, and brazen desires above serious concerns for truth. So why do we bow to opinion polls that are mostly just such emotions gathered with statistical scientific precision and expressed under the halo of grand numbers?
Consider the trend toward numbers in the light of original sin, for example, and it would be obvious that any democratic people’s “we” is just as corruptible, if not more so than any autocratic ruler’s “I.” If we do not want mass democracy to degenerate into a new and subtle tyranny of King Demos and his regime of numbers, we must recognize and resist the trend. Ten million ignorant assertions, even when magnified and accelerated in a hundred million tweets and “likes,” still never add up to truth or wisdom.
What matters here, however, is not the danger to democracy but to the church. We therefore need to trace the overall damage of such worldly thinking. It develops Christians with an eye for the bandwagon rather than the Bible, for popularity rather than principle, and with a greater sensitivity to horizontal pressure than to vertical authority. It renders Christians vulnerable to the mob-masters of the virtual age, the high-tech wizards who can corral the opinion of millions within minutes. (This is a crucial factor in the cataclysmic suddenness of the triumph of the sexual revolution over the Jewish and Christian faiths that have shaped Western civilization for 2,000 years.) The result is a church befuddled over the difference between success and faithfulness, hesitant to buck the going trends, fearful to stick her neck out and find herself in the minority, and reluctant to risk the loneliness of pursuing the true and the excellent regardless of all outcomes—in short, a church fatally weakened because it is worldly. In today’s world, the courage of Athanasius contra mundum would be scorned as Athanasius marooned on the wrong side of history.
Such forms of worldliness are subtle, but whether they are subtle or crass, the goal of this friendly caution is clear. The church of Christ across the Global South must resist all worldliness, rise to its modern future with an unalloyed and clear-eyed loyalty to Jesus and his kingdom, and at the same time be prepared to engage with all the issues and challenges of advanced modernity, fully prepared and without fear. Will the future see the whole church of Christ both fully faithful and fully engaged in the modern world? Where the Western church once signally failed, the church in the Global South may yet succeed by the grace of God and so point the way forward for the Christian church as a whole.
Editors' note: This is an excerpt from Os Guinness's new book, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (InterVarsity).