Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Columbus Daze - Part 2

For Part 1, click here

Christian or Catholic? (continued)

You see, it’s not good enough to simply assume the flowery Christian-esque writings of Columbus adequately testify to his orthodox Christian faith. Catholicism and the Christianity of Martin Luther – and by extension most present-day evangelicals – are two different things. While you can be saved and call yourself a Roman Catholic, you cannot be a papist Catholic – what we would consider to be a conventional Roman Catholic – and believe that Christ offers the only way to salvation.

So how do we know that Columbus wasn’t saved? Well, we don’t. But we can prove that he was probably a papist, or Roman Catholic, by virtue of his very own writings and admissions.

Historians claim that his professed favorite prayer, which he would recite in Latin, was Jesu cum Maria sit nobis in via, which means "may Jesus with Mary be with us on the way."

Any evangelical can see right away that ascribing relatively equal significance to Mary as to Jesus represents heresy. The mother of Jesus may indeed have been most favored by God, but He never made her a deity. Mary cannot save anybody, nor can she convey prayers to God which people have sent to her. Nobody but Christ is our mediator.

In addition to his supposed favorite prayer, Columbus’ personal writings betray a man of stunning narcissism and religious fantasy which make it extremely difficult to qualify his Christian orthodoxy. For example, in his Letter of 1490 to his royal patrons in Spain, in which he outlined one of his expeditions, he enumerated 16 bullet points of content. One has to do with the provision of priests for conversion of the natives, two deal with provisions for civil affairs in the “New World,” and a whopping 11 bullet points detail the ways he intends to safeguard the gold he hopes to seize for Isabella and Ferdinand.

Maybe this is simply a good example of honoring one’s employers, but the focus on material riches appears to trump what some modern evangelicals have claimed to be Columbus’ overriding burden to see natives in the “New World” redeemed through the preaching of the Gospel.

Ethnocentrism Run Amok?

Speaking of redeeming the natives, Columbus doesn’t appear to have had a very good track record when it came to diplomacy and evangelism. Historians believe they have evidence of brutality and human rights atrocities committed, if not by Columbus himself, then by his men. Was Columbus at least complicit by his acquiescence to such things? Other explorers who claimed to have witnessed some of the atrocities committed by Columbus' crew actually convinced Spanish authorities to prohibit Columbus from being a ruler in the very land he “discovered.”

Indeed, liberal historians who have been accused by conservatives of revising history have been able to find substantial evidence that Columbus wasn’t as much a finder of the “New World” as he was an exploiter of it. He seemed less interested in validating the legitimacy of heathen cultures he encountered as he was estimating everything's value. His Spanish Catholic ethnocentrism marginalized the people groups he found here and allowed him to justify the abhorrent way he and his crews treated them. That’s not exactly the type of Christian I want to celebrate.

Self-Proclaimed Prophet?

Even more troubling than Columbus' motivations and actions - whether they were for the conversion of heathen natives or the fantastical visions of riches awaiting discovery - are his own writings. In them, Columbus ascribes disjointed and marginally heretical apocalyptic prophecies to his own self. In other words, Columbus appropriates Biblical passages foretelling the end of the world, and presumes to be the heir-apparent of God’s promises to send Christ back to the Earth after His Gospel is proclaimed across it.

Finding the missing link to Asia would, in Columbus’ mind, usher in an era when the Catholic Church could proselytize across the planet. Islam had already been defeated, or so he thought. What else was left except reaching the farthest corner of the globe for the Roman Catholics?

For example, in his mystical Book of Prophecies, Columbus quotes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, with God telling Jeremiah: "I formed you in the womb. I knew you before you were born. I set you apart. I set you as a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).

Then, in reference to this passage, Columbus speaks to the Lord, "This is what You ordained beforehand according to Your good pleasure, such as were written in Your book about me, in conformity with your secret purpose" (Book of Prophecies, Folio 15).

Don’t you have to be mighty confident in yourself - if not a little removed from reality - to even presume to place yourself as the equivalent of Jeremiah in the year 1492?

The Legacy of Columbus

In a way, the story of Columbus represents the typical conundrum faced by succeeding generations attempting to analyze the actions and accomplishments of such extroverted, Type-A, pivotal people. Indeed, he defies simple classifications and ascriptions. And he's inordinately blamed for much that would have happened eventually anyway.

Did Columbus and his crews introduce previously unknown diseases to the indigenous tribespeople of the Western Hemisphere? Probably. Did they take back syphilis to Europe? Maybe. But wouldn’t any explorer from any part of the world have done the same thing unintentionally, back when the science of diseases remained in its infancy? What if explorers had come from Asia to the western coasts of the Western Hemisphere? What diseases might they have brought?

Did Columbus and his crews perpetrate unholy and inhumane practices on the indigenous people groups they discovered here? Did they deceive them and plunder from them? Almost certainly. Just as any other discoverer hundreds of years ago likely would have done.

Did they foist authoritarian, foreign regimes and religion on the natives? Did they establish practices to exploit natural resources to the detriment of the natives? Did they exponentially expand the reaches of the burgeoning international slave trade?

Yes, yes, and yes. But from a historical perspective, how much does it really matter that it was Columbus who did it, and not another explorer working for another empire-building nation or the already-lucrative African slave industry?

World history is as imperfect as its participants. And hindsight is always 20/20. If our world lasts long enough, what will generations 400 or 600 years from ours say about us? By no means do I mean to imply that Columbus did no wrong. Just because Columbus opened up a completely new chapter of world history doesn't give him bonus points, free sins, or the legendary indulgences of his contemporary Catholic church. None of this is to absolve Columbus of any culpability for what today we would consider crimes against humanity. We're all responsible for what we do and don't do in life, no matter who we are. My purpose here is simply to indemnify Columbus as the only explorer capable of such things. Who knows? Somebody else could have been much worse.

Columbus in Light of God's Sovereignty

Columbus' expeditions remind us of the power of history's trajectory. But the epic tale of Christopher Columbus also raises questions that black-and-white conservative ideology can't answer. By allowing Columbus to establish the trade routes that contributed to the eventual exploitation of the Western Hemisphere, was God blessing Columbus and rewarding his faith, or simply allowing a more beneficent scenario through Columbus as opposed to a tyrannical despot from Asia or England? Was God indeed intentionally moving to establish what would become the United States? Was Columbus the key component in establishing what right-wing conservatives unfortunately misquote as "a city on a hill?"

Or was he just an ego-maniacal bounty hunter, twisted by anguishing visions of salvific authority and brainwashed by vainglorious papist rhetoric? Somebody who makes for a great hero, but a lousy human being?

In the end, from the perspective of God's eternal sovereignty, how much does that really matter to us? I'm not sure. But can't we at least appreciate the stunning and completely history-changing precedent Columbus managed to set? Not as the discoverer of the "New World" per say, but as the first maritime explorer to chart his way to and from our vast hemisphere. Can you imagine what a feat that was in his day and age? For better or worse, his story rings with amazing parallels to other epic struggles of history, including the strife between Christendom and Islam, the gap between technology and the lack thereof, the blindness of ethnocentrism, and the rubric that money never buys contentment.

Does it matter if God used Columbus instead of somebody else to establish a viable trade route to the Western Hemisphere? Eventually, anybody sailing west would have hit our eastern shores and found their way back home; does it matter that God allowed Columbus to be the first? I'm not sure. That's the thing about God's sovereignty: it's His, not ours.

Evangelicals and Their New Love for Columbus

Does it matter that Columbus probably wasn't somebody whose faith modern evangelicals should embrace? Yes! That does matter!

It's been a relatively recent phenomenon, this urge by right-wing people of faith to redeem historical figures to orthodox Christianity. They've done it with Washington, they've tried to do it with Jefferson and Franklin, and Columbus has also been subjected to their own version of revisionist history.

God has allowed perfectly evil men to accomplish astonishing things throughout history. Consider Herod, Hitler, and Mao. Yet He always fulfills His perfect will no matter how heinous the motivations of mankind. Could it be that despite the fallacies of Columbus' exploits, God ordained for the United States to flourish anyway?

We don't know for certain, do we? So why bother with idle speculation? Let's just take what we do know about Columbus and marvel at how God's ageless plan for our universe continues to unfold.

Exploration exists as a God-given motivator. With it, we can learn more about His Creation, and by example, more about Him as the Creator. Just like everything else, it's what we do with our opportunities for exploration that counts. On that score, you have to ignore an awful lot of history to redeem the personal legacy of Christopher Columbus.

Maybe that's why it's best we leave that task to God.
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