Christopher Columbus--Man of God
This Columbus Day we mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival on American shores. And what a firestorm it has ignited.
On one side are Columbus supporters, people who paint him as enlightened and progressive. It reminds me of the simplistic myths we learned about famous people when we were in grade-school.
On the other side are the protesters, people who set themselves up as debunkers of cultural myths. They say Columbus set sail to America merely to gain wealth and extend Spanish dominion. They mutter angrily about exploitation and greed.
But the new story told by the debunkers is just as simplistic as the old myth. If we really want to know who Columbus was, we need to read balanced literature on the subject, like George Grant's The Last Crusader and Robert Royal's new book 1492 And All That.
The story these books tell casts a whole new light on the controversy. The historical records show that what motivated Columbus above all else in his ventures on the high seas ... was his Christian faith.
Yes, Columbus was a committed Christian. Like Joan of Arc and Saint Francis of Assisi, he felt certain that God had called him personally. "With a hand that could be felt," Columbus once wrote, "the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and He opened my will to desire to accomplish this project."
That's genuine religious conviction.
Columbus's desire to travel was first inspired by the Franciscan monks, who taught that the end of the world would come as soon as the Gospel had spread to the ends of the earth. Columbus believed he had been called by God to accomplish this task: to become an instrument of universal evangelization. Whenever he encountered native peoples, he sought to bring them the Word of God.
This is the real Christopher Columbus--a man set on fire by missionary zeal.
Modern historians often make the mistake of reading contemporary concepts back into history. Take the idea that Columbus sailed for Spain and its imperial ambitions. Impossible. In late medieval times, Spain wasn't even a nation yet.
Most of Europe at the time consisted of loose collections of kingdoms, each with its own separate administration, laws, and customs. What tied medieval Europe together was a common faith and a common civilization known as Christendom.
Columbus saw himself not as a representative of Spain but of Christendom itself.
How many of you learned this side of Columbus in your elementary school classrooms? I certainly didn't. And the current controversy over Columbus isn't helping to set the balance either.
Both sides are trying to impose modern categories on a historical figure. One side makes him out to be a progressive explorer, the other side denounces him as a racist and imperialist.
Both sides are overlooking the real story, based on real historical facts. It's the Christian story--of Christopher Columbus as a sincere Christian, doing his best to follow God's call on his life.
Now, there's a story worth passing on to our children.