Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Faith of Columbus

On September 13, 1501, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to Father Gaspar Gorricio who resided at the Monastery of Santa Maria de Las Cuevas near Seville. With this letter, Columbus also provided a copy of a manuscript that he had prepared compiling several scriptures (over 100 pages of them) and sayings from early church fathers. This manuscript has become known as Columbus’s Book of Prophecies.

What stands out more than anything else in this volume is Columbus’s profound sense of personal destiny. His stated motivation for writing it was to convince the Spanish crown to free Mount Zion and Jerusalem. And so he argues that the hundreds of scriptural references to other people, to non-Israelite nations, to islands of the seas, etc. were all predictions of the rulers’ noble work.

Of course Columbus also saw himself in these prophecies. In fact it is hard to imagine that he saw much more than himself in them, even if he apparently made his argument for the king and queen’s benefit alone. Columbus’s biographers have been quite clear through the years that the Genoese explorer had an ego to match his determination. The Book of Prophecies might be understood as just another example of this inflated self-regard.

But I think that this would be a mistake. The book, if it implies that ancient holy men actually saw Columbus or knew of him, also sheds a good deal of light on the sincerity of the explorer’s faith. In fact, it sheds an interesting and important light on his understanding of what the word faith actually means. For Columbus, it was faith that enabled him to fulfill the many scriptural prophecies that he believed were referring to himself.

Columbus writes: “Everyone who heard about my enterprise rejected it with laughter and ridicule… Only Your Highness had faith and perseverance. Who could doubt that this flash of understanding was the work of the Holy Spirit, as well my own? The Holy Spirit illuminated his holy and sacred Scripture, encouraging me in a very strong and clear voice from the forty-four books of the Old Testament, the four evangelists, and twenty-three epistles from the blessed apostles, urging me to proceed. Continually, without ceasing a moment, they insisted that I go on.”

Columbus then proceeds to admit that he is not a highly educated man (although it is clear that he was no ignorant man either) and that he has sinned greatly in his life. Yet every time that he made mistakes, he was forgiven of the Lord. Then he proceeds.

“This is what I want to record here in order to remind Your Highness and so that you can take pleasure from the things that I am going to tell you about Jerusalem on the basis of the same authority. If you have faith in this enterprise, you will certainly have the victory… Remember, Your Highnesses, that with very little money you undertook the reconquest [sic] of the kingdom of Granada. The working out of all things has been left by Our Lord to individual free will, although he advises many.”

It is hard for modern historians to speak convincingly of such religious conviction. It is much easier for them to understand Columbus’s will for power, recognition and wealth. And yet, even allowing for a great deal of hyperbole in the Book of Prophecies, one cannot discount the priority of religious faith in the explorer’s life. Columbus had a great deal of self-esteem. He also had a great deal of faith in sacred texts. Understanding the combination of both in his mind (that these texts had predicted his role in sacred history) gives a much better insight into his personality than do so many secular arguments that fill our current curricula.

What makes this insight so compelling is that it stands as one of the great examples in the history of the world of the power of a certain kind of faith. For Columbus, this faith involved an understanding of the God of the Bible. It also involved his belief that his own life was known to God and was, in fact, accepted by Him to fulfill His divine pre-ordained plan. Furthermore, this faith was based on a free will that effects the “working out of things”.

This is almost a textbook example of the kind of faith described in the Lectures on Faith. There is the recognition of God and an understanding of His attributes. There is the recognition that one’s life is being lived in accordance to divine will. There is also the under-lying base of faith as the principle of action.

For Latter-day Saints who hold the Lectures on Faith in such high regard (in fact most of the book was written by Joseph Smith with input from Sidney Rigdon) this is evidence that Columbus was a man of great faith. Of course this is confirmed in The Book of Mormon where a clear reference to Columbus indicates that the “Spirit of God” rested upon him and led him to the Americas.

This is also a remarkable confirmation of Joseph Smith’s teaching about faith. Joseph, almost certainly, had no access to the Book of Prophecies and yet there could be no better fit of his understanding of faith than Columbus’s autobiographical account. This is all the more remarkable because The Book of Mormon leaves no room to doubt that the Genoese sailor was a man of divine destiny. This is a powerful testimony of both Joseph Smith and Christopher Columbus. It is also a benchmark for understanding that very misunderstood principle of faith.

This kind of faith is not a wishy-washy belief system. Neither is it a misinformed or gullible zeal. One might not believe in Columbus’s God, but it’s hard not to believe that Columbus believed in himself. The problem for nonbelievers is the recognition that Columbus would not have accomplished what he did without his particular kind of faith. And one of the profound messages of this kind of faith is that it is immensely powerful and that it comes with a big dose of self-knowledge.

In a world plagued with artificial causes and self-doubt, Columbus has much to teach us. He almost compels us to ask the self-penetrating question of whether personal understanding is possible without faith. In a post-Darwin world there aren’t many other choices on which we might anchor ourselves. Either we arrive at a tenuous self-fulfillment through competitive survival, or we develop our own gifts in the service of God. This simple dichotomy is perhaps the main reason that Columbus is so out of fashion these days.

The University of California Press (Berkeley) has recently published a series of texts on Columbus. Volume III (1997), The Book of Prophecies Edited by Christopher Columbus (edited by Roberto Rusconi and translated by Blair Sullivan) is my source. Carol Delaney’s book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem was published last year (2011) by Free Press. My copy of Lectures on Faith was published by Bookcraft. The reference to Columbus in The Book of Mormon is in 1 Nephi 13:12.

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