A New World of Ideas

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Like most kids, I grew up hearing that Christopher Columbus was the man who bravely stood up to the religious superstitions of the Dark Ages.
Ignorant people – deceived by Catholic priests – were certain that the world was flat.  If you sailed all the way to the edge of the Earth, your ship would plunge into the abyss.  Thus the Church’s most esteemed prelates opposed Columbus’ plan to sail west across the Atlantic in search of India and the Far East, for the common-sense reason that every sailor in such an expedition would be lost.
Columbus, however, felt certain that the Earth was round.  And he proved it by boldly ignoring his culture’s prevailing myths, choosing instead to be guided by the brighter lights of science and intellectual curiosity.  
Therefore his name has been bestowed on two U.S. state capitals, our nation’s federal governmental district (D.C.), a nation in South America, the westernmost province of Canada, and even the second Monday in October, compelling banks and post offices to close their doors to commemorate the guy who stumbled upon the New World.
That’s how the story is told.  But it turns out to be complete rubbish. 
To start with, Columbus had no need to “prove” that the Earth was round.  The sphericity of our planet had been affirmed by the ancient Greeks at least 300 years before Christ.  No one seriously doubted it, including major theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.  Columbus appealed for the financial support of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchial couple.  They, like most royal figures in the 15th century, were commonly portrayed as holding the official “orb” of power – that is, a golden globe representing the Earth.
That’s not to deny that a few people still clung to the notion that the Earth was flat.  A few people still believe that today, including an outspoken point guard for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. 
Columbus had no quarrel with the Church.  He himself was a faithful Catholic and was confident that his voyages glorified God.  Those who doubted the wisdom of his voyage insisted (correctly, as it turned out) that he was seriously misrepresenting the distance from Spain to Japan by sailing west.  Columbus, using fuzzy math, guessed it was about 3,000 miles.  It was actually more than 15,000 miles.  But that point turned out to be moot, since his progress was impeded by a hemisphere he never anticipated. 
So how did Columbus morph into a modern pro-science hero who stood up against the embarrassing ignorance of close-minded priests?
As Jeffrey Burton Russell documents in Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, it happened slowly but relentlessly in the 19th and 20th centuries.
What Russell calls the “Flat Earth Error” was kickstarted by American author Washington Irving (1783-1859).  The man who invented Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was devoted to the Enlightenment notion of progress – that history, properly understood, would show a steady climb from the foggy depths of mythology to the clear mountain heights of rational thinking.  He idolized Columbus and chose to depict him as an early champion of modern values.   
A number of progressive historians followed suit.  Ironically, in their attempts to speak against the danger of believing myths, they fashioned a myth of their own – that Columbus singlehanded dispelled the fallacy of the flat Earth, something the navigator didn’t believe in the first place. 
Why do teachers, preachers, and politicians continue to tell this story, even in the teeth of clear evidence to the contrary? 
Russell believes that part of the problem is sheer laziness.  We’ve all settled into the grooves of a certain way of seeing Columbus as a beacon of progress, and it’s hard work to overturn that bias.  “Our determination to believe the Flat Error,” he writes, “arises out of our contempt for the past and our need to believe in the superiority of the present.” 
Once certain ideas get into our heads – perhaps at an early age – it’s hard to shake them. 
That might include Mom’s way of loading the dishwasher.  And the counsel that you should always buy a used car instead of a new one.  And the assurance that you can only trust one side of the political spectrum.  And not-really-truisms like, “God helps those who help themselves.” 
What can we do to keep ourselves from defaulting to worn-out ideas, discredited notions, and less-than-perfect ways of seeing the world?
Study.  Read.  Ask questions.  Challenge your own convictions.  Take a deep dive into Scripture.  Seek new insights.  Talk to God.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). 
This we know for sure:  Christopher Columbus, despite all the concerns associated with his voyage, was an exceedingly brave person.
And we can be sure that the God of all truth will always honor the bravery of the one who seeks the truth – and is willing to follow the clues wherever they lead.