It is hard for 21st Century Americans to imagine what life in the 1400s and 1500s in Europe was really like.
And yet we have hints. Think of the wild aggressiveness of today's followers of the treasonous and deformed Osama bin Laden version of Islam or, in a less physically violent way, the harsh, half-blind Fred Phelps version of Christianity.
Now take that kind of religious fanaticism and spread it equally across both Christianity and Islam, and you begin to have some sense of the brutal religious certitude that plagued Europe, Africa and Asia 500 years ago.
This profoundly distressing picture of the world comes to brilliant life in a new book by British historian Nigel Cliff, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations.
It is an astonishing read on several levels. The language is clear and accessible. The details of this sweeping global history are riveting. And his thesis that Vasco da Gama's Christian "Crusade" -- for that's what Cliff insists it really was -- prevented Europe from becoming dominated by Islam is fresh and insightful, though no doubt it will attract some critics as news of it spreads.
That said, I wish Cliff had avoided the sullied term "clash of civilizations" in his subtitle. Clearly something like that was much more the case and more evident at the time of Vasco da Gama than it is today, despite what Samuel Huntington and others would have us believe about today. But the term far oversimplifies the current struggle against terrorism and leads people inevitably into imagining that somehow today's conflict is really between Christendom (which no longer exists) and all of Islam.
That aside, the author makes a persuasive case that when Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal in 1497 he was, among other things, looking to "locate a long-lost Christian king who ruled over a magical Eastern realm. Behind the catalog of improbability lay a truly apocalyptic agenda: to link up with the Eastern Christians, deal a crushing blow to the power of Islam, and prepare the way for the conquest of Jerusalem." (Or reconquest, given that the earlier Christian Crusaders had taken the city, only to lose it again.)
What this book does is provide us with a much clearer historical perspective to understand today's bin-Ladenesque mindset. As Cliff writes, "In the words of modern-day Islamists who see their struggle not as one to come to terms with the West but to defeat the West, the rot set in half a millennium ago. That was when the last Muslim emirate was expunged from western Europe, when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas -- and when Vasco da Gama arrived in the East. Those three events unfolded in one dramatic decade, and their intimately entwined roots reach deep into our common past."
What is so sobering about the story Cliff tells is that religious fanaticism was simply everywhere. It was the air almost everyone seemed to breathe. The picture of much of Christianity then is as distressing as the radical religion rooted in misused Islam is today. Oh, it's not that there weren't some thoughtful, faithful and reasonable Christians and Muslims in the age of the explorers, but the whole sweep of history then was against them, drowning out their voices in blood and war.
Indeed, it was within the context of this struggle that, Cliff writes, "the modern concept of Europe" arose, emerging "among a patchwork of fractious people that found common purposes in their struggle with Islam." Imagine that, a whole continent came of age defined by its resistance to a religion.
And the papacy seemed regularly to be deputizing warriors for the battle, certainly from the time of the First Crusade (announced by the pope in 1095) onward to the time of Vasco da Gama. Christians and Muslims were decrying one another as infidels and seeking each other's destruction, with a few rare exceptions.
Both religions had resorted to war to achieve their visions, even if those visions and the means to achieve them contradicted the core teachings of those religions. As Islam moved away from its practice of protecting Christians and Jews in places where it dominated, Western Christendom "had undergone a similar transformation" toward bigotry rooted in false certitude.
Well, the book is full of bloodbaths and horrifying struggles, including a description of the loathesome slave trade that Portugal joined for economic and religious reasons.
And yet in the midst of all this slaughter and mayhem an important lesson begins to emerge, which is that rigid religious certitude -- the idea that only my group has God figured out and is doing God's will -- always brings disaster and, therefore, must be avoided.
Cliff puts it this way in his conclusion:
"In the end, the religious certainty that drove Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorers halfway around the world was also their undoing. For all their astonishing achievements, the idea of a Last Crusade -- a holy war to end all holy wars -- was always a crazy dream."
Oh, to have a commitment to the best that religion brings while walking away from its destructive tendencies. We could fix a lot of what's wrong with the world if we could manage that. Cliff's book makes me want to try harder.
(A final point about the book: Like another book I reviewed recently, this one has extensive and good footnotes in the back, but there is no indication in the text itself what is being footnoted. Instead, you have to go to the notes and find a phrase repeated from the text with a note after that phrase. This is silly and annoying and I hope it's not the result of some book consultant telling publishers (in this case HarperCollins) that readers prefer not to have the text marked with useful notes. If so, it's probably the same goofy consultant who told local TV news teams to do happy talk and to promote every 30-second story six times before actually delivering the story. Aaarrggghh.)
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LEARNING ABOUT FAITH
Before we move on completely from the 10th anniversary of 9/11, let's think about what we've learned about religion in the last 10 years. The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog helps with that. I hope each of you has learned something beautiful about a religion other than your own.
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P.S.: If you missed my KC Star column Sunday about the 9/11 death of my nephew, click here.