|Martellus Map, 1491|
22nd May 2016
Sometimes our maps are wrong. Here’s a story about such a map, the Martellus Map.
Henricus Martellus is the Latinized name of Heinrich Hammer. Hammer was a geographer and cartographer from Nuremberg, German, who lived and worked in Florence from 1480 to 1496. Between 1489 and 1491 he produced a map of the known world, an enormous map, measuring four feet by six feet, designed to hang on a wall. There’s only one copy of it, which was discovered in 1960 and then donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. It has a fascinating history. Portions of the map were borrowed from Ptolemy (90-168), the Greco-Egyptian polymath, who mapped the world around the year 150. Martellus’ descriptions of Asia were informed by the writings of Marco Polo (1254-1324). Martellus also used a map produced in Lisbon, in 1485, by Bartolemeo Columbus (c. 1461-1515), Christopher’s brother. In fact, Christopher Columbus used the Martellus map to persuade Ferdinand of Aragon (1462-1516) and Isabella of Castille (1451-1504) to support his desire to find a shorter and faster trade route to the East, in order to bypass the not always welcoming Ottoman Empire.
The big question, for both the Spanish monarchs and Columbus, was this: is it three thousand or ten thousand miles from Europe to Japan? Martellus based his drawings on Ptolemy’s calculation of the size of the earth (the Greeks had already measured the circumference of the earth within about a few hundred miles), combined with knowledge gained from Marco Polo’s travels through Asia. Martellus incorrectly placed Japan about one thousand miles off the coast of China, he assumed that there was nothing between Japan and the Iberian Peninsula, except the Atlantic Ocean, thus he exaggerated the size of Asia to make up the difference. The map that Columbus used, the Martellus map, suggested that Japan was closer to Spain than it really was. And there was something else neither Columbus nor anyone else suspected—that an enormous land mass was there in between, the Americas, which some of us call home. When “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” and landed in the Bahamas he thought he was in Japan. It’s remarkable, looking back, that the learned of that day could not imagine something other than what was expected.
Sometimes our maps are wrong. We create them with the best available knowledge, thinking we’re being scientific, but there always seem to be a bias built in. We make assumptions about what is and is not true, about what can or cannot be true. Even GPS systems and our Smartphones are not always smart. Sometimes the maps are wrong. I read this week about a driver in Ontario who blindly followed her GPS system, through the fog, and drove straight into Lake Huron. The car sank and she swam to shore. Whether it’s Martellus’ map of the then known world or the maps of our personal lives, sometimes our maps are wrong—there’s a lot that’s unknown.
Yes, the map was wrong—as Columbus discovered—but that didn’t prevent him (and others after him) from further exploration into the unknown. They used the map, but didn’t trust it completely because they knew they were first explorers and discovers and only second mapmakers trying to map the unknown world. Maps were often drawn and then redrawn and then redrawn again after experience either confirmed or discounted what they suspected to be true. For example, there was a myth floating around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that California was actually floating, that it was an island. In 1747 King Ferdinand VI (1713-1759) of Spain made a formal decree, “California [is] not an island,” as it had been assumed (due to an error in previous maps). It’s part of the mainland. Even up to the American Revolution this myth was out there in America and Europe.
In his book Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman (who was an expert on leadership and change dynamics in families, organizations, institutions, and religious communities) argues that Columbus’ voyage was a hinge event, a turning point in the history of the world, for a variety of reasons. This discovery catapulted Europe out of a kind of cultural depression; it metabolized new energy and creativity. It transformed the world and what individuals considered possible. Friedman writes, “For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that human spirit of adventure which epitomizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first.”
The spirit of adventure is needed. It’s easy to get stuck in faulty patterns of perception and behavior. We become gridlocked, when what we really need is to break free from the grid. We Presbyterians love our order. We have our blessed Book of Order and an Order of Worship, and we love to quote the Apostle Paul, when he admonishes the Corinthians, “Let everything be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Back in the 1980s, I once had a t-shirt made at the mall that read: Presbyterians Do It Decently and in Order. Looking back on that now, that was really odd! I was an odd teenager. I can only imagine what the guy at the mall was thinking. He had difficulty spelling the word Presbyterian.
Reflecting on our obsession for order today, I wonder if, perhaps, what we really need is more disorder, something to break us out of what confines the Church today. It’s tough for me to admit this as one who is very Presbyterian. I don’t really know what I’m suggesting or know what more disorder would look like, but I suspect it’s true. Yes, of course, order is needed for the Spirit to move. The Spirit does move in and through order. But the Spirit also moves through disorder. Sometimes the Spirit even creates the disorder! She intentionally stirs things up – probably to show us that we’re wrong and that we need to change!
Humility of knowledge. Maybe that’s what we need today. Humility of knowledge. I’m always struck by the power of human arrogance, when we think we know more than we really do, and how this attitude hinders progress, and then gets us into a lot of trouble, and produces a lot of pain and suffering. The word humility literally means, from the Latin humus, “of the earth.” Humility means being “of the earth,” in other words, being grounded, real honest, truthful. Humility of knowledge means being real, honest about what we know and don’t know. Humility of knowledge checks hubris, it keeps us humble, but it also reminds us that there’s more to learn and discover in the world. This is certainly true for science. Jeff Bolognese shared with me recently, when we were touring NASA Goddard, that most scientists are actually very humble in acknowledging what they don’t know, and they are often blown away by new discoveries about the universe, which then pushes them to want to discover even more. Consider how our views of the universe have changed because of the Hubble telescope.
What is true of science is also true of theology, which was one time known as the Queen of the Sciences. Humility of knowledge is especially needed among Christians today, needed within the Church. Yes, we need to confess our faith, know what we believe and why. But we also need to confess our doubt and honor our doubt as an expression of our faith, as odd as that might sound. We also need to be humble enough to acknowledge how much we don’t know about God, about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, about what it means to really be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Each and every one of us needs to acknowledge that there’s still so much to learn! This might freak out our Fundamentalist friends, but it’s true. There’s more than one interpretation of a biblical text. Scholars are always learning more about the meaning of an obscure Hebrew or Greek word, uncovering more about the composition of ancient texts, making new archeological discoveries that alter how we read and hear a text.
There’s still so much to learn! We need a spirit of adventure and discovery within the Church today, a bold spirit that will allow us to set sail from the old world into a new world of faithfulness; we need the courage to venture from the known out into the unknown.
The novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) tells us that as boy he loved to look at maps. "I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there." Two decades later, in 1890, Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and exposed the violence and brutal suffering in the Belgian Congo.
Walt Whitman (1818-1892) captured this spirit of adventure in Leaves of Grass, using the experience of traveling at sea as a metaphor for life:
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration.
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
What would that spirit of adventure mean for the Church today, for this church, for our individual lives? Before the pilgrims left for Plymouth, in 1620, the Rev. John Robinson (1576-1625), known as the “pastor of the pilgrims,” offered a Farewell Speech in Delfshaven. He said, famously, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light to break forth from his holy Word.” This is an extremely significant affirmation, if you think about it. These pilgrims or religious separatists, these Calvinist Christians, our theological forbears, are about to leave the safety of home to venture to an unknown place, a dangerous place, crossing an ocean, all because their theological convictions were calling them to go forward. It wasn’t a backward spirit driving them, but a forward movement. Robinson also said in the speech that we must not look back toward the reformers, to Luther and Calvin, but to discover things they couldn’t see. Significantly, as good Reformed Christians, people who are Reformed and always being reformed, by the Word and the Spirit, they trust, they know that there’s still so much to learn and discover and explore in the life of faith.
God’s Word is dynamic. It’s not static. To cite the tagline for the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking.” (I wish we Presbyterians had a similar tagline!) If God is still speaking then we need to listen, which also requires humility because we can’t expect to know what God will say before God speaks. We need to be quiet long enough to listen and not assume what will be said. Listening requires courage, courage to acknowledge what is heard and then, guided by the Spirit, courage to set sail, to step out, to lean in, to act, to move.
Yes, all of this is anxiety producing. All of this is scary. Of course it is! Who said the life of faith is about being safe? Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you safe.” We’re not called to play it safe. Safety has little or nothing to do with it.
The Word, God’s creative Word speaking through the pages of scripture, still has so much to teach us! We don’t have it all figured out. Biblical scholars are always being humbled by what they don’t know. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, in 1946, which date from Jesus’ life, along with the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, in the Egyptian desert in 1945, a text that might predate the Gospel of Mark, have and are changing what we know.
There’s always more to explore, more to discover, more to fathom and understand. Didn’t Jesus say that when the “Spirit of truth comes, he will guide [us] into all the truth” (John 16:12)? The Holy Spirit still has much to teach us. I find it striking that the disciples didn’t learn everything they needed for being disciples when Jesus was with them. It wasn’t as if they had three years of seminary with Jesus, and then he sent them off to change the world. There was still more to learn after his departure. Perhaps they weren’t wise enough or strong enough or humble enough to learn those things during Jesus’ life, to enter into “all the truth” at that time. Perhaps their hearts weren’t deep enough or open enough to fully fathom the truth of God’s love and grace.
The same is certainly true of us today. The Spirit is still the guide and the teacher and the source of truth, who reveals and discloses to us things beyond our imagining, things beyond our seeing (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), beyond reason, things beyond the limited confines of what we know, whose wisdom leads us forward. We have yet to figure out what it means to really follow Christ, to bear the name Christian. We have yet to fully fathom the heights and the depths of God’s grace and what is being asked of us with our lives. Our hearts need to be as deep and wide as the oceans of God’s love. We have yet to discover what it means when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—we certainly haven’t arrived at that new world, that kingdom world. But that’s where the Spirit wants to take us, is taking us, will take us, is willing to guide us every step along the way, even if we don’t have a map, even if our maps are wrong. Trust the Spirit.
George Macleod (1895-1991) of the Iona Community said, “Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.” We’re explorers. We’re called to explore and then revise the maps of God’s grace and justice and love, so that others coming after us will find a way, so that they may then go beyond us—because there’s still so much to discover!
 Edwin W. Friedman, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books, 2007).
 Walt Whitman, from “Passage to India,” Leaves of Grass (1900).
 John Robinson’s Farewell Speech, 1620, "The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented."