09/14/2011 12:31 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

How Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther Transformed Western Civilization

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses. So began two stories that have shaped the West since the 16th century. But what happens if we link the two?

The first story cast the relationship between Europe and the Western hemisphere in terms of conquest: Columbus crossed the Atlantic and "discovered" islands. He was followed by Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, who conquered first Central and then South America for Spain. The second is the foundation story for modern western Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. A small handful of men who were God's instruments on earth broke with Catholicism, which was traditional and medieval, to found modern, liberal churches. Each Church caught in that battle for souls claimed the authority of God's will; each found its origins in the person of Christ; and each claimed those origins were exclusive of any other understanding of Christianity.

Those two stories obscured much that was and is important. Columbus "crossing" the Atlantic obscured that he knew neither the sheer breadth of the body of water -- his sailors were close to mutiny when they sighted land -- nor the islands and the two continents we now call North and South America: he was literally out of his reckoning. "Crossing" the Atlantic presumes that both coasts were known and the distance between them known. They were not. The 95 Theses belonged to an established tradition of university debate -- a pedantic act of a local university professor shrank in comparison with the dangers posed by the Ottoman Empire to the east or the possibilities posed by new lands to the west. It was not the theses themselves that moved thousands, but the authority that Luther, along with hundreds of others seized as certain: the Bible or, as they called it, the Word of God. They turned to a printed object, where they located absolute authority, to ground their own understanding of their salvation.

Only in bringing the two stories together can we see why that printed thing, the product of a new technology, very much like the internet today, became so important. It had been around, after all, for a long time. Why then? Why there? But the printed Bible, as the Word of God, offered Europeans something certain in the face of truly overwhelming "discoveries." We are used to discoveries -- they happen every nanosecond. In this, we are heirs to Columbus: it has become normal to "discover." But in 1492, Europeans thought they knew the size of the world, and they thought that their classical sources were not simply right, but authoritative -- the foundation for all knowledge. Columbus's voyage shattered that confidence.

If, as we now understand, the story of conquest obscured terrifying uncertainties, the overthrow of what was familiar and trusted, the story of Reformation cast different understandings of a sacred text in terms of divine revelation: only one of those understandings, according to the story, could be "true." That one text was not simply an authority unto itself. It could have only one true reading. All other readings were "false," "misunderstandings" of God's will, God's intent, God's meaning. That story of Luther's 95 theses obscures that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of different readings -- indeed, by the end of the century, there were different Bibles, different Ten Commandments and different understandings of the ancient words of the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. It silences the richness of the text; it denies the authenticity of other readings.

To tell a different story of the Reformation -- of human difference, of divisive readings of a sacred text, of divergent experiences of faith -- is not simply good scholarship: the practice of detachment and the willingness to lay aside prejudice to look afresh at the evidence. It is to recognize polemics for what they were: the construction of absolute oppositions, where there were differences of understanding on one point, but shared understandings on others, which echoes today. It is to recover another perspective of the period: that the Muslim empire to the East threatened what Emperor and Pope took to be Christian Europe. Pope and Emperor did not, at first, see essential divisions between Christians: they saw an external threat to a universal Church.

To set 16th-century Christians' insistence upon the authority of the printed Bible in a longer narrative is to erode the force of revelation as a model for human history, to undercut that sense that some individuals are chosen as God's instrument. It is to recognize many more actors in history, whose voices were different, not "false." Most important, we can at long last hear one question that so gripped Europeans and Americans in the 16th century: "What is it to be human?" The question links debates on converting the Western hemisphere with bitter divisions over the nature of Christ's humanity and over the meaning of words central to both their faith and the practice of that faith, words Christ spoke the night before he died: "this is my body." Was Christ's body human in the same way as all human bodies are? As Taino or Aztec bodies? And then, we can hear voices left out of those trajectories of triumph, such as the essayist, Michel de Montaigne, who asked: "What binds us together? What separates us? Is anything at once essential and shared? A deeply human history that speaks to us."