Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Evangelism, power, and Eclipse

I have written about living near the Columban Fathers headquarters, a missionary society, in the 1980's. I grew up hearing about El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and calls from the pulpit at mass for the closing of the School of Americas (now renamed).

That was one of those political topics where, as a military family at the time, we listened and kept silent. Sometimes we could sign the petitions on tables after Mass (I think we usually signed the Pro-Life ones), and sometimes we did not.

Things change when a family becomes civilian. Some changes were obvious: not living in military housing, no longer surrounded by military families. Other changes took more time: figuring out who I really am and what I believe for myself, and then learning how to articulate it and use my constitutional Freedom of Speech.


One Sunday in the St. Louis region, it was something like "missionary Sunday." Only the person speaking didn't sound like the Columban fathers, talking about the needs of the poor, for medical treatment and schools, working in solidarity with the locals to serve their needs.

No, this person sounded far less sincere, more devious in his purpose. He talked about starting missionary work in a new place, about meeting with village elders to see what they might need. And yes, it usually would be a school or a hospital, but that wasn't their primary purpose. Because he talked about how then, maybe one of the locals working at the hospital might want to learn to read, and they would use the Bible to teach them. And then maybe the locals would convert.

I've been raised to see the history of Colonialism as this mixed bag. Many horrible things, like the deceptive missionary, and the brutality taught at the School of Americas. Evangelical atheism, in particular, seems to enjoy latching onto THESE stories, about the evils of religion.

The danger of evangelism, even atheistic evangelism, is that it ignores the great strength and shared purpose that can come of being within a faith community. Martin Luther King, Jr and his wife knew the strength that was in the African-American Christian traditions, and worked within it. Religion has dangers, yes, but it also has beauty and strength.


In my overview of Christianity, under "Founder," I mentioned Peter as Jesus' selected successor, who led Jewish Christians, and Paul who spread Christianity among the Gentiles (non-Jews). This Worldology post goes on to describe how non-Jewish Christianity came to dominate, and how it became tied to the Roman Empire.

There are also astronomical links to the spread of Christianity:

Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History, by Duncan Steel, discusses the role that predicting eclipses has played in religious conversions. In particular, Steel describes the events of 664 CE, the year that King Oswy of Northumberland deserted the Celtic (Christian) Church to align with the Roman Church:
"We know, from modern computations and records in monastic archives from Ireland and across continental Europe, that it happened on 1 May. The puzzle is that the English monasteries recorded it as occurring on 3 May, and we know this was no mere slip of the quill. The record was deliberately falsified, and this was not a trivial deceit." (p. 282)
It seems that the Roman Church was arguing that their knowledge of the Sun and Moon were superior to the Celtic Church.
"The problem with the date of the eclipse arose because the lunar tables calculated in Rome were wrong. They showed the new moon on slightly the wrong date, in part because of the inexactitude of the metonic cycle. After the event, the Roman party covered this up, falsifying the record and bluffing at the synod a couple of months later that the eclipse had occurred on 3 May, although it had actually been 2 days earlier." (p. 283)

(See also this book pp 27-28)

Steel's book also includes an account of Christopher Columbus using a lunar eclipse to obtain food and supplies while stranded in Jamaica in 1504, another example of science used to profit and dominate.

I think tomorrow I'll try to write more of my thoughts on the relationship between science and religion, the connections of myth and poetry.