A Lesson from Marco Polo
An Unintended Consequence of Monotheism
From Marco Polo’s writings I learned that, except for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, deities had only regional jurisdiction. This meant that travelers who understood this and learned something of the local culture and customs where they happened to be were more likely to be well-received and to survive to write and tell about their adventures.
Marco Polo’s father and uncle were Venetians who traveled
In 1987 my wife, Mary, and I stumbled on a placard in a city park along China’s Yangtze River commemorating Marco Polo’s stay there as governor for two years—he did not return to Venice until 1295, a 24 year absence. Historians doubt that he was governor, and there is no other evidence confirming his writings on this point. Could it be that the Chinese erected the placard to excite the interest of European and American tourists? In any event Marco Polo must have become an enormously accomplished diplomat at a rather young age, and he must have been at least an envoy for the emperor in this province. *
The insight about deities having
only local or regional jurisdiction was implicit in the data from Marco Polo’s
observations of the various cultures through which he traveled although not
explicitly stated anywhere in the book, The Travels of Marco Polo. The local
jurisdiction of most deities explains the absence of proselytizing by the vast
majority of the world’s religions. In
Why do the Jews not
proselytize? I remembered that they ceased only at the
insistence of the Romans (and Christians in more modern times). The three monotheistic religions agree that
Jehovah, God the Father, and Allah are different names for the same God. I wondered where I got the information that
the Jews did some significant proselytizing until Roman times. Some digging in the Public Library with help
from the librarian demonstrated that this is not widely known (we couldn’t find
anything on the subject). Then some
digging in my own mind, and I remembered reading The Thirteenth Tribe by
Arthur Koestler a few years ago. On re-reading the
book I found an explicit statement about the Romans/Christians putting a stop
to Jews proselytizing (page
book is primarily about the Khazars, a nation on the
* The Chinese explored much of the known world in the early 15th century. It is noteworthy that they made no attempt to colonize or otherwise exploit the places they visited. For more see: “Why the Chinese didn’t Discover the Rest of the World” on page 101 or on my website: < www.frantzmd.medem.com >.
would not entirely prove the point because the Khazars took in many Christian and Jewish immigrants as refugees from forced conversions by Christians and Moslems, so most of the dispersed Jews would have been ethnic Jews and not have the genetics of the indigenous Khazars. (Some Christian conversions of Jews were achieved by torture. The Moslems used increased taxes for non-Moslems. The Khazars’ conversion was voluntary.
Marco Polo’s insight about the limited regional jurisdiction of other deities reminded me that most Moslems and Christians have not figured out that, in spite of their perceived mandate to proselytize, a just and merciful God would not send the heathen to hell merely because of lazy or absent missionaries. This is the unintended consequence of monotheism. Is distrust of human beings who are not sufficiently like ourselves inborn? Probably so, along with tribalism. Did we come by this naturally? Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in the wild for a decade or so, now has an orphanage for chimpanzees whose mothers were killed by poachers. She is unable to release them into the wild where chimpanzees attempt to kill all strange members of their species. Jane keeps her wards in plain sight of the local villagers many of whom have decided that the chimps are so like us that they no longer eat them—animal rights is coming to Africa, and that’s a good thing. Is our tribalism indeed less extreme than that of chimpanzees?
The idea of a just and merciful
God not sending the heathen to hell because of lazy or absent missionaries is
my own, acquired in mid-childhood from two ecclesiastically trained parents and
from many missionaries on home leave who were entertained in our household
through the years. I knew that the idea
would “not play in
A more somber interpretation:
monotheism has carried our human version of tribalism to excess. Considering the history of religious warfare
tells us to look at what we have in common with strangers especially if we are
far from our natal groups (as was Marco Polo).
When you are among Islamic strangers, strive to be labeled guest—cordial
treatment of guests is literally an Islamic sacrament. Another humbling cross-cultural insight:
Christian missionary success in
My experience in
John A. Frantz, MD
* “Would not play In Peoria” refers to the test marketing of vaudeville or Broadway plays before bothering to organize a tour of these in the conservative American heartland—Peoria is the paradigm of such conservative cities (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a close second)..
** Not eating beef is no
more central to Hinduism than not eating meat on Friday is to Christianity.
Fish on Friday came about in colonial