Perhaps you have played the game “Marco Polo” in the swimming pool as a kid. This pool game is an aquatic version of tag, except the person who is “it” must keep his eyes closed as he thrashes around the pool seeking to make someone else “it.” And there is another twist: he who is “it” may call out “Marco” to which all other players are obliged to respond “Polo.” Swim quickly towards a “Polo” and you might just tag a friend–but keep your eyes closed.
Marco Polo is of course famous for being one of the first Europeans to travel to China. He didn’t merely take a two-week tour–he lived there for over twenty years and served Kublai Khan as an emissary. After his father and uncle (Niccolo and Maffeo) had traveled to China (from 1260-1269), Marco followed in their footsteps and was in China from 1271 to 1295. Marco set out at age 17 accompanied by his father. We know all about Marco’s travels and exploits because he was kind enough to dictate a book of his experiences while in prison for a time when he returned to Italy. We know his dictations as The Travels of Marco Polo.
So how did the pool game acquire the name “Marco Polo”? I don’t know. It does, however, testify to Marco’s fame throughout the centuries. Certainly his name has a poetic ring appropriate to call and response game. Once one says “Marco” someone else surely must say “Polo.” But perhaps the blind tagger in the pool game bears some resemblance to Marco as he traveled to lands never before seen by Europeans, where he encountered languages and practices inscrutable to the Western mind. If Marco began his travels “blind” he did not end them so; he learned several Asian languages over the course of his twenty years in China. Eventually he could see and understand what was at first sight a bewildering confusion. Marco reminds us that to become multicultural requires more than having a taco on Cinco de Mayo. It requires learning a language, learning a people.
Marco traveled as a Christian in a land of idolaters. He did encounter some Nestorian Christians, and the record of these encounters leads me to think of “what might have been.” The Nestorians believed that the human and divine natures of Christ were so distinct as to be two persons, rather than two natures unified in one person. Their Christological doctrines were declared heretical at the Councils of Ephesus (430 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD). What might have happened if the eastern church (for the Nestorians went east) had been retained as part of the orthodox western church with its full support?
Kublia Khan himself represents another “what might have been.” Having met Niccolo and Maffeo, Kublia Khan shows great interest in Christianity, and over time indicates his preference for the Christian faith. The Great Khan (as Marco calls him) also wanted to import the learning of the west represented in the liberal arts. Kublia Khan requests that Niccolo and Maffeo go back to Italy, greet and petition the pope that they might bring back one hundred scholars to the Khan’s court. Consider this passage from Marco:
You must know that the purport of his letters and his mission was this: he sent word to the Pope that he should send up to a hundred men learned in the Christian religion, well versed in the seven arts, and skilled to argue and demonstrate plainly to idolaters and those of other persuasions that their religion is utterly mistaken and that all the idols which they keep in their houses and worship are things of the Devi.—men able to show by clear reasoning that the Christian religion is better than theirs. Furthermore the great Khan directed the brothers to bring oil from the lamp that burns above the sepulcher of God in Jerusalem. Such then was the purport of their mission.
Kublia Khan wanted the Christian scholarship of the West to make its debut in his court, to see if perhaps he and his kingdoms might adopt both Christianity and the learning that accompanied it. Marco writes that the Khan himself was inclined to convert to Christianity but needed to witness the public triumph of Christian learning in order to convert. His request for one hundred Christian scholars never materialized. Instead only two Dominican scholars were dispatched, and these grew faint of heart during their travels east, encountering some local warfare. Both turned back, while Niccolo and Maffeo pressed on. Unfortunately, Kublia Khan never gets to meet any Christian scholars, nor any in his court. Was this a lost opportunity? Marco seems to indicate it was:
Someone may well ask why, since he regards the Christian faith as the best, he does not embrace it and become a Christian. The reason may be gathered from what he said to Messer Niccolo and Maffeo when he sent them as emissaries to the Pope. They used from time to time to raise this matter with him; but he would reply: ‘On what grounds do you desire me to become a Christian? You see that the Christians who live in these parts are so ignorant that they accomplish nothing and are powerless. And you see that these idolaters do whatever they will; and when I sit at table the cups in the middle of the hall come tom me full of wine or other beverages without anyone touching them, and I drink from them. They banish bad weather in any direction they choose and perform many marvels. And, as you know their idols speak and give them such predictions as they ask. But, if I am converted to the faith of Christ and become a Christian, then my barons and others who do not embrace the faith of Christ will say to me: ‘What has induced you to undergo baptism and adopt the faith of Christ? What virtues or what miracles have you seen to his credit? For these idolaters declare what they do they do by their holiness and by virtue of their idols. Then I should not know what to answer, which would be a grave error in their eyes. And these idolaters, who by their arts and sciences achieve such great results, could easily compass my death. But do you go to your Pope and ask him on my behalf to send me a hundred men learned in your religion, who in the case of these idolaters will have the knowledge to condemn their performances and tell them that they too can do such things but will not because they are done by diabolic art and evil spirits, and will show their mastery by making the idolaters powerless to perform these marvels in their presence. On the day when we see this, I too will condemn them and their religion. Then I will be baptized, and all my barons and magnates will do likewise, and their subjects in turn will undergo baptism. So there will be more Christians here than there are in your part of the world.’ And if, as was said at the beginning, men had really been sent by the Pope with the ability to preach our faith to the Great Khan, then assuredly he would have become a Christian. For it was known for a fact that he was most desirous to be converted.
So with the help of Marco Polo, I have indulged in a bit of historical speculation this week. What if one hundred scholars had made it to Kublia Khan’s court? What if he had converted to Christianity and adopted the learning embodied in the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music)? Well, it may be an interesting thought experiment, but is probably of little value unless it informs our present work. What invitations exist now for faith and learning to move north, south, east and west? What great or small Khans are asking for aid? Where are the Christian scholars and to where should they be sent?
Finally, we ought not only to ask what might have been. Those of us who have been blessed because someone was sent to us should also revel in the question of what might not have been. Freely we have received, freely we must give.
Very good what could’ve been, yet it’s a great lesson we must press on with the great commission.