Friday, September 6, 2019

Monotheism in Pre-Columbian Mexico

Ever since the creation of the world, his (God’s) invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.

                                                                                        St. Paul, Romans 1:20

St. Paul’s statement in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans was in reference to pagans who were not behaving in accordance to God’s law. Paul goes on to state that there is no excuse for such behavior and that the people could not claim to be ignorant of God’s expectations since creation itself shows God’s invisible attributes. In other words, to summarize a statement in the Collegeville Bible Dictionary, "Paul is concerned with people who do not behave according to God’s plan. This plan was in plain view in the orderliness of creation" (p. 1082).

In Romans 1:24-32 Paul states why the pagans failed to behave in accordance to God’s law. To summarize Raymond Brown from his book Introduction to the New Testament, "human fault and stupidity led to the divine image being obscured in the pagan world" (p. 566). Examples of inappropriate behavior would be idolatry, lust and other forms of depraved conduct. Further, Paul cites “stubbornness” and an “impenitent heart” as vices that prevent people from changing from their evil ways.

However, the pagans were not without opportunities to be aware of God’s divine plan. In the past, God used prophets to proclaim his word to Israel but such messages were also delivered to many Gentiles who would then attaching themselves to local synagogues in order to be part of the Jewish community.

God’s word and presence for that matter, as we know from Paul's statment in Romans 1:20, was not limited to the Jews or those who were close to a Jewish community. This we know from a number of teachings that have come down to us throughout history that are indeed similar to what is taught in the Gospels. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the following statement in regards to how God prepared people from all over the world for the coming of Jesus Christ:

The coming of God's Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for it over centures. He makes everything converge on Christ: all rituals and sacrifices, figures and symbols of the First Covenant. He announces Him through the mouths of the prophets who succeeded one another in Israel. Morever, He awakens in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of his coming.

Further, just as God used the voices of the prophets, or those chosen specifically by him to deliver his message to Israel he also used particular individuals from particular Gentile/pagan cultures to deliver His message to those closest to such individuals. This of course was for the same reason that the prophets came before Christ, to prepare the people for His coming, which in most cases would be in the presence of those that Christ sent out into the world.

One example of such an idea has been cited by many Christian theologians who refer to the teachings of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates whose teachings are very similar to what is taught in by Christians.  For example, Plato along with a lesser known predecessor of his named Xenophanes spoke of the existence a single deity rather than the pantheon of gods that most Greeks believed in. Further, Plato and Socrates, who both lived in the 4th century BCE, seemed to prophesize the coming of Jesus as they spoke of the “Logos” (Word) that was indeed coming. And, like the prophets Plato and Socrates were at times persecuted for their personal beliefs that did not coincide with the beliefs or agendas of their peers.

As we will see this wisdom was not something that was only limited to Greek thinkers. In fact, it also occured on a different continent centuries later but at a time when those in the area had no knowledge of the Christian faith. That was when God worked through the efforts of a father and son tandem from the pre-Columbian Mexican city known as Texcoco. These individuals were Nezahualcoyotl and Nezahualpilli, two tlatoanis (rulers, kings) of the Alcohuan people.   

Monotheism in Ancient Mexico

Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards pre-Columbian Mexico was a highly organized society that was regulated by a triple alliance government of three highly populated cities: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. Like many great cities each of these three places had its own form of government, culture, scholarship, artistry as well as religious practices. Contrary to popular belief not all of the people in pre-Columbian Mexico practiced human sacrifice with the intention of appeasing bloodthirsty gods. In fact, the great king of the Texcoco region, Nezahualcoyotl had a system of beliefs that not only contradicted this ideology but also spoke out against the practice human sacrifice.

Nezahualcoyotl was the Renaissance man of his day. He was not only a king but a scholar who was well versed in astronomy, literature, philosophy, engineering as well as a patron of the arts since he was a poet. Luis Valdez stated that he was actually a precursor to someone like Frederick the Great who, “found time to mingle intellectual pursuits with war and statecraft.” In pre-Columbian Mexico this was also rare due to the fact that many of the intellectuals in this time period came strictly from the priestly class.

Being an heir to the throne, Nezahualcoyotl received a princely type education that was meant to prepare him for his opportunity to rule. Unfortunately, a rival to the throne killed his father in front of him and then sought his life, which forced the young prince into exile. This led to Nezahualcoyotl receiving the name that we have now, which is defined as “hungry coyote,” which is reflection of how he lived while in exile. He would eventually find his way to the city of Tenochtitlan and then spend eight more years of his life studying in order to advance himself intellectually. Soon after this he was contacted by many nobles from his place of birth that were tired of the tyrannical government of Texcoco. They would go on to form a coalition that eventually unseated the tyrannical ruler and placed Nezahualcoyotl in his proper place, as the tlatoani of Texcoco.

Gospel Preview

Nezahualcoyotl established a city in pre-Columbian Mexico that many historians call the Athens of the Western World. His first act as king was to establish laws that were considered to be so effective that it would also be adopted by his allies. Along with being a good statesman he also had important ideas regarding religion as he would eventually follow in the footsteps of great thinkers such as Plato and Socrates as he embraced a belief that was contrary to the beliefs of his peers, which was the belief in one God that didn’t require the blood offerings of human victims. After abandoning his pagan beliefs he built temples with altars filled with flowers and incense that offered praise to the what he called the true God.

After establishing his beliefs Nezahualcoyotl recognized the need to allow the spirit of this true God to direct his life. Eventually he would make a normal practice of disguising himself so he could walk the streets of the kingdom undetected, which in turn gave him the opportunity to see the living conditions of his people. At the sight of specific needs or shortocomings he would address them immediately in order to serve his people properly. In other words, while not knowing the Gospel in its written form he was aware of the message of Jesus Christ and made every effort to obey the commandments Jesus gave his followers in regards to assisting those in need (Matthew 25:31-46).

Prior to his death he is said that have made the following comment: “How deeply I regret that I am unable to understand the will of the great God, but I believe the time will come when he will be known and adored by all the inhabitants of this land” (A Handbook on Guadalupe, p. 45). This statement was indeed true since Nezahualcoyotl did live in ways that were not a part of the Christian lifestyle. At the time of his death he was survived by several wives and concubines and was said to have fathered 110 children. However, he was honored by the people and believed to have set up a powerful dynasty and this would be evidenced by his successor, one of his many sons named Nezahualpilli. It was also proven to be true as the Christian faith would eventually make its way to this land through the efforts of the Spanish missionaries. 


Nezahualpilli was essentially the same type of ruler as his father. He was known to be fair and compassionate as he actually abolished the death penalty for certain crimes that in the past required the execution of the convicted. Like his father he was also a poet and a philosopher and was seen by many as a religious sage. His name is defined as “lord of fasting,” which was probably a reflection of his religion devotion since he was known to have a strong devotion to the true God. Further, this devotion surely enlightened him to be a great king since many of his peers and subjects saw him as a king Solomon type figure since he was known as the wisest man of his era (1 Kings 3:12).

The most profound thing about Nezahualpilli however was his prophetic insight. During a conversation with Motecuzoma (typically known as Montezuma) he informed him of a dream he had of invaders from across the sea that would come and take Motecuzoma’s throne while bringing the true religion to his land. Further, he went on to claim that the cities would be destroyed and the children assassinated, which sadly was part of the conquering process. However, Nezahualpilli did make every attempt to inform Motecuzoma that these events would only take place if he and others in this land continued the practice of human sacrifice. Sadly, like the pagans that St. Paul criticized in his letter to the Romans, Motecuzoma chose to be stubborn and impenitent so the events transpired as Nezahualpilli predicted.

Finally, Nezahualpilli, like his father also had aspects of his life that were not in agreement with the Christian faith. He was a polygamist and fathered 144 children, which is another reason why he is compared to Solomon who, while having a strong devotion to the true God, continued to live a promiscuous life. (1 Kings 11:3).

Missed Opportunity

In looking back at what we know about the history of the first contact that Christians had with the indigenous people of pre-Columbian Mexico one could reflect on what could have been had the conqiuistadors taken the time to see if there were any elements in the thinking of the indigenous people that were similar to their own Christian beliefs. Perhaps there would have been a much more peaceful process with less bloodshed that would have not only saved lives but left present day Mexico in a better condition. 

Sadly, it is not uncommon to be suspicious of those who come from a different place or in the case of today's world, a different lifestyle. Such suspicions are all too common even if the incident is without violence and bloodshed. 

At the end of the first century CE and throughout its history the Church became an international community that no longer belonged to one race of people. This of course would lead many people to be suspicious of the wisdom of other cultures, such as the early Church Father Tertullian who took exception to the idea of embracing the wisdom of a culture that did not give Christianity to the world. This is best described is his statement, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does the Academy have to do with the Church?”

Tertullian’s attitude was common during the time of the early Church as many Christians held a view towards the Greeks that was best described by Tatian. According to Justo Gonzalez, Tatian believed that, “All that the Greeks have that is of any value (were) taken from barbarians: they learned astronomy from the Babylonians, geometry from the Egyptians and writing from the Phoenicians” (The Story of Christianity Volume I, p. 54). Gonzalez goes on to say that Christians believed that the writings of Moses, “ (were) much older than those of Plato and…. Homer,” and that since the Greeks, “learned their wisdom from the barbarians,” they must have, “ misunderstood it, and thus twisted the truth that the Hebrews knew.” With a strong appreciation for Hebrew wisdom it is not a surprise that Christians would refuse to associate with knowledge and wisdom that came from cultures that were indeed pagan in their religious forms or with cultures whose ancestors had either enslaved the Israelites or had taken them away from their homeland during the Diaspora. 

However, many Greek converts were able to appreciate the wisdom of the culture of their ancestors due to the teachings of Justin Martyr and Clement. Justin, for example, stated that there were many points of contact between Christianity and pagan philosophy. Clement went as far as divinizing this philosophy by saying that the Greeks were given philosophy by God in the same way that God gave the Mosaic Law to the Jews. Further, Clement went on to say that the Mosaic Law and Greek philosophy sought to find the ultimate truth, which was now fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

Justin and Clement’s view would be shared later by the brilliant St. Augustine who, according to Alister McGrath, stated that it was, “possible to extract all that is good in philosophy, and put it to the service of preaching the Gospel” (Historical Theology, p. 92).  McGrath would go on to say that Augustine used the analogy of the Hebrews leaving Egypt as they, “left behind their burdens, yet carried off the treasures of their former oppressors.” In other words, as long as the wisdom leads the believer to Jesus Christ it is indeed something that should be valued by the Church.

In conclusion, one would have to wonder how the Spanish missionaries could have used the teachings of Nezahualpilli to better deal with the indigenous people. Considering the fact that Nezahualpilli had teachings that complimented Christianity and with the fact that he prophesized their coming, Spain could’ve used these ideas and prediction to show God’s hand in their arrival and if they recognized the role they were playing the plan of Providence then maybe they would have understood the responsibility they bore to be authentic representatives of the Church. Unfortunately that did not happen. However, with the number of missionaries that are still circling the earth that are more aware of the ideas and beliefs of the various cultures that they are encountering perhaps we’ll see more effective methods of evangelization. However, that cannot happen unless people are willing to accept the fact that all races of people have a wisdom to share that should at least be studied and tested in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ before dismissing them.

1) Collegeville Bible Dictionary 
2) Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown 
3) The Story of Christianity Volume One by Justo Gonzalez 
4) Historical Theology by Alister E. McGrath 
5) A Handbook on Guadalupe: Juan Diego Ambassador of the Queen of Heaven by: Dr. Charles Wahlig  

Carlos Arthur Solorzano 
BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach 
Certified Through the Theology of the Body Institute 
Theology Teacher at St. Augustine Catholic High School 

Co-founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate