Vittore carpaccio, visione di sant'agostino 01

It is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that [non-Christians] should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian scripture has to say on these topics [astronomy, biology and so on], and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that [biblical] authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses!

I am indebted to my friend Stan Rosenburg for bringing the above quotation to my attention. This passionate statement could have been made at any time in the last hundred years, or the last ten years, or yesterday, especially in large parts of America, but also in plenty of other places, wherever we have to face the embarrassment and the tiresome vexation of Christians spouting ridiculous nonsense which they claim to find in the Bible. But what is striking about the quotation is that it does not date from yesterday or last year. It is from good old Augustine of Hippo, born in the year 354! It is from his de Genesi ad litteram (Detailed Commentary on Genesis) 1.19. Yes, back in the fourth and fifth centuries, well-informed study of the natural world was already going on, and ridiculous misapplication of the Bible was alive and well too.

The full passage reads as follows:

There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, and about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian scripture has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses!

Whenever, you see, they catch out some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment of by the surest of calculations?

 

While we are with Augustine, I would also like to draw attention to another interesting remark that he made about the process of creation. In his commentary on Genesis, Augustine invokes the following idea:

There are two moments of creation: one in the original creation when God made all creatures before resting from all His works on the seventh day, and the other in the administration of creatures by which He works even now. In the first instance God made everything together without any moments of time intervening, but now He works within the course of time, by which we see the stars move from their rising to their setting, the weather change from summer to winter

 —de Genesi 5.11.27

 He goes on to elaborate as follows:

One will ask how they were created originally on the sixth day. I shall reply: ‘Invisibly, potentially, in their causes, as things that will be in the future are made, yet not made in actuality now.’

—de Genesi 6.6.10

I don’t quote these in order to imply that Augustine is an authority whom we must always accept, but in order to see what this insightful, intellectually gifted and humble brother from another time and place thought could be learned from the Bible. What I find striking is that Augustine seems to have arrived at the same view which I arrived at myself, in a very different era, without being aware of Augustine’s work! The basic idea here is that the origin of the physical world must be beyond time, something from ‘outside time’ as we sometimes say, because ordinary physical time as we know it is itself part of what has been created. Seeing this, Augustine takes the view that the first chapter of Genesis is to be seen as a summary of the structures of the world in their origin beyond time, while elsewhere in the Bible, and in our current experience and scientific study, we see what emerges in time.

In short, the six days of creation are neither literal days, nor periods of any other duration. Their primary meaning is to assert the presence of organization in the structure of the physical world in its origin beyond time.

As I said, I arrived at this same view, and wrote about it in Faithful to Science, before I learned of the above quotations from Augustine, or what his wider views on this were. This is encouraging, because it suggests that it is possible to get objectivity in this area. An approach which involves both careful thought about the underlying metaphysical concepts, and respectful humility in handling the Bible, does seem to be capable at arriving at a consistent view. The Bible does not mean nonsense, nor does it mean whatever different people take it to mean, but rather its authors had something of the same insight which we can still find with their help.