Today I cracked open St. Augustine's On The Literal Meaning of Genesis in order to find bits for my ninth-grader's evolutionary biology course.
I plan to begin the course with some cultural and social context for evolutionary theory, and I was irritated to discover that the summary in the college textbooks went straight from Plato's and Aristotle's ideas to "Later, Christians interpreted the biblical account of Genesis literally and concluded that each species had been created individually by God in the same form it has today." I've been familiar with the idea that Augustine's philosophies allowed for evolutionary development for a long time (since reading the sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, I think!) , so I set about going to the source.
The first 22 paragraphs or so should cure anyone of the notion that asking probing questions about the logical contradictions in Genesis is a modern phenomenon. Augustine lists many such questions. For example:
So why was the sun made with authority over the day to give light upon the earth if that light which had also been called 'day' had been sufficient for the making of the day? Or was that earlier light illuminating higher regions far from the earth so that it could not be perceived on earth, and thus it was necessary for the sun to be made? ... It can scarcely be supposed, after all, that it was put out so that nocturnal darkness might follow, and then lit again so that morning might be made, before the sun took on this task.
Augustine says that the six-day structure and series of creative events that are described in Genesis has a literary and pedigogical, not a historical, purpose:
It is not because formless matter is prior in time to things formed from it, since they are both created simultaneously together... but because that which something is made out of is still prior at its source, even if not in time, to what is made from it, that scripture could divide in the time it takes to state them what God did not divide in the time it took to make them.
...Since both [matter and form] had to be mentioned by scripture and both could not be mentioned simultaneously, can anyone doubt that what something was made out of had to be mentioned before what was made out of it?
... If two things cannot be named simultaneously, how much less can their stories be told simultaneously! So then, there can be no doubt at all that this formless basic material, almost the same as nothingness though it be, was still made by none but God, and was simultaneously created with the things that were formed from it.
The particular choice of which things are created on which days is not to establish order in a sense of a timeline, but order in a sense of classification. For example, why plants are included on the third day:
Here we should note the skillful touch of the one who put the text into shape; because grasses and trees are sorts of creatures quite distinct from the specific form of the lands and the waters... they are spoken of separately as coming from the earth... it is also separately indicated that God saw that it was good.
But all the same, because being fixed there by their roots they are continuous with the soil of the earth and entwined in it, he wished these things as well to belong to the same day.
He also goes on to explain, for example, that the creation of sun, moon, and stars is described as following the creation of land and plants because "fixed" things come before "moving" things in the logical structure.
I got the impression as I read that just as Augustine would disapprove of insisting on a six-day creation, he would disapprove of insisting that the scripture "got the science right" with respect to, e.g., light coming first, water-animals preceding land-animals, and so forth. Trying to put together some sort of "Genesis Code' that matches what we observe about the early days of Earth and the life on it, point by point, with the events of the six days of creation, would be missing the point entirely.
Nevertheless, Augustine spends a great deal of time talking about natural philosophy as it existed in his time and as it was handed down from earlier times. He is interested in setting up a correspondence in the sense of dialogue between the two bodies of knowledge.
For example, here's a place where he essentially says to an interlocutor, "Your scriptural interpretation is invalid, and you wouldn't make that mistake if you knew more science":
Some people...have expressed the opinion that the reason fishes are not called [in Genesis] 'live souls' but 'reptiles of live souls' is that they lack any kind of memory or form of life even remotely approaching rationality. But this opinion comes simply from insufficient experience, because there are authors who have described many wonderful things that they have been able to observe in fish-ponds... It is still absolutely certain that fishes have memory. This is something I have myself experienced, and anyone who wants to can experience it too.
There is, you see, a large fountain in the district of Bulla that is chock-full of fish. People are habitually looking down into it and throwing in things which the fish will rush at together to grab first, or fight among themselves to tear them to bits. Being now used to this kind of feeding, whenever people stroll round the rim of the fountain, the fish too will swim back and forth with them in a shoal, waiting for those whose presence they are aware of to throw something in.
From what I can tell, it sounds like some naturalists of Augustine's day said that Genesis was obviously boneheaded because it said "Let the waters produce" (besides crawling things) "flying things," when everyone knew that birds are clearly of the airy element, or perhaps of the earthy element. He spends some time, therefore, pointing out logical inconsistencies in his day's settled science:
If the reason they give [for fish being watery and birds being earthy] ... is that fishes do not have feet, then it means seals do not belong to the water, nor serpents or snails to the land or earth... As for dragons, which lack feet, they are said to take their rest in caves and to soar up into the air. While these are not too easy to come across, this kind of animated creature is for all that definitely mentioned not only in [scripture] but also in that of the [pagan Greek and Latin legends].
(I liked the bit about dragons not being too easy to come across. It's like he's saying he's never personally observed the effect but it has been attested to in the literature.)
He finds particular significance in the repeated phrase "according to kind":
The reader may also wonder...whether the phrase 'according to kind' comes up again and again just by chance... or whether there is some meaning in it, as though they were already in existence beforehand, though the account of their creation is only now being given... In fact this expression begins to be used about the grasses and the trees, and so on until we get to these terrestrial animals... Is it because these things sprang into being in such a way that others would be born of them and in succeeding to them would preserve the shape and form of their origin?...
This then is the significance of 'according to kind,' where we are to understand both the efficacious force in the seed and the likeness of succeeding generations to their predecessors, because none of them was created just to exist once and for all by itself, whether to continue for ever, or to pass away without none to succeed it.
This doesn't actually talk about evolution, of course, but of the generations of animals producing offspring of the same kind. Still, it sets the stage for Augustine to talk about the arising of animals which were not present in the beginning and which can be observed in his time by the best natural scientists available...
...and no, we're not talking of evolution, but spontaneous generation! Augustine subscribes to the then-current scientific belief that maggots and such are spontaneously generated in rotting meat, and for completeness explains how they could then have been created in the original establishment of things.
As for [those tiny creatures] that are generated from the bodies of animals, especially dead ones, it wold be quite ridiculous to say that they were created at the same time as the animals themselves were, unless possibly there was some natural tendency in all animated bodies... as it were, the first beginnings of the future animalcules, which were going to arise... all things being put in motion without any change in him by the creator.
Note that bit about God having created the "natural tendency in all animated bodies... the first beginnings of the future animals which were going to arise."
As I read through this, I can hear in my head the voice of innumerable adolescents and overgrown adolescents, and possibly some esteemed biologist-authors as well, challenging, "Oh yeah? Well if your religion can co-exist with science then how come it says the earth was created before the stars then?" and thinking they were the first ever to come up with such a wise and brilliant argument. It's partly to head this sort of thing off at its source that I want my kids to read classical Christian authors, even in bits and pieces.
A great deal of thought (as well as contemplation of observations from the natural world) went into ancient metaphysics, and that it's simply not true that Christians before Darwin uniformly believed in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.
In Book V, Augustine argues that the act of creation of everything material (including time) had to have been a single instantaneous act rather than a series of acts:
Creatures [including inanimate objects] once made began to run with their movements along the tracks of time, which means it is pointless to look for times before any creature, as though times could be found before times....
So it is time that begins from the creation rather than the creation from time, while both are from God...
Nor should the statement that time begins from the creation be taken to imply that time is not a creature...
Accordingly when we reflect upon the first establishment of creatures in the works of God from which he rested on the seventh day, we should not think either of those days as being like these ones governed by the sun, nor of that working as resembling the way God now works in time;
but we should reflect rather upon the work from which times began, the work of making all things at once, simultaneously, and also endowing them with an order that is not set by intervals of time but by the linking of causes, so that the things that were made simultaneously might also be brought to perfection by the sixfold representation of the day."
And people think this is a *modern* idea, because Stephen Hawking, or something.
Once we get to the particular creation of man, things continue to get interesting:
After saying 'to our image,' he immediately added, 'and let him have authority over the fishes [etc.],' giving us to understand that it was in the very factor in which he surpasses non-rational animate beings that man was made to God's image. That, of course, is reason itself, or mind or intelligence... it was not in the features of the body but in a certain form of the illuminated mind."
From this I get: "Man" cannot said to have been "created" until we are talking about rational man. Man with a certain form of the illuminated mind. And it isn't clear that we would be able to discern which fossils would have come from organisms who possessed that "certain form."
It seems to me that we don't have to understand precisely what the distinction is between the mind of a human and the brain-processes of other animals. Without that, we can still accept that scripture is telling us that there is some distinction, possibly unmeasurable, some illumination that belongs properly to humans but not to nonhuman animals, and that illumination is what is meant by "in the image of God."
I think we run off the rails by trying to force that distinctive characteristic of human-ness to be described by only what we can measure with our current technology. Augustine's writing records a time when people were wasting a lot of brain power either trying to get the scriptures to match up with earth/air/water/fire concepts of matter, or trying to use those concepts to refute scripture.
Augustine says that the "seventh day" is the division between "how God worked then" and "how God is still working." "How God is working now" includes, then, all the eons of work between the act of creation and the present day. God doesn't "create through evolution." He created; now, creation evolves, as long as he works in it.
"Let us believe, or if we are able to, let us even understand that God is working until now in such a way that if his working were to be withheld from the things he has set up, they would simply collapse...
"If we suppose that he now sets any creature in place in such a way that he did not insert the kind of thing it is into that first construction of his, we are openly contradicting what scripture says, that he finished and completed all his works on the sixth day. Yes, within the categories of the various kinds of thing which he set up at first, he manifestly makes many new things which he did not make then. But he cannot rightly be thought to set up any new kind, since he did then complete them all.
And so by his hidden power he sets the whole of his creation in motion, and while it is whirled around with that movement, while angels carry out his orders, while the constellations circle round their courses, while the winds change, while the abyss of waters is stirred by tides and agitated by cyclones and waterspouts even through the air, while green things pullulate and evolve their own seeds, while animals are produced and lead their various lives, each kind according to its bent, while the wicked are permitted to vex the just, he unwinds the ages which he had as it were folded into the universe when it was first set up. These, however would not go on being unwound along their tracks, if the one who set them going stopped moving them on by his provident regulation."
I posted much of this on Facebook, and along the way snagged a couple of recommendations for future reading:
- Amy Welborn suggested In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall by Pope Benedict I né Joseph Ratzinger.
- Melanie suggested The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.
I don't know if I'll get to them in time to put them in my course, but they do sound like good suggestions. The Ratzinger book probably would have saved me a lot of time had I known about it before I started...