St. Augustine Asks the Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask UPDATED

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis. It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism. So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

Atheists think Christians believe this is how things really happened.

One of their techniques is to throw out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demand instant answers, usually from some poor sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh? HUH?!” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chest, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the atheist combox troll and meme-maker, but the really hilarious thing is that their questions are all so pathetic. Because atheists believe they have the corner on reason and logic, they develop an inflated sense of their own intelligence. They gather for “Reason Rallies” as though reason was a wholly owned subsidiary of Atheism Inc., rather than something inherited from the centrality of Aristotelianism to Catholic theology, and thus to Western civilization. Their questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2.

Although I have not yet chosen the topic for my master’s thesis, one area I’m considering is the understanding of creation in Genesis, Augustine, and Ratzinger/Benedict. In my research, I’ve been reading Augustine’s massive body of work on the subject. He returned to it in three major works (On Genesis: A Refutation of the ManicheesUnfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, and The Literal Meaning of Genesis), as well as at the end of Confessions and The City of God.

There is no more important theologian in the history of Christianity than Augustine. Both Protestants and Catholics claim him, although it must take serious mental gymnastics for Protestants to get past his extremely Catholic world-view. A major part of the liberal Christian project is trying minimize the influence of Augustine, because his conception of original sin (often wildly misunderstood) is considered destructive to a progressive concept of God.

Yet in spite of his influence, his Literal Meaning of Genesis is very hard to find. As a major statement of his belief, it ranks with City of God and de Trinitate in scope and importance, yet you won’t even find a complete copy of it online, and it was left out of the major collections of the writings of the fathers of the Church.

When Augustine talks about the “literal” meaning, he doesn’t quite mean what you think he means. Today, a “literal” meaning is fundamentalism: the world was created in six 24-hour periods about 6000 years ago and Fred Flintstone rode around on a brontosaurus, etc, etc.

Augustine does not believe that at all. Augustine recognized two levels of scripture in most of his exegesis: literal and figurative. The figurative meaning was a kind of typology, in which each event in the Bible stands for something else, usually a prefiguration of Christ. It’s as Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:11: “All these things, however, happened among them in figure.” The literal meaning is what the text is saying. A text may be wholly figurative, such as the Song of Songs, and indeed some early interpreters read Genesis purely figuratively. Augustine himself did this in his On Genesis Against the Manichees.

In his literal interpretation, however, he’s trying to understand what Genesis really says. He’s not searching for either an analogy (the figurative meaning) or a purely literal meaning (what we now would call literalism or fundamentalism), but is instead querying the text about what it means. And for Augustine, it was vital that we understood this text in an intelligent way. He repeatedly warns against interpretations that defy the clear evidence of the sciences. He was extremely concerned that foolish Christians reading scripture too literally would bring discredit on the entire faith. His warning is one we still do well to heed:

“Whenever … [non-Christians] 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 or by the surest of calculations?”  St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (I.19.39)

Augustine rejected interpretations which defied the science of his day. If something in scripture contradicts a settled fact, then the job of the exegete is to arrive an reasonable interpretation of the passage. There can be no contradiction between two certainties. Where one is certain, the other must yield, whether that yielding takes place in the realm of science or scriptural interpretation. In the following centuries, both St. Thomas Aquinas and Galileo would cite the arguments developed by Augustine in these pages.

A barrage of questions open The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Ever the good Platonist, Augustine relentlessly queries the text in order to better reveal its meanings. Here’s a small sample from just a few opening pages. (The points are Augustine’s, but the wording is mine.)

  • How did God produce something changeable and time-bound without any change in himself?
  • What is meant by heaven and earth? Does it mean all spiritual and material creation? Material creation alone?
  • What is the “abyss”? Is it unformed matter?
  • What does it mean that “there was darkness over the abyss”? Is it merely an absence of light, or is it a spiritual absence?
  • How did God say “Let there be light”? He has no material form, and therefore cannot produces sounds. In any case, there was no language yet, for there were no humans in need of language, so what kind of words did he use?
  • To whom did God say “Let there be light,” since no one else was there? Was He talking to himself?
  • Did He say this in time, or out of time? Did he create a material being to say “Let there be light”?
  • How was light made? Could light be made before heaven and earth?
  • Was it a light that can be perceived with the eyes, or was it a different kind of light? Was the light spiritual, corporal, or both? How can there be light without sun?
  • When did this creation happen in time? Did it happen in time? What is the origin point of creation?
  • How long did it take? As long as it takes to utter the words of creation? Do we have to assume that God spoke really slowly in order to take a full 24-hour day to say “Let there be light?”
  • When the water was collected, where was it collected if it already covered the entire earth? Where did it go so that dry land could emerge?
  • How did God work and grow tired enough to need rest if He has no flesh?

And so on and so forth. Augustine is merciless with the text, probing it, comparing it against what we know of the world, searching for the deeper meaning, drawing on the science of the day to understand what it could all possibly mean. Sometimes he arrives at a settled answer, sometimes not. However, the act of faith, the act of the Christian, is taking place in the mere encounter with the scripture as he tries better understand the word of God.

This is what atheists always fail to understand, and they will never understand it as long as they remain mired in a materialistic mindset: in matters of faith, the questions are the point. The book of Job, for example, is a giant howl of outrage that, in the final analysis, is little more than a litany of questions from Job, his friends, and God. Job’s question–“Seriously, God, why me?”–is never answered directly (it’s answered with … more questions!), but he goes away satisfied. It is a riddle with no answer, but the answer becomes unimportant, because in the process of trying understand with our limited human capacity, we find enlightenment.

Perhaps because I was a Platonist before I returned to the Church, this never bothered me at all. I understand that the role of the question is central because it is active: it is the way people encounter each other and form a true relationship that can lead to deeper understanding. The act of questioning is the point.  That’s because it’s not an act of raw data mining, stripping the shell from the world in order to get to the nut of truth. It’s because we’re humans, and exist only in relation to one another and to our world and our God. Relation is key. Relationships are questions we ask with every action we take and every decision me make. So is faith.

The trinity is defined not as three people hanging about in one essence, but as three relations. Everything exists in relation to someone or something else. Everything. Faith is a relationship with God. God is a relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. Existence is a relationship among all the creatures and objects and atoms of the material world. Material objects are a relationship among the atoms that comprise them.

And all these relations are understood by asking questions. Naturally, many of these questions have answers. I can express my relationship with my wife by asking how she’s feeling today, and she can answer by saying she’s just fine. In that exchange, my role was asking the question: that was how I expressed my love at that moment. If my question was, however, “Why do you love me?” what answer could she give that would make any real material sense?

There are questions that can have no answer, but we benefit from asking them anyway, or at least from considering them. “Why do you love me?” is something every lover wonders at some point. There’s no decent answer to that question, because often love lies beyond the realm of reason. It’s the one thing the atheists and materialists will never be able to probe and understand, and their deterministic, biochemical solutions are laughable in the face of the sheer power and mystery of love.

And that’s why we’ll never have a concrete answer to the mystery of creation as expressed in Genesis: it was a pure act of unselfish love. It was a pure gift, given in generosity as an expression of a love so vast and endless that it willed all things into being. It’s the puzzle at the heart of existence, and we do well to question it, to ask what it means, to try to make sense of it all. But in order to do that, we need to ask the right questions in a spirit of humility and genuine inquiry. Atheists need to stop asking silly questions about how plants grew before the sun was created, and start asking questions that are truly challenging for both believer and non believer.

You see, creation itself is a giant, complex, ever-renewing answer the most important question of all. It’s a question so profound and so basic to our existence that the answer has to be written across eternity. The question is “How do I express love?” When we ask that question, our answers may vary. You can say “I love you,” you can give a gift, you can perform some act of love, you can make something, you can sacrifice, even unto death. All human life is bound up in the way we answer that question.

And how does God answer that question? The answer is all around us. We’re looking at it, walking on it, breathing it. Creation. Life. The Universe. Time. Space. Matter. God’s answer to that question was simple and profound: Let there be light. And that light was the life of the world.

UPDATE: I’m having to trash most comments from atheists because they add nothing to the discussion. Please read the Comment Policy and try to be intelligent.

UPDATE (9/25/12): See previous update. Not quite sure why I’m getting a sudden influx of depressingly illiterate atheists today (honestly, people: work on basic grammar and capitalization), and I don’t care. Atheists have nothing to say about religion and creation that is of the tiniest possible interest to me. Been there, done it, growed up and put on my big boy pants. Denial of God is about intellectually credible as denial of the holocaust. Since it makes my fingers ache to constantly delete your comments, I’m just shutting them down. I’ve got work to do. Go play somewhere else.