St. Basil the Great’s (d. 379AD) sermon series On the Hexaemeron (The 6 days of creation) was well received in the ancient world and praised by several later church Fathers in the East and West. In that sermon series, Basil relied not only on Christian Tradition but also ‘knowledge’ from ancient philosophy and the ‘science’ of his day to interpret the Genesis account of creation but also to interpret creation through the Genesis account. Of course the science of his day depended heavily on the observations of the ancient sages and not on the scientific method of testing hypotheses. The wisdom of an ancient and respected sage was accepted as fact. Basil very frequently follows the thinking of Aristotle (d. 322 BC) in his observations of nature. By modern scientific standards we can note how little scientific thinking had changed in the 700 years between the time of Aristotle and of St. Basil. For example, St. Basil accepts Aristotle’s ideas about the reproduction of eels:
“And as for the eels, we do not see that they come into existence otherwise than from the slime, since neither an egg nor any other method effects their reproduction, but their generation is from the earth.” (p 137)
Unable to determine how eels reproduce they assume that eels have some type of spontaneous generation from the earth itself. Aristotle’s opinion from seven centuries earlier was accepted as fact at the time of Basil. Besides, the thought that an animal could be spontaneously produced by the earth for Basil would be consistent with ideas in the Genesis 1 creation narrative in which the earth itself was commanded by God to generate animal life – from the inanimate earth, animate life immediately burst forth at God’s command and not from any form of reproductive method. Basil would thus would see from ‘science’ support for the biblical claim. For him he had two reliable sources – Aristotle and Genesis to give support to the claim which made it established fact. We also see in Basil’s thinking that the earth creating animal life was not simply a onetime event at the beginning of creation, but was rather ongoing, God having imbued earth with a power to continuously produce life spontaneously.
Basil is not afraid of the science of his day – neither afraid to agree with it or to engage it critically. He felt that as compared to the philosophical science of his day, generally Christians were safe just to stick with scriptural truth and to avoid unnecessary entanglements in disputes which reason could not settle. He sees the various philosophies of his day (i.e, the science of his day) as holding to contradictory opinions and that Christians should just sit back and let the various disputants fight out their unprovable opinions.
“But why trouble ourselves to refute their falsehood, since it suffices for us to set out their books in opposition to each other and sit in all silence as spectators of their war?” (p 51)
Of course in his day the ‘scientists’ mostly disputed through reason, not through the scientific method of experimentation to test hypotheses. So he felt confident that Christian truth was a superior philosophy and above the fray of scientific disputation of his day. His attitude toward the philosophy/science of that time is very much mirrored today by the attitude of modern science toward religion: religion is all a matter of opinions and nothing can be proved, so one can just ignore the debates in religion about beliefs – scientists today can do what Basil recommended in his day: just put out the various scriptures of different religions and let the various religious groups engage in interminable disputes about faith. Basil’s attitude toward philosophy (namely, that it cannot exactly establish truth but can only present disputes in logic) is the same criticism today science would offer against religion in establishing what is true.
St. Basil however is not mostly interested in establishing ‘fact’ or facts. He is much more interested in the meaning we can learn from the facts before us. Nature offers to us lessons – about God the Creator and about how we should live on earth. Created things contain lessons about life – about morality and wisdom which we must learn in order to appreciate the full value of the things that exist. For him, in the same way the scripture has hidden meaning in it which we must seek and extract, so too nature has been imbued by God with hidden meaning which we can learn by careful rational pursuit of the truth. So, for example, from observing the behavior of fish, Basil draws some conclusions, not about the survival of the fittest or that nature is violent, but about how humans treat one another.
“The majority of fish eat one another, and the smaller among them are food for the larger. If it ever happens that the victor over a smaller become the prey of another, they are both carried into the one stomach of the last. Now, what else do we men do in the oppression of our inferiors? How does he differ from that last fish, who with greedy love of riches swallows up the weak in the folds of his insatiable avarice? That man held the possessions of the poor man; you, seizing him, made him a part of your abundance. You have clearly shown yourself more unjust than the unjust man and more grasping than the greedy man. Beware, lest the same end as that of the fish awaits you—somewhere a fishhook, or a snare, or a net. Surely, if we have committed many unjust deeds, we shall not escape the final retribution.” (p 109)
Social Darwinism is not the Gospel according to St. Basil! Fish may behave that way by nature, but humans are capable of choosing to overcome any biological determinism.
The behavior of animals is a chance for us as reason endowed beings to reflect on behavior and to improve our own behavior accordingly since we are not merely another type of animal – we are humans in God’s image and likeness, endowed with reason. We need to think about our behavior and make wise and loving choices, which is unlike other animals who act only according to their own nature limited as it is by sheer biology. We humans are capable of rising about our animal nature and to behave like God with love, self-denial, mercy, humility and for the good of others.
The world itself was created for us and given to us by God for us consciously and deliberately to work out our salvation. Basil certainly would not embrace evolutionary ideas that random selection is the only force at work in the development of life on earth.
“… you will find that the world was not devised at random or to no purpose, but to contribute to some useful end and to the great advantage of all beings, if it is truly a training place for rational souls and a school for attaining the knowledge of God, because through visible and perceptible objects it provides guidance to the mind for the contemplation of the invisible, as the Apostle says: ‘Since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen . . being understood through the things that are made’ (Rom 1:20).” (p 11)
In the above quote, St. Basil sees the entire creation as a school for us to learn about our Creator. The physical world is not opposed to the spiritual world or to divinity, but rather is a means to reveal divinity to us. The physical world is a sign that points beyond itself to the Creator.
“May God who created such mighty things and ordained that these petty words be spoken, grant to you an understanding of His truth in its entirety, in order that from visible objects you may comprehend the invisible Being, and from the greatness and beauty of creatures you may conceive the proper idea concerning our Creator. ‘For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen—his everlasting power also and divinity (Rom 1:20).’” (p 54)