St. Basil, Genesis and Science

This is the second blog in this series which began with St. Basil: Creation and Science.

St. Basil the Great’s  (d. 379AD)  sermon series On the Hexaemeron (The 6 days of creation) gives us an opportunity to reflect on how a Church Father related to the knowledge which came from natural science/philosophy as he commented on the creation of the world presented in Genesis 1-2.  Natural science in his day was heavily shaped by the observations and comments of venerable but ancient philosophers.   St. Basil frequently follows the thinking of Aristotle who had lived 700 years before Basil’s time.  Sometimes the observations of the ancients proved to be quite accurate and sometimes they relied on logical speculation to determine how things must work.  For example, Basil following the comments of Aristotle offers a description for what causes rain and snow:

“For, after the vapors are gathered about the higher region and the air is condensed by the pressure of the winds, whenever the particles of moisture, for a time scattered mistily and tenuously in the cloud, approach each other, they become drops which are carried downward by the weight of the combined particles; and this is the origin of rain.   But, when the moisture, beaten by the violence of the winds, is reduced to foam, and afterwards the whole mass, chilled excessively, is frozen together, the cloud is shattered and comes down as snow.” (pp 50-51)

We see in his thinking an effort to logically determine how things must happen.  No mention of superstitious demons or gods, but rather he advocates for their equivalent of a scientific description of things they could not actually see or measure. How many modern people could explain what causes rain or snow and be close to what science teaches us today?  Basil at least is familiar with the science of his day and proffers natural rather than supernatural explanations for these things.

He also understands that night time is nothing more than one side of the earth being in the shadow caused by the the sun having rotated around to the other side of the earth.   He concludes this from observing shadows all around him.

“That which is shadow in daytime must be considered to be the nature of darkness at night.  If, when some light shines, every shadow falls from bodies on the side opposite to the light, and in the morning the shadow is spread out toward the west, but in the evening it turns back toward the east, while at midday it tends toward the north, night also withdraws to the part opposite the bright rays, since it is nothing else by nature than the shadow of the earth.”  (p 88)

Pretty good logic and science for the 4th Century!   Night time is not some demonic darkness, but nothing more than living in the shadow cast by the earth due to the sun being on the opposite side of earth.  His assumptions here include that the sun does orbit the earth and that there is another side to the earth (in writings about his sister, Macrina, she certainly believed the earth was an orb and not flat.  Keep in mind this is 4th Century AD!).

Basil also reflects on the heavenly bodies, for which he has no instruments other than his eyes to observe with and his brain to logically speculate about.  Here are his thoughts about the size of the sun:

“Since the earth is so immense, how would it be possible to illuminate the whole in one moment of time, unless it sent out its light from a huge circle?  Observe, then, I beg you, the wisdom of Artificer, how He has given it heat in proportion to this distance.  For, the heat of the sun is of such a nature that it neither burns up the earth through excess nor leaves it cold and sterile from its deficiency.”  (p 99)

The sun is not a tiny disc embedded in a heavenly vault close to the earth, but he understands it must be immense and also at some great distance from our planet.   The only source of light he would have known is that of fire, and so he assumes the sun is quite hot to be able to produce so much light as to illumine the entire earth.  Since it must be hot in order to produce light, God put it at just the right, great distance from earth for it to give us light and not burn us up.

Obviously St. Basil is not adverse to taking up issues of knowledge not accounted for in the Bible.  He accepts that there are such things as scientific truths which one might learn from natural science/philosophers which are not explained in Genesis.   Not all knowledge that we have, not all truths that can be known are given to us from scripture alone.  Basil accepts the science of his day (which came from pagan philosophers) that everything is composed of the four elements: air, water, fire and earth.  He is also aware that this knowledge does not come from the Scriptures.  He obviously believes the teachings regarding the 4 elements are scientific truth.  He also feels the need to account for the fact that Genesis does not mention this most basic truth of science.

“Therefore, even though he [Moses] says nothing about the elements, fire, water, and air, nevertheless, by the judgment of your own intelligence, reflect, in the first place, that all things are compounded with all others . . .  Therefore, do not look for a detailed account of each, but understand those passed over in silence through those which were set forth. . . . Besides, a concern about these things is not at all useful for the edification of the Church.”  (pp 13-14)

St. Basil decides that knowledge of the four elements is not useful for spiritual education.  But he also wants to make sure that no one might decide that Moses was uneducated in the truths of science.  Basil says it simply would take too many words to describe all of creation in detail, so this is why Genesis/Moses passes over the existence of the four elements in silence.  It would just take too long to describe the composition of everything mentioned in Genesis.   He also is concerned that if we try to analyze everything by breaking things down to their component parts we will be left with nothing of substance.  So instead of trying to understand things by breaking them down into their parts, he advocates the idea that all things exist for a reason, and we should concern ourselves with discovering that reason rather than with what the composition of the things are.

“Therefore, I urge you to abandon these questions and not to inquire upon what foundation its stands.  If you do that, the mind will become dizzy, with the reasoning going on to no definite end.” (p 14)

For example to speculate what is holding up the earth (the ground beneath us), we will enter into an endless pursuit of “if we say it’s air, then what is under the air; if we say water, then what is holding the water; and then what is holding what is holding the water, and so on, ad infinitum).   He correctly believes that some of these issues cannot be resolved by logic alone and since there existed no way in his day to prove any of this, it was best to leave it to philosophers’ speculation.

Besides speculation though, Basil’s science does allow for direct observation of the natural world.   Sometimes their observations are very astute.  Sometimes the observations are shaped by the wisdom of the ancient philosophers whose opinions were treated as steadfast.  Again, following the thinking of Aristotle, St. Basil makes reference to the octopus, something that can be observed.  What is more important to Basil is not simply the behavior we can observe, but its meaning for humans, which turns out to be its true purpose.

“Let me pass over the deceitfulness and trickery of the octopus, which assumes on every occasion the color of the rock to which it fastens itself.  As a result, many of the fish swimming unwarily fall upon the octopus as upon a rock, I suppose, and become an easy prey for the cunning fellow.  Such in character are those men who always fawn upon the ruling powers and adapt themselves to the needs of every occasion, not continuing always in the same principles, but easily changing into different persons, who honor self-control with the chaste, but incontinence with the incontinent, and alter their opinion to please everyone.  It is not easy to avoid nor to guard against harm from them because the evil they have fostered in themselves is hidden under a pretest of profound friendship.”  (p 110)

Thus the importance  of the natural world is not what we can learn about the thing through dissecting it into its smallest parts, but what it teaches us about our own behavior as humans.   This is the truth we learn from nature in Basil’s mind.  We see in this that he is willing to go beyond any mere literal reading of the scripture texts to seek out all truths as they may be found (hidden) in scripture or in nature.   We see that he is not afraid of the fact that secular thinking knows truths not found in the scriptures.  We see that for him the real importance of both scripture and nature is what it teaches us about being human, morality and the truth about the Creator.   He is not so interested in pure scientific inquiry into the nature of things in and of themselves.  All things point to some greater reality – to truths about being human or truths about the Creator, and these are his interest.  He does not feel threatened in the least that secular philosophy and natural science may have all kinds of knowledge not found in Scripture.  He seems quite content to accept that there are differing realms of knowledge, but only some are of value to the Christian:  namely those that in some way bring us to an understanding of the Creator.

Next:  St. Basil and Genesis


3 thoughts on “St. Basil, Genesis and Science

  1. Pingback: St. Basil: Creation and Science | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: St. Basil and Genesis | Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: St. Basil and 21st Century Science | Fr. Ted's Blog

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