This is the 3rd blog in this series looking at St. Basil the Great’s (d. 379AD) sermon series On the Hexaemeron (The 6 days of creation). In the previous blogs, St. Basil: Creation and Science and St Basil, Genesis and Science, I’ve mentioned how St. Basil is quite comfortable in using the natural science/philosophy of his day to interpret the Genesis creation narrative, and he also uses the biblical account of creation to help understand the science of his day. We’ve seen how his interest in created things is not a modern scientific interest in the thing itself, but rather he is interested in the meaning of the thing – what purpose different things hold in helping us to know God and to understand what it is to be human. He reads nature like he reads scripture: God has placed in both meanings, sometimes hidden, which we must seek out in order to understand ourselves and our Creator. Thus he is not a materialist who thinks the only thing worth knowing is the empirical world. For St. Basil, the material world is a reality, but also it is a sign which points to an ever greater reality, namely, to an understanding of God.
In this blog, I will look at a few of his comments as they relate specifically to the Genesis text on the creation of the world. St. Basil wrote in a particular time and culture and so is responding to the concerns of the folks of his day – the concerns of both believers and non-believers. He actively engaged the culture of his day and is quite aware of many non-Christian viewpoints on various topics related to creation. He doesn’t try to avoid the ideas held by the non-Christian, but is always certain that the Christian understanding is the one that will lead us to an encounter with the Living God. For example, St. Basil is well aware of the fact that while light is created on the first day of creation, the sun is not created until the fourth day. In our age this creates mostly a problem for a literal reading of the text, and while biblical literalists may struggle with how to account for this, other Christians can see in this that the Genesis text has built-in poetic and symbolic language which even indicate reading the text purely as literal, factual history will not fully engage the text. Basil is dealing with different problems than Christians today wrestle with – many in his day worshipped the sun as a god. He thinks the creation of the sun on the fourth day is done exactly to dismiss the idea that the sun a a divinity.
“However, the sun did not yet exist, nor the moon, lest men might call the sun the first cause and father of light, and lest they who are ignorant of God might deem it the producer of what grows from the earth. For this reason, there was a fourth day, and at that time ‘God said, “Let there be light,” . . . and God made the two lights.’ . . . In fact, at that time the actual nature of light was introduced, but now this solar body has been made ready to be a vehicle for that first-created light. . . . so also in this case the light have been prepared as a vehicle for that pure, clear, and immaterial light. ” (pp 85-86)
St. Basil wants to be clear that the sun is not the giver of life on earth, but rather is a creation of the Creator God. Basil’s reading of the Genesis 1 text is fascinating: on day one “the actual nature of light was introduced” but only on day four is a vehicle made for carrying this light. They physical light we see is also a vehicle for the first created immaterial light. This is consistent with his idea that the physical world is our entry point into the spiritual reality: the very purpose of the material world is to allow us to experience the spiritual reality. The physical world points us toward the more significant reality of divinity. The physical world thus helps us find the spiritual world – he is no dualist. The physical and spiritual are not opposed to each other but are one reality with the physical being a door which we can open into that greater reality. Or the physical reality can become a transparent window through which we can see the spiritual reality behind it.
Of course many modern scientists do say that exploding stars and the dust their explosion creates are in fact the source of what becomes earth and us! So modern science does give credit to the sun and stars for being responsible for life on earth. Modern scientists like St. Basil do not think of the sun as a divinity. For Basil stars just like the sun are mere created things and not the giver of life, who is God alone. Basil also points out that plants exist before the sun in Genesis 1, this too is intentional by the author of Genesis to refute any divinization of the sun itself. So for Basil the order of creation is not some declaration about how scientifically the universe unfolded but rather is a theological treatise aimed at refuting pagan ideas of divinity.
“Let the earth bud forth by itself, needing no assistance from the outside. Since some think that the sun, drawing the productive power from the center of the earth to the surface with its rays of heat, is the cause of the plants growing from the earth, it is for this reason that the adornment of the earth is older than the sun, that those who have been misled may cease worshiping the sun as the origin of life. If they are persuaded that before the sun’s generation all the earth had been adorned, they will retract their unbounded admiration for it, realizing that the sun is later than the grass and plants in generation.” (pp 67-68)
Thus the Genesis 1 order of creation is intentional to refute wrong theological ideas. Pagan ideas attributing divine powers to the sun are refuted by the narrative itself. Genesis 1 is a theological document whose purpose is to reveal the one true God to us. Like the created, material world, scripture itself is revealing God and pointing to God. Truth is not identical with nature nor with scriptures, but rather both scriptures and nature point beyond themselves to God. They are both signs of the Creator and witnesses to Him.
One thing I note in several places in his text is the word “perhaps” which indicate to me at least that he doesn’t have one dogmatic interpretation of the text, but rather suggests that the text may be interpreted in several different ways.
“Or, perhaps, the words ‘In the beginning he created,’ were used because of the instantaneous and timeless act of creation, since the beginning is something immeasurable and indivisible. As the beginning of the road is not yet the road… so also the beginning of time is not yet time, on the contrary, not even the least part of it.” (p 11)
St. Basil seems comfortable with some ambiguity in how a text is to be handled and interpreted and that there are possibly more than one way to understand the words. He reads every word in the text and wrestles with them all, but at times indicates that there may still be hidden meanings to the text which we have not yet uncovered.
He also touches in the words above on a modern scientific conundrum – if everything including space, time and the material universe came into existence at the Big Bang, what banged? or what existed “before” the bang? Basil’s answer is that the beginning of time is not yet time – in other words there exists an eternity beyond time, namely the realm of God which is not limited by what we can experience in space and time.
Because the text of Genesis 1 and nature both point to God, Basil has to deal with the fact that in the world there are poisonous plants. How does one reconcile this with a good God?
“’Let the earth bring forth vegetation.’ And immediately with the nutritive are produced the poisonous; with the gran, the hemlock; and with other edible plants, the hellebore and leopard’s bane and mandrake and poppy juice. What, then? Shall we neglect to acknowledge our gratitude for the useful plants and blame our Creator for those destructive of our life? Shall we not consider this, that not everything has been created for our stomach? . . . There is not one plant without worth, not one without use. Either it provides food for some animal, or it has been sought out for us by the medical profession for relief of certain diseases.” (pp 71-71)
The existence of plants poisonous to us humans is for Basil a good sign of the need for some self-denial on our part. Not every plant was meant to be eaten by us tells us to curb our voracious and rapacious appetites. We need for our health to practice some self-control. Besides some plants noxious to us are eaten by various animals or can be used for medicinal purposes. All of this requires us not to be governed by our appetites bur rather for us to master our wants and desires and to do only that which is good for us. As St. Paul notes in Philippians 3:19, for some, “their god is their belly” and that god is insatiable.
Finally, St. Basil does believe that not only humans, but animals and even plants were changed by the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve.
“Only at that time the rose bush was without thorns; later, the thorn was added to the beauty of the flower so that we might keep pain closely associated with the enjoyment of pleasure and remind ourselves of the sin for which the earth was condemned to bring forth thorns and thistles for us.” (pp 74-75)
Thorns on roses were not part of the original nature of that plant, but now do occur on them. Like with everything else in creation, thorns serve a purpose: they remind us we live in a fallen world in which sin abounds. Basil believes that thorns only appear on earth after the fall as recorded in Genesis 3:18. The beauty of the earth is now mixed with grief. This we Orthodox sing about at our funeral service in the words of St. John of Damascus as we look upon the deceased in church: “What earthly beauty is unmixed with grief?” Humans made in God’s image and likeness, have been disfigured by sin. The joy and love we experience with others is tainted by the pain of grief we feel at the death of loved ones. The world we live in is not the Paradise of God.