Cliff's Edge-Embarrassing the Faith
Very little of what science deemed apodictic in the nineteenth century survived the twentieth.
A phenomenally influential theologian bemoaned Christians who promoted “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” ideas about nature that caused unbelievers to scoff at the faith. “It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing,” he warned, when some church-going ultracrepidarian makes claims about “the elements of the world” (plants, animal, shrubs, the motions of the stars and planets, etc.) that contradict the sure and “certain” knowledge gained by “reason and the light of experience.” Such Christians spout their “mischievous false opinions,” and, if unbelievers conclude the Scripture teaches these same errors about topics that “they themselves know well,” then how could they ever take seriously what the Word says about “the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven”?
Who was this renowned theologian lamenting Christians who talk “nonsense” about science? He was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430).
However sensible Augustine’s concern, in the fifth century A.D. “reason and the light of experience” led to the “certain” knowledge that we live in a geo-centric creation, which meant any claim that the earth was not at the center of the universe would be one of those “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” utterances that made St. Augustine feel so unsaintly. All people had to do was look up and see for themselves that the sun, moon, and stars orbited the earth. Besides, wasn’t it obvious that all objects fell to the ground because the earth (the center of the earth, actually) sat at the center of the cosmos? Then, too, what about Christ’s ascension to heaven from an earth deracinated from the universe’s midpoint? In a geo-centric creation, He simply went straight up, something hard to envision otherwise.
No wonder Augustine worried.
Also “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” in the fifth century would be the idea, touted by some occasional rapscallion, that the earth moved, even though everyone knew by “reason and the light of experience” and common sense that it didn’t. After all, outside of earthquakes, no one ever felt the earth move, and so was everyone and their senses wrong? And why didn’t birds get blown around in the sky, or why did heavy objects dropped from great heights fall straight down, which should not happen if the earth were rotating on its axis or orbiting the sun?
Also, not from just theology, but from “reason and the light of experience,” fifth century cognoscenti knew that decay, change, and imperfection existed only in the sub-lunar realm, the world of sin and death here, and that the cosmos above, created by God, had to be perfect and immutable. Thus if some benighted fool had argued for expanding space, exploding stars, sunspots, or lunar craters, he would have caused “untold trouble and sorrow” for Augustine and his “wiser brethren,” who were doing all that they could to keep Christianity in sync with the best science of the times, which meant an immobile earth in the center of the universe orbited in perfect circles at constant speeds by the stars and planets—and woe be to the Christian miscreant who dared embarrass the faith by teaching anything different.
There’s a Hebrew saying: ayn col hadash tahat hashamesh. (“There is nothing new under the sun” [Eccl. 1:9]). No kidding. Sixteen centuries after Augustine’s bellyaching, Christian intellectuals still bemoan those who embarrass the faith by proclaiming “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” views that science has (it is claimed) disproved, such as a recent creation of all life with no death as part of the process, or Eve taken from the side of Adam, or Noah’s universal flood. These views are mocked by some Christians today just as a moving earth or a non-geocentric universe were in Augustine’s era.
Of course, the argument is that science now is so much better, and more certain, than whatever they were doing in the fifth century A.D. Fair enough, but science in the nineteenth century could have made that same claim, even though so much of what it assumed true has since been trashed.
“Fifty-seven years ago,” wrote Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), “it was when I was a young man in the University of Cambridge. I was taught science and mathematics by brilliant men and I did well in them; since the turn of the century I have lived to see every one of the basic assumptions of both set aside. . . . And yet, in the face of that, the discoverers of the new hypotheses in science are declaring, ‘Now at last, we have certitude.’”
“A reality,” wrote Daniel Robinson, “that once seemed readily expressed in the language of the science of Newton and Galileo would now be closer to mythology than to reality. My own father was alive and well when the best minds in physics regarded nothing as more certain than the aether. The same term today seems as if it were taken from astrology.”
Very little of what science deemed apodictic in the nineteenth century survived the twentieth. Even Newton’s theory of gravity has barely hung on, and what remains is thoroughly neutered. Given the history of science, one can only wonder how many scientific certainties of the twentieth century would, if time should last, survive the twenty-first.
And yet, how many of these certainties do some Christians today—because of “reason and the light of experience” or, better yet, because “It’s science!”—assume to be true even if these certainties contradict Scripture?
If such a monumental thinker as Augustine would have derided reality, it’s no wonder that lesser mortals today do the same, labeling as “utterly untrue and obviously false” biblical teachings such as the seven-day creation and Noah’s universal flood—and, truly, embarrassing the faith in the process.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.