The Church Fathers On Creation, by David Hicks (Part 3)

III. Basil and the Hexaemeron

Now let us turn to S. Basil and his Hexaemeron.

The Hexaemeron is the title of Basil’s nine Lenten sermons on the first chapter of Genesis. Although the evidence suggests that Basil delivered these sermons extemporaneously to working men and women, the ancients regarded this as his greatest work, and it inspired several imitations, most notably his brother Gregory’s Hexaemeron and that of S. Ambrose. The most exaggerated praise comes from his contemporary S. Gregory of Nazianzus, who said, “Whenever I take his Hexaemeron in hand and quote its words, I am brought face to face with my Creator: I begin to understand the method of creation: I feel more awe than ever I did before, when I only looked at God’s work with my eyes.” (Orat.xliii.67)

One of the great ironies of our story is that where Basil goes wrong, so to speak, it is with his facts, which are mostly based on an Aristotelian misunderstanding of the natural world. There is a lesson here for us. Basil is perhaps the best educated of all the Church Fathers. Better educated by far than the Apostles and the first generation of Christians save Paul. Indeed, he and his sister Macrina and brother Gregory of Nyssa (three saints from one family!) ought to be the poster children for the classical Christian movement in America. Each received a classical Christian education par excellence, being raised in a devoutly Christian home, and nurtured by a robust Christian community in Antioch during a period of acute persecution. Basil and Gregory were sent off to Athens for training in the finest schools in the classical tradition and went on to Constantinople for further study.

When reading the Hexaemeron, Basil’s “scientific” observations are, if sometimes howlingly at odds with modern science, at least consistent with the opinions of his learned contemporaries who had studied and absorbed Aristotle’s physics. Others (Strabo and Ptolemaeus, for example) may have on certain points held views that would be more in line with modern science and geography, but none of those views were in any scientific sense “proven,” and it is worth bearing in mind that it was the recovery of Aristotle’s works in the West after the fall of Constantinople and the Muslim incursion into the Iberian peninsula that sparked what modern historians like to refer to as the Enlightenment and the birth of modern science.

But here’s the interesting thing: where Basil’s work now seems dated and of questionable relevance, it must have sounded to his listeners at the time both up-to-date and wonderfully factual, that is to say, “scientific.” It seemed to explain with keen insight and startling logic the natural world in all its richness and complexity. Just as science did a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, and does today. Yet how different and often contradictory all these explanations are! Does anyone believe that this pattern will suddenly change? Will the scientific journals of the 22nd century merely repeat and confirm the opinions being expressed in today’s journals? Or will school children a thousand years from now not find our textbook theories charming at best, and otherwise risible? Why indeed should we put our faith in theories that will probably be outdated before we die? S. Basil puts the case very succinctly when he says, “It is vain to refute (the latest theories); they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another.” (The Hexaemeron, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, p. 53 – all subsequent quotes from S. Basil will appear from this volume, only the page number will appear in parenthesis.)

The truth is, reading Basil’s Hexaemeron offers an almost perfect example of the ease with which an ancient or sacred text can be either dismissed as out-of-date and error-ridden or embraced as up-to-date and prophetic.

On the one hand, Basil repeats many of the errors of his contemporaries, assuring his listeners (these are homilies, remember) that “the earth occupies the center of the universe” (57) and rejecting the notion that “the light of the moon is borrowed . . . from the sun.” (83) We read with amusement that eels spring spontaneously from the mud and insects from the earth — both effects without generative or sexual causes. And we wonder why the preacher thought it necessary and appropriate to give the Creator a pass for “having produced venomous animals, destroyers and enemies of life” by comparing them to “the schoolmaster when he disciplines the restlessness of youth by the use of the rod and whip to maintain order.” (105) But on the other hand, what are we really laughing at? Basil or the science of his day? When we ridicule Basil for his strange and flawed opinions, we merely judge ourselves on at least two counts — for our inability to see that our modern opinions, so shiny today, will appear equally tarnished tomorrow, as well as for our failure to observe that Basil, unlike our modern selves, goes on to dismiss these opinions as “vanities” and “foolish wisdom” when compared to “the oracles of the Holy Spirit” (102). We are not so ready to do so today.

In Part 4: Mastery, Meaning, and Mystery

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