In chapter 19 of "The Literal Meaning of Genesis," St. Augustine offers an opinion on Christians who use Scripture to argue against scientific learning.
It's embarrassing, he writes, when Christians talk nonsense on scientific topics. Worse, people "outside the household of faith" may conclude that Scripture does indeed contain the nonsensical ideas that many Christians assert.
Next comes a question: "If [scientists] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well ... how are they going to believe [Scripture] in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods?"
Finally, the scolding: "Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."
And still ouch _ 1600 years later, Augustine's rebuke remains relevant.
Take the creation passages of Genesis. The sublime beauty of their poetry and their profound underlying message that all living things are good are often ignored in favor of using the passages as a litmus test for true belief.
Take the claim that the universe is about 6,000 years old. A holdover from pre-scientific days when we knew no better, this idea has become part of our national life. School boards debate whether to teach it. Politicians profess their belief in it. At Kentucky's Creation Museum, thousands watch humans and dinosaurs roam simultaneously across the land.
Skeptical that the entire universe was created in six days of 24 hours each? Think the Earth was around before 4004 BC? Then you're likely to be labeled an unbeliever, an atheist, even if you follow all Ten Commandments, worship every Sunday and do indeed do unto others what you would have others do unto you.
It would be one thing if creationists were "fools for Christ" who reject all things scientific and live a pre-industrial lifestyle, or were, like Augustine, mystics who find esoteric meaning in Genesis' words. But most are neither. Instead, eager to challenge science at its own game, creationists make dubious claims about our physical world derived from their own presuppositions, and then insist that these claims "prove" their religious ideas. Thus humans and dinosaurs walked together. Thus the Grand Canyon proves the Great Flood.
Faith, however, cannot be proved (or disproved) by facts. Truths derived from prayerfully reading Genesis and encountering the deeper meanings therein are not the same types of truths derived from an archaeological dig in North Dakota.
Our media have only too gleefully labeled creationists' opinions as the true beliefs of Christianity _ and mock them just as Augustine warned. It only takes a moment's reflection to realize that our culture loves to shine a spotlight on foolishness and then step back and snicker. Creationists have been turned into the Charlie Sheens of Christianity, America's spiritual Snookis. In their sincere but misguided attempts to prove Scripture true, they embarrass themselves, and bring "untold trouble and sorrow" to the Christian faith and to the deep wisdom contained therein.
This state of affairs is especially sad because Scripture does indeed offer a rich variety of ideas that contain deep wisdom about creation.
Isaiah 55 declares that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are God's ways our ways, then offers a thrilling celebration of creation's unity.
2 Peter 3: 8 advises "do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." Peter then suggests _ listen up, creationists _ a way to avoid the errors of ignorance through peaceful and graceful living.
Job 38 and Psalm 104 offer two beautiful visions of how the physical universe relates to the divine power of creation.
Jesus and Paul speak about eternal life _ not life circumscribed by the limited human measurement of time, but life that is outside human time, life that exists in God's time, from which all life sprang and continues to spring in a joyous symphony of creation.
None of these Scriptural gems says anything factual about when the universe was created. All of them can strengthen our faith, even when understood in the context of modern science.
I, for one, accept the science and am happy to worship a God who's been at work for 13 billion years rather than a God who's been at it for a mere 6,000.
The Rev. Thomas Pullyblank is pastor of the Fly Creek and Schuylar Lake United Methodist churches and a lecturer in Western Civilization at the State University College at Oneonta.