Origen, Augustine, and the Creation Museum

A Creation Museum recently opened in Kentucky. The designers had an agenda:  to advocate a literal interpretation of the account of creation in Genesis. The displays explicitly contrast Genesis with the scientific account of our origins, regarding the age of the earth, evolution, etc.

The museum is eliciting a lot of ridicule in the blogosphere. Jewish Atheist has had a couple of goes at it. And Media Czech at BlueGrassRoots describes his visit to the museum at considerable length. For example:

One of the most interesting discoveries of the museum is that The Flintstones was not merely a children’s’ cartoon, but rather a realistic depiction of man’s early interaction with their dinosaur friends. Never mind those foolish heathen scientists who say that humans came some 60 million years after the extinction of dinosaurs. The first image the visitor receives as he/she enters the museum is Eve/Pebbles Flintstone frolicking with her pet dinosaur, Dino. No worries for Pebbles, because this “velaciraptor” is a playful vegetarian pet here to serve you and be your buddy.

Andrew Sullivan and Aaron both referred me to the Media Czech post.

Am I going to defend the Creation Museum? Nope. On the other hand, Media Czech’s post leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Here’s a guy who travelled about an hour to see the museum:  not because he was interested in exploring an alternative worldview, but for the express purpose of mocking it. And he made quite a production of it! The resultant post is more than 2,000 words in length, with 80 photographs. (Fellow bloggers will realize how much work is involved in uploading 80 photos!)

Mockery is not a very lofty pursuit. Sometimes it has a legitimate place in public discourse, provided that the mocker displays a deft touch. But Media Czech certainly isn’t deft. Daft, maybe:

While it’s fun to laugh at these idiots, the parents that take their kids to this museum are committing child abuse. [emphasis in original] There is no other way to put it. To present this idiocy to them as “science” and blatantly brainwash their kids by entertaining them with cool animatronic dinosaurs while they absorb these ridiculous stories is a goddamned crime.

Speaking as a father, I can tell you that parents do lots of well-meaning but misguided things. No responsible person should blur the line between those sorts of parenting choices and abusive parenting.

If it’s child abuse, it should be illegal. Law enforcement officers should intervene immediately and take those children out of their parents’ care.

I’d like to see Media Czech sit down with someone who was actually abused as a child and argue his point. I suspect it would get a rather chilly reception.

But Media Czech is onto a good thing here. He will get lots of visitors to his post — from the Andrew Sullivan link alone. The whole scenario leaves me in a cranky mood.

When I speak of “the whole scenario”, I include the Creation Museum itself. Well-meaning, I don’t doubt. But no more deft (no less daft) than Media Czech’s offensive post. It supplies an easy target for people who want to mock the Bible and the Christian faith. Toss ’em another softball, why don’t you?

The truth is, some Christians are not pre-scientific in their thinking. In fact, before science there were already educated Christians — prominent figures in Church history — who understood that Genesis 1 should not be pressed into literal history. That’s the point I want to make here.

For example, consider the debate over the age of the earth. According to Genesis 1, God created the world in six days. Human beings arrived on the scene within one week of creation. But is this the only legitimate way to read Genesis? Did God necessarily create the world in six 24-hour, literal days?

While this view (the “ordinary week” interpretation) historically has been the most common interpretation, there have always been prominent dissenters from this view, including Augustine. …

People in the ancient world knew that daylight comes from the sun, and early writers (e.g., Origen and Augustine) remarked on the fact that the sun was not created until the fourth day, sometimes citing it as a reason not to take these as ordinary, literal days. …

The creation of the sun on the fourth day is suggestive — as it would have been to the ancient audience — that the succession of days is not intended to be taken as a strict, chronological account and that something else is at work as an ordering principle in the text.

What that might be is not hard to see. For centuries it has been recognized that the six days of creation are divided into two sets of three. In the first set, God divides one thing from another: day from night, waters above from below, and waters below from each other. Classically, this is known as the work of division or distinction.

In the second three days, God goes back over the realms he produced by division and populates or adorns them. He populates the day and night with the sun, moon, and stars. He populates the waters above and below with birds and fish. And lastly he populates the land (between the divided waters) with animals and man. Classically, this is known as the work of adornment.

That this two-fold movement represents the ordering principle of Genesis 1 also is reflected at the beginning and end of the narrative. At the beginning we are told that “the earth was without form and void” (Gen. 1:2). The work of distinction cures the “without form” problem, and the work of adornment cures the “void” (empty) problem. Likewise, at the end of the narrative we are told “the heavens and the earth were finished [i.e., by distinction], and all the host of them [i.e., by adornment]” (2:1).

People have recognized for centuries that this is the ordering principle at work in Genesis 1 (e.g., see Aquinas, ST 1:74:1).

In other words, we’re dealing with a literary construct, not literal history. Welcome to the fascinating world of hermeneutics — the science of interpretation — where a text can be true without being literally true. Poets and painters express themselves like this, as have mystics down through the ages.

Of course, it requires some maturity to think this way; and maturity is arguably lacking on both sides of the debate. The Creation Museum is part of the problem, but Media Czech’s post isn’t very elevated either. Two thumbs down for both sides.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    Jun 13, 2007 @ 13:09:22

    I entirely agree ! While I think that things like the creation museum present a misguided view of creation, Czech’s posting is akin to laughing at Mennonites because they dress funny. Two thumbs down for both sides, from me as well.


  2. juggling mother
    Jun 13, 2007 @ 14:16:00


    I’ve seen a couple of posts on this museum. I think it’s an awful place, and I rather doubt that it could call itself a museum over here tbh (not sure of the exact legal bits, but the local exploratory isn’t a museum – museums are tax exempt, and free to enter – so I doubt this can be!). But I wouldn’t go to it, I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to it, and I wouldn’t publicise it.

    Surely even in the US the true creationist numbers are fairly small – and not the greatest travellers one assumes;-) If we ignored it, it would probably close down due to lack of interest after a couple of years – but with the amount of publicity it’s getting, there will be some hefty contributions appearing on it’s books I expect.


  3. addofio
    Jun 14, 2007 @ 10:13:40

    Allow me to offer you a counteractant (that can’t be a word, but I’m tired) to the ill effects of mindless and mean-spirited science/religion conflict:


    It’s a sermon given recently by a Unitarian minister in NYC. I really liked it, and I thik it’s pertinent to your post becasue I think that one of the things that’s happening is that the politics of division is being applied to “science” vs.”religion”, “rational thinking” vs. “faith”. It’s a simple process: first you convince people that the two are inalterably opposed, that one can have a rational faith, or believe in the truths of science and religious/spiritual truths. Once everyone buys that–that everyone has to choose sides, that one cannot partake of both–then you fight really hard for your own side, with the intention of eliminating the other side. And then, in my opinion–everyone loses. In this sermon, the minister argues that one can both be rational and have faith. Which is becoming a radical concept, in at least some spheres.


  4. addofio
    Jun 14, 2007 @ 11:23:39

    Argh! I am tired.

    Never mind the misspellings–In the 4th/5th line below the url, it should read “. . . that one cannot have a rational faith. . .”


  5. 49erdweet
    Jun 14, 2007 @ 11:39:24

    Deja vu! All over again! First, [and this was just our secret till now] bill and I agree on 3.5 items in a months time, or so [sorry to have blabbed], and now this post! Next I’ll concur with something from JM – oh, wait, that happened earlier this year, too. It must be that old age has turned my thinking to mush. Or not.

    I, too, am embarrassed that believers would for the most part waste so many resources on so futile and shallow a ‘ministry’. Particularly one with such a narrow, pragmatic view. To me it is obscene. Not that I don’t agree with many of their points. But the ones they obsess on are too picayune and raise up unneeded communication, comprehension and acceptance barriers. So you and I are on the same page on this, stephen. Cool, isn’t it?

    As for the mockers, again spot on. Mocking is such a waste of talent and effort. Destructive, not creative. But then mockers have a right to expend their life’s energies on building sand castles below the tide line, I guess, so if it keeps them from playing on the freeway/motorway I say let them remain small children all their lives. Just mind the changing water levels.

    As for the comment’s Uni rev’s sermon link, I’ll explore it as time allows, later. And may or may not comment further.


    PS: Don’t get too comfortable, though.


  6. michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Jun 14, 2007 @ 19:24:31

    Full agreement here, too. Maybe I’m just tired and unimaginative right now, but I can’t think of any way that mockery helps anyone in this situation or any other.

    That is, gentle mockery of an idea is acceptable and might even be a good idea, whereas vicious mockery of deeply held beliefs is wrong on many levels.

    Creationism is patently ridiculous from a scientific viewpoint. But it’s rare that someone bases a belief directly on scientific evidence. The belief formation process is fundamentally the same for everyone. Even rationalists and scientists place their trust in other rationalists and scientists and a system by which they gather and exchange information and ideas. I’m not saying that belief in science and belief in creationism are equally valid, but most people – even bright ones – who are untrained in science don’t discern the difference, and that’s understandable.

    Most people that ridicule creationists would never think to make fun of believers of any of the hundreds of other creation myths from around the world. I guess that some in this country feel free to mock creationists because we have a language, a government, and other cultural elements in common, and as such the feeling is that the creationists should know better – but this attitude is misguided. People are people, and all deserve to be treated with respect.

    Dialogue and debate are useful; condemnation, ridicule and the like are counterproductive.


  7. Stephen
    Jun 16, 2007 @ 16:59:08

    • 49er:
    This is an extraordinary occasion, indeed! It isn’t just you and I who find ourselves in agreement: it seems that everyone is prepared to accept my point, that both sides are a little off the beam in this scenario.

    • Addofio:
    Thanks for sharing that link. I rather like Brooks’s concept of the quasi-religious. A large number of people fall into that category as Brooks defines it, and I don’t think it’s such a bad development. “Organized religion” doesn’t serve us very well, and scripture must be interpreted in dialogue with other ways of knowing.

    I think there’s much wisdom to be gained precisely by breaking down those false dichotomies (faith/reason, religion/science).


  8. Magog
    Jul 22, 2007 @ 15:26:41

    My apologies Stephen. I misunderstood your point. I didn’t mean to offend. The discussion at Chrisendom was over creationism and evolution. Most feel compelled to advocate for creationism because of a strict reading of Scriptures. I only wanted to make clear that if we find evolution to be persuasive it won’t be because we found that the writer of Genesis allowed for it in his poetic method. He had no clue and most likely believed something quite like what he wrote there or in Gen ch. 2, nothing like what actually occurred. Some seem eager to not attribute silliness to biblical authors. I believe they often did talk of ‘how’ things happened with no high-minded theological point and we just have to say “No!” without fear.

    I don’t want the Scriptures to be made to accommodate evolution but to get out of the scientific realm altogether and back to theological realm. Looking back that appears to be something like your concern as well.



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