The primeval history in Genesis is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism, utterly resisting a fundamentalist approach either by theists or atheists. It’s not unusual to find anti-theists throwing out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demanding instant answers, usually from some poor Christian sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh?” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chests, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the internet atheist, but the questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2.

One of the greatest minds ever to wrestle with the with this element of Scripture was St. Augustine. He returned to it in three major works—On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, and The Literal Meaning of Genesis—as well as at the end of Confessions and The City of God. In spite of his influence, his Literal Meaning of Genesis is very hard to find and little read. As a major statement of his belief, it ranks with City of God and de Trinitate in scope and importance, yet you won’t even find a complete copy of it online, and it’s rarely translated.

When Augustine talks about the “literal” meaning, he doesn’t quite mean what you think he means. Today, a “literal” meaning is fundamentalism: the world was created in six 24-hour periods about 6000 years ago and Fred Flintstone rode around on a brontosaurus and the fossil record in a lie.

Augustine does not believe that at all. Augustine typically explores two levels of Scripture in most of his exegesis: literal and figurative. The figurative meaning was a kind of typology, in which each event in the Bible stands for something else, usually a prefiguration of Christ. It’s as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:11: “All these things, however, happened among them in figure.” The literal meaning is what the text is saying. A text may be wholly figurative, such as the Song of Songs, and indeed some early interpreters read Genesis purely figuratively. Augustine himself did this in his On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees.

In his literal interpretation, however, he’s trying to understand what Genesis really says. He’s not searching for either an analogy (the figurative meaning) or a purely literal meaning (what we now would call literalism or fundamentalism), but is instead querying the text about what it means. And for Augustine, it was vital that we understood this text in an intelligent way. He repeatedly warns against interpretations that defy the clear evidence of the sciences. He was extremely concerned that foolish Christians reading Scripture too literally would bring discredit on the entire faith. His warning is one we still do well to heed:

“Whenever … non-Christians catch out some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations?”  St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (I.19.39)

Augustine rejected interpretations which defied the science of his day. If something in Scripture contradicts a settled fact, then the job of the exegete is to arrive an reasonable interpretation of the passage. There can be no contradiction between two certainties. Where one is certain, the other must yield, whether that yielding takes place in the realm of science or scriptural interpretation. In the following centuries, both St. Thomas Aquinas and Galileo would cite the arguments developed by Augustine in these pages.

A barrage of questions open The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Ever the good Platonist, Augustine relentlessly queries the text in order to better reveal its meanings. Here’s a small sample from just a few opening pages. (The points are Augustine’s, but the wording is mine.)

  • How did God produce something changeable and time-bound without any change in himself?
  • What is meant by heaven and earth? Does it mean all spiritual and material creation? Material creation alone?
  • What is the “abyss”? Is it unformed matter?
  • What does it mean that “there was darkness over the abyss”? Is it merely an absence of light, or is it a spiritual absence?
  • How did God say “Let there be light”? He has no material form, and therefore cannot produces sounds. In any case, there was no language yet, for there were no humans in need of language, so what kind of words did he use?
  • To whom did God say “Let there be light,” since no one else was there? Was He talking to himself?
  • Did He say this in time, or out of time? Did he create a material being to say “Let there be light”?
  • How was light made? Could light be made before heaven and earth?
  • Was it a light that can be perceived with the eyes, or was it a different kind of light? Was the light spiritual, corporal, or both? How can there be light without sun?
  • When did this creation happen in time? Did it happen in time? What is the origin point of creation?
  • How long did it take? As long as it takes to utter the words of creation? Do we have to assume that God spoke really slowly in order to take a full 24-hour day to say “Let there be light?”
  • When the water was collected, where was it collected if it already covered the entire earth? Where did it go so that dry land could emerge?
  • How did God work and grow tired enough to need rest if He has no flesh?

And so on and so forth. Augustine is merciless with the Scripture, probing it, comparing it against what we know of the world, searching for the deeper meaning, drawing on the science of the day to understand what it could all possibly mean. Sometimes he arrives at a settled answer, sometimes not. However, the act of faith, the act of the Christian, is taking place in the mere encounter with the Scripture as he tries better understand the word of God.

This is what atheists always fail to understand, and they will never understand it as long as they remain mired in a materialistic mindset: in matters of faith as in life, questions are key. The book of Job, for example, is a giant howl of outrage that, in the final analysis, is little more than a litany of questions from Job, his friends, and God. Job’s question–“Seriously, God, why me?”–is never answered directly (it’s answered with … more questions!), but he goes away satisfied. It is a riddle with no answer, but the answer becomes unimportant, because in the process of trying understand with our limited human capacity, we find enlightenment.

The role of the question is central because it is active. It is the way people encounter each other and form a true relationship that can lead to deeper understanding. The act of questioning can be the point.  That’s because it’s not an act of raw data mining, stripping the shell from the world in order to get to the nut of truth. It’s because we’re humans, and exist only in relation to one another and to our world and our God. Relationships are questions we ask with every action we take and every decision me make. So is faith.

The trinity is defined properly not as three people hanging about in one essence, but as three relations. Everything exists in relation to someone or something else. Everything. Faith is a relationship with God. God is a relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. Existence is a relationship among all the creatures and objects and atoms of the material world. Material objects are a relationship among the atoms that comprise them.

And all these relations are understood by asking questions. Naturally, many of these questions have answers. The answer to the question, "Do I have cancer?" is pretty darn important. The answer to the question, "Why do I have cancer?" may not have any answer at all, but it's still deeply meaningful. I can express my relationship with my wife by asking how she’s feeling today, and she can answer by saying she’s just fine. In that exchange, my role was asking the question: that was how I expressed my love at that moment. If my question was, however, “Why do you love me?” what answer could she give that would make any real material sense?

There are questions that can have no answer, but we benefit from asking them anyway, or at least from considering them. “Why do you love me?” is something every lover wonders at some point. There’s no decent answer to that question, because the essence of love lies beyond the realm of reason. It’s the one thing the atheists and materialists will never be able to probe and understand, and their deterministic, biochemical solutions are laughable in the face of the sheer power and mystery of love.

And that’s why we’ll never have a concrete answer to the mystery of creation as expressed in Genesis: it was a pure act of unselfish love. It was a pure gift, given in generosity as an expression of a love so vast and endless that it willed all things into being. It’s the puzzle at the heart of existence, and we do well to question it, to ask what it means, to try to make sense of it all. 

Creation itself is a giant, complex, ever-renewing answer the most important question of all. It’s a question so profound and so basic to our existence that the answer has to be written across eternity. The question is “How do I express love?” When we ask that question, our answers may vary. Someone can say “I love you,” give a gift, perform some act of love, make something, or offer some sacrifice, even unto death on a cross. All human life is bound up in the way we answer that question.

And how does God answer that question? The answer is all around us. We’re looking at it, walking on it, breathing it. Creation. Life. The Universe. Time. Space. Matter. Beauty. Goodness. Truth. God’s answer to that question was simple and profound: Let there be light. And that light was the life of the world.

Further Reading: I've written on this subject at greater length in The Word in Creation: The Ratzingerian Critique of the Historical-Critical Method and Its Application to the Creation Accounts (Homiletic and Pastoral Review--March 2015).