Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) loved God with all his mind—his rational mind, his scientific mind. Yes, that’s right: History remembers him as the revered church father, brilliant theologian, and ground-breaking philosopher, but what is perhaps not so well known is that he was, at times, a good scientist too.
Which makes it rather interesting that Andrew Dickson White (founding president of Cornell University), who crystallized the modern narrative that Christianity is anti-science, chose to single out Augustine as an example of the pathetically irrational early church. Augustine, he says, blindly accepted local folklore about magical cheeses and immortal peacocks, stories that White said “would now be laughed at by a schoolboy”:
St. Augustine was certainly one of the strongest minds in the early Church, and yet we find him mentioning, with much seriousness, a story that sundry innkeepers of his time put a drug into cheese which metamorphosed travelers into domestic animals, and asserting that the peacock is so favored by the Almighty that its flesh will not decay.
White wrote this in his mammoth 1896 work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom—an attempt to utterly demolish dogmatic theology by pointing out that it had always gotten in the way of science and rational thought.
Although White’s conflict thesis has been utterly debunked by modern historians of science—who have instead found a great deal of evidence that the church has generally benefited science—this message has not filtered down to the general public. It was in the process of researching for a new popular-level book on the topic that I stumbled across White’s bizarre claim about Augustine.
I was left with little choice but to look to the source itself. What was it that Augustine had actually written? How might I benefit (if at all) from his work? What could I, as a Christian living in the 21st century, learn from the theologians and leaders of the early church—positive or negative—about how to think in the way God wants me to today? I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Everlasting Peacock Meat: A Comparative Study
In The City of God, remarking on God displaying his power in creation, Augustine says:
For suitable properties will be communicated to the substance of the flesh by Him who has endowed the things we see with so marvellous and diverse properties that their very multitude prevents our wonder. For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property?
Uh-oh. This indeed could be rather embarrassing. So eager is he to exalt the God of the Bible that Augustine is prepared to educate his readers with ridiculous ideas that would indeed be, as White says, “laughed at by a schoolboy.” But then, immediately below, he writes:
This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.
Reading this, I was stopped in my tracks. Here, as clear as day, is a full-blown scientific experiment. Any scientist (I’m a physicist) would recognize this immediately. It is a long-term, comparative study which concludes that the unlikely claim actually appears to be true. It bears many of the hallmarks of the scientific method and does so more than a thousand years before the scientific method was supposedly invented by the likes of Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon in the 16th and 17th centuries. Augustine, the influential church father, was doing science a millennium before Science (with a capital S) was.
Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today