How a church father loved God with his rational mind.
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 …