Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are we to believe in the Antipodes?

Whether We are to Believe in the Antipodes
But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible. And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other: hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited. But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled. For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man. Wherefore let us seek if we can find the city of God that sojourns on earth among those human races who are catalogued as having been divided into seventy-two nations and as many languages. For it continued down to the deluge and the ark, and is proved to have existed still among the sons of Noah by their blessings, and chiefly in the eldest son Shem; for Japheth received this blessing, that he should dwell in the tents of Shem.

- Augustine of Hippo, City of God XVI.9.

In Augustine's day, it was widely known and accepted (at least among the educated) that the earth was round. However, this raised a problem. Since it was also known that the equatorial regions are impassable (think Sahara) and the necessary ocean voyage too lengthy to be feasible, then how could there be humans on the far side of the globe? It would only be possible if these hypothetical Antipodeans were not historically connected to the human civilisations which Augustine knew and to which Christ had come. For Augustine, although he had never been there, for the Antipodes to be inhabited would mean an unacceptable bifurcation in humanity - unacceptable because without the possibility of travel they were also without the possibility of hearing the good news. Given the impossibility of contact, to believe in life on the far side raised a series of problematic questions. Had God created two human races? Were there then also two Christs? Or were the others left without the gospel?

This may all seem fantastically speculative in today's globalised society, but the question of God's witness to those historically disconnected from the spread of the Christian message is a genuine theological and ethical issue. Is the chance to be saved a historical cultural lottery?

One attempt to answer that question is found the new preamble the Uniting Church in Australia has proposed to add to its constitution. Ben Myers is posting excerpts from a paper he is writing reflecting critically on that preamble.

UPDATE: Ben has just posted the conclusion to his paper.


Anthony Douglas said...

Wait, I know how this photo has been doctored! Any points on offer? ;-)

Great quote, Byron, and I'll second your plug for Ben's thoughts.

Lyndal Mitchell said...

The thing I often wonder is whether the earth would have been considered the other way up had its Northern occupants in fact been its Southern occupants. 'Cause when you think about it, what are the external reference points that tell us that the northern hemisphere is north and the southern is south? Why couldn't it be conceived of (and drawn and modelled) the other way around? I suspect that if cartography had begun in the southern hemisphere this would be so. Does this make sense?

byron smith said...

Lyndall - Of course. Here is the most accurate map of the world. Gives you a different perspective, doesn't it? And I'm sure that if cartography were a Southern invention, the "correct" orientation would be justified by saying that the "heavier" side sinks to the bottom. Having said that, Jared Diamond would argue that there are geographic reasons that cartography was a Northern discipline. Check out his fascinating book Guns, Germs and Steel in which he ultimately attempts to explain much of human history through the geological movements and current alignment of the continents.

Anthony - Yes, but it's a bit obvious that I photoshopped in the clouds to remind me of Scotland. (Actually, today is almost perfectly blue here).

stef said...

great map -interesting how the international date line has such a big bulge in it. why is it so? colonial past? somebody bumped the guy while he was drawing it?