So God took his time. So what?

March 22, 2002

When it comes to our origins, we must differentiate between 'how' and 'why' we came to be, argues Richard Harries.

What is taught in the name of science in Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead goes wider than the credibility of Christianity - crucial though that is. With a number of faith schools being planned it poses the question of what will be taught and how.

I have long been a supporter of faith schools. As the Church of England has nearly a quarter of the country's primary schools and a good number of secondary ones, it would be inconsistent and therefore unfair to deny to other faith minorities the right to have their own schools: and this despite the fact that the Church of England schools have always served the local community rather than selecting pupils primarily on religious grounds.

Furthermore, although I much respect those who teach on the basis of values derived from a secular humanism, I believe that a Christian view of what it is to be a human being - made in the image of God and called to grow into his likeness through growing in the capacity to love - is enriching for all pupils. But I share the disquiet of those who now worry about more faith schools (even though Emmanuel in Gateshead is a city technology college) because of a fear of what might be taught and how.

To ensure children are not the victims of propaganda, they need to have a critical awareness of their own tradition, not just an unblinkered acceptance of it. They also need to be encouraged to be open to the truth from whatever quarter it comes. The curricula will, I believe, need to be strictly controlled and monitored from this point of view.

Since my "Thought for the Day" last Friday attacking biblical literalism, I have had letters of support and some very depressing ones hostile to my position. It is depressing because an intellectual battle that was fought and resolved in the 1870s seems to have opened up again on the basis of a misunderstanding of both science and the Bible.

Evolution is a theory of great explanatory power. It accounts for a whole range of phenomena from various disciplines. Although it cannot be rigorously tested in a laboratory, at least not yet, it is open to modification, confirmation and even radical alteration through attention to the evidence. It is not a "faith position" as the college in Gateshead alleges, to be put in the same category as biblical faith.

The faith position of the Bible is that however the world has come into being and however it has developed, over whatever period of time, there is an ultimate purpose behind it that is wise and loving. A good many pupils in lower-sixth forms around the country know that there is a fundamental difference between "how" questions and "why" questions. Science addresses the former and religions attempt to answer the latter.

There are indeed difficult questions that evolution poses to a Christian view of the world. Most species, for example, have already come and gone. What is their purpose in the divine perspective? Nature is too often characterised by "eat and be eaten". Indeed, it was this, not evolutionary theory, that led to Darwin's very gradual erosion of faith, probably never entirely lost. Nature red in tooth and claw did not seem compatible with a wise and loving purpose behind it all. These are the real issues for a religious believer, not the theory of evolution as such, which properly understood can deepen faith rather than undermine it.

Even the combination of random mutation and natural selection, which at first glance seems an odd way for a divine creator to go on, can be shown as indispensable for the emergence of the kind of life we value. As Arthur Peacocke has shown, it is a combination of what is random and what is steady that makes it possible for new forms of life both to emerge and to be sustained.

Frederick Temple, who like his son William was Archbishop of Canterbury, said not long after the great 1860 debate on evolution that God does not just create the world, he does something much more wonderful: he makes the world make itself. Always respecting the independent life of the universe that he has brought into being he, as it were, weaves the universe from the bottom upwards: matter, life and self-conscious existence in us human beings. It is odd that some people think that such extraordinary patience and perseverance over billions of years to produce human life should be thought demeaning to the divine creator.

Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford.

Next week: Secular creationism in the US

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