The Rt Rev. Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford

Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 15/3/02

Good morning.

In 1860 there was a famous meeting in Oxford on the subject of evolution, in which a predecessor of mine as bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Julian [actually Thomas Henry] Huxley, the scientist, took opposing points of view. Wilberforce was a well informed amateur scientist and didnít think that the case for evolution had at that point been made out, so he opposed the idea.

However, it soon became clear to most thinking people that the earth was not as it were simply plonked down ready-made but that it had evolved gradually over a very long period of time. Indeed historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution.

Itís therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years later after so much evidence has accumulated that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged Biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us?

I find what this school is doing sad, for a number of reasons.

First, the theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. This was quickly seen by Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that God doesnít just make the world, he does something even more wonderful, he makes the world make itself. God has given creation a real independence and the miraculous fact is that working in relation to this independent life God has as it were woven creation from the bottom upwards, with matter giving rise to life, and life giving rise to conscious reflective existence in the likes of you and me. The fact that the universe probably began about 12 billion years ago, with life beginning to evolve about three billion years ago, simply underlines the extraordinary, detailed, persistent patience of the divine creatorís spirit.

The second reason I feel sad about this attempt to see the book of Genesis as a rival to scientific truth is that it stops people taking the Bible seriously. The Bible is a collection of books made up of very different kinds of literature - poetry, history, ethics, law, myth, theology, wise sayings and so on. Through this variety of different kinds of writing Godís loving purpose can come through to us. The Bible brings us precious essential truths about who we are and what we might become. But Biblical literalism hinders people from seeing and responding to these truths.

Then thereís science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, Biblical literalism brings not only the Bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.

[NB: emphasis added]

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