Paul Vallely: Evolution is God's method of creation

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Has the Prime Minister any plans to visit my constituency? That's the kind of helpful question Mr Blair likes to get from back-benchers. Which is why he was rather taken aback the other day when he was asked: Did God really create the world in just six days? That, he was told, is what pupils at the state-funded Gateshead City Technology College are being taught as part of their science classes.

Now you don't have to be Richard Dawkins to think that creationists are barmy when they insist there is no proof of evolution. And yet, despite the fulminations of secular fundamentalists like the good professor, the Bible does have an important truth to convey on the nature of the universe which Dawkinsites prefer to ignore.

Of course only a fool would try to take Genesis literally. For a start it contains two separate accounts of the creation of the world which contradict one another in places. They are myths, which use the imagery of the time of the Babylonian captivity and the Davidic kingdom respectively, to tell us something of how men and women – but mainly men – then viewed the world. But both contain the same mythic truth. The universe is not self-sufficient, they say, but dependent on something else. God, they called it. And a God who works through natural processes.

We have different language today, and most Christians now regard evolution as the mechanism through which God works. Because of the limits of our knowledge, or capacity to know, this evolution appears unsupervised, impersonal and unpredictable. But some ineffable instinct tells believers that some pattern or purpose lies within it.

The vocabulary we use to describe all of this changes with more than just the times. The trouble with a word like "God" is that not everyone means the same thing when they use it. God can be an old man with a beard, a determinist tyrant, a benevolent father, a synonym for love, or the "depth and ground of our being", in the resonant phrase of the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. It is in the attempt to express what is inexpressible that myth comes in handy. Like poetry, it reaches for truths beyond the grasp of rationalism.

It might help today's debate to define God as a purpose rather than a person. That would mean the modern world divides into those who sense that there's a point to existence and those who feel it only has the purpose we impose upon it. Both these are "unknowable" faith positions. Yet whichever we hold, if we are to be open and constructive in our attitude to life, we need to ask questions, rather than insisting on particular answers.

Good religion is an interaction with how other humans have tussled with the great questions over the ages. It will engage with the traditional Catholic notion of God as timeless and spaceless, the Protestant sense of a changing suffering God and the pantheist eco-insight that God and the universe are one and the same.

I don't know whether they do any of that in Gateshead. Press reports insist that teachers there are urged to "show the superiority" of creationist theories over the "false doctrines" of Darwinism. Yet the school had a 92 per cent A-C pass-rate in GCSE science.

Its recent Ofsted report compliments students on an approach to science that was "accurate", "interesting" and showing "excellent use of imagination". And its website lauds Francis Bacon's scientific method of testing theory by repeatable experiment and concludes: "In this light, the best scientists are the ones who ask the right questions rather than those who generate the right answers".

If it's true for science, education and theology, it's true for politics too. What Mr Blair needs to tell us is what questions are being asked in Gateshead. And to do that he needs to ask a few himself.