Against a vending machine God

Catherine Wallace

I like a good series. Catherine Wallace’s Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination is a series of slim books from Wipf and Stock Publishers (with, I might say, a nice aesthetic sense) that is a response to fundamentalism, an attempt to understand and counter the kind of right wing anger that poses as religion in the US. She is keen to not let fundamentalism be the default strain of Christianity because, she says, Christianity is too important – it has ‘antibodies’ to deal with our society’s problems of consumerism and ‘excessive individualism’.

The book Confronting Religious Denial of Science is particularly interesting because it takes an unusual and surprising tack away from the usual defences of Christianity as compatible with modern science by focussing not on quantum physics and the like, but on story. Wallace is a literary critic, so, she says, she starts with story. And indeed, instead of just jumping headlong into the Victorian era and the rise of Darwinism and fundamentalism, she begins with a story from her own life, about the power and purpose of prayer. She does talk about the history of the supposed clash of religion and science, but points out the loss of the concepts of metaphor and symbol, and focusses on two particular issues – miracles, where she suggests, in unsurprisingly liberal fashion, that we attend to the symbolism, and prayer, where less unsurprisingly, she gets into the issues of meditation and the power of prayer to reorient one’s outlook (rather than prayer simply being addressed to, as she says, a vending machine God). There is plenty of material about Christian mysticism and the traditions of prayer out there but it is somewhat unusual to see this so upfront in a book purportedly attacking the tendency of both fundamentalists and atheists to misunderstand the science/religion relationship.

She also makes the point, which someone as mainstream as Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson would make, that scripture is not something we extract doctrine from, discarding it when we have extracted this ‘essence’. Scripture is not a tree we pluck apples from. It is something that creates the spiritual air we breathe, and as such needs to function as a whole, just as the leaves photosynthesise but cannot do so without the rest of the tree attached. (This has nothing to do, by the way, with the diversity of the human authors of the various books of the Bible or their varying literary styles, but merely refers to the way the Bible is constantly referencing itself and is a caution against quoting out of context.)

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