The second chapter of Thomas Howard’s book focuses on symbolism. He recounts a childhood encounter with much richer Christian symbols than those typically found in evangelicalism and the impact it had on him. After reviewing the myriad ways symbols are intertwined and interwoven throughout our lives, including but hardly limited to our faith, he makes the observation: “It is difficult to eliminate symbolism.” Indeed.
I’ve never acquired the aversion to the material, to the physical, and to symbols that Thomas Howard describes. My formation was very different and if anything the question has always been, “Which symbols?” But I’ve been within the context of evangelical Christianity for many years and I know they have a deep aversion to some symbols. Mind you, evangelicals use a variety of recognizable, material symbols themselves. It’s not a rejection of all symbols, just some of them. I believe I understand the reasons for the selection and the rejection of a handful of symbols, but I won’t pretend to understand more than the little I do. This aspect of the evangelical mindset largely remains opaque to me.
As he moves into the heart of the matter, Howard points out that dividing the world into physical and spiritual is not and has never been Christian in origin. We are not Buddhists or Platonists or Manichaeans. We are also not like the early Christian gnostic heretics or other docetists who denied the materiality of the Incarnation. And, in fact, that’s what much of this chapter explores. He does a good job in a small number of pages connecting the rejection of the material to a rejection of Jesus accomplished in the Incarnation. I just recently completed the series stepping through Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation, so I won’t spend much time rehashing that here. At the end of the chapter, he points out that evangelicals are right to affirm the Incarnation, but in their rejection of the physical, the sensory, and the symbolic, they actually reject much of what Jesus accomplished in and through it. I’ll end with the closing paragraph of the chapter.
The religion that attempts to drive a wedge between the whole realm of Faith and the actual textures of physical life is a religion that has perhaps not granted to the Incarnation the full extent of the mysteries that attach to it and flow from it, and that make our mortal life fruitful once more.