What is space?

What is space?

I came across a great post today and wanted to let me readers in on the discussion. The author is the amazingly accomplished Dr. Emily Thomas, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Durham University. In this post, she asks the question, “what is space?

Mountains. Whales. The distant stars. All these things exist in space, and so do we. Our bodies take up a certain amount of space. When we walk to work, we are moving through space. But what is space? Is it even an actual, physical entity?

In answering this question, she mentions a little known debate, fostered by  Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), between the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and the English philosopher Samuel Clarke. The two men had very different answers to the question of space: the relationist vs. the absolutist.

Is there space between the stars? The relationist Leibniz argued that space is the spatial relations between things. Australia is “south of” Singapore. The tree is “three meters left of” the bush. Sean Spicer is “behind” the bush. That means space would not exist independently of the things it connects. For Leibniz, if nothing existed, there couldn’t be any spatial relations. If our universe were destroyed, space would not exist.

Then there was Clarke:

In contrast, the absolutist Clarke argued that space is a sort of substance that is everywhere. Space is a giant container, containing all the things in the universe: stars, planets, us. Space allows us to make sense of how things move from one place to another, of how our entire material universe could move through space. What’s more, Clarke argued that space is divine: space is God’s presence in the world. In a way, space is God. For Clarke, if our universe were destroyed, space would be left behind. Just as you can’t delete God, you can’t delete space.

Dr. Thomas goes in to quite a bit more detail in her blog, so I encourage everyone interested in this topic to visit The Conversation and check out this article along with some of her other work on space and time.

The Debate Papers

A Collection of Papers, Which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, In the Years 1715 and 1716 (London: 1717)

Author: Samuel Clarke

Source: Samuel Clarke, A Collection of Papers, Which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibnitz, and Dr. Clarke, In the Years 1715 and 1716 (London: 1717).

Max Planck on Ethics & the Need for Scientific Realism

Max Planck on Ethics & the Need for Scientific Realism

My introduction to the legendary physicist Max Planck was decades ago during my undergraduate studies in thermodynamics. Through his work across the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Planck deduced a universal constant ‘h’ for the distribution of  energy emitted from a blackbody. What came to be known as Planck’s constant forever changed scientific perceptions of the natural world. His work was a foundational precursor to modern quantum theory and marked the “end of the mechanical age in science, and the opening of a new era.”[1]

Today, in my study of science and religion, I am discovering that what made Planck such a great physicist was also his understanding of philosophy. In his 1932 book, Where is Science Going?, Planck laments the crisis of history that he observed overwhelming every branch of “spiritual and material civilization” and corrupting“the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life.”[2] Some people saw this change as positive progress while others believed it marked the end of civilization. This skepticism, Planck notes, first took root in religious fields—eroding the moral systems of society—and evenly burrowed its way into the sciences such that, “There is scarcely a scientific axiom that is not nowadays denied by somebody. And at the same time almost any nonsensical theory that may be put forward in the name of science would be almost sure to find believers and disciples somewhere or other.”[3]

More than 70 years later, Planck’s lament rings familiar as many wonder, as he did then, if “there is any rock of truth left on which we can take our stand and feel sure that it is unassailable and that it will hold firm against the storm of skepticism raging around it”[4] Every generation has its share dystopian acolytes, yet Planck’s concern seems keenly prophetic in depicting the state of the modern mind.

Planck’s chief concern in science was the trend among respectable institutions to reject the principle of causality which was, prior to his time, universally accepted and a foundational assumption for research. Specifically, Planck opposed scientific positivism which denied the reality of the outside world. Planck shared common ground with positivists in seeing the individual’s sense-perception of the outside world as the starting point for all scientific knowledge .[5] Einstien in his intoruction to the book summarizes this idea well:

Thus the supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance and this Einfuehlung is developed by experience.[6]

Recognizing this shared epistemolgical starting point, but the positivist was not willing to go any further. Planck rightly saw the danger in the positivist’s rejection of a reality outside one’s own personal experience. The following is the example he used to illustrate the dilemma:

Our daily habits of speech make it rather difficult for us to observe the strict positivist rule. In ordinary life when we speak of an outer object—a table, for instance—we mean something that is different from the table as actually observed by physical science. We can see the table and we can touch it and we can try its firmness by leaning on it and its hardness and if we give it a thump with our knuckles we shall feel a hurt. In the light of positivist science the table is nothing more than a complex of these sensory perceptions and we have merely got into the habit of associating them with the word table. Remove these sensory perceptions and absolutely nothing remains. In the positivist theory we must entirely ignore everything beyond what is registered by the senses and therefore we are impregnable in this clearly defined realm. For the positivist, to ask what a table in reality is has no meaning whatsoever; and this is so with our other physical concepts.[7]

The ultimate danger of positivism was its denial of scientific realism and of any objective reality outside experience. If this is true, Planck argues, then the entire scientific revolution is rendered meaningless because both Ptolemy’s earth-centered universe and Copernicus’ heliocentrism are equally valid. “They are merely two different ways of making a mental construction out of sensory reactions to some outer phenomena; but they have no more right to be looked upon as scientifically significant than the mental construction which the mystic or poet may make out of his sensory impressions when face to face with nature.”[8] Thus, the positivist is left with no way to meaningfully observe nature and must consequently reject any esthetic or ethical standard.[9]

The positivist philosophy is impotent to make sense of everyday experiences. For example, when a stick is placed into a glass half filled with water, what do we observe? The length submerged appears bent. But is any trained observer tricked by their eyes into thinking the stick is truly bent? No. They recognize the law of refraction is at work and the appearance of a bent stick is a deception of the eye. Experience then is falsifiable. Reality exists outside experience if we only have a way to determine that reality. However, the positivist is not so lucky. “The positivist will not allow us to conclude anything. We have a sensory impression of the part of the stick that is in water and a contiguous sensory impression of the part that is in air; but we have no right to say anything about the stick itself.”[10]

Planck’s illustration reminds me of the old scientific riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” As a trained acoustician, my first response is to answer “the tree does make a noise, but does not make a sound.” But this is a purely materialistic interpretation of this question. A noise is the production of energy waves when the tree strikes the ground, but only becomes sound if there is someone to hear it. But there is a deeper metaphysical truth exposed by this question I had not considered prior to reading Planck. The question really asks, “does anything exist outside of observational experience?” “Can the sound exist for me, but not for you?” How a person answers this question exposes them as either a scientific positivist or scientific realist. In denying any external reality, the positivist has no way to discern any truth outside of personal sense experience. Even more destructive, the positivist is left in isolation with no way to share in the experience of others.

When we come from the animal world to the world of human beings we find the positivist scientists making a clear distinction between one’s own impressions and the impressions of others. One’s own impressions are the sole reality and they are realities only for oneself… But, in the strict positivist view, we have no reliable knowledge whatsoever of other people’s impressions. Because they are not a direct sensory perception, they do not furnish a basis for the certainty of our knowledge.[11]

Positivist logic has continued to creep its way into the foundation of Western culture and today we can observe the deleterious consequence in our isolationist—even narcissistic—ethics as predicted by Planck. The everyday positivist of our time concludes:

  • If I can feel only my pain, then only my pain exists.
  • If I self-identify as female, then no one can deny my feeling because there is no biological reality to constrain me.
  • If I feel like aborting my baby, then the feelings of others do not exist in my reality and any choice I make is justified.
  • If I am offended by your actions, your feelings or intentions do not matter because only my feelings can determine my truth.
  • If my heart tells me something is good, then there is no external reality to contradict my feelings or tell me my actions are bad.
  • If a man is not a woman, then he cannot speak to a “woman’s issue” because he cannot “know” her experience.

Positivism leaves us stranded on our own island of reality; impotent to exchange ideas or speak to the experience of others because there is no common reality outside of us to govern that exchange. Given this challenge, how then must we respond? Planck makes the choice for scientists clear:

So we are faced with the alternative of either renouncing the idea of a comprehensive science, which will hardly be agreed to even by the most extreme positivist, or to admit a compromise and allow the experiences of others to enter into the groundwork of scientific knowledge. But we should thereby, strictly speaking, give up our original standpoint, namely, that only primary data constituted a reliable basis of scientific truth.[12]

So then, if we accept all sense perception as absolute we cannot deny the validity of any scientific experiment. To every researcher, their own experience is truth and theoretical physics is excluded from knowledge. If science rests solely on the foundation of isolated experience, then the dependability of science is lost. But, if we choose to accept the reports of others as knowledge (scientific data) we break the chain of logic in scientific positivism.

Now, having poisoned the roots of scientific positivism, Planck moves into the realm of the metaphysical. If sense-perception is a starting point, but not the end of science, we must have a way to determine the validity of experience outside our own. That is, we must accept a scientific realism that exists outside of individual perceptions, feelings, and emotions. The two pillars of realism he outlines are: “(1) There is a real outer world which exists independently of our act of knowing) and, (2) The real outer world is not directly knowable.”

On the surface, these two statements appear in contradiction. But together they make the case that scientific knowledge is only partial and corrigible and it must interact with other disciplines, such as philosophy and theology, to make any sense of the real world. Every new scientific discovery only unveils a new realm to be discovered. The goal of science is unobtainable as it can never reach the metaphysical.

How will you determine the truth that exists outside you own experience?

That is the question Planck evokes in the mind of the reader. For me, the answer lies in the warranted true belief in the external reality of God who speaks to us through his word: the Christian Bible, the Holy Spirit, the living Christ and the manifest church. In humility, I accept scientific realism and through my faith seek to find a way to engage with others and learn from their experiences. To that end, I leave you with this poem by Planck.

“Was Du gefflueckt, was ich gefflueckt

Das wollen wir verbinden

Und weil sich eins zum andern schickt

Den schoensten Kranz draus winden.”[13]


[1] Max Planck, Where is science going?, trans. James Vincent Murphy, First ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1932), 17.

[2] Ibid., 64.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 76.

[12] Ibid., 77.

[13] Ibid., 36.



Science and Religion: An Introduction to John Polkinghorne

Science and Religion: An Introduction to John Polkinghorne

The late 20th century saw renewed interest in the interaction between science and religion.[1] Galileo and Newton believed religion mattered to their scientific exploration of God’s two great books: nature and scripture. The works of Ian Barbour and Anthony Peacocke have advanced a framework for meaningful cross-discipline dialogue in the fields of philosophy, creation and natural theology. While progress has been made to resolve complex difficulties, there remain unsettled challenges in need of intellectual engagement from practitioners of both scientific and religious studies. Physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, laments the invasive role the media and populist science have played in promoting the “myth of the light of pure scientific truth confronting the darkness of obstructionist religious error.[2]” In point of fact, science and theology have more in common than popular sentiment will allow. To counter these superficial notions, there is a need for thoughtful scientists and theologians to eschew common hostility and pursue intellectual discourse. The scientist must rise above reductionist philosophy and the Christian must avoid fideism.[3]

What follows is a quick introduction to the thoughts of Polkinghorne on how science and religion can interact in a meaningful way. According to Plkinghorne, here are some things to consider as the dialogue unfolds.

  1. Prioritize the recent thoughts of modern science.[4]
  2. Avoid the “semantic danger of transferring terms across disciplines.”[5]
  3. Tolerance, acceptance, dialogic engagement with those who venture outside their expertise to undertake the risk of interdisciplinary study.[6]
  4. A mutual understanding of methodical preferences expressed in semantics; the common “Bottomup” language of scientists (vis-à-vis, analogia entis) vs. the common “Topdown” language of the theologian (vis-à-vis, analogia fidei).[7]
  5. Understanding, for the scientist, increases with time and ultimately supplants past achievements.[8] Understanding, for the theologian, grows only as it remains grounded in the past; advancing terminology, but maintaining the substance of historic [9]
  6. Science is fundamentally concerned with the ‘how’ and theology with the ‘why,’ yet share a critical realist approach to knowledge.[10]
  7. The increasing role of holistic thought in science has a direct corollary to the insight of theology.[11] Therefore, theology can work in concert with scientific insight.[12]

The goal of interdisciplinary dialogue is not a scientific takeover of religion or a religious takeover of science. Each discipline must interact and resist the inclination to suborn the authority of the other. Polkinghorne concludes that the theologian must pursue the path of consonance which seeks to espouse a theology informed by science, but which reserves the right, along with the scientist, to “retain those categories which its experience has determined that it shall use, however counterintuitive they may be.[13]” Only with this approach can science and theology work together to “tackle the moral problems posed by the growth of science.[14]

The ethical snare for the scientist is to get so caught up in the excitement of research that there is never time to ask where it is going and to what end. Not everything that can be done should be done. The technological imperative must be tempered by the moral imperative. All new discoveries are ”falls upward,” the enlarged powers thus obtained containing the potential both for good and for ill.[15]

Both science and theology share a critical realistic approach of intellectual inquiry that tries to make sense of experience in the search for truth.[16] For the scientist, asserts Polkinghorne, there is a recognition that the search for truth is both partial and corrigible. The results of scientific exploration provide a probable but not absolute answer.[17] This understanding stands at the core of Polkinghorne’s critical realist approach to ontology. To be certain, philosophers employ second-order reflections that question the ability of science to expose reality through first-order experimentation. Recognizing these delimiters, With an eye toward continuing interdisciplinary dialogue, Polkinghorne outlines the epistemological character of the scientific method.

  1. Individuals can remain amenable on some localized ideas without the expectation that everything within a proposed as right or acceptable.[18]
  2. There is no universal scientific method, but a variety of methodologies that rely on nonempirical methodologies and therefore must remain open to correction.[19]
  3. Theoretical prediction and experimental fact are inextricably linked in the scientific method such that all facts are interpreted facts.[20]
  4. As illustrated in the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, there is no uniform epistemology.[21]
  5. Social factors may impact the pace of scientific pursuit, but will not ultimately change the character of the knowledge discovered.[22]
  6. Scientific realism “is a contingent fact about the relation between our epistemological power and the ontology of our world” and provides the best approach for doing science without imposing any metaphysical necessity on all possible worlds.[23]

Polkinghorne’s scientific realism is a direct corollary to his theological realism that seeks clarity of knowledge but understands the limitations of a finite mind exploring an infinite God.

While the resolute sceptic can never be defeated in logical argument, neither can the epistemologically optimistic who decline to despair of gaining verisimilitudinous knowledge of reality. It is the instinct of a scientist to encourage a trusting attitude towards those insights that afford a satisfying basis for understanding what is going on… As a passionate believer in the ultimate integrity and unity of all knowledge, I wish to extend my realist stance beyond science to encompass, among many other fields of enquiry theological reflection on our encounter with the divine. I take as my motto for that endeavour the remarkable words of Bernard Longergan: “God is the unrestricted act of understanding, the eternal rapture, glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka.”8 The search for truth through and through is ultimately the search for God.

Ultimately, science and religion are fundamentally similar in kind but differ only in their “degree of power of empirical interrogation which these various investigations enjoy.[24]” There is a shared circularity of reason accompanied by the paradox of direct encounter that will never lead to anything more than a partial understanding of an ineffable truth. The image of God in man is the source for our drive for scientific exploration. Therefore, we can have a hope that both science and theology, within their unique domains, can achieve a knowledge that is partial but reflects an ontological reality that is understandable through reasoned dialogue.

Recommended Reading

If you are new to Polkinghorne and want to learn more, here are some suggested books to get you started.

Belief in God in an Age of Science


John Polkinghorne is a major figure in today’s debates over the compatibility of science and religion. Internationally known as both a theoretical physicist and a theologian—the only ordained member of the Royal Society—Polkinghorne brings unique qualifications to his inquiry into the possibilities of believing in God in an age of science. In this thought-provoking book, the author focuses on the collegiality between science and theology, contending that these “intellectual cousins” are both concerned with interpreted experience and with the quest for truth about reality. He argues eloquently that scientific and theological inquiries are parallel.

The book begins with a discussion of what belief in God can mean in our times. Polkinghorne explores a new natural theology and emphasizes the importance of moral and aesthetic experience and the human intuition of value and hope. In other chapters, he compares science’s struggle to understand the nature of light with Christian theology’s struggle to understand the nature of Christ. He addresses the question, Does God act in the physical world? And he extends his ideas about the role of chaos theory, surveys the prospects for future dialogue between scientific and theological thinkers, and defends a critical realist understanding of the activities of both disciplines. Polkinghorne concludes with a consideration of the nature of mathematical truths and the links between the complementary realities of physical and mental experience.

Science and Religion in Quest of Truth


John Polkinghorne, an international figure known both for his contributions to the field of theoretical elementary particle physics and for his work as a theologian, has over the years filled a bookshelf with writings devoted to specific topics in science and religion. In this new book, he undertakes for the first time a survey of all the major issues at the intersection of science and religion, concentrating on what he considers the essential insights for each. Clearly and without assuming prior knowledge, he addresses causality, cosmology, evolution, consciousness, natural theology, divine providence, revelation, and scripture. Each chapter also provides references to his other books in which more detailed treatments of specific issues can be found.

For those who are new to what Polkinghorne calls “one of the most significant interdisciplinary interactions of our time,” this volume serves as an excellent introduction. For readers already familiar with John Polkinghorne’s books, this latest is a welcome reminder of the breadth of his thought and the subtlety of his approach in the quest for truthful understanding.


[1] Polkinghorne pinpoints 1966 and the publication of Ian Barbour’s “Issues in Science and Religion” as the demarcation of when this modern period of increased interaction began. J. C. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 76-77, Digital, WorldCat.org.

[2] Ibid., 77. Polkinghorne is here critical of what he characterizes as the “facile triumphalism” of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett that has perverted the secular academy.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 81. Polkinghorne makes an interesting observation that Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein reflect the “last of the ancients” who do not reflect the insight of the modern scientific world.

[5] Ibid., 82.

[6] Ibid., 83.

[7] Ibid., 84-85. This difference in approach, however, does not mean the scientist and theologian cannot meet together with a common understanding. Pearcy and Thaxton’s research observe that pre-modern scientists used a Topdown approach in their conception of natural order. Early scientists held an a priori assumption of nature’s order based on God’s revealed nature, “The early scientists did not argue that the world was lawfully ordered, and therefore there must be a rational God. Instead, they argued that there was a rational God, and therefore the world must be lawfully ordered.” Nancy Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Turning point Christian worldview series (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 26-27.

[8] This tendency within science may be one reason modern scientists disclaim the role of Christian theology in many of its fundamental presuppositions. If so, then exposing this tendency may help open more paths of dialog.

[9] Polkinghorne, 87.

[10] Ibid., 99.

[11] Ibid., 98.

[12] J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Theology: An Introduction (London: SPCK, 1998), 2.

[13] Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 86.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 92.

[16] Ibid., 98.

[17] Ibid., 104. Polkinghorne makes special note of David Hume’s criticism of the method of induction.

[18] Ibid., 105.

[19] Ibid., 106.

[20] Ibid., 107.

[21] Ibid., 108.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 109.

[24] Ibid., 114.

Is it About Race & White Privilege or Marriage?

Is it About Race & White Privilege or Marriage?

A Visually Powerful but Deceptive Video

Take a minute and watch the video above. It seems like a powerful demonstrate of white privilege, doesn’t it? It has been seen by almost 5 million people. It appears to validate deeply held beliefs that some people have it easier in life because of their race… but does it? In fact, this is a particularly misleading and manipulative video and it’s sad that so many have fallen prey to the lie it generates about blacks. The video’s director wants you to believe that the reason whites have an advantage is simply because they are white. Evidently, he believes that if you’re black, your life has been extremely difficult just because you’re black and that you want, no… you need, to have someone or something to blame for your circumstances.

In the video, the author gives a visual representation of what he believes is a problem (white privilege) and asks leading questions designed to satisfy the viewer’s preconceptions about black people. His premise is that whites have an advantage over blacks and therefore white privilege is a real thing. Now, maybe someone out there can make that case, but that is not what this video demonstrate.

In fact, upon closer inspection this video accidentally, not intentionally, demonstrates the real problem… broken families. Let me explain to you how this video proves a different truth than it’s director intends. The very first question the speaker asks is, “how many of you grew up with two parents in the home?” Go back and check the tape. Every question the speaker asks afterward builds on the answer to that first question. He goes on to ask:

  • “Who has worried about their next meal?”
  • “Who had to help pay bills?”
  • “Who had a tutor?”
  • “Who went to a private college not based on their athletic ability?”

Etc, etc, etc… All of these questions were based on the very first question about which of the teens grew up in a two parent home. But that’s not a racial issue, its a marriage issue.

Getting Married and Staying Married Gives Kids an Advantage

As I understand it, both blacks and whites have the ability to get married and stay married. And if we follow carefully the line of questions in the video, it really proves that getting married before you have children and staying married after you have children is an advantage for your children in nearly every way.

This echoes what the Scriptures say in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Two are better than one. Two incomes are better than one income. A husband and wife that stay together through life’s difficulty are far better than the single parent families in which black children are being raised today. The author of the video inadvertently demonstrates that it is better to raise a child in a two parent home rather than a single parent home. He demonstrates that having a mom and a dad is better for the child’s emotional stability, it gives them a head start in life, they are able to achieve more, and it gives them an advantage over their peers.That is not “white” privilege, that is “married parents” privilege.

Black People Aren’t The Only People Who Grow Up in Single Parent Families

Do you know what else this video demonstrates? If you look closely, there are white and non-whites in back line with all those black teens. This video proves that it is not just black people whose future opportunities are negatively affected by being raised in a single parent home. The fact that the narrator doesn’t mention the white people in the back is largely because that fact ruins the narrative he hopes to advance. He proves that the whites who grow up in single family homes suffer the same fate as the blacks who grow up in single family homes. If anything, this video demonstrates that race is not the controlling factor for being disadvantaged, belonging to a single parent family is. That is a hard fact for some to hear, but I don’t think you can sugar-coat it.

The video proves “white privilege” only if you believe that staying faithfully married and ensuring that both parents work hard to give their kids the best opportunity for success in life is only for white people. It is true that black children are disproportionately affected by not having a mom and dad in the home, but the power to create a better life is largely within the hands of black people. Don’t take my word alone for it, read what Larry Elder has to say about the problem of kids without dads:

When I was in college in 1970, Daniel Patrick Moynihan had just written a book called “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.”  At the time, 25% of black kids were born outside of wedlock, a number that Moynihan thought was alarming, and as you know, Moynihan later on became a senator to New York, a Democratic senator.  Fast forward, the number now is 75%.  It is 35% in the white community; it is 50% in the Hispanic community.  Now, if in 1965, 25% out-of-wedlock birth for blacks was a national scandal, what do you call 75% and 50% in the Hispanic community and between 30% and 35% in the white community?  Would do you call that?  How can we ignore that?

To my friends and family members who have liked and loved this video… you have to rethink what you are agreeing to. You have to listen carefully to what is really being said. This video exposes some deep personal biases which may not be based in fact. This video takes advantage of you by appealing to your sensitivities and prejudices. This video doesn’t prove whites have more advantages than blacks because of skin color. It proves that the best thing you can do for your kids is stay married, keep your kids in school, make sure they don’t get pregnant before they are married with a good job. Parents, white and black, you have the power to give your kids a good start in life.

Swastika for Peace or Terror? The Power of Shared Symbols

Swastika for Peace or Terror? The Power of Shared Symbols

With so much anger over NFL protests during the national anthem, the issue of the American Flag and what it symbolizes has become a hot topic. To some, the Flag represents systemic oppression. To others, it represents the hope of freedom and the ideal of human equality. But what happens to a nation when Her people become so balkanized that they no longer have a shared symbol of unity? Hold on to that question and let me tell you a story.

Recently, I was out to lunch with some colleagues. After entering a local Chinese restaurant, I saw the buddha statue (pictured above) decorated with a swastika. I was shocked. I asked myself, “What was the symbol of Nazi hatred doing on a statue here in an Asian-American restaurant?” When I got back to my office, I did some research and found some information that challenged by perceptions of this symbol.

First, it seems I am not the only one who was dismayed seeing these symbols pop up in unexpected places. In this story out of New York, “Sixth-graders at an elite Bronx private school have been caught drawing swastikas in art class, so administrators met with the kids — talking mainly about how the symbols represent peace in some cultures.” Parents, seeing their kids draw these swastikas assumed that there must be some sort of white-supremacist or nazi influence. But was that the only possible response? From a 21st century perspective the swastika is a symbol of Hitlerian hate, yet to countless others throughout history the swastika was a symbol of peace. Really? Is that even possible?

A quick look at the history of the swastika may help us discern a truth outside our limited experience. The Holocaust Teacher Resource Center, writes the following:

The swastika is a very old symbol with use widespread throughout the world. Sometimes referred to as a “Gammadion” “Hakenkreuz” or a “Flyfot,” it traditionally had been a sign of good fortune and well being The word “swastika” is derived from the Sanskrit “su” meaning “well” and “asti” meaning “being.” It also is considered to be a representation of the sun and is associated with the worship of Aryan sun gods. It is a symbol in both Jainism and Buddhism, as well as a Nordic runic emblem and a Navajo sign.

Basil Jackson in this article goes into more detail of just how old the swastika is:

The swastika is one of mankind’s oldest symbols and one of the most powerful in effect. Apart from the circle, the swastika is probably the most widely distributed of all symbols. The swastika has been found on a fragment of Greek pottery dating back to the eighth century, and the use of the swastika has also been demonstrated among Egyptian, Greek, Arabic, and Navajo civilizations.[1]

Would you be surprised to learn then that the swastika was a symbol even used by Jews? It’s true. The swastika has been discovered by archeologists inside of a Jewish 2nd century AD synagogues “paved with simple white mosaics and a swastika”[2] and also among other ancient remains dating back to the 7th century BC:

The most striking types were the bowls and dishes with two handles, and the pottery with Philistine decorations, the concentric whirls, the so-called Maltese Cross, the square cross in use long before the Christian era or its late adoption by the Knight Templars, the swastika, and especially the strange swan-like bird with its neck curled around over its back.[3]

Clearly, these kinds of symbols do not have inherent meaning but can be adopted and used for many reasons—including the manipulation of an entire nation. Hitler was a master of manipulation—using a symbol that spoke peace to the psyche of the German people and then subverting it with his own brand of terror. Jackson concludes:

Hitler recognized the power latent in this symbol, but instead of leaving the swastika spinning “with the sun,” representing the powers of light, he gave it a satanic twist by reversing the emblem and thus causing it to spin in a counterclockwise fashion. This is a significant clue in the understanding of the satanically energized control that Hitler had over millions. He knew and used the power of the symbol to reach into the very depths of the unconscious of his people, and thus gained control over them.[4]

Even today, James M. Skidmore observes, “In places like Pointes-des-Cascades, where pre-Nazi swastikas exist, extra care must be taken to contextualize their presence.” If you happen to be traveling around the world, remember that not everyone shares your point of view. Not every swastika is a Nazi-swastika. You cannot just see a swastika on a statue and assume it means “hate”… even though it certainly has that shared meaning within our own Western context.

So then, back to the original question, what happens to a nation when Her people become so balkanized that they no longer have a shared symbol of unity? 

Without doubt, some people will always look at the American flag as a symbol of oppression, but the problem for us as a nation comes when we are so divided that we lose any foundation for unity—we become broken and polarized. As I discuss in this short video, “Polarization is the ultimate consequence of a Secularized, Pluralized and Privatized society demonstrated in the balkanization of civic, social, religious, and family structures.”

Symbols like the American Flag do not have any inherent meaning, but that is why it is all the more important we as a people have a consensus. The flag should not be a symbol of my experience, your experience, or any one group’s experience. The flag should not be a Christian symbol, a Muslim symbol, a Buddhist symbol or an Atheist symbol. It should rather be used as a symbol that reflects our common ideal of human dignity.

We should not allow the white-supremacists or the Hitlers of our day steal the symbol from “we the people”. No one person owns the right to define the symbolism of the American flag. We don’t stand for the National Anthem to honor a president… or any person. Neither the foolish Tweets of Donald Trump nor the race baiting of Liberals should dull our passion to stand together for something better.

We should not stand in denial of the sins of racism & bigotry that do exist & will always exist because all mankind is sinful. Every nation is scarred by sin. Standing does not mean we deny the bad, but that together we can rise above it.

But I cannot shake the feeling that when people of good will sit or take a knee, we let the wicked think that America belongs to them. We let the wicked become little Hitlers who take it upon themselves to redefine the meaning of a flag that should otherwise stand for something good.

The only people who should be ashamed to stand during the national anthem and salute the American flag are those who deny the truth enshrined in our constitution that all human beings are created equal and worthy of dignity.

Instead of sitting or taking a knee, we should stand together and demonstrate to the world that “we the people” are willing to come together, rise above our failures, work to eliminate the influence of the corrupt, and dedicate our lives to helping every man and women know real freedom. The flag means nothing except the meaning we give to it. And if we lose our common symbol of unity, we will find only discord.


[1]  “Psychology, Psychiatry, and the Pastor: Part,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (1975): 201–202.

[2] Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

[3] Melvin Grove Kyle, “Excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim, the Ancient Kirjath Sepher 1928,” Bibliotheca Sacra 85, no. 340 (1928): 394.

[4]  “Psychology, Psychiatry, and the Pastor: Part,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (1975): 201–202.

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