The Cross in the Nuclear Age

My son noticed it. We went to a hospital here in in the Philippines… to the Nuclear Medicine lab. Right behind us was a thick heavy-looking door. My son Joel pointed to two symbols there. One was a Radiation (tri-foil) symbol. Above it was a smaller symbol… a crucifix.

Here in the Philippines we are not as prone to compartmentalize faith. Having religious symbols next to symbols of science, government, and such… in public places, is not thought strange or inappropriate.

But it got me thinking about the two symbols. Both symbols have a history to them. One is a very old symbol (the crucifix), while the other, newer, but still having considerable history to it. The tri-foil dates back to about 1946. This still makes it almost 70 years old.

Both symbols have broadened and changed in meaning over time. The crucifix (cross) symbolized degradation– curse– in its early historical context. That meaning is not eradicated but has been shoved down as new meanings have supplanted it. The Tri-foil has been a warning of hazard due to ionizing radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron)… that is still its main meaning but new meanings have also crept in. The symbol has been morphed into a symbol (looking different but still showing its tri-foil inspiration) for fallout shelters… a symbol of protection. In its original form it is used in hospitals, not only to give warning, but to suggest testing and healing, through x-ray photography and radiation treatment.

A.  As Symbols. 

There are a number of ways that the crucifix and the tri-foil are similar:

1. They are both symbols of power. One symbolizes the power of the atom… power that can be harnessed for good or evil. The other symbolizes the power of God both in potential and in will to do good. Yet the goodness of God does not negate His ability to destroy as well.

2.  They both are symbols of healing and hope. The tri-foil is recognized as a symbol tied to many processes that are considered beneficial— medical treatment, medical evaluation, material inspection, disinfecting, and so forth. The crucifix symbolizes God’s provision for restoring man to Himself.

3.  They both are symbols of controversy. The tri-foil is often seen as a symbol of what is wrong with the modern world, whether it be the atomic bomb, dangers of nuclear waste, genetic engineering and other activities where man appears to be “playing God.” The crucifix is seen by some as morbid, or out of touch with modern thought. Even among some Christians (such as Protestants), the crucifix is often seen as “putting Christ back on the Cross.” (Although I am Protestant, I don’t see that necessarily to be the case. Should a church that sets up a Nativity scene be charged with “putting Jesus back in the cradle?”) 

4.  They are both symbols of mystery. The tri-foil warns us of things we cannot see or feel emanating from something called atoms, another thing we cannot see, or even understand. (Anyone who thinks they understand atoms is not up-to-date with the present theories of atomic structure and sub-atomic particles.) I recall, from my days as a nuclear engineer, walking through Reactor Compartment Upper Level of a nuclear plant in Idaho and feeling nauseous. The nausea wasn’t directly caused by radiation or contamination there… but simply the knowledge that there were things I could not see or feel or fully understand that were going into and through my body that I could do nothing about. The crucifix symbolizes the mystery of divine atonement. It is often described simply (“Christ died for us”). But the more we dwell on this, the more mysterious it is.

B.  In Juxtaposition.

Returning to the hospital, it occurs to me that the relationship of the two symbols was important.

1.  The tri-foil was bigger and at eye-level. The symbol was there warning of a hazard. It was important that people quickly see it and take heed to the danger. While there is a warning in the crucifix, that warning is more generally relevant, with less… immediacy. Additionally, since it was a medical hospital… the symbols of “science” are needed to give comfort that the hospital has competence in its secular, recognized, function. A medical doctor can have a Bible with him (or her), but it is more critical to have the symbols of the profession (stethoscope, name badge, clipboard, lab coat) to provide patient confidence that the individual has competence in his (or her) profession. A hospital chaplain can carry around a thermometer, for example, but it is more important that he (or she) has a clerical collar, a chaplain’s coat (or other clerical garb) and a Bible. The dominant symbols provide comfort of competence in each’s respective sphere.

2.  The crucifix was placed above the tri-foil. It was smaller (since it was not meant to be as immediate of a warning). For the same reason it was not placed at eye-level. However, placing it above the tri-foil symbolizes, I believe, the idea that God is above all, and the ultimate protector and healer. Scientific/natural discoveries have benefits,  but ultimately all submit to God as Lord and Creator of nature.

Symbols matter. They mean something whether we acknowledge them or not, and whether we are cognizant of their effect on us. We need to choose our symbols wisely. One should, however, be careful not to confuse the symbol’s power as a symbol with the power the symbol represents. Rather we should be recognizing their ability to affect change in the hearts and minds of people who apply meaning to them.

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