by Archbishop Peter Loy Chong
The Oxford Dictionary states that a flag is a piece of cloth or similar material, typically oblong or square, attachable by one edge to a pole or rope and used as the symbol or emblem of a country. The flag is a symbol of a nation's identity, beliefs and values.
Therefore to create a new flag and ensure it truly represents a nation's identity, those charged with this task must understand the notion of a symbol. What is a symbol and how does it function?
I wish to contribute to the formulation of Fiji's new flag by providing a framework for understanding the flag as a symbol. I draw my contribution from Roger Haight's book "Dynamics of Theology".
Haight's discussion on symbol draws from two prominent Christian theologians, Karl Rahner (Catholic) and Paul Tillich (Protestant). Rahner's theology of symbols is rooted in a great doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.
Haight argues a symbol may be simply defined as that through which something other than itself is made present and known. In some cases the symbol may be the only way through which the thing symbolised is actualised or known. A symbol makes something else present and actual. It makes known something other than itself.
In the religious context, symbols make God known and present. A symbol can be anything, an event, or person in history which mediates or makes present to human consciousness the presence of God in one way or another.
A good synonym for symbol is medium. In other words a symbol mediates the experience of God. Since a symbol is a medium its function is to point to something beyond itself or something other than itself. This is what makes a symbol a symbol, namely the ability to point to something else.
A symbol is more than a mere sign. A sign bears no internal connection to that which it signifies. A symbol on the other hand has the capability of making present that which it symbolises.
Paul Tillich goes further by stating a symbol participates in that which is symbolised. The symbol makes present what it symbolises. Since a symbol communicates and makes the divine present, it must be meaningful to the people of the particular culture.
The above understanding of the symbol can help us understand the significance of a national symbol such as the flag.
A flag symbolises a nation's identity, history, beliefs and values. The flag should communicate and make present to people what their nation stands for. The symbols in the flag point to the nation. To see the symbols is to see their national identity, beliefs and values.
Symbols will only speak to a people when it is drawn from their culture. Hence, a foreign symbol cannot speak to the local people. It must be added here that an effective symbol needs no interpretation or explanation. In other words, an effective symbol has the power to communicate what it symbolises and hence no need for explanations.
From what has been said about the nature and function of symbols we can make some concluding remarks in relation to the proposed new Fiji flag.
1. The Fiji flag should communicate Fijian identity, beliefs, values and aspirations.
2. The new Fiji flag should use effective and powerful local symbols that communicate Fijian identity, beliefs and values.
3. The symbols should be drawn from the major local ethnic and religious communities.
The 23 probable flags should be evaluated and critiqued in light of these three points. The comments we are getting in the media show the 23 probable flags fail to communicate the Fijian identity, beliefs and values.
Any Fijian who sees the Fiji flag should see something of the Fijianness in his or her heart.