The Metaphorical Equivalent of War

I actually understand why Ross’s latest column is getting so much negative commentary. No, of course he doesn’t think we should be engaged in a holy war against Islam . . . in any literal sense. But that just points up the peculiarity of the military metaphors – “fronts” and “foes” and “appeasement” and so forth – without which, basically, the column wouldn’t exist.

Here’s the key question: in what sense does the Catholic overture to Anglicans in any way constitute building a “united front” “against” Islam? What does that even mean, really?

I think what’s going on here is that Catholic assumptions about how a religious community should be organized are simply being assumed, and these are driving the analysis. The Catholic Church is a rarity among global religions in being organized in a heirarchical manner modeled, originally, on a military organization (the Roman Empire). That’s not the way most Protestant denominations, or Rabbinic Judaism, or Sunni Islam, or Hinduism, or most other religions around the world are organized. But it’s pretty central to Catholicism – precisely because of that contrast.

If you look at the world that way, then it might make perfect sense to say that, if you perceive a rising threat (feel free to frame Islam as a “competitor” rather than a “foe” – it doesn’t actually change anything important for my purposes) then one needs to strengthen one’s own hand. Inasmuch as the Pope understands himself to be the proper leader of the entire Christian community, albeit not acknowledged as such by a substantial portion thereof, and inasmuch as he understands that form of organization to be vital to the mundane success of that community, then it is entirely logical for him to say something to the effect of “in times like these, we need to all get under one banner as much as possible; if that means bending where we can plausibly bend, so be it, and if that means offending those who choose not to join us, so be it as well.” But that says more about the nature of his world view than it does about its validity.

Why, after all, is it necessarily the case that unity under a single leader makes it more likely that Christianity as such will survive and thrive when faced with a resurgent Islam? No doubt Christianity is competing with Islam for converts – certainly in Asia and Africa. No doubt Christian communities are engaged in actual violent conflict with Islamic communities in many parts of the world – as well as being subject to more or less oppressive rule in some countries where Islam predominates. No doubt there are pastors of various denominations in Europe who fear for the future when they compare the average age and regularity of attendance of their congregations to those of the mosques down the block. But the argument that the response to this situation should be “unity under the leadership of the Pope” needs to be made, not assumed. It seems at least as plausible to me that a decentralized religious culture is more conducive to rapid growth and more likely to respond effectively to diverse challenges from without and within.

If Ross knows that Pope Benedict was actually thinking about the challenge from Islam when he planned his move against the Anglicans, then that’s the story – and that’s reporting. But as written, the column seems merely to assume that this was his thinking – and, furthermore, to assume that this thinking was correct, without actually making an argument for the latter.

Metaphors are wonderful things – unparalleled, really, as tools of communication. But for that very reason of their natural persuasiveness, they have to be carefully examined to make sure the implied equivalencies are actually there. This holds not only in metaphorical wars, but in real ones. See, for instance, the “soft underbelly” of the Axis supposedly located somewhere in the vicinity of Sicily.