“It’s like comparing cats and dogs.” Ever heard that expression before? Ever used it? I did, several years ago. I was teaching a 9th grade theology class in a (more or less) Catholic school, and same sex marriage (a hot topic at the time) came up for discussion. I wanted to emphasize that the marital relationship between a man and a woman is fundamentally different from a relationship between two men or two women. In my naivete I thought it would be helpful to explain that the relationships were as different as cats and dogs. Which is why I found myself in the assistant principal’s office the next day responding to student complaints that I had called people in same sex couples animals. “They tell me you said they were cats and dogs!”
This is a true story. I understood perfectly shortly afterwards when I heard Catholic scholar and apologist Peter Kreeft say that analogical thinking is a dying art. Our addiction to communications technology, it appears, is killing our powers of imagination. Kreeft pointed out that brains which spend a lot of time interacting with video games and various other electronic devices simply don’t develop in the same way as those formed by extensive reading. Among the those things that are undernourished are linear and analogical thinking. Professor Kreeft has found that this makes it difficult to teach a subject like Theology that requires dealing with a lot of difficult and abstract ideas.
The “cats and dogs” example above is just one of many I’ve experienced in thirty-plus years of teaching and, yes, such examples have become more frequent over the years. Fortunately, we still have a long way to go: while many people, especially young people, may not be as quick to grasp them as they might have been several decades ago, analogies are still the most effective way to communicate many ideas. Analogies have always been a preferred way of explaining Christian doctrine: think of the parables of Jesus, or St. Paul’s comparison (1st Corinthians) of the Church to a body, with all the members working together at their own assigned tasks. Not only that, one of the four traditional Levels of Meaning in scripture, the Allegorical, relies very heavily on analogical thinking. Analogy is often the only reliable way for us who are composed of both spirit and matter to understand spiritual realities.
Not surprisingly, analogies are also an essential tool in any dialogue with those who don’t share our faith. I don’t mean only those analogies we ourselves offer to explain our ideas. There are times when critiquing poorly conceived analogies offered up by those with whom we are, as they say, in dialogue, can sometimes help clarify the muddy thinking behind them. I once had an enthusiastically atheist student, for example, who proposed the following analogy as a critique of the Christian conception of God: Our Lord, as we Christians envision Him, is like an armed robber with a gun to our heads. He is offering us a choice between giving him all our money (i.e., living according to the Gospel and spending eternity in Heaven), or having our brains blown out (which is spending eternity in Hell).
Now, clearly, there are some very obvious problems with this analogy. The vast majority of people, even many non-Christians, will have a hard time seeing going to Heaven as equivalent to getting mugged, even if we accept the premise that living a Christian life “robs” us of pleasures we might otherwise enjoy. Heaven promises something infinitely better than anything available here, whereas an armed robber does not even pretend to make our life better than it was before we met him. And of course there is quite a lot of secular, sociological evidence that following God’s law actually makes us happier in the here-and-now. Also, the robber analogy depicts Hell as something that God imposes on us, in which we take no initiative at all, when in fact the Catholic conception of Hell is that it is something that we choose for ourselves by our rejection of his freely offered love, contrary to God’s desire that “all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)
The example above, by the way, also shows how analogies can be used not only to enlighten, but to deceive. A vivid image can capture the imagination and appear to be making a good argument, when in fact it is distorting the underlying ideas. A rational rebuttal can help to undermine a bad analogy, but logic doesn’t have the emotional impact of the tangible picture an analogy can create. Sometimes, in addition to reasoned argument, a good counter-analogy helps.
In this case, what analogy more truthfully communicates the eternal choice which God presents to us? Try this: imagine that we are standing outdoors on a cold, rainy night. Somebody (God) opens a door and invites us to come inside with him, where it is warm and dry (although, of course, we need to take off our wet muddy boots and our wet, dripping coats: those represent our attachment to sin). That’s God’s offer of eternal salvation. We can say yes, although we are equally free to say no. In fact, we are free to say “No, you can’t tell me what to do! Besides, can you prove it’s really warm and dry in there?” And we can remain out in the cold, wet darkness. That’s Hell, the product of nothing but our own pride and stubbornness.
The second analogy presents a much more accurate image of the Christian view of our eternal destiny. Notice also that these two analogies do more than simply offer different interpretations of the Christian view of our relationship with our Creator. Each also provides a telling view of the perspective of those who are offering the analogy. We can clearly see that the atheist’s philosophical stance is concerned with power, force, and will, a zero sum game in which one party must be the winner, and the other the loser. The truly Christian perspective envisions a reality in which love can triumph, and everyone can win.
So, yes, analogies can get us into trouble, both because in our increasingly literal-minded age our listeners might not understand, but also because the images we choose may reveal more of ourselves than we intend. Nonetheless, we follow a Lord who compares faith to a mustard seed, and to a treasure buried in a field. Not only that, he describes our omnipotent Creator as a loving, forgiving Father who waits for each one of us anxiously from afar, desiring us to return to him so that he can say of each of us, “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:24) Let’s not stay outside in the rain.