Literal and figurative DNA? you may be thinking. Literal and figurative DNA? What in Sam Hill are you talking about? Why can’t you speak plainly? Why do you have to go off on these. These. Oh, I don’t know. On these confusing excursions. These silly similes. These monotonous metaphors.
Would you please say a thing straight out? Would you please say what you mean?
But indirection is how art works, I want to say in reply. Metaphor is how art words. Works, I mean. Figure is how we know. It’s how we imagine and therefore how we know. And in God’s universe, paradox and ambiguity and ambivalence are his amino acids. They are his basic building blocks of life.
To bring real life into the conversation. To bring economy and concision and precision into the life of meaning. We need to use metaphor. Simile. Tropes of various types and kinds. We seem to need this. We seem built to take in meaning, take on meaning, take in the spiritual shapes God has in mind. Better. If we use figurative language to say what we mean.
And so when I say literal DNA, I am certainly referring to the chemical code, the molecular information from which all life is created. I am certainly referring to the infamous adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. I am certainly referring to the actual molecular structure and the behavior of the stuff—the words, the syntax, the semiotics, if you will—of the chemical language that God uses to speak life into existence.
And when I say figurative DNA, I am certainly referring to the figurative power of the language. Of these chemical words. To put shape and color and attitude and hairiness or scaliness and role and talent to the life a particular strand of DNA contains in code. Just as human language contains the figurative power that enables us to give shape and color and smell and tone and pitch to the life of meaning our language contains in code. To the stories our language contains in code. To the overarching understandings our language contains in code.
And so by conflating them, I hope to say something about the similarity. The resemblance. The illuminating possibility of looking at one in terms of the other. And I hope to say that as God speaks us physically into being through our DNA, he speaks us spiritually into being through spoken language. And as we use language and as we manipulate DNA, we participate in God’s own imagination.
We are not only imagined by God. Given a shape and image by God. But we also participate with God or work against God in his imaginative enterprise. In his creation. In his salvation. And in his love.