“My God, my God, thou art a… figurative, a metaphorical God.”
– John Donne
God has blessed us with a linguistic world abounding with metaphors. Everyone uses metaphors—toddlers and poets, sports writers and priests, the Bible and Beyoncé. Metaphors matter. They add richness and beauty to life, and they reveal truth, reminding us of the divinely created unity of the world. However, the power of metaphor can also work for ill, can mislead and taint.
Most simply defined, a metaphor describes one thing in terms of another; it draws a comparison between two objects that belong to different categories. “My mind is a complete blank,” you might say, describing a human feeling with a visual image. No one’s mind is literally an empty white sheet of paper, but in a metaphor, a word or phrase is figuratively applied to an object or action.
Almost as soon as children can talk, they employ expressions that appear to be metaphors. A two-year-old might say, “Cup swimming,” about a cup in the bathtub, or, upon picking up a curved stick, “It’s a snake!” Poets overflow with metaphors, as in Emily Dickinson’s “The moon was but a chin of gold,” or Robert Frost’s famous description of snow-bowed birches: “Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground / Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” While technically the latter is a simile, scholars consider metaphor and simile as essentially the same, one overt and the other implied. Frost believed that metaphor lies at the heart of poetry and that “the richest accumulation of the ages is the noble metaphors we have rolled up.”
Metaphors are key ways in which human beings make discoveries. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes that the metaphorical imagination “contributes concretely . . . to the projection of new possibilities of describing the world.” Poetic metaphors lead to intellectual, aesthetic, and psychological discoveries, but metaphors play an equally important role in scientific thinking. In Making Truth: Metaphor in Science, Theodore Brown demonstrates how reliant scientists are on metaphors to design and perform experiments. Much of science deals in objects invisible to the naked eye, which can only be grasped and then worked with through metaphor. For example, Neils Bohr developed the atom model by thinking about electrons and nuclei like small billiard or Ping-Pong balls in motion. That metaphor helped him devise and perform experiments, even as it also helps the layperson to understand the science of atoms.
Metaphors not only express what we perceive but influence what we perceive.
Brown’s work relies on the theories of George Lakoff and others, who have highlighted the ways in which human thought itself is largely metaphorical. Metaphors not only express what we perceive but influence what we perceive. If we think of electrons as bouncing ping-pong balls, we will measure and track them in certain ways. Carefully choosing metaphors is thus a crucial part of a scientist’s work, because metaphors can hide things by causing us to focus on one thing at the expense of another. A long-established but inaccurate metaphor can lead a field astray for years (for example, the metaphor of the bodily humors).
God loves metaphors, according to the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, who marvels in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:
“My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also… a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.”
Donne’s highly metaphorical poetry and prose thus reflect the imago dei.
Aristotle was not as enthusiastic. While he admired those who were masters of metaphor, he claimed that metaphors merely provide rhetorical decoration, a “seasoning of the meat” rather than the meat itself (ironically in his own food-based metaphor). By “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else,” a metaphor is deceptive. Clear logic might be preferable. Or, as my students sometimes lament, “Why didn’t Dickinson just say what she meant?” However, some ideas can only be grasped or expressed through metaphor.
Metaphors thus allow us to make discoveries by seeing things in a new way.
Instead of simply embellishing an idea through substitution (x replaces y; x= girls drying their hair and y=birch trees bending over), the metaphorical process prompts a fruitful interaction between two initially different things, inviting us to consider their similarities, not just their differences. Metaphors thus allow us to make discoveries by seeing things in a new way. Birches and girls are different categories, but when they interact, they evoke the gracefulness of a lithe form, and a cascade of wet hair arouses a new way of envisioning the drooping birch branches. The girls dry their hair in the sun, just as the birch displays her spring growth after the icy winter, revealing their common identity in the physical world of change and development.
When metaphors go wrong, human flourishing suffers. In Illness As Metaphor Susan Sontag discusses how first consumption and later cancer became metaphors of death itself, resulting in stigma and judgments being attached to those suffering with these diseases. The metaphoric association of white with purity and black with evil has had even more pernicious social effects.
A currently pervasive metaphor comes from genetics. “It’s in her DNA,” might refer to some deep-seated tendency in a person, while discussing a social practice in terms of its DNA typically refers to its historical origins. Recently, I heard a talk about the legacy of race-based slavery in the United States, and the speaker repeatedly said, “Slavery is in the DNA of our country’s identity.” Might this imply that we can never eradicate the evils of slavery or move beyond the flaws of our past? So while we wonder at and explore the riches of metaphors, we should also use discernment, time and thought, in our employment of them.