Animate: Coming Out as Apophatic

Animate: Coming Out as Apophatic May 16, 2013

By Lillian Daniel, author and contributor to animate.Faith

Gathered in a cozy living room, our little church group watched the Animate DVDs over eight weeks. We dug into the deep theological questions as we got to learn more about God, each other and the vagaries of our host’s temperamental toilet.

In the first DVD, the gifted teacher Brian McLaren explained that in the Christian tradition, there are two ways of thinking about God, the apophatic and the kataphatic. (Hang in there with the long words, my friends. They could help you win a scrabble game one day.)

Apophatic people believe that God is simply indescribable, that you cannot come up with an image or word for God that works. But kataphatic people, while acknowledging that there is no one correct image, still appreciate visualizing God as something –  from a burning bush, to the wind, to a mother hen, to an old white guy with a beard.

I’m enough of a feminist to know which image of God I am supposed to object to. It’s the patriarchal one in need of a shave, a haircut and some sensitivity training. But to be honest, the image I really hate is the one where God is a mother hen. I know, I know, it’s the one feminists point to, as if to say, “See, we’re in here! It’s in the Bible! God can be female!”

But does it not bother anyone that in the rare Biblical female version, God is a chicken? The male God gets to be a king. The female God gets to be a hen. Sorry, but that’s just not working for me.

Let me also admit that I have a bit of a phobia of chickens, an unreasonable fear that they will either attack me or force me to live with them in some agrarian dystopia where they are in charge. On a recent vacation in Nicaragua, my worst fears were confirmed. I was assured that it was perfectly safe to enter the groovy organic hen house to pick out my own eggs for breakfast. I was promised that the hens would welcome me into their smelly nirvana as just another animal on this beautiful big blue marble we call earth.

Why did I believe such a thing? The hens were heinous. And why wouldn’t they be? Apparently they did not want to share their eggs, particularly with someone who was obviously planning to eat them.

The hens leapt off their weird little poultry shelves and flew at my head with their beady eyes glaring, while the rear guard hens on the ground pecked at my legs and kicked up their own poop in rage. If I get to heaven and find out that God is a mother hen, I will seriously consider my options down below.

I recall a while ago, when another animate presenter, my friend Lauren Winner, was writing about images of God.  She called to ask me what my favorite image was. And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I didn’t have one.  I wasn’t just lacking a favorite image. I didn’t have any image. I just don’t think of God in visual ways. I am fine with the mystery.

At the time, I felt a bit embarrassed about it and even wondered what was wrong with me. But that night in our animate group, Brian McLaren gave me a word for my condition and it was a clever sounding, multi syllabic, theological word at that.

I am apophatic. And proud. Apophatic non-visual people of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your metaphors.

Lillian Daniel is the author of When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough and while she can’t really describe God, she keeps searching at

Learn more about the new seven-session adult resource animate.Faith at the Patheos Book Club here.


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