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  • Added December 10th, 2016
  • Filed under 'All Sorts'
  • Viewed 1094 times


By David Kitchingman in All Sorts

An exploration of new ways of thinking about God while acknowledging the profundity and emotional intensity of the God question.

Never heard of it? No worries. Neither has anyone else until now. You won't find it in any dictionary. You won't even find it in Google, at least not until this Connections article has been made available on the internet via the Parish website. But at least my spell checker approves - it decorates it with a wavy red underline.
So it's a neologism, and every now and then we need to neologize when things change or new thoughts turn up. But do we really need any new variations on the oldest entity behind the Big Bang, referred to by the ancient Greek word theos? Shouldn't we be content with theism, deism, polytheism, ditheism, tritheism, henotheism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, and autotheism? Not to mention the good, the bad and the indifferent ─ eutheism, misotheism and dystheism. And definitely not to mention igtheism, nontheism, antitheism, and atheism (new or old), unless we come full circle round to antiatheism.

The intellectual aridity of all those words to date, including the bluntly negative variants, can be very off-putting. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, the plethora of theistic terminology there may well be a growing need for a new term. It's a crowded field but none of them quite matches what might be an emerging approach of our time. Couldn't there be a term that acknowledges the indestructability of the root expression in human culture and the psyche, whilst retaining its inscrutability and ambiguity?
A couple of examples will illustrate how the once starchy world of theos- talk and the simple standoff of theism v. atheism have become more lively and chaotic, particularly in the last decade. The most dramatic case has been that of Gretta Vosper, a minister of the United Church of Canada. In 2008, with the enthusiastic support of John Spong, she published her first major work, With or without God. In 2013, while pastor of a Toronto congregation she publicly embraced the term atheist. The fallout is still continuing as she challenges the Church's recommendation to declare her 'unsuitable'.

An oddly parallel case is that of Frank Schaeffer, an American film director and author, and once a prominent fundamentalist. In 2009 he published Patience with God: Faith for people who don't like religion (or atheism) and in 2014 he came up with Why I am an atheist who believes in God. Schaeffer put it this way: 'Maybe we need a new category other than theism, atheism or agnosticism that takes paradox and unknowing into account'. Perhaps apatheism, post-theism, transtheism or syntheism would be more to his taste, but I don't think he's settled on any particular model as yet.

So why offer deptheism? For four reasons:
1. As a blend of 'depth' and 'theism' it goes beyond cerebral stuffiness to encompass a broader framework of faith. Unlike all the related words noted above, deptheism isn't just an intellectual expression. It acknowledges the profundity and emotional intensity of the God question, without which the intellectual analysis can be barren. It suggests not just a theory but an exercise of mind and spirit. Compared with other dimensions, length, breadth, and even height, depth is the most suggestive of the scale of comprehension and encounter at stake.
2. Deptheism resonates with a powerful interpretation of faith in the modern era that still retains historic Christian (and other) links.
The Bible speaks of 'the depths of God' (I Cor 2: 10 NRSV) and makes considerable use of the metaphor of deepness and 'the deep' (Gen !: 2). It also, of course, makes much use of other metaphors, notably 'height', especially through the image of God in the highest heaven. But whereas height has become increasingly problematic in a Copernican universe, depth in relation to experience of God has acquired greater prominence in the contemporary world. The German-American Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, was the first to assign it to a central position:
'The name of [the] infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him [sic]... He who knows about depth knows about God.' In The Shaking of the foundations (1949), quoted by John A.T. Robinson in Honest to God, 1963.
To that may be added both support for Tillich and Robinson and some qualifications from a leading Catholic theologian:
'God is not another name for nature or humanity... God is not the unconscious of which depth psychology speaks... God is the transcendent depth of the encompassing ground of being... If the image of depth helps contemporary human beings to make present the transcendent reality of God, then it is even necessary. Still, one has to keep in mind that it, like the image of height, is an image and like all images has limits, it cannot say everything.' Heinrich Fries in Fundamental theology, 1996.
The proviso regarding all God-talk is essential, but depth as a primary signifier of God seems well established. In a New Zealand context, Bishop Richard Randerson's approach in Slipping the moorings (2015) and in the seminar he presented this year in our Parish is very much in tune with the idea of God as the transcendent depth within us and among us.
3. Deptheism also offers respect for and inclusion of genuine agnosticism and even non-militant, 'on balance' atheism (as distinct from New Atheism). Some depths are fathomable and some are unfathomable. Should it be any surprise or any shame that for many (not just non-churchgoers) the God of the depths ─ the God at the deepest realities of human existence ─ is an unfathomable mystery? Some people spend years of their lives prayerfully plumbing the depths and have to admit to exhausting failure. For such, it's some comfort to find Biblical support from the likes of Ecclesiastes: 'The truth is beyond us. It's far too deep.' (Eccl. 7: 24, CEV).
This is what makes the concept of deptheism so very different from the other isms. It stands for an attitude not an achievement. It embraces far more states of mind and spirit than a conventional Christian congregation supposedly does. It could become the badge of a new style of worship. It could poses a powerful challenge to our Parish as it explores its future strategy.
4. 'Deptheism' offers at least a provisional name for a developing broad spectrum spiritual phenomenon that needs to be identifiable by way of a shorthand label. Joseph Conrad once declared: 'You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put his trust, not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense... Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world'. Deptheism may not be quite the right word, but what it stands for begs for a word or two that will spell the potential for a more deep down basis for our spiritual life. So, as Siosifa said in the previous Connections column, 'Finding new words is not good enough without finding new actions and new meanings.'
David Kitchingman