Whitewater Faith for the 21st Century (Part 1)

Our culture is often likened to whitewater rapids - ever-changing, unpredictable, dangerous. It would be hard to gainsay the analogy. Experienced rafters know the key rules for successfully negotiating the whitewater rapids. I suggest these rules give us some critical guidelines for navigating our cultural/social rapids. I've tried to translate them into biblical/theological guidelines for just such a purpose.

The Nature and Purpose of Theology

Theology is the work of the church that evaluates and directs its journey into and through the unpredictable and treacherous rapids. According to Karl Barth this means that theology

-is contextual and conflictual: an instrument of the “ecclesia militans” (Church Militant), theology guides the Church of a specific time to address and/or contest the needs and hopes of that time. (Church Dogmatics 1.2, 841)

-is communal and missional: “...theology . . . can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering Christian community and in rigorous service of its commission to all men.” (The Humanity of God, 63)

-is scriptural and critical: theology's role . . .  is to invite the church “to listen again to the Word of God in the revelation to which the Scripture testifies" (Church Dogmatics 1.2, 798).

-is contested and tempted: After all that has befallen it, church dogmatics will not become "church" again i.e., free from the alien dominion of general truths and free for Christian truth, until it summons up sufficient courage to restore what is specifically Christian knowledge, that of the Trinity and of Christology, to its place at the head of its pronouncements, and to regard and treat it as the foundation of all its other pronouncements. (Church Dogmatics 1.2, 124).

Learning to see the world and church through the lens of God’s triune nature and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, existing in and from the church, for the sake of the world, under the Word of God, and amid all the temptations and struggles of a world intent on domesticating and defeating it, theology plies its humble and human task of seriously reflecting on the church’s presence and practice in the world.

For theology to ever become an abstract, arcane, intellectual hobby, believed unnecessary and perhaps even deleterious to faith and church life, is a profound betrayal of this practice and the church!

Rules for Whitewater Rafting

I believe the following rules for whitewater rafting suggest the focus we need and focuses the content of the faith we need for living faithfully in these times. They are:

1.       Rest during the calms because there is more turbulence coming

2.       When a rock looms ahead, lean into it not away from it

3.       Whatever else you do, never stop paddling

4.       Let everything else but your life jacket go if you fall into the water

I suggest we can translate these four rules for whitewater rafting into the following directives for faithful church life and ministry in the 21st century.

1.       “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex.20:8).

Keep the Presence always present. Live from the “big picture” of what God is doing in the world. What he has accomplished for the world in Jesus Christ. The destiny God intends for himself and his creation. That which alone is real, true, good, and beautiful. God’s presence with us – his plan and eternal purpose for us. That for which God bends his every effort to achieve with every act of his love.

2.       "Take up your cross and follow me" (Mk.8:34).

God’s way runs counter to very intuition and direction our hearts and the world teach us to follow. It’s called the “theology of the cross.” Most of time the church has preferred a “theology of glory,” however. A theology that glosses the world’s way of triumph and success and models Christian existence after it. A theology of glory does not lean into an oncoming rock. God’s way, the way of leaning into that oncoming rock, the way of the cross as victory, death to life, is very much an acquired taste. One we today must work extra hard to acquire.

3.       "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess.5:16-18).

Gratitude, “giving thanks in all circumstances,” is the chief mark of all Christian living. Gratitude refuses to let the pervasive and ever-present fear of death have the upper hand. The stench of the latter energizes and infects all our individual and cultural efforts to achieve significance and security no matter how grand, successful, and wonderful those achievements may be. The particular character of Christian gratitude distinguishes it from competitors and cultural surrogates.

4.       "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)

Whoever finds salvation and wherever they find it owe it ultimately to Jesus Christ. He alone is the one who saves and who saves whomever he wills. He is the one in whom God is gathering up all things and beings in creation (Eph.1:10) – the Omega Point as he has been called. The uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is the key to what God is doing in and with our world, the good news of God for everyone!

Sabbath, cross, gratitude, and Christ, then, offer four points of entry to the whitewater rapids of life today. David Bentley Hart argues that “In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism” (Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies [Yale University Press, 2009], 20-21).  People may and do believe all sorts of things today but at bottom, according to Hart, they rest on “nothing” (nihil, Latin) more than our individual choice or preference. A modernity and post-modernity built on this nothing (and post-modernity was honest about this than modernity ever was) faces a yawning abyss of meaninglessness which cannot forever be papered over with the nihil. 

Jesus Christ is the Logos of God, the “word” or “meaning” of God, inscribed in creation itself by his creative labor (Col.1:15-17) and ruling over creation as its Lord and Ruler in redemption. Christian faith, the church, theology, cannot but be about meaning-making. The waves of our whitewater rapids tossing us to and fro seek to submerge us into its nihil. This where the struggle must be joined. In all the ways noted above theology must play its vital and irreplaceable role in equipping the church to be what God intends it to be.

As we will see, though, this requires a theology reoriented to a church revisioned in a world reconsidered to serve a Christ long-unknown to us.


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