Whitewater Faith for the 21st Century (revised)

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!

The guidance these rules for negotiating the social and political rapids of life today in North America amount to this, I believe. They give us

-a place to stand (sabbath),

-a way to act (theology of the cross),

-a way to be (gratitude), and

-“the right man on our side” (Luther; Christ)

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.

(Part 1)

The World in Which Theology Works

Theology addresses the drives, dreams, dynamics, and dysfunctions of human life but it does so in a shape bequeathed to them by a particular place and time. It cannot speak about sin, grace, hope, salvation, justice and the like generically. It must do so in inflections derived from the specific shape and location of those drives, dreams, dynamics, and dysfunctions.

My argument is that we live in world of spiritual powers created by God for good but which have rebelled against God and hold creation in a death grip. Death is the chief of these powers. Satan’s powerful right hand (Heb.2:14). These powers keep creature and creation bound to futility and forever seeking their security and significance in the wrong places and against one another. In America the lethal roux (Baxter Kruger) that keeps our cultural rapids boiling and roiling I call an I.C.E. Age – Individualism, Consumerism, and Experientialism.  Let’s see how this works out. 

Principalities and Powers

The Apostle Paul speaks of realities like our I.C.E. Age in the idiom of his time and culture. In that world a multitude of spiritual forces inhabited the cosmos besides God and humanity. Evil figures such as the devil, fallen angels, and good figures such as faithful angels we are familiar with (even if we don’t quite know what to make of them). But other figures exist as well that we are not so familiar with. Among these are a group of beings Paul calls “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph.6:12). Often called simply “the principalities and powers,” they are key to understanding the work of Christ and the church.   

Walter Wink argues that New Testament’s language about “principalities and powers” (and other terms for the same ideas) refer to the realities of all human social dynamics – our institutions, belief systems, traditions, and the like.  Each and all of them have what he calls an inner and outer aspect.  “Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form – be it a church, a nation, and economy – and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world.  Neither pole is the cause of the other.  Both come into existence together and cease to exist together” (Naming the Powers, 5).

The key insight about these realities is that they

-are part of God’s good creation which provide the conditions of human social existence needed to make and keep human life human

-are fallen with the rest of creation and attempt to seize God’s place and twist God’s purposes for creation’s well-being, and

-are also an object of God’s redemptive intent as he seeks to heal and restore his creation to its creational purposes.

Wink writes:

“To put the thesis of these three volumes in its simplest form: The Powers are good.  The Powers are fallen.  The Powers must be redeemed.  These three statements must be held together, for each, by itself, is not only untrue but downright mischievous.  We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen.  We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation.  And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed” (Engaging the Powers, 10).

What drives these powers and gives them hold over us is the fear of death.  In the beginning of his book Instead of Death William Stringfellow writes,

“(This book) consists of some essays about the specific reality of death in contemporary life: about the vitality of the presence and power of death over human existence and, indeed, over the whole creation. The suggestion here is that the power of death can be identified in American society--as well as elsewhere for that matter--as that which appears to be the decisive, reigning, ultimate power. Therefore, for an individual's own little life--yours or mine or anybody's--death is the reality that has the most immediate, personal. everyday significance. In this life, it seems as if everyone and everything find meaning, when we really come down to it, in death.”

Bill Wylie-Kellerman adds that for Stringfellow

"Death, with a capital D, is itself, for Stringfellow, a living moral reality. He draws intuitively on St. Paul, for whom death (along with law and sin) is in a matrix of enslaved existence. Stringfellow sees it as the power behind the powers. Death is a kind of synonym for the spirituality of idolatry, domination, and empire ...  He regarded death as a moral power within the nation and thereby as its 'social purpose.' ... He named the nation-state as the 'pre-eminent principality.'” (William Stringfellow: The Essential Writings [Orbis, 2013], introduction)

Given over to death in their rebellion against God the powers become death-dealing rather life-giving. Driven by our legitimate need for security and significance, we seek them within the ambit of the powers. And thus become both victims and perpetrators of death. We serve the powers because they seem to assuage our fears and anxieties about security and significance. Serving them gives us a sense of freedom even from the power of death.

But they play us false. Beholden to the power of death themselves, the powers offer only bogus hope. Instead, our own personal fears about significance and security become wound around the institutional and organizational fears of the powers whose goal is to survive. When this happens we are sorely tempted to cede or personal integrity to secure the well-being of the institution.

And that, that is idolatry.

In two places in Ephesians (his letter about the “big picture” of what God is doing in the world) Paul identifies these “principalities and powers” as the objects of the church’s ministry. In 3:10-11 he writes,

“so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It is the church’s mission as a transnational, multiethnic, reconciled and reconciling community that serves notice to the powers that their reign is over, that Christ has routed them on the cross (Col.2:15) and restored them to their original good purposes (Col.1:20).

In Eph.6:12 we learn that it is precisely these powers against whom we struggle.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Human beings, even those willingly serving the powers malignant and perverse purposes, are not those against we conduct our “struggle,” our subversive, counter-revolutionary activity on God’s behalf. Those who side with the powers need freedom and healing as much as those they have helped victimize (albeit in different ways). Richard Beck illustrates:

“Think of it this way. Slavery in America was a fallen power structure. It was a demonic power supported by church and state, written into our founding political documents. Thus the real fight against slavery was to be waged in this "heavenly realm," against the thing--slavery--that "possessed" us. The fight wasn't against the slave owner. We are not to demonize the human being caught up in evil. Rather, we are to liberate both slave and slave owner from the demonic possession. Our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the powers(Richard Beck, “Notes on Demons & The Powers: Part 5, The Angels of the Nations,” http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2009/11/notes-on-demons-powers-part-5-angels-of.html).

We will return in some detail to both of these matters through this study.

Individualism, consumerism, and experientialism are the foci around which most American tell their stories. Individualism reflects our desire to live independently, avoiding community (though many of us  think it is a good idea), accountability, and liability for one another. We want to make our own way and life in this world unencumbered by the constraints of tradition, commitments, and relationships. As my three-year-old grandson says: “I can do it by myself!” We hope to be self-made people. And self-made people always worship their makers!

“Freedom” has become devalued in the West, diluted to mean only freedom “from” - freedom from any non-legal constraints on our desires and decisions. This kind of freedom creates inherent conflict with commitments, accountability, roots, traditions, community, or relationships. This is a kind of “naked’ freedom, the sheer capacity to chose.

Consumerism has so fully and successfully snagged most of us in this part of the world that it is, in effect, our default religion. This pseudo-Gospel offers a creed (“I shop therefore I am”), a mission (“Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”), a set of “spiritual” practices (the actual processes of acquiring and consuming), a cathedral (the shopping mall), and a vision of the “end” (a life in which acquisition and consumption have filled all our needs and wants, erased worry from our minds, and set our lives in a land flowing with cash and comforts). Our way of life starring ourselves as consumers is evident to all, easy to criticize, and seemingly impossible to escape. When those outside (or sometimes even inside!) the church claim that Christians do not live any differently than non-churched people do, I suspect it is our consumeristic ways of life they have in mind. Our priorities, patterns, and practices of consumption do not differ from theirs in any significant ways.

Consumerism as a way of life operates on the principle that consuming constitutes our identity, our reality, and that our perceived “needs” take precedence over everything else. Thus, the slogan, “I shop therefore I am.” This has the individual “I” at the center. This “I” is active in establishing its own existence. And that activity is acquisition and consumption, a centripetal movement. Whoever or whatever sits at the center of our world, is our “ultimate concern” as theologian Paul Tillich famously put it, that without which we cannot conceive of being truly happy, or “God.”

Experientialism is the last element of our new I.C.E. Age. We thirst for a never-ending series of experiences that shuffle and re-shuffle our emotions, sending them to their boundaries and beyond in search of a life well-lived. I call this the “Cat in Hat” syndrome. You remember Dr. Seuss’ famous children’s story, don’t you? Two children sit at home on a wet rainy day with nothing to do while their parents are at work. Then the Cat in the Hat appears with all sorts of different and amazing spectacles that keep pushing the entertainment envelope and leave a swath of destruction in its wake. A cardinal sin in our I.C.E. Age is having nothing to do, which easily and quickly morphs into boredom. And boredom is never to be tolerated! And the explosion of new media technologies beat back every threat of time with nothing to do.

Affluence creates mobility which leaves fewer experiences or spectacles out of reach for many of us. And accumulating such experiences is now touted as the way to the good life. “Spend ever less of your time and money on stuff, and ever more on experiences instead,” advises James Wallman, advocate for what he calls the “experience revolution” (“Spend Less on Stuff, More on Experiences,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/27/spend-less-on-stuff-experiences-materialism-experientialism). Mobility decreases the importance and significance of locality, friendships, and commitment as we believe we can find satisfying experiences with interesting people wherever we want. Each of these experiences, however, raises our threshold of satisfaction, creating a need not only for another experience but a better, greater, more spectacular experience. And on it goes. Such a way of living, centered upon our search for “life” by experiencing as wide an array of spectacles and wonders as possible, results in living “a mile wide and an inch deep.” 

This seems to be the default mode of life in our time - breadth without depth, always deferring the question of meaning through an ironic search for the next great entertainment. This restless and relentless quest for the next and the new fuels a situation in which, if we are not “amusing ourselves to death,” we are condemning ourselves to life without depth, without roots which ground us in place and relationships.

Each of these three I.C.E. Age features are centered on or have us at the center of life. Until we get the issue of who runs our lives sorted out, none of the rest of that matters anyway. And a theology worthy of the name will continually face us with this reality in every way possible.


The world we live in, then, is driven by ideologies, isms, institutions, systems, and the like which, though created to do the work of establishing and maintaining conditions for the flourishing of human life, have betrayed that mandate and sought to wrest for control of creation for themselves and their (cross) purposes. Driven by a fear of death both these powers and human beings collude in trying to satisfy their desire for security and significance in each other. The debris of this collusion is everywhere evident within and around us.

Christ has defeated these unruly powers at the cross and begun the process of pacifying and restoring them to their created purpose. The church is the chief agent God uses in this pacification work (the church’s subversive, counter-revolutionary service). Its existence, and way of life as a people who can live free of the powers determined efforts to maintain their illicit power over us as well as begin to develop patterns and practices of new life that point to the kingdom of God which is coming and is our destiny.

Both the perpetrators and victims of the power’s malign rule are enslaved to them and need liberation, healing, and reconciliation. In our age, our I.C.E. Age, the chief manifestations of the powers’ rule we face in America, individualism, consumerism, and experientialism form the witch’s brew of confusion, corruption, conflict, and conceit that bedevil us. It is this cluster of forces we must seek to subvert and provide alternatives to. This is, according to Paul (Jesus too with his Kingdom of God movement), our vocation as God’s people, following God in his work to reclaim and restore creatures and creation for his good purposes.

And because these powers have both an inner and an outer reality, “spiritual” means embodied, not something inward, inner, immaterial or the like. Within us, among us, and around us the struggle we undertake will be intimate, social, and cosmic, often at the same time.

This is our world. The world God loves and has acted in Christ to save. The world his people do battle in against the powers of deformation and destruction in the power of his saving victory over said powers. Defeated but not yet banished, these powers continue to resist Christ’s will and push their I.C.E. Age agenda. Herein lies the crux of our calling.  

We can picture all this this way:


                                                                             Principalities & Powers

                Individualism    Consumerism     Experientialism


As I spell out this Whitewater faith for the 21st century we will look first at the power and fear of death using the work of Arthur C. McGill, William Stringfellow, and Jacques Ellul (ch.2). Then we will take up each of our four rules for negotiating the social, cultural, political, economic, and religious rapids of our day.

-Rule 1: A Place to Stand (Sabbath; ch.3)

-Rule 2: A Way to Act (A Theology of the Cross; ch.4)

-Rule 3: A Way to Be (Gratitude; ch.5)

-Rule 4: “The Right Man on our Side” (Christ; ch.6)

This whole enterprise is an exercise of faith. And by faith I mean what Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed in his outline for a book about the post-war church he never lived to write: “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that our lives depend on it?” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison: DBW 8 (Kindle Locations 14344-14345). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition). Matthew Bates has recently argued that faith in the New Testament fundamentally means “loyalty” or “allegiance” (Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King [Baker Academic, 2017]). Like Puddleglum in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Silver Chair, who in the presence of the enchantments and wrath of the evil witch of the underworld, maintains his allegiance to Aslan in a memorable confrontation.

"’One word, Ma'am,’ he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. ‘One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say’" (The Chronicles of Narnia [HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001]), 633).

Austrian social philosopher Ivan Illich puts it this way:

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step…if you want to change a society then you have to tell an alternative story” (cited at https://donstephens.org/2007/11/12/an-alternative-story/).

Faith is living from such an “alternative story” and living it out in our world. A life that bears consistent and cogent testimony to the story we embrace as the truth.


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