I will spend six weeks in Mexico this summer on a writing retreat. This won’t be a formal retreat connected to an organization or something put together by a particular writer’s group. This will be me, a notebook, and some pencils. I write all the time–in the office, at home, sitting in the car waiting at traffic lights. Why go to Mexico to do something I generally do no matter where I am?
First, I must confess that I love Mexico. If I said anything overly spiritual about my reasons for writing there those who know me well would rightly call me out and press me to be honest. So, up front, full-disclosure: I love Mexico. I fell in love with the country after my first visit in April 2007 and I have returned several times, led two student groups there, and even spent the summer of 2008 as a Friend-in-Residence at the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. So, I confess–love of Mexico is clearly one of the reasons why I will spend six weeks there. (For those who know me, this love of mine is not a overly romaticized love–when I was robbed in October 2008 in Cuernavaca with a pistol to my forehead that took away any glamorized view I might have possessed!)
But the reasons extend beyond this. I am working on a project about disorientation, tentativeness, and the provisional. I’m writing about the importance of holding our theology seriously, but lightly…writing it, as it were, in pencil rather than in ink. (I’ve written a little about this elsewhere on Theography.)
If there is an attitude I am challenging in this project it is one of over-confidence and self-assuredness. This is something which I don’t believe is helpful to our theological work. Ok. Again, for those who know me, perhaps I am actually speaking to myself and trying to grow into a spirituality textured more by trust in God than confidence in my own abilities! Nevertheless, for me and anyone else who will listen, the point is to challenge us to have the courage to be honest about what we do not know and to trust that God can speak powerfully even in this “limitation.”
“The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church,” writes Karl Barth, “has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49, also 163) He goes on to argue that in theological work we don’t need “assuring” as much as “deassuring,” an actual “theological warning against theology, a warning against the idea that its propositions or principles are certain in themselves” (CD I/1, 165). It’s somewhere between “full assurance” and “no certainty” that I’m aiming for.
It is important, then, for me to write somewhere where I am not overly confident or so familiar that I am lulled into certainty. So, I won’t be writing in a university library, nor in my campus office, nor even in my study at home. Yes, I’ll write in a context I love, but it will be one where I am not an insider nor one where I am so comfortable that I can be overly self-assured.
There is an edginess to Mexico that keeps us all wondering. In El Laberinto de la Solidad, Octavio Paz speaks of a deep questioning of identity and inheritance that is part of the Mexican psychology. This clearly grows out of the Spanish conquest, but it continues into the present. Who are the cultural mothers and fathers and could the present have come to be apart from the “sorrowful birth” brought about by Cortés’ defeat of Cuautémoc? In another sense, Mexico City has been described as full of “chaotic energy,” where everything that exists in the world is present at the fullest stretch imaginable.
And yet, at the same time, at every level of society and in every community across the Republic, there are random eruptions of joy splashed with bright colors and enough music to make even hardcore gringos burn their return ticket.
To think and write about theology in this context is to be aware of how much is provisional and even “on the run.” I won’t have to imagine disorientation; I will be in the middle of it living it in my skin. Yet, to write in Mexico is also a reminder to me of how, even in this uncertainty, there is and can be joy.