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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.

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We should not write theology in pen.

Theologians are not the only ones who fall into the trap of writing/thinking/speaking with permanent ink, but it is a besetting sin of many of us. Handling such topics as “the Divine,” “eternity,” or even more pompously stated, “the counsels of God,” we can fool ourselves into thinking we are working with realities fixed and certain. Words spoken in ink sound confident and assured but they are not honest and can actually diminish the liveliness of faith when over time we believe in them more than in the Spirit that moves as it will. Barth provides both comfort and challenge on precisely this point: “The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49)  Full assurance, yes. Certainty, no.

When Moses asked to see God he didn’t quite get what he had hoped for…he saw God pass before him. And really, that’s as good as it gets. There is no holding on to a moving and living God, no pinning God down, no snapping photos and capturing the essence of the Holy One. Nevertheless, when such a phenomenon is expressed it is often done so with much more  triumphalism and self-assuredness than the reality permits.

We need to write theology in pencil and keep a thick eraser handy. This work is provisional, tentative, and always unfinished. There is no word or concept or beautifully crafted theological exposition that will sustain us through this life and the next. The Word can do this, however. The living, pulsing, and vibrant Presence of God is what animates words, inspires creation, offers hope, and births a people. Staying close to this Reality that–as Moses discovered–doesn’t stand still, will require revision, restatement, remaking, and renewal. It is smuggy, messy, and incomplete–it’s fulfillment may be written boldly in pen, but that day is not yet.

Returning to Uncle Karl: Barth was asked once about why he did not finish his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. “There is a certain merit to an unfinished dogmatics…it points to the eschatological character of theology! (Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 86)

Rigidity and fixity in theology (and other matters) may address our ill-at-ease-ness with ambiguity and our discomfort with chaos, but whatever is its subject it can never be the Reality that is God.

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Writing Projects

I’m in the thick of two book projects and the thin of one other.

Quakers Worshiping in North America is well underway but has hit a snag with a couple chapters. I’m editing it and contributing a couple chapters. I’m fortunate (and so will readers) that there are several interesting (F)friends contributing to the project as well. Corey Beals is writing about Evangelical Friends, Deborah Shaw about Conservative Friends, Deborah Suess has written a beautiful chapter on Friends United Meeting, Tom Swain is writing about General Conference Friends, Wess Daniels on Convergent Friends, and Eden Grace about Ecumenicity in worship. I’m hoping to have a manuscript to the publisher sometime Fall semester.

Creative Center: Collected Writings of Maurice Creasey is getting much closer to completion. The chapters have been converted to electronic files, double copy-edited, and I am preparing brief introductions to the essays that will form each chapter. Additionally, during the Fall semester I will write a lengthy introduction to the book that will place Creasey work in it’s theological and Quaker context. I hope I can send a manuscript to publishers during the Spring semester.

In another post I’ll talk about a book I will work on during my upcoming writing retreat in Mexico.

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