A few weeks ago, a friend and I went on a tour of Guanajuato, Mexico.
Our tour guide, Dali (named after Salvador Dali), was born and raised in San Miguel de Allende, and educated at the University in Guanajuato. He was knowledgable about the state’s capital city and its rich history, and this made the tour fun.
The first place he showed us was Diego Rivera’s childhood home, and the museum that was built next to it in 1975.
At the museum, we learned about Diego Rivera’s family, and his upbringing, and saw some of his paintings (unfortunately, most of them were unavailable for viewing because they were being restored).
As we looked at the paintings in the museum, Dali told us a story about how Diego Rivera came to be an atheist.
He told us that when Diego Rivera was a five-year- old child, he wanted to know why his twin brother had died. His parents and teachers told him that his brother’s death was God’s will. “God wanted another angel,” they told him.
The young Diego Rivera rejected this explanation, and later, he told people that he became an atheist at age five.
This did not make him popular with the higher-ups in Catholic Guanajuato. Although as a young man he was a promising painter, and longed to go to Europe to study, the city officials refused to give him a scholarship.
Rivera found a way to go to Europe, anyway, and he became Mexico’s most famous painter. After his enormous success — in part, due to the murals he painted in Mexico and the United States — the Guanajuato town officials wanted to open a museum, but he refused to let them.
Later, after the town officials issued a public apology, Rivera consented, and the Museum of Diego Rivera was built adjacent to his childhood home.
Over lunch at the town’s beautiful Jardin, I told my friend that the story about Diego Rivera’s atheism bothered me. I said it reminded me of something William Sloan Coffin, a former pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City, said in the eulogy he delivered after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident.
Rev. Coffin said, “when a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said — that the death was God’s will.”
“For some reason,” he said, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”
Was it God’s will, he asked later, that no one put up guard rails on the road where Alex was killed? Was it God’s will that Alex had one too many beers the night he attempted to drive home?
Was Diego Rivera wrong, I wondered, to refuse to believe in a God who would will the death of a child, and take him away from his mother?
How could such a God be called “good”?
Sometimes I think atheists are better theologians than believers. At least they are able to say what God is not. In refusing to believe in a “cosmic vivisector” who would rip a child away from his mother and brother, they invite a more serious and thoughtful inquiry into the nature and purposes of a God we say is love.
Before we left the museum, Dali took us to see a duplicate of one of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals (the original is in the Diego Rivera Museum in Mexico City).
We learned so much about Mexico’s history from this one mural, which is crammed full of historical figures, and people who were important in Diego Rivera’s life.
The biggest figure, the one in the mural that towers over the rest, is Benito Juarez, the Mexican President who, in 1859, guided the nation to the separation of church and state, and started public schools. Juarez is the only Mexican hero whose birthday, on March 21st, is celebrated in Mexico.
Two blocks from where I live, there is a wonderful park that’s named after him.
Now I love it even more.
Guanajuato is a beautiful city, and after visiting the museums there, and the famous Juarez Theater, we were both left wanting to learn more.