Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

Adventures in Virtual Community


Flesh and Blood Philosophy

ToledoBeginning our conversation with Unamuno is proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated. It’s tempting to blame Unamuno, to complain about his lack of consistency and rigor in developing his arguments. His fiery style lends itself to this sort of critique whether or not he deserves such handling. This, however, is a rude way to treat a guest. I repent. The real problem is not Unamuno but rather finding a point of entry for our conversation. The escalator moves quickly and we must find a step where we can begin.

Perhaps we need to engage in some small talk with our guest. I realize that many despise small talk because it lacks depth and intimacy. We are admonished to seek transparency where we all freely reveal our most intimate secrets. This might seem to be a kind of paradise to some, but I prefer to choose my confidants. Small talk is a way of getting to know one another. It builds trust. It’s like dating or courtship before plunging into marriage.

I doubt Unamuno would want to contribute to observations about our lowly Seattle Mariners or our unseasonably hot weather. Perhaps we can get his attention with an ice breaker, a question tailored to his tastes. Suppose we have before us what is universally acknowledged to be a great work of art. Perhaps we are standing in front of El Greco’s View of Toledo. Suppose further that through the results of modern historical research, we learn that this painting wasn’t really painted by El Greco. Is it still a great work of art? Put another way: is the greatness of a painting relative to who painted it?

At first, we might say that the artist isn’t relevant. The beauty of a piece of art is something objective. It can be evaluated based on the painting alone. We don’t judge beer on the basis of who brews it. Certainly there are great works of art where the identity of the artist isn’t even known. This would seem to prove that the artist doesn’t count when we evaluate art. This seems right and yet I have some nagging questions. We do blind taste tests of beer. Why don’t we have similar tests for paintings? Why does an artist sign his or her work? Is it simply a matter of wanting credit? What if we were to discover that the View of Toledo before us is in fact a forgery. It’s monetary value would certainly be affected. Would the forgery still be a great work of art? Can the greatness of the forgery surpass that of the original if the counterfeiter feels free to touch up the fake at points? What if the work before us turns out to be a kind of accident? El Greco painted one thing but time and exposure to the elements changed his painting into something he wouldn’t even recognize. Is the painting before us still a great work? Which is greater, what El Greco actually painted or the piece produced by El Greco and the elements?

The biography of the artist may not be relevant to the greatness of a specific work. If we discovered that our history of El Greco was flawed it would probably not radically change how we view his work. Perhaps he wasn’t really from Crete. What does that change? What does seem to matter is that a work of art is not simply an object. It is the work of someone and through it the artist speaks. That’s why it’s signed. That’s why no importance is attached to the forgery. If we can borrow the distinction for which Martin Buber is known, we might say that we only see the greatness of a painting when we see it via an I-Thou as opposed to an I-It relationship. If we miss that there is a flesh and blood artist speaking to us through the painting, we don’t really see the painting. It becomes to us an unknown language.

How does this help us to enter into a conversation with Unamuno? We need two more questions. Does what we have suggested about a great work of art also apply to a great work of philosophy? Does it apply to a great work of science?



Strange Company

In my twenty seven years as a pastor, I’ve joined two presbyteries. Both times I had to persevere through committee and floor oral exams. These exams give a presbytery an opportunity to test the competency of a prospective new member. They also serve as a way of getting to know one another. Both times I was asked this question: Who are your favorite authors? This question is intended as a softball, leading to a kind of theological bonding as admiration is expressed for the shapers of our tradition. For me, the question was a bit embarrassing.

I don’t really have a favorite authors list. I’ve heard that when Spurgeon was once asked to name his favorite book of the Bible he responded that his favorite was the book he was currently studying. Similarly, my favorite authors are usually the ones I’m currently reading. To make matters worse, I’m not usually reading any of the expected authors. The expected authors are first and foremost the great reformed theologians, both old and new. I respect these thinkers, and I’ve read many of their works, but I don’t read them often. Great Christian thinkers in the broader tradition form another expected group. I don’t read these very often either. Then there are those architects of the literature that helps to form our Christian sub culture. I read these more often, but they still form only a small part of my reading time. If I could have answered with favorites like Calvin, Edwards, Warfield, Machen, Van Til, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien or even Dostoyevsky, I would have brought smiles to the faces and twinkles to the eyes of my future fellow presbyters. My authors spoiled the moment. I do not mean by this that I was rejected. I was warmly received both times in spite of my aberrant reading list. In fact, one advantage of my unexpected list is that it tended to keep me from getting pulled into questions concerning the latest theological squabbles. The downside, the embarrassment, is that the expected bonding didn’t occur.

I’m about to begin, on this blog, a series of conversations with various books. I will read through a book and, as far as is possible, converse with the author. Since most of the authors are no longer with us, conversation will be difficult, but I hope to overcome the difficulties with a little imagination. Each post will consist of some quotations from the current book, some observations and further questions. I will not assume that you, my readers, are reading the book along with me, though those who choose to do so may find the experience more meaningful. The goal will not be to interpret or expound. The relative brevity of a blog post makes it a weak tool for exposition. The goal will be to converse. Hopefully, I will come close enough to this goal so that many of you will join in the conversation.

You may soon wonder why I choose the books I do. You may find my choices to be rather odd for a Presbyterian pastor. I encourage you to be patient. We may not form the kind of bonds that would result from a more predictable list, but we can and will learn from each other. I will choose books that make me think. Hopefully they will make you think as well. They will challenge my assumptions about what I think I know and how I live. They may change me. They may or may not be works agreeable to my theology. They may or may not be considered to be masterpieces. I’m not seeking agreement or greatness. I am seeking conversation and growth.

The first book for this blog experiment will be Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations. If you’d like to read along, you can find an online version here.


Blog Blues

I dreamed of virtual symposiums when I first created this blog, not the symposiums of academia but those of ancient Greece. I envisioned a social gathering where virtual speeches would be filled with beauty, comedy and drama building to a joy in conversation and in one another. My dream was too grandiose (a failing that often finds me). In fact, it was impossible.

My early journeys in the blogosphere gave birth to my dream. I discovered many stimulating posts. I joined in comment threads hammering out ideas amongst strangers. I met some magnificent people that I would never have met any other way. All that was needed, I thought, was a little bit of tinkering with what I saw on other blogs and I would have virtual symposiums. I would begin each conversation with a post which would serve as a definition of the topic and as the first speech. The comments would consist of speeches growing out of the post. We would discuss, debate, think, feel and grow as we focused on topics like love, life, faith and meaning. My dream seemed so easy to implement and yet it was impossible.

To begin with I discovered a problem with the wine. Virtual wine can’t measure up to real wine. Those ancient Greeks, the creators of the kind of community for which I longed, knew that wine was a part of the experience. Real wine can make the heart glad and the speeches flow. Virtual wine doesn’t do anything at all. I suppose we could, as an experiment, agree to read a blog with some real wine. We might agree that after reading each comment we would raise a glass and toast the moment. Sadly, it doesn’t take too much reflection to see that this would serve better as a picture of loneliness and despair than of conversation and joy. It’s not the wine itself that makes the difference; it’s the wine in the context of speeches, laughter, passion and simply being with one another.

Worse yet, a comments section is at best a poor conversation. I’ve found some rich comments in my explorations of the blogosphere and some exciting threads. In a real conversation, however, we stand exposed before one another and risk at least our reputation when we speak. On a blog we are hidden from one another and risk little. In being virtual our accountability is diminished. Comments can even go unnoticed or become too numerous to follow.

Blogging also seems to entail a view of time that isn’t compatible with a symposium. A blog lives in a multi tasking environment. Time is measured in CPU cycles which are distributed amongst a host of activities. In a symposium all attention is on the topic, the speeches and being with one another. Time is measured by the conversation.

In a symposium, as I imagine it, a topic is approached in hope and expectation. It is believed that the speeches will lead not only to a better understanding of life but to better lives.  There is the sense that something new and alive is being created out of conversation. On the Internet, more than most places, there’s nothing new under the sun. The significance of the dialog on a single blog is crushed by the vast volume of dialogs and blogs. Why even try to make a point when the odds are that the same point is being expounded with more proficiency on some other blog? Why write at all when we can search and read?

My dream began to fade. I remained active reading and commenting on various blogs, but I became less and less inclined to contribute something to my own. To write anything at all I must believe that I am part of a real community participating in a real conversation. My dream was almost dead until I made a simple decision. I will write and dream on my blog even though I know it’s impossible. I will dream my symposiums into existence so that I can write and discuss with you my dear readers. For better or for worse, more content is on the way. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I will write to my blog with a smile.