A United Methodist pastor with over thirty-six years of pastoral experience, Rev. Wayne Plumstead describes what he has learned about the aesthetics of religion from the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel.

My Photo
Location: Bloomfield, New Jersey, United States

The Rev. Wayne Jack Plumstead holds a BA from Drake University and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ordained a minister in the United Methodist Church in 1973, he has served since 1991 as Senior Pastor at the Park United Methodist Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Prior to that time he served pastorates in Lower Berkshire Valley, Bayonne, Arlington and Jersey City, all in New Jersey. Rev. Plumstead credits the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel, with having an invaluable influence on his theological formation. He has given many public seminars at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. In 1994, the Board of Global Ministries invited him to give a presentation at a consultation on Developing Multicultural Congregations in San Antonio, Texas to assist national church staff in developing strategies for congregations in transitional communities. In 2000, he was invited to give the opening sermon at the first meeting of clergy in the newly formed Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. And, in 2002, the United Methodist Publishing House printed an article he authored in its national magazine for United Methodist clergy, Circuit Rider.

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Message to My Visitors

Hello Friends!
On this blog I will be posting writings of mine and others that tell what I have learned from the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, founded by the American educator and poet Eli Siegel in 1941, about the relation of religion and aesthetics. What I learned has revolutionized not only my way of seeing religion, but my entire life as well. I am pleased and very excited to share it with you all.

Aesthetic Realism is based on this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

I'll begin with part of a paper I wrote in 1979 describing one of the first lectures I heard Eli Siegel give on religion.

I Learned Something New About Religion!

I remember when I learned for the first time that which I now see as the very heart of religion: its basis in aesthetics. It was in an Aesthetic Realism lecture given by Eli Siegel on November 25, 1973.

Mr. Siegel stated: "We have an attitude to the world and towards the first power in the world. The history of religion backs up the idea that there is a tremendous, deep thing in mind working to like the world. So far, it has taken a religious form. It will take an aesthetic form also. All of aesthetics can be used to make more logical, credible, scientific what religion has gone for."

Before I met Aesthetic Realism aesthetics hadn't meant very much to me. But in my Aesthetic Realism consultations during 1971 and 1972, I began to see that what made art beautiful--opposites as one--is what I was also trying to do in my own life. Now, I was hearing Eli Siegel say: "Aesthetic Realism sees the making one of opposites as the beginning of meaning in religious fact. There are many passages in the Bible showing that. God is to be feared and loved. He is in your heart and he made the mountains."

Then Mr. Siegel said this very large thing: "If people can accept the idea that Christ has been seen as the visible representation of the unseen God and therefore, since the relation of visible to invisible is an aesthetic matter, that Christ is in the aesthetic field, I think Christ will be seen better. Aesthetic Realism says Christ is the physical embodiment of a general idea called God. He is like Tennyson's flower in a crannied wall, for all art is the physical presentation of the invisible."

I was learning why Christ has moved people for centuries, why he has made for emotion as large as any that has ever been in the world. In his very nature Christ put together the opposites we are trying to have one in ourselves. What does it mean to be able to see criticism and kindness, toughness and gentleness, truth and imagination, humility and pride together beautifully as one in a human life? How much hope can that give us for ourselves?

I thought about my parishioners. Did this have any relation to the emotion they were hoping to have about Christ? Yes! I began to see that what brings a person to church each Sunday, though he doesn't consciously know it perhaps, is his need to put opposites together in himself and his feeling that Christ provides the key. What, after all, does it mean to become more "Christlike?" Is this an aesthetic as well as an ethical process?

"What was on people's minds about the time of Christ?" asked Eli Siegel. "Never was there such a desire to feel God and the world could be one. There is no religion that is not aesthetically impelled. Religion can be shown to be in man's mind powerfully and, in the deepest sense, truly. The need for man to feel he is in relation to all things is very great."

This lecture stirred me and I felt privileged to be hearing it. I had all my life felt that Christianity was beautiful. But as my study of religion progressed (along with my experience of the world) I became skeptical about its truth. Through lectures like the one I am describing it is not too much to say that my religious emotion was reborn. Seeing the logic of religion, its aesthetics, enabled me to feel something I thought I never would: that I could love God on a basis that is honest and wide.

Labels: , ,

Aesthetic Realism and Religion

By Class Chairman Ellen Reiss
From her commentary in The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known Issue #1332

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has explained what the deepest desire of every person is. “Man’s deepest desire,” he wrote, “his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.” This desire is the most beautiful thing in self…To like the world is to feel reality has meaning—and people have sought that meaning in religion. To like the world is to feel reality has bigness, a friendly boundlessness—and also that there is something giving the world order. Boundlessness and order are opposites, and people have hoped (without stating it to themselves) to feel both through religion…

We come to one of the largest matters in history and now—a matter which Aesthetic Realism alone has been able to explain. On the one hand, religion has had in it and with it some of the greatest kindness in the world, and some of the largest, truest, and most courageous emotion. It has made for great art. It has had some of the finest logic and reasoning associated with it-for instance, that of St. Thomas Aquinas. On the other hand, people, in the name of religion, have been cruel and cold. People of every major religion have invoked God as a reason for warring against and murdering other people. Ministers used religion to preach the rightness of slavery, and also the rightness of having children work in mines and factories; they have used the Bible to say it was right to keep people poor. What makes for the difference between a beautiful use of religion and an ugly use of it?’ between religious feeling that is large, kind—and narrow, mean?

…In the following principle, Mr. Siegel described the source of all cruelty, in any field—whether economics, domestic life, religion: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” He showed that we will either use religion to be fair to all reality; or we will use it to glorify ourselves and lessen other things.

A big question having to do with whether we use religion to like the world or to have contempt for it, is this: do we use religion to feel we should criticize ourselves, question ourselves? Or do we use religion to feel we’re superior because we’ve got an in with God?

Related to that question is this burning question: Do we use religion to feel every person and thing deserves justice, including from ourselves…Justice takes in every person’s having enough money, owning as much of this earth as anyone else; and it also takes in thought about who that person is and what he feels. Or do we use religion to feel we’ve got a personal relation with God and therefore what we want and what we think are holy—so (though we wouldn’t put it this way), we don’t have to be fair to a damned thing or care what people deserve and whether they get it?…

Eli Siegel, in all the centuries of thought, was the person to say and show that religion is aesthetic: it is, like beauty itself, the oneness of opposites…He said, “There is no religion that is not aesthetically impelled…God has been described in terms of opposites: for example, God should be feared and loved; he is in your heart, and he has made mountains.” ...And he spoke of the biggest opposites in life—our intimate self and the wide world. The religious desire is the desire to make these one: “The need for man to feel that he is in a relation he can accept to the cause of all things and all time—that can be shown to be real.”

The Crucial Fight in Everyone Between Contempt and Respect

To my everlasting gratitude and relief, Aesthetic Realism explained the fight that was raging in me and that rages in every person. It is the fight between respect for the world and contempt.

Growing up in Little Falls, New Jersey, I hoped, as every person does, to see the world as having meaning; and one of the places where this often happened was in church on Sundays. The stories about Jesus--how he saw good in people, including those whom others despised, like lepers and Samaritans; how he drove the money changers from the temple because he was furious at the way they were fleecing people in the name of God--thrilled me. I didn't know then what I was to learn from Eli Siegel: the reason I was moved by this man from Galilee was that he put together opposites, like gentleness and strength, humility and pride; opposites I hoped to put together in myself but which were often painfully apart.

The other place where I used my mind for respect was the local library, where I spent hours reading.

But I also went after contempt, and enjoyed finding people ridiculous. Once in grade school I took a photograph of a student trying to eat an unwieldy piece of spaghetti, showed it around school, and joined in the snickering. Later I was so ashamed that I couldn't look this boy in the face.

One of the ways I tried to make a personality for myself through contempt was in how I used my speaking voice. As I grew older I continued speaking in a high-pitched voice that made people uncomfortable. The doctor assured my parents it could be corrected with speech therapy, but I wasn't interested. I thought this thin, piercing voice made me distinguished from everyone else, whom I saw as sounding boringly the same.

Without wholly knowing it, I also used my voice to evoke cruelty in other children while I had the triumph of despising them and the world they represented. As my classmates called me "Squeaky," I felt superior, saying to myself, "Look how mean and shallow they all are."

I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that our attitude to the world shows in everything we do. Through this vice, with its scratchy falsetto tone, I mocked reality--robbed it audibly of weight and meaning.

When in 1970 I enrolled in seminary and was told that I wouldn't be able to become a minister if my voice didn't change, I finally relented and began speech lessons, and my voice deepened so dramatically that people didn't recognize me on the phone. Yet the contemptuous way of seeing that that a voice represented had not been criticized, and I went on seeing the world and people as inferior material. As a result, I disliked myself terrifically, and sometimes went to bed actually hoping I wouldn't wake up the next morning.


In one of the first Aesthetic Realism classes I attended, Eli Siegel asked me if I wanted to give up being superior to the human race. When I said tepidly, "I think so," he said: "I doubt it--not from the way you talk. a feeling, 'The way I see the world is too valuable for me.'" "What do you mean, valuable?" I asked. And he explained: "Contempt is more valuable than the Chase Manhattan Bank, Mr. Plumstead. [But it] can make you feel your life is not worth living."

It had, and learning how to criticize my contempt gave me a pride and confidence I never thought I would have. It has made it possible for me to use my mind, and my voice, as an Aesthetic Realism consultant and a pastor, to have a good effect on so many people's lives. And I continue to learn in Aesthetic Realism classes conducted by the Class Chairman Ellen Reiss--along with my wife, Rosemary Plumstead, whom, I am enormously grateful to say, I love very much.


It is thrilling to see the new life and happiness in a man as, in Aesthetic Realism consultations, he hears criticism of his contempt and learns how to like the world. One such man is Brendon Hulme [note: I use a synonym here for this gentleman's actual name], who has gone from being cold and superior to caring for people so much that he was able to begin a new career as a sincere and highly respected social worker.

Some time ago we, his consultants, asked him: "Is the beginning thing in liking yourself, wanting to think well of other people?" "Yes," he said, "I believe it is." And we asked him: "Have you associated your strength with having people mean more and more to you, or with being able to manage them while you remained smilingly unaffected?" He answered, "The latter--I'm so grateful this is changing!"

Mr. Hulme has written many assignments for the purpose of being more just to things and people--for example, "What do people have the right to object to in the way I see them?", and a 500-word soliloquy of a person who has lost his job.

Mr. Hulme wrote to us:

"Before I met Aesthetic Realism, I was so against myself for my inability to have deep feelings for people. I see the study of what it means to like the world and how one's own desire for contempt is the greatest interference, as the most important and needed study there is."

Brendon Hulme's life--like mine--stands for the enormous pleasure and self-respect that Aesthetic Realism makes possible for every person.

How Can We Be Truly Kind?

(Note: I first wrote this paper for an Aesthetic Realism public seminar.)

In his great work Definitions and Comment, the American scholar and educator Eli Siegel, who in 1941 founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, defines kindness as "that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased," and he shows something completely new--that kindness is a oneness of opposites; it comes from seeing that the world and people are both like us and different at once. Eli Siegel writes:

…a person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things ... If he has the organic feeling that the being pleased of other things is the being pleased of himself, he is kind.

I have been privileged since 1973 to be part of the teaching faculty at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, a non-profit, educational institution where in classes, public seminars and private consultations in person and by telephone Aesthetic Realism is now being taught and profoundly changing people’s lives.

I. I Learn How to be Kind

Before I began to study Aesthetic Realism I thought what went on inside of me was very different from what went on in other people. Growing up in Little Falls, New Jersey I told myself I was trying to be kind. I was on the Caring Committee of my church where I helped elderly people with their shopping, repaired toys for children in a nearby orphanage, and organized puppet shows at a local nursing home.

Yet I associated kindness, as most people do, with making donations and being sacrificial. I didn't know that while I wanted to have a good effect on people I also felt more important looking down on them. As the years passed I was growing colder and meaner and this worried me very much. I wanted to be a minister and I felt like a fraud. I didn’t know what I was later to learn from Aesthetic Realism, that what makes a person cold to the feelings of other people, even cruel, is the desire for contempt. Eli Siegel defined contempt as: “the disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” And in his great work Self and World, he writes: "Contempt must be defeated if man is to be kind."

There was a student in my dorm at college who had one leg shorter than the other. My classmates nicknamed him "Wobbles,” and I joined them in mocking him. Marc Rodman's feelings were not real to me. He played the piano and was interested in architecture and botany. I could have learned many things from him that would have made my life better. But I preferred using what I saw as his weakness to be cruel.

At my suggestion we leaned a garbage can full of trash and water against the door to his room. When he opened it both he and his room were drenched with wet garbage. I laughed, but felt terrifically ashamed. Some weeks later Marc left school and speaking with my minister one day I suddenly began to sob. "I've never done anybody's life any good," I told him. He said: "Oh, that's not true. Don't be so hard on yourself. God loves you." But this didn't make me feel any better.

How grateful I am that I met Aesthetic Realism and heard criticism of my contempt. In a class Eli Siegel began to teach me the basis for true kindness. "The first thing you have to ask," he said, is: ‘How do you use the insufficiencies of other people? That is the first ethical question. What do you do when you see weakness in another, use it for yourself, exploit it, or try to make it less?"

WP: I use it for myself.
ES: When that happens there is hell. You have gone
through hell, Mr. Plumstead. Hell has a map.

As I saw that contempt made me loathe myself, and that I had a new sense of self-respect wanting "other things and people to be rightly pleased," I felt for the first time that true kindness could be in my life.

Because of Eli Siegel's knowledge and great kindness the self I was born to be emerged and began to flourish, making it possible for me to have a useful and strengthening effect on others as an Aesthetic Realism consultant and a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and, since 1983, to have a marriage that I treasure to my dear wife, Rosemary, who is an Aesthetic Realism Consultant and taught science for over thirty years in New York City high schools.

II. Our Attitude to the World Begins Early

While every person’s life is a drama between kindness and the coldness of contempt, the life of Rev. John Newton (1725-1807), best known for writing the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, shows just how steep this fight can be. And the moving way his life changed demonstrates vividly what only Aesthetic Realism explains: what kindness really is and how much every person wants to have it.

Like all children, John Newton had the two possibilities Aesthetic Realism describes: the hope to like the world and the hope to have contempt for it. His mother, Elizabeth, taught him poetry, mathematics and Latin, and through her enthusiasm he developed a care for nature which was with him his entire life. He saw his father, on the other hand, the captain of an English merchant ship, as a severe a disciplinarian.

In his biography of Newton, titled Amazing Grace, John Pollock, writes: “[young] John lived almost in terror whenever his father returned from a voyage...” But the young man did not want to see what his father felt. Captain Newton later rescued his son from perilous situations and sought ways to have him able to work.

When Newton was seven, his mother died of tuberculosis and his father sent him to a boarding school where, Pollock writes, the "headmaster was a tyrant of the cane and birch-rod." I believe that John Newton used his mother's death and what he regarded as his banishment to a school he detested to be angry at the whole world and retaliate against it. People do not know that they use the things they meet to make a choice for contempt that weakens their whole lives. Aesthetic Realism asks this tremendous and urgently necessary question: "Are you using your suffering to be a meaner person or a kinder one?"

The young John Newton largely used his suffering to be mean. In An Ancient Mariner: the Life of John Newton, biographer Bernard Martin says that Newton came to feel "the wider world into which he had been thrust ... was a cruel place where the strong seldom showed mercy to the weak."

At age 17, Newton was forced into the British navy against his will where he was rapidly promoted in rank because of the knowledge his father had given him about the sea. But it seems he used his new authority to have power and degrade his ship-mates. For the slightest provocation he had seamen shackled and whipped. He joined in contemptuous conversations and if he detected the slightest care for religion in a fellow sailor, he worked hard to eradicate it. Years later he said with regret: "I fear there are too many who will have lasting reason to bewail the day...they first become acquainted with me." In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains the source of the cruelty in John Newton and every person when he writes:

Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for. Contempt is not an incident, it is an unintermitting counteroffensive to an uncaring world.

But even as contempt made him feel powerful, it also made him restless and against himself. Pollock says that Newton had a "gnawing anguish of conscience," and writes:

On night watch he disliked being alone with his thoughts. When off watch he would wake suddenly in the small hours, tortured by remorse, worried for the future...

Aesthetic Realism explains that when we go against the largest and best thing in ourselves--the desire to like the world and be kind--it is inevitable that we will dislike ourselves.

It is my great privilege to join my colleagues teaching men in Aesthetic Realism consultations the education John Newton ached to know. When Dennis Thurston told us he felt angry at his co-worker, Bob Buxton, who had just gotten married and was happy, we asked him if he liked seeing people happy or if he hoped bad things happened to others. "I think bad things," he said. "I don't like myself for this."

"Is there anything you want more than to be superior?" we asked. "Do you have a need to be fair to the world that is as basic as the human need for food and air? When you aren't fair do you dislike yourself?" We saw the expression on Mr. Thurston's face change from a troubled frown to relief and excitement as he heard this question. Smiling, he said, "Yes."

It seems John Newton liked things most when he was in the company of his distant cousin Polly Catlett, whom he first met at age 7. "Polly held his heart," writes Pollock, "...her kindness...drew him." Newton never forgot Polly and wrote her long letters when he was at sea. Then they married in 1750 and were together 40 years until Polly's death.

It was to see Polly that Newton deserted the navy in 1743. But he was caught and so humiliated by his punishment that he begged to be transferred to a passing slave ship. There he met a slave trader named Clow and, upon landing in Africa, became his apprentice. He hoped to make a fortune dealing in slaves so he could marry Polly, but instead Clow turned Newton into a slave himself. He was worked to the bone all day and left chained and nearly starving at night.

Yet even here it seems he met kindness. The other men and women who were enslaved, at risk of their own lives, shared food with Newton from their meager rations. One even smuggled him paper on which he wrote a letter to his father pleading for help, and saw that it was posted. It was as a result of their efforts that Newton was rescued. But instead of being grateful, he was furious. When he later returned to Africa as the captain of a slaving vessel, Pollock tells how "he treated Clow with [friendliness] and the slaves [who were kind to him] with disdain." Rather than feeling his kinship to these men and women who were so cruelly treated, Newton's coldness continued.

In his 1949 lecture "Mind and Kindness," Eli Siegel explains why:

There are many persons who feel humiliated if anything kind happens to them. They want to think they are independent. If anything kind is done which they must see as having a source not exactly their intimate selves ... that thing puts them in a dilemma.

III Kindness Depends on our Relation to the Whole of Things

On Newton's voyage back from Africa the ship nearly sank in a storm. The man who had ridiculed God now manned the pumps for nine hours, calling out: "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us." After four weeks land was spotted just as the badly damaged vessel finally sank.

Grateful that his life was spared, Newton became a professing Christian, but not a kinder person. He accepted command of his own slave ship, and began earning a living from what he later referred to with revulsion as "this vile traffic" in human flesh. At sea Newton conducted prayer services for his crew while below the decks hundreds of groaning human beings lay shackled together.

One of the things I love most about Eli Siegel is his passionate justice to the meaning of religion. I once heard him say: "Any person who thinks he is a Christian but isn't interested in respecting the world God made or the people in it is still a pagan." That sentence explains why, for all my avowed Christianity, I still detested myself, and it explains why Newton did.

In an essay titled "The Three Comforts," Eli Siegel explains the misuse of Christianity that has gone on throughout history, including in John Newton. He writes:

A saved person is one who loves the whole of things ... [and] sees himself as friendly to it. It has to be the whole of things, though, in some authentic manner ... As soon as we see the whole of things as less than that, we are really worshipping ... ourselves ... And so far in history, religion ... has been used privately most often: "Christ will save me, for I love him that way." Christ exists not for all things, but too much for the self seeking comfort.

It is my conviction that a sincere study of these sentences would give clarity and conviction to any person’s search for God. They provide an immutable standard by which a person can judge the sincerity or insincerity of his religious emotion. Newton was not, at this point in his life, using Christ to “accept accurately his relation to other things.” He wanted private comfort from Christ.

As Newton tried to evade his own self-criticism he still despised himself. Just before sailing on his fourth slave journey, without warning, he had a severe seizure. Physically unfit for further sailing, he left the sea, and slave trading, forever.

Before I met Aesthetic Realism, like John Newton, I shuffled back and forth painfully between the desire to revere things and make fun of them. This made me agitated a good deal of the time. In a class I told Eli Siegel that I had once passed out several times in one day for no apparent reason. The doctors told me I had had a mild seizure disorder. I am eternally grateful for the questions Mr. Siegel asked me, which enabled me to make sense of what had been a confusing and frightening occurrence. He asked: "Do you like having your thoughts in a whirl? Has there been a Coney Island wheel spinning around in you?"

WP: Definitely. I would say yes.
ES: Every person does a lot of thinking [hoping] it will
come to no good end. While we are going for clearness
we also hope not to get it. What do you hope for:
having an answer or not having one?
WP: I've told myself there is no answer.
ES: Every kind of mental just reeking with
contempt. The purpose is to use thought so the world
is not seen clearly. You have no answer and therefore
you are safe. FDR was preparing his stroke when he
hoped there was no answer about the Spanish Civil War.
People pray: "Please God, let the world have no clue to it.”

I was so grateful and relieved to hear this. Eli Siegel was describing with great kindness and scientific exactitude a perilous way of mind in me. The seizure disorders never happened again.

Newton at this time was also in a steep ethical debate he didn't want to answer honestly. He found it increasingly repulsive to be the agent through whom men, women, even little children, were consigned to lifetimes of suffering and servitude. Yet he was also attracted to the power and superiority it gave him.

After resigning from his ship Newton renewed his study of the bible with real seriousness, and after 10 years he was ordained an Anglican priest. He and Polly were sent to the poverty-stricken parish of Olney where men farmed their fields twelve hours a day while their wives toiled inside flimsy straw homes sewing pillow lace.

In "Mind and Kindness" Eli Siegel stated: be kind, we must have the imagination arising from the knowledge of feelings had by others. This knowledge comes from the seeing of ourselves as like other people, while humbly recognizing that there is otherness, too.

Living among the people in that remote village Newton became kinder. He was interested in the children, whose behavior had been terrorizing the town. He told them sea stories, helped them build ship models, and held weekly devotional meetings. His purpose changed, and as he wanted people to be stronger instead of weaker, Newton grew happier. When he was offered a more substantial parish, he declined, saying: "What will happen to the Olney folk?"

In 1767 the important English poet William Cowper moved to Olney and Newton and he became close friends writing hymns together. When The Olney Hymnal was published in 1779 it became the most widely used hymnal in the English-speaking world. Newton's "Amazing Grace" is one of these hymns.

IV. Kindness is Both Tender and Tough

One of the most important and revolutionary things in Eli Siegel's definition of kindness is in his use of the word "rightly." "Kindness is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased." I have learned that all kindness includes criticism. I respect Newton tremendously for the way he wanted people to know about the brutality of the slave trade and his part in it.
[I have] a conviction [he wrote] that silence...would, in me, be criminal. I am bound in conscience to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory.

One day a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce came to see Newton, told him he felt he had been wasting his life and that he was searching for a way to be a useful Christian. Newton's harrowing descriptions of the slave trade and his deep remorse stirred Wilberforce so much that he began a parliamentary crusade which eventually resulted in the abolition not only of the slave trade but of slavery itself throughout the British empire. Wilberforce became respected and admired throughout the world for his uncompromising and passionate ethics and he said he was grateful for Newton's effect on him at a crucial time--that he was never a half-hour in Newton's company without hearing some allusion to the slave trade and how it made Newton’s heart shudder to think it was ever his occupation.

Newton was pivotal in the campaign against slavery until his death in 1807, supplying the detailed information used by the abolitionists to rally public opinion. He testified before the Privy Council, telling of a baby, weeks old, torn from its slave mother and thrown into the sea; he spoke of how he had seen slaves "agonizing...for days...under the torture of the thumb-screws."

That Newton wrote the words of "Amazing Grace" shows how strong the power of ethics—the desire, honestly to like and be fair to the whole world--is in a person. This beloved hymn arose from Newton’s heartfelt gratitude that even a wretch like him could find redemption and welcome in the heart of God. It is a remarkable thing that a man who once saw himself as so different from other people, and who was oblivious to their feelings, could change so much that he was able to articulate through these enduring words the common hope of sinful humanity.

Since Newton first wrote “Amazing Grace” millions upon millions of people have sung it with deep emotion and felt: “This stands for me.” About the word "grace," much used in theology to describe God’s gentle and unmerited favor, Eli Siegel once wrote these lines:

Grace is the disposition of God
to be on your side
And to be shy about it.

The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel can teach people how not to be blinded by contempt and ill will, and therefore every person can learn how to see the world and other people in a way that is truly kind.

Is Kindness Strong?

I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me that when a person is kind he is also strong, because he is affirming the deepest thing in himself: the desire to like the world. In his landmark work Definitions and Comment, Being a Description of the World, Eli Siegel writes:

"A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things."

Growing up, I wanted very much to see myself as a kind person, but I didn't feel I was. I took opportunities my church offered to do things I thought would make me kinder. I mowed the lawns of elderly people and sorted and distributed donated clothing to low income families at a church-run-center in Paterson, New Jersey. But something kept me from being kind. One day the director at the center asked me not to dress so fashionably when I came. He said I was "rubbing people's noses in their poverty." I knew this was true, but I got angry that my superiority was being questinoed. Rather than change, I stopped working there. "That will show him!" I thought about the director, with no thought at all about the lives of the people I was there to help and whom I had simply abandoned.

In high school, writing articles for the school newspaper, I wanted to impress people with my cleverness. I once wrote an article about a classmate who loved to run on the cross country squad even though he always came in last. Such human interest articles can be written to have people deeper about the feelings of another person and admire their persistance. But that wasn't my purpose. I called him a "tortoise among hares," and when other students started making fun of him after the article appeared, he was so humiliated that he left the team and the sport he loved. I was ashamead of what I had done, but I didn't see it as strong to apologize to him, though I thought about it whenever I saw him after that.

By the greatest of good fortune, I met Aesthetic Realism, and in 1972 began attending classes taught by Eli Siegel. I began to learn what it means to be truly kind, and also why I cared for religion. I was privileged to hear Mr. Siegel explain, "The purpose of Christianity is to enlarge the self and make it kinder. It attacks the thing in us that wanted to be bloated. If God is God then ego isn't ego."

I am very grateful to him and Aesthetic Realism for showing me what had interfered with my life: the contempuous self-importance I was after through lessening the meaning of other people and the world.

In one class, Mr. Siegel described a painful confusion of opposites in me: "You're displeased with yourself and pleased with yourself at the same time. You have snorting defiance and groveling humility. What might put them together?" "I'm not sure," I answered. And he described what he called "the chief matter for study.": "In being kind, have you come to your full power or ar eyou a pathetic weakling?...There is a smug satisfaction from contempt that makes for an unpleasant state of doubt. Now, there are various ways of ocmbating this temptation: 1) to see what you are missing; 2) to see what you are hurting; 3) to see what you want more. Kindness, fully seen, is the same as accurate knowledge."

Eli Siegel is the only world scholar who showed that the purpose of reliigon is the same as the purpose of life itself: to like the world. With great imagination, humor, and, at times, beautiful intensity, he opposed the desire in me to use a narrow notion of religion against the rest of reality. "It is blasphemy," he said, "not to see God in everything. Religion in action is trying hard to show that this world is not just God's apprentice work."

Today, I am grateful to have work I know is both kind and strong: as an Aesthetic Realism consultant and as an ordained clergyman of the United Methodist Church. And I am so happy and grateful to be married to a woman I both love and respect, Rosemary Plumstead. With my previous way of seeing the world all of these things would have been impossible!

With his great mind and warm heart, Eli Siegel logically enabled me to see that being kind is a rigorous, intellectual, and comprehensive matter which is always the same as true strength.

"There Are Two Hopes"

Each Friday evening persons on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and those who are studying to be, gather in a class taught by the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism Ellen Reiss. In these classes we hear and study tape recordings of lectures given by Eli Siegel. These classes have been an important part of my life for over thirty years now--and through them I have learned so very much.

One of the subjects Eli Siegel lectured on extensively is religion. In fact, he once gave a series of over seventy lectures on religion in the late 1960's (unfortunately, before I began my own study of Aesthetic Realism). However, sometimes on Friday nights one of these lectures will be heard. And that was the case on January 14, 2005, when we had the opportunity to hear a lecture Eli Siegel gave as part of his religion series. It was titled "There Are Two Hopes" and was given on January 5, 1968.

In this great lecture, Mr. Siegel took up the writings of a young minister in early colonial America. His name was William Law Symonds. Symonds died very young and is hardly known at all today. But as Mr. Siegel read from his letters and journal, I was tremendously moved by Symonds' depth of feeling and thought. The way Mr. Siegel commented on Symonds' writing, I almost felt as if I had a glimpse into Symonds' soul.

"Symonds' mind functioned well," Mr. Siegel said, "and meanwhile his mind was going toward the immense and infinite. When the mind functions well the seen and the unseen are in a tolerable arrangement and there is not a war between them. But when the seen is apart from the unseen that is when the mind gives way...No knowledge is complete unless there is something in it you don't know: a sense of wonder. But as we go toward wonder we would also like to feel things are tidy and clear. Symonds is saying religion lacked two things. One, it isn't seen clearly. And also it isn't known with wonder. The idea in religion is how, through knowing something, you also make it alive."

"There have been two complaints about religion," he continued, "it is too factual and it is too high-flying. Symonds had the desire to be modest but also to affect people deeply. "

In religion, Mr. Siegel said, "there is a desire to be proud for the way one is submitting. When you find you are affected by something you feel you have realized a hope, not suffered an indignity. Having faith is to submit to the mastery of the unknown...The human mind is an indestructable presence of yearning and tidinesss. What can things do to one? And what can what things stand for and their meaning do to one? This desire, to make some sense between seeing facts tidily and with shape, and feeling facts as limitless, can be seen in Symonds...Symonds saw his mind as being larger when he was being puzzled by the questions of religion instead of being trim."

As he read and commented on the writings of Symonds, Mr. Siegel said things that are so important about the ministry itself. "A minister," he said, "has to prove to his congregaiton that he has been mastered by something." And, as he later read this passage from Martin Luther's hymn titled "The Christ Child,"

Forlorn and holy is thy birth
That we may rise to heaven from earth

he said: "Religion is a way of dealing honestly with our desire to see ourselves as grand and to see ourselves modestly. To be grand is to be able to be accurately mastered." And of Luther's line:

All praise to thee Eternal Lord

Mr. Siegel said: "The purpose of life is through yourself to be able honestly to praise the world. The praising of God is easy. The idea is to have the words alive. If you are able to praise something you are going good yourself--that is the implication of religion."

In this lecture, Mr. Siegel also read the Victorian Catholic, Cardinal Newman's, great poem "The Pillar of the Cloud," from which we have the hymn "Lead Kindly Light." Newman wrote:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home - Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene, - one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

"I present this poem," said Mr. Siegel, "as a study in man's desire for humility."

In concluding the lecture, Mr. Siegel read from a volume titled "Poems That Change Lives." In one poem, "The Kingdom of God," there were the lines:

O world unknowable, we know thee.
O world intangible, we touch thee.

"You don't need the infinite to find the infinite," Mr. Siegel remarked, "A frying pan will serve. There is humility in looking." And he closed the lecture quoting a phrase of Symonds: "marveling at divine providence."

The vivid way Mr. Siegel explained the relation of pride and humility, the finite and the limitless, the assertive and the yielding in religious emotion will stay with me for a very long time and, I am sure, make me a deeper preacher and a much better Christian. I am so grateful to have heard this lecture.

An Immortal Statement by Eli Siegel on Immortality

Here is a statement by Eli Siegel from an Aesthetic Realism class of many years ago. It is about a subject I deal with all the time in my ministry--death. I have thought about this statement very often and while I can't say I have yet exhausted its possibilities or depth of meaning, it has continued to have a very useful and strengthening effect on me.

"The only time we cannot be afraid of death is when we are sincere all the time because it is the depths of things that are immortal, not the glittering surface." -- Eli Siegel

A Note About Scoffers, Name-Callers, Dirt-Kickers and Fabricators

"Blessed is he who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." -- Psalm 1:1

Unfortunately, Aesthetic Realism has been on the receiving end of some pretty outrageous lies. The most outlandish of which is that it is a cult. New thought has often in history been met with such ignorance and outright malice, and Aesthetic Realism is no exception.

The history of Christianity itself can comment on the problem. In the early days of the church the Christian movement was labelled a cult by uncomprehending and, sometimes, deliberately misleading persons who had their own motivations. In his respected work A Summary of Christian History, Robert A. Baker writes: "Either willfully or ignorantly, the pagans twisted the vocabulary of the Christians to involve atheism (no idols), cannibalism (eating the Lord's body and drinking his blood), immorality (growing out of the sensual conception of the word 'love'), and magic and sorcery (in the Supper and baptism). The large gulf between the ethical ideas of the Christians and those of the pagans constantly exposed Christianity to the ire of the people." (Robert A. Baker; A Summary of Christian History, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1959, pg. 16)

Aesthetic Realism today faces such "pagans," who are on the hunt to twist Aesthetic Realism into something it isn't. Reading the highly manipulative web site of a certain individual who has decided to base his self-importance on attacking Aesthetic Realism most unjustly, I couldn't help but recall the words of Abraham Lincoln in commenting upon President Polk's pathetic lies and absurd justifications about a totally unnecessary war with Mexico in 1848. "His confused mind runs hither and thither, like some tortured creature on a burning surface, finding no position on which it can settle down and be at ease."

It does seem strange to me that people can take pride in saying some of the most decidedly hurtful and untruthful things. I read recently about how Abraham Lincoln's good friend Joshua Speed once cautioned him against penning some of his most injudicious thoughts. "Once put your words into writing and they stand as a living and eternal monument against you," Speed warned Lincoln. When what Aesthetic Realism truly is becomes known by people in all its splendor and intellectual acumen, the rantings of this particular web site will indeed stand as a living and eternal monument against its misguided author.

Fortunately, the internet can be used for good as well as evil, and to tell the truth as well as to lie--as many persons are now doing in responding to these ludicrous charges in the admirable web site Friends of Aesthetic Realism, Countering the Lies. I encourage you check it out.

There you can read the noted photographer and editor Ralph Hattersley on Aesthetic Realism. His insightful observations on the mindset and motives of the persons who are attempting to defame Aesthetic Realism are contained in his 1962 letter to Martha Baird. My colleague, Dr. Arnold Perey, has also written importantly on how Aesthetic Realism has been met, placing this current injustice in its larger historical context. There is also my statement on Friends of Aesthetic Realism (Statement by Rev. Wayne Plumstead).

So outrageous are these falsehoods that my father, Jack Plumstead, was impelled to write his own statement concerning them, for which I am truly grateful. There is also a statement by my stepmother, Maria Plumstead and the statement of my dear wife, Rosemary Plumstead.

All I can say about this whole matter is that the internet, while in and of itself a truly wonderful thing that can be used for so much good, has also provided a means for unscrupulous individuals to construct a virtual reality world; one in which they assume the role of God and become the authors of their own "truth" because they do not love or respect the facts as they truly are. It must give these persons a tremendous sense of power and ego-importance to feel that they can bamboozle the unsuspecting into believing all kinds of things so contrary to reality.

Unfortunately, the desire to know is not as strong and beautiful as it should be in the human mind. There is a pronounced tendency in many people toward WANTING to believe the very worst about someone or something. (Witness the prevalence and popularity of some current biographies that pick, choose and rearrange their "facts" most selectively to debunk the lives of great American heroes.) These factors have combined to give the fabricators a fertile field in which to sow their noxious seeds. To my mind, truth is the most sacred thing in the world and the greatest measurement of a person's character and integrity is how intent they are on knowing and acting upon the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Clearly, to pick and choose, and even to manufacture, your "facts" in order to create an incomplete and false picture of something or someone is hardly an honoring of the truth. But while loving the truth might not be an easy or a popular thing, I sincerely believe it is an individual's highest ethical and intellectual achievement. I hope the readers of this blog will join me in a humble attempt to practice this most lovely of all the human virtues. Not only will we all be much better for it, but the world will be too. "Blessed are those who sitteth not in the seat of the scornful!"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

How Near is God?

(Note: Is is one of the many "The Pastor's Rites" columns I have written in our Park United Methodist Church newsletter, ParkViews. It appeared in the May 2005 issue.)

I have a poem on my desk which I sometimes pause to read before beginning my day’s work. It is titled “Life; or, You Have To Like It Earlier” and was written by the founder of Aesthetic Realism, educator and poet Eli Siegel, whose lectures I was very privileged to attend in the early 1970’s. The poem goes like this:

Life is a wilderness: Where is the guide?
– As you like it more, You find him inside.
Life is a forest, Without enough light;
As you like the forest, The branches turn bright.
Life is a cave, Without a real door;
As you like the cave, The walls open more.
Life is an animal, Not easy to pet;
As you like the animal, What deep love you get!

This poem encapsulates the essential thing I learned about religion from Eli Siegel and which has formed the basis of my theological reflection for over thirty-three years: that the purpose of religion is the same as the purpose of life itself--to like and be fair to the whole world. With imagination and humor, Eli Siegel questioned my narrow notion of religion and how I, like so many people, used religion to see the rest of reality (the “non-spiritual” part) as second rate. "Religion in action,” he once told me, “is the trying hard to show that this world is not just God’s apprentice-work.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that viewed the world suspiciously and made a harmful separation between the sacred and secular. The one goal of religion was to get oneself saved out of this sinful and disappointing world into a far better one. The idea that I had any obligation to see this world as well as I could, or to be fair to the people and things of it, was very far away in my mind.

In recent days I have been reading an important work by the theologian Marcus Borg that makes much the same point. It is titled The Heart of Christianity, and I think we could do far worse than to make this book the center of our theological reflection in the coming months. Borg says that in religious thought there have been two primary and opposing ways to think about God and what he calls the God-world relationship.

Here he describes the first: “A long time ago, this person-like being created the world as something separate…Thus God and the world are sharply distinguished: God is ‘up in heaven,’ ‘out there,’ beyond the universe.”

If this is our image of God, Borg argues, we will then see God primarily in interventionist terms. From “out there” God occasionally intervenes in this world, but is distant from it most of the time.

The second way of thinking about God Borg describes as: “The Encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. The universe is not separate from God, but in God…We are in God; we live in God, move in God and have our being in God. God is not ‘out there,’ but ‘right here,’ all around us.”

Those of you who have listened to me preach for many years know that the later is the way I see God. With Eli Siegel and Marcus Borg, I believe this is a more biblical and orthodox way to think about God than is the first, for it rightly relates God’s transcendence to God’s immanence; God’s complete and utter holiness to God’s immediacy--God’s presence in all we see, hear and touch.

If this is indeed who and what God is, then there are immediate implications for our life in the here and now and for how we relate to everything. This way of seeing God makes religion achingly relevant to the moment-by-moment world.So here is my question for you: Which of these two views of God is yours? Is your God remote or near? Is your God a Person-like being distinguished from the rest of reality or a moment-by-moment Encompassing Spirit? So much, I think, depends on our answer to this question!

Marcus Borg Gives Evidence for the Aesthetics of Religion

In recent days I have been reading a very fine and scholarly work by Marcus Borg titled The Heart of Christianity. Throughout this book Borg is giving rich evidence for Eli Siegel's statement that "the making one of opposites is the beginning of meaning in religious fact."
Here, for example, is what he says about the Bible:

The Bible is thus both sacred scripture and a human product. It is important to affirm both. To use stereotypical labels, both conservatives and liberals within the church have sometimes been reluctant to do so. Conservative Christians resist affirming that the Bible is a human product, fearing that doing so means it will lose its status as divine authority and divine revelation. Liberal Christians are sometimes wary of affirming that the Bible is sacred scripture, fearing that doing so opens the door to notions of infallibility, literalism, and absolutizing. But a clear vision of the Bible and its role in the Christian life requires seeing it as both sacred scripture and human product. It is human in origin and sacred in status and function. (Borg pg. 48)

Is not Borg saying here that in order to understand the Bible correctly and gain all the meaning from it we can, we must see it as BOTH a creation of the human mind AND a creation of the Divine mind at once? And that to see the Bible as only one or the other is to profoundly misapprehend scripture? He is!

And here is Borg writing about the meaning of sacrament:

In Christian language, a sacrament is an 'outward and visible sign' that functions as a 'means of grace.' Sacraments are 'doors to the sacred' as well as bridges to the sacred. Something finite, something of this world, becomes a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. (Borg pg. 58)

I have thought very much about the sacraments since, as a minister, I preside over them often. I have always been deeply stirred by the richness of meaning and spiritual significance in these seemingly simple and everyday acts (breaking bread, sprinkling water). Through them I have experienced God in profound ways. Here Borg is pointing to the opposites that explain the mystery and beauty of the sacraments. The sacraments are, in themselves, finite acts. But through them the invisible and infinite God is present and deeply felt by our human spirit. Only the principle of the opposites can adquately explain the power and meaning of the sacraments!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

On Original Sin and Martin Luther

This summer I have been studying a religion lecture which Eli Siegel gave on March 31, 1967. It is titled "There Are God and Man." At one point in the lecture, Mr. Siegel discusses a number of the 95 thesis that Luther nailed to the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Here is what he says about the first thesis, which includes an important explanation of the idea of original sin:

"Some of the best German writing is Luther’s, including his translations and his songs. There are 95 thesis and all 95 could be read. The first is theoretical.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying “Repent ye,” (“Penitentiam agite”) has intended that the whole life of believers should be penitent (“penitentia”).

This is deep in the unconscious and it goes along with the notion of sin had by Aesthetic Realism: that in being born you don’t love enough and there’s a greater tendency to care for yourself than for what is not yourself. This tendency is equivalent to original sin. And it’s not something that you get rid of in a hurry. While you can see the outside world better, love it more, be more just to it, there is something to be penitent about.

Luther would talk about this differently, but he would say essentially--and this is the idea in accepting Christ--that you love something outside of yourself as a means of fighting the narrowness you were born with. To say there is original sin is to say there is organic narrowness. There is no other meaning. It should be seen that way and something of that is in Luther’s writing."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eli Siegel Honored in US Congress

A resolution introduced into the Congressional Record
by the Honorable Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland,
Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Friday, July 26, 2002

(Note: this tribute was offered on the 100th anniversary of Eli Siegel's birth, declared "Eli Siegel Day" in Baltimore, Maryland by the mayor and governor.)

Mr. CUMMINGS. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor a great Baltimorean poet, educator, and founder of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel.

Mr. Siegel was born in 1902 and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where his contributions to literature and humanity began. Mr. Siegel founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism in 1941, based on principles such as: Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis, and ... The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.

Mr. Siegel explained that the deepest desire of every person is "to like the world on an honest basis." He gave thousands of lectures on the arts and sciences.

Mr. Siegel’s work continues at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, where classes, lectures, workshops, dramatic presentations, and poetry readings are offered. In addition, a teaching method, based on Aesthetic Realism, has been tested in New York City public schools. The teaching method has been tremendously successful.... The teaching method may be used as an effective tool to stop racism and promote tolerance; because it enables people of all races to see others with respect and kindness.

In 1925, Eli Siegel won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize for "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana," which brought him to national attention. "Hot Afternoons," Mr. Siegel said, was affected by his thoughts of Druid Hill Park. And so, it is fitting that on August 16, 2002, the city of Baltimore will dedicate the Eli Siegel Memorial at Druid Hill Park on a site near the Madison Avenue entrance, not far from his early home on Newington Avenue. The bronze memorial plaque ... includes a sculptured portrait and poetry.

Mayor Martin O’Malley has designated August 16, 2002 as "Eli Siegel Day" in Baltimore. At this time, I would like to insert the Mayor’s proclamation and a few of Eli Siegel’s poems found in the June 5, 2002 [issue] of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation magazine for the record.

Eli Siegel died in 1978, but his poetry and the education of Aesthetic Realism will be studied in every English, literature, and art classroom across the nation for years to come. I would like to end this tribute by reciting a poem Eli Siegel wrote honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

By Eli Siegel

In April 1865 Abraham Lincoln died.
In April 1968 Martin Luther King died.
Their purpose was to have us say, some day:
Injustice died.

Eli Siegel wrote poems for more than six decades. These poems expressed his thoughts on people, feelings, everyday life, love, nature, history. I am proud to offer this tribute. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

New York Times literary critic Kenneth Roxroth on Eli Siegel

(As quoted by Ken Knabb in Gateway to the Vast Realms, Recommended Readings from Literature to Revolution)

Eli Siegel [1902-1978] is a remarkable and most unjustly neglected writer and thinker. His poems are among the few modern ones that I still read and reread with pleasure. His other writings are generally concerned with expounding his philosophy of “Aesthetic Realism.” According to this perspective (which is not limited to narrowly artistic concerns, but relates to psychology, education, social relations, and in fact just about every aspect of life), people are fundamentally seeking to “unify opposites” within themselves and in their relations with each other and with the world. The arts are seen as key means or expressions of such unity. The primary danger — the “original sin,” so to speak — is contempt: the temptation to think that you will enhance yourself by demeaning someone else. It is, of course, difficult (and sometimes in fact inappropriate) not to be contemptuous of certain persons or things. Siegel’s point is that you should make sure that you have not got into the habit of actually seeking such situations so as to make yourself feel better by contrast.

He works out the implications of these deceptively simple insights with a delightful zest and a remarkable lucidity...I have reread many of his works many times and each time it’s like a breath of fresh air.

His two volumes of poetry are Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana and Hail, American Development. His other books include The Williams-Siegel Documentary (about William Carlos Williams, who enthusiastically saluted Siegel’s poetry), James and the Children (a study of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), Damned Welcome (a collection of aphorisms), Goodbye Profit System (an anticapitalist polemic), Self and World (an exposition of his psychotherapeutic theories and methods), a Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters, and numerous articles, essays and talks. You can order any of them at The same webpage includes links to online samples of Siegel’s poetry and to other information about Aesthetic Realism publications and programs.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Everything and Ourselves

In a thrilling commentary on Psalm 139, printed in TRO #281, titled "Everything and Ourselves," Eli Siegel discussed this beloved psalm verse by verse. He said it could "accurately be called Everything Has Made Us."

And he continued: "It is clear that in everything we do, there is some cause besides ourselves. Can we spread out our toes just by ourselves, without the help of something outside? Bones and muscles are ourselves and not ourselves. If, then, the movement of our toes is caused by something besides ourselves, can the world be seen as present in what the psalm calls 'my downsitting and mine uprising?' What enables us to stand up or sit down? What enables us to run a block or cross the street?"

These great opposites of self and world--of ourselves and of what Matthew Arnold has called "the Eternal Not Ourselves, in us and not in us, which makes for righteousness"--are at the very heart of religion, as Psalm 139 shows and Eli Siegel so magnificently explained.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Eli Siegel Discusses Job

I am pleased to present here a portion of the lecture Mr. Siegel gave on Friday, March 10, 1967 titled "Absent and Present Are Two Adjectives About God." I have transcribed the entire lecture for a book I am now in the process of preparing on Aesthetic Realism and religion.

If God permits evil we have to ask why. And if God sees evil and could do something about it and doesn’t—that is, He permits it—again we have to ask why. But the big question is: How much is God present in evil itself? This has to be looked at.
This question is part of the Bible. In Job we have Satan telling how he has been roaming around the earth. The Bible presents Satan as a character.

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job and that man was perfect and upright and one that feared God and eschewed evil. And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters. His substance also was seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east. And his sons went and feasted in the houses every one his day, and sent and called for the three sisters to eat and drink with them. And it was so when the days of the feasting were brought about that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said: “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus did Job continually. [Job 1: 1-5]

So Job’s sons have done evil and maybe cursed God in their hearts and this can be alleviated by burnt offerings. Burnt offerings seem to have gone out of fashion. But we have some notion of evil. Then we have Satan coming.

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan: “Whence cometh thou?” [Job 6-7a]

If the Lord knows everything He shouldn’t ask Satan questions. He is just wasting time. But He does ask questions. And Satan gives that very wonderful answer. It corresponds to the great Sheepshead Bay answer when a mother asks a boy: “Where have you been?” “Oh, around.”

Then Satan answered the Lord and said: “From going to and fro in the earth and from walking up and down it.” [Job 1:7b]

I think that lacks specificity.

And the Lord said unto Satan: “Hast thou considered my servant Job that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said: “Doth Job feareth God for naught? [Job 1: 8-9]

This is an invitation to sincerity. If you fear God and you show devotion to Him is there anything you think you’ll get out of it? Satan has a notion that Job escheweth evil and feareth God because of all the livestock. So, he asks this question, which comes to this: “If Job is religious, does he get something out of it?”

Hast not thou made a hedge about him and about his house and about all that he hath on every side? [Job 1:10a]

Job is insulated and doesn’t have to be bothered by other people.

Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord said unto Satan, “Behold, all that he hath is in thine power; only upon himself put not forth thy hand!” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. [Job 1: 10b-12]

Job happens to be one of the mighty works of the world. I am presenting this to have God thought of in terms of presence and absence and somewhat relatedly in terms of good and evil.

And there was a day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger unto Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them away; yea they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell ye.” [Job 1: 13-15]

This brings up a third question: What has God to do with freedom and determinism? We get the notion that God permitted Satan to have the Sabeans take away the oxen. And people could have compassion for the servants. They are part of the debate between God and Satan. It doesn’t seem to be fair.

While he was yet speaking there came also another that said: “The fire of God has fallen from heaven and hath burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell ye.” [Job 1: 16]

Now that seems to be God working directly. It is the fire of God that has fallen and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them and again we can say: Why should the sheep and the servants suffer because God and Satan are having a philosophic debate?

While he was yet speaking there came also another and said: “The Chaledans made out three bands and fell upon the camels and have carried them away, ye and slain the servants with the edge of the sword and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” While he was yet speaking there came also another and said: “Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house and behold there came a great wind from the wilderness and smote the four corners of the house and it fell upon the young men and they are dead and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” And Job arose and rent his mantle and shaved his head and fell down upon the ground and worshipped… [Job 1: 17-20]

And then we have a very lovely thing: one of the great sentences of the world.

...and said: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” [Job 1:21]

As soon as you come to a sentence like that you hear something.

In all this Job said naught nor charged God foolishly. [Job 1:22]

The whole world is about the relation of beauty and ugliness, order and disorder. It is a philosophic question but it is in the very midst of religion.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rosemary Plumstead on Education and More!

My dear wife Rosemary, a noted educator, has written most movingly on what she learned about education from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism on her own blog. I respect especially the way she has written about good will and I can tell you as her grateful husband of many years that she lives everyday the good will she learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism.

You can read Rosemary's blog by clicking here. Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

If You Want to Know More

If you'd like to learn more about Aesthetic Realism itself, feel free to visit the website of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation or any of these other informative sites:

Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Terrain Gallery
The Eli Siegel Collection at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO)
Aesthetic Realism online library
Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company
Aesthetic Realism vs. Racism
Photography Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel
Aesthetic Realism Resources
The Poetry of Eli Siegel by Kenneth Rexroth of the New York Times
Donita Ellison, Art Educator and Aesthetic Realism Associate
Lynette Abel on Aesthetic Realism and Life
Alice Bernstein and Friends

See also:

Article by Rev. Wayne Plumstead titled How Much of the World Does Jesus Ask Us to Include in Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist Clergy 2002.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Some Further Recommendations


Having had the opportunity to study in the professional classes she teaches for many years now, I believe the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, Ellen Reiss, to be one of the foremost educators in the world. I respect the extent and reach of her knoweldge very much, as well as the insightful and imaginataive way she is able to make graceful relations between things. Whatever the topic she is discussing and explaining through use of Aesthetic Realism principles, that topic becomes not only comprehensible but is also related in fresh and at times surprising ways to one's everyday life and the most pressing immediate concerns in the world. You can see this for yourself in the Aesthetic Realism commentary of Ellen Reiss on Robert Burns and the important Aesthetic Realism commentary by Ellen Reiss on John Keats.


I recently read the new book by my colleage, Dr. Arnold Perey, titled Gwe. What a moving account this is of one person coming to feel his kinship, the deep relation of sameness and difference, with another. I encourage you to check out Arnold Perey's web site "A New Perspective" and definitely to read his book!


Aesthetic Realism shows that our self-expression is enhanced crucially by our attitude to the world: when we want to have respect rather than contempt. For a wonderful example of this see Miriam Mondlin on the subject of stuttering.


Several thousand articles, letters, and columns about Aesthetic Realism have been published in newspapers and journals throughout the United States and abroad. Read about Aesthetic Realism in the news by clicking here.