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.

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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

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.”