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

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.