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

"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.