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.

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!