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

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.