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.

My Photo
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

Is Kindness Strong?

I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me that when a person is kind he is also strong, because he is affirming the deepest thing in himself: the desire to like the world. In his landmark work Definitions and Comment, Being a Description of the World, Eli Siegel writes:

"A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things."

Growing up, I wanted very much to see myself as a kind person, but I didn't feel I was. I took opportunities my church offered to do things I thought would make me kinder. I mowed the lawns of elderly people and sorted and distributed donated clothing to low income families at a church-run-center in Paterson, New Jersey. But something kept me from being kind. One day the director at the center asked me not to dress so fashionably when I came. He said I was "rubbing people's noses in their poverty." I knew this was true, but I got angry that my superiority was being questinoed. Rather than change, I stopped working there. "That will show him!" I thought about the director, with no thought at all about the lives of the people I was there to help and whom I had simply abandoned.

In high school, writing articles for the school newspaper, I wanted to impress people with my cleverness. I once wrote an article about a classmate who loved to run on the cross country squad even though he always came in last. Such human interest articles can be written to have people deeper about the feelings of another person and admire their persistance. But that wasn't my purpose. I called him a "tortoise among hares," and when other students started making fun of him after the article appeared, he was so humiliated that he left the team and the sport he loved. I was ashamead of what I had done, but I didn't see it as strong to apologize to him, though I thought about it whenever I saw him after that.

By the greatest of good fortune, I met Aesthetic Realism, and in 1972 began attending classes taught by Eli Siegel. I began to learn what it means to be truly kind, and also why I cared for religion. I was privileged to hear Mr. Siegel explain, "The purpose of Christianity is to enlarge the self and make it kinder. It attacks the thing in us that wanted to be bloated. If God is God then ego isn't ego."

I am very grateful to him and Aesthetic Realism for showing me what had interfered with my life: the contempuous self-importance I was after through lessening the meaning of other people and the world.

In one class, Mr. Siegel described a painful confusion of opposites in me: "You're displeased with yourself and pleased with yourself at the same time. You have snorting defiance and groveling humility. What might put them together?" "I'm not sure," I answered. And he described what he called "the chief matter for study.": "In being kind, have you come to your full power or ar eyou a pathetic weakling?...There is a smug satisfaction from contempt that makes for an unpleasant state of doubt. Now, there are various ways of ocmbating this temptation: 1) to see what you are missing; 2) to see what you are hurting; 3) to see what you want more. Kindness, fully seen, is the same as accurate knowledge."

Eli Siegel is the only world scholar who showed that the purpose of reliigon is the same as the purpose of life itself: to like the world. With great imagination, humor, and, at times, beautiful intensity, he opposed the desire in me to use a narrow notion of religion against the rest of reality. "It is blasphemy," he said, "not to see God in everything. Religion in action is trying hard to show that this world is not just God's apprentice work."

Today, I am grateful to have work I know is both kind and strong: as an Aesthetic Realism consultant and as an ordained clergyman of the United Methodist Church. And I am so happy and grateful to be married to a woman I both love and respect, Rosemary Plumstead. With my previous way of seeing the world all of these things would have been impossible!

With his great mind and warm heart, Eli Siegel logically enabled me to see that being kind is a rigorous, intellectual, and comprehensive matter which is always the same as true strength.