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The World Now—& You

Reverend Wayne Plumstead Comments

  • Writer's pictureWayne Plumstead

The Meaning of Christ for Everyone

The life and teachings of Jesus Christ have stirred humanity for thousands of years and caused people to feel that life can be lived in a far more beautiful way.

"Christ the Redeemer" (Portuguese "Cristo Redentor"), completed in 1931.  This beautiful statue stands 98 feet tall, its horizontally outstretched arms spanning 92 feet.  Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"Christ the Redeemer"*

Not only the Christian faithful, but persons of every faith have expressed their respect for Christ and his teachings. The revered Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi said of Jesus, “To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.” [i] And the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Savior has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which…I must endeavor to understand.” [ii]

Artists have been inspired by Jesus to create masterpieces and, out of devotion to him, countless people over many centuries have given their lives in service to others. It is also true that his name has been invoked to justify terrible things that he himself would have roundly condemned—from holy wars and the inquisition to slavery and economic exploitation. There can be no doubt that Christ’s effect has been tremendous. But why has his impact been so large? I think it is valuable to look in more secular terms at the practicable meaning of Christ. So, my intention here is not to write about Jesus Christ as an object of faith, but rather about what people of all faiths or no faith at all can learn from him.

I Learn Something New About Christ

Long before I ever became a Christian pastor, I was stirred as I heard Jesus’ words in Sunday School lessons and learned about his life. I wanted to be a Christian and follow his teachings. I felt they were beautiful and true, and my life would be far better by doing so. But for all my resolve, my hope to be a good person and care for others was overwhelmed by selfishness and coldness. The goodness and generosity of spirit Christ represented was not as powerful in me as the desire to have my own way.

The person who most encouraged my love for Jesus Christ and made me feel I could live my life in a way that was faithful to him was Eli Siegel, the American poet, philosopher, and founder of Aesthetic Realism. While Aesthetic Realism is a secular philosophy, not affiliated with any particular religion, it is interested in the aesthetics of every religion.

The pivotal thing I learned when I began my study of Aesthetic Realism is in this great principle stated by Mr. Siegel:

All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

If all beauty is a making one of opposites, I thought, then that must be true of the beauty of Christ as well.

In my theological reflection over decades of ministry as well as my study and preaching of the scriptures, I have become more convinced with every passing year that Christ did what all true art does: he put opposites together in a compelling and necessary way that can be studied by both Christians and non-Christians alike to our lasting benefit. There was a oneness of strength and gentleness in him as well as the most intense criticism and utmost kindness. He was humble and proud, strong yet gentle and, in the many parables that formed the basis of his teaching, there was a oneness of truth and imagination—and people were irresistibly drawn to him because of this. In him, they saw the best in humanity and something so much larger.

Christ is Tangible and Intangible; Personal and Impersonal

The central opposites in understanding the nature of Christ are definitely tangible and intangible and the related opposites of personal and impersonal. The Church has traditionally taught that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine. In other words, he was a tangible, flesh-and-blood human being. At the same time, he was divine—the spiritual, abstract, intangible Cause of the world given specific form and substance. The very name “Jesus Christ” is a oneness of abstract and tangible. “Jesus” is the name given to the person Jesus of Nazareth while “Christ” is the title given to the divine Son of God, the object of faith and belief. Already in that name we have something intimate and personal, and something large and impersonal.

The history of Christianity has been, in large part, an effort to understand this dual nature of Jesus Christ and there have been fights and controversies on the subject. In 135 AD the church was almost torn apart by the Gnostic heresy which said that Christ was only abstract, divine. In 321 AD the Arian Controversy stated just the opposite—that Christ was to be seen as only human and tangible. While both positions were ultimately rejected by the Church, the question of how to see Jesus as both human and divine has persisted.

For non-Christians this claim has been problematic. Both Judaism and Islam reject the idea that any human being can be God. But is there a way to find value and everyday usefulness in this idea even if one doesn’t accept it literally? In speaking of Christianity, Eli Siegel said:

Never was there such a desire to like the world as in the century before Christ. The coming to be of Christ and the way he was seen is part of a desperate desire to think that the world is kind.…The great desire was to feel that God and oneself could be a one.

And I was moved to hear him say, in a lecture on the aesthetics of religion: “Christ is the physical embodiment of a general idea called God.” In that lecture he read passages from the New Testament, including these verses from the Gospel of John. Christ is talking:

“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.…I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also; and from henceforth ye know him and have seen him.” (John 14:1; 14: 6-7 KJV)

Explained Mr. Siegel, “Christ in relation to God, is as the thing in relation to its meaning. If you know something tangible, physical, fully, you can know what is intangible.”

Studying the opposites of tangible and intangible has given me a greater understanding of the large, beautiful meaning of Communion and why people can be so affected as they welcome the physical presence of Christ within them through the everyday elements of bread and wine. In his great kindness, Jesus gave his disciples a tangible way to feel his closeness through the centuries when he said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” And it was at the very time he knew he was going to die, to become intangible. For a Christian, receiving communion is a way to feel Christ more personally, as deeply of them. It is a sacred moment as these opposites are made one.

But there are more ordinary, everyday ways that the abstract and tangible matter very much to people. When we greet a friend by giving him or her a heartfelt hug, is it a way of making an intangible feeling tangible? There is the wedding ring, which I have so often referred to in marriage ceremonies as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” standing for a love that is pledged for eternity. People have kept mementos of no monetary value—a child’s drawing, a photo of their parents from years ago, a letter written to them by their spouse when they were dating—because these things are a means of making cherished intangible memories concrete.

People very much want to feel the world that is touchable, seeable, has a larger meaning that cannot be summed up. That is a principle in all art. It is in these lines from Tennyson’s poem, “Flower in the Crannied Wall.”

Little flower—but if I could understand What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.

A Painting Shows Christ as Tangible and Intangible

I think that what Eli Siegel explained, “Christ is the physical embodiment of a general idea called God,” is what Rembrandt gave form to in his early work “The Supper at Emmaus.”

THE SUPPER AT EMMAUS Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn dit Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) Circa 1628, oil on wood panel, 39 x 42 cm. JACQUEMART-ANDRÉ MUSEUM PROPERTY OF THE INSTITUT DE FRANCE
"The Supper at Emmaus" by Rembrandt**

This painting depicts an incident which occurred after Christ had been crucified, buried in the tomb, and then raised to new life. One of his appearances was to two men on the road to Emmaus, a town six miles from Jerusalem. Without knowing who he was, they invite Christ home with them. Luke relates what occurred:

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. (Luke 24: 28-31 RSV)

Here Rembrandt depicts that moment when, in the breaking of bread, Christ is recognized. The risen Christ is commonly depicted as translucent and painted in light colors—giving him a somewhat ethereal quality. But Rembrandt gives Christ—the predominant figure on the right—substance, tangibility, through making him a large, dark, weighty figure. He’s as solid as the table before him, as real and touchable as the other people in the room.

Yet Rembrandt also makes the imaginative—and I think—beautifully effective choice to have Christ silhouetted against a warm, bright light. This has the effect of obscuring Christ’s features, making him more general, mysterious, less human in appearance and more like an abstract triangular shape. And the way Christ leans back, creating a strong diagonal which leads our eye up and beyond the top right corner of the canvas, has us believe that, yes, as weighty as he seems, at any moment he just might vanish.

It is this oneness of Christ as “solid” and vanishing that Rembrandt captures, the oneness of Christ as human and Christ as the son of God. There is an amazed, stunned look on the face of the man sitting across the table from Jesus as he realizes that this person is the risen Christ.

There are other things happening in this painting which are not easy to make out—the second man kneeling at the feet of Christ in the foreground, a woman in the back room, perhaps tending to a cradle. Rembrandt brings together something everyday with something large and impersonal.

What do these opposites have to do with our lives? We can see a person too personally, only in relation to ourselves, without seeing their “impersonal” meaning; and we can also be too aloof from them. But every person, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is in relation to the whole world—they have an impersonal meaning. During the funeral services I conducted as a pastor, I often included a time for the mourners to share memories of the deceased. Such a rich variety of stories and perspectives on the person would ensue. On many occasions family members were surprised and moved by the memories of their loved one and the big meaning and good effect they had on people they never knew. On one occasion a wife said to me of her late husband, “Wow, George was so much more than I knew!”

Christ is Humble and Proud

I see the dark figure of Jesus depicted in “The Supper at Emmaus” as earthy; very much a part of this world, and humble in a way—not so different from the other figures in the painting. This is how Rembrandt presented the risen Christ, who is victorious even over death and the grave. In doing so, he is highlighting two of the central opposites in Christ: humility and pride.

People have felt a beautiful humility in Christ. What could be more humble, more submissive even, than “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 RSV) And yet, there was a grandeur in Christ that he saw and claimed for himself. What greater pride could there be than: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6 RSV)

Pride and humility, so beautifully one in Christ, are opposites that can tear a person apart. People can go from feeling they are “on top of the world” one moment to feeling they are the “lowest of the low” the next. People can feel superior, better than anybody else, and a few hours later feel they are consummate sinners. I was very ready to feel I was done questioning myself, that I had arrived, only to realize later that I was still displeased with myself. Mr. Siegel once described this bad relation of opposites in me humorously but accurately when he said: “Wayne Plumstead can feel as if he got to the top of the ethical mountain only to realize there are reptiles all around.”

One of the ways this bad relation of opposites affected me, as it does many men, was in love. Years ago, I was dating Mary Henderson (not her real name), who I cared for very much. I respected her love for music and the way she was lively and often a keen critic of me. But instead of steadily welcoming what I could learn from her, I often got annoyed and cold when she wouldn’t approve of me unquestionably. I arrogantly felt I was too good to hear her criticism, but I also felt I was a coward and a heel.

This painful and confusing situation isn’t so unusual. It goes on in love every day. However, I was fortunate to be studying Aesthetic Realism and because I wanted to respect myself and have real love in my life, I wrote to Eli Siegel asking for a discussion in an Aesthetic Realism class. What I learned that day and over the classes that followed, enabled me to change.

Eli Siegel said, “Your letter shows two opposites working now in you, arrogance and submissiveness. People can stiffen their chins and then start crying.” He read the first sentence I had written, "Sometimes life tests one in surprising ways,” and said of it with a mingling of criticism and lightheartedness: “It is kind of likable, but it is arrogant. You tend to dramatize yourself. The Lord visited me, and I have a belly ache! Two opposites—anger and self-doubt—are tossing you about. They are not easy to put together.”

With humor and good will he encouraged me to see myself more exactly. And he brought a magnificent historical perspective to this discussion, speaking about a person famous in world literature, who was also Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, to have me see myself and my life questions more comprehensively.

Eli Siegel: The first thing in real humility is to try and see the facts as simply as possible. We can all deceive ourselves and none of us want to know enough about it. Jonathan Swift was an English clergyman who was very cruel to two women. He married the second and then refused to talk to her except when a third person was present. You’re not as imperious as Swift but you are undergoing a disruption of the opposites. You should say to yourself: “I’ve reached another point in my study of myself, God, and the world.”

Through discussions like this I was able to see where I could exalt myself falsely and then feel all was lost. I came to see this was inexact and foolish. I was learning to see my questions as aesthetic, and about the need to put opposites together in myself. I am immensely grateful that the opposites of pride and humility are in a much better relation in me now, including in the way I have been able to welcome the seeing and kind criticism of my dear wife, Rosemary. I have felt a true pride in welcoming her effect on me and in wanting to strengthen her. I now have the love in my life I always hoped for.

I have always loved the relation of pride and humility in Christ. All four gospels show him as humble and proud at once. To take one example, there is the trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus is brought into the Roman Praetorium bound hand and foot, surrounded by and at the utter mercy of those who want his death.

Ecce Homo Definition of ecce homo: behold the man —from the words of Pontius Pilate when he presented Jesus, crowned with thorns, to the crowd before his crucifixion
"Ecce Homo" by Titian ***

The first question Pilate asks Jesus is: “Are you king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer is a study in humility and pride: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus was not after Pilate’s power, yet he knew he had divine authority.

Pilate asks further: “So then, you are a king!” Again, Jesus’ response was humble and proud at once: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Truth, not position or his own ego, is the important thing. Yet in being of the truth, Jesus had a sincere pride and lovely certainty. Pilate, who was haughty and arrogant, but also deeply unsure when Christ first came before him, was so moved that he tried to avoid having Christ killed. I believe the thing that stirred Pilate about this lowly carpenter, who stood by the truth steadfastly and courageously, was his beautiful relation of humility and pride. I know this is what stirred me when I read this story for the first time. Without realizing it, I was hoping these opposites could be closer in my own life.

Christ is Critical and Kind

The opposites of criticism and kindness are crucial in how we see the world and other people. Most people don’t see criticism as kindness, but Jesus did. It was an aspect of his good will. In a poetry lecture Eli Siegel once said:

The presence of the Lord is reposeful and awakening. This implies there is some criticism in it. Was Christ a critic, and does man deeply long for criticism? Does he need it for peace? People come to Jesus to ask questions and he sometimes is telling things people didn’t want to hear. Can a person with flesh represent the world’s opinion of us? [iv]

The questions I quoted earlier that I heard from Mr. Siegel were critical, but they did a great kindness for my life, because they enabled me to understand and like myself and to meet the hopes of another person. “Criticism,” Eli Siegel said, “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” It is both accuracy about a person and a good hope for them.

To be “kind” (and sometimes because they just want to be liked) people feel they must mute their criticism, and when they are critical it is often not from the desire to have another person stronger, but rather from a sense of superiority or simply because they are angry. But in the scriptures, we see the divine oneness of criticism and kindness that Jesus always exemplified.

Take, for instance, his approach to Simon Peter.

Antique engraving, "Christ Giving the Keys of Paradise to St. Peter". The book "History of the Church", 1880
"Christ Giving the Keys of Paradise to St. Peter"****

Peter was one of Jesus' most passionate and faithful disciples. But when Jesus began to lay out his mission to the disciples and told them it would involve his suffering and eventual death, the scriptures tell us that Peter "rebuked" Jesus. And that is when Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns." (Matthew 16:23 NIV). Did this mean Jesus had stopped loving Peter, valuing him, and being grateful to him? Hardly! His love for Peter was his criticism. To use a modern-day phrase, it was "tough love."

This is perhaps the most severe criticism that Jesus ever gave Peter, yet it is interesting that in Matthew’s gospel it comes just after he has given Peter some of his greatest praise. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” At this, Jesus blesses Peter and tells him: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church....I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18,19 RSV) Very high praise indeed! But we should never forget that praise, when accurate, is also a critical judgment. In fact, we can’t really trust a person who doesn’t want to fight for the best thing in us, and that means having a oneness of criticism and kindness.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" by Rembrandt****

One of the places this can be seen is in the story of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple.

Here the “meek and mild” Jesus singlehandedly whipped at least two dozen men from their place of commerce with a beautiful fury. He hated people using religion to profit personally. He saw the great damage this practice was doing to poor people and the horrible results it had on the moneychangers themselves. Sometimes, good will must take an active and forceful form, as it did in World War II during the fight against fascism.

Consider these statements of Jesus. To a rich young ruler:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:25 RSV)

To a group of self-righteous Pharisees:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27 RSV)

Christ shows that criticism and kindness together equal love. To study how Christ saw people is to study how criticism and kindness are the same thing, and I believe this is what every person wants.

Christ is Imaginative and Truthful

Finally, I want to mention a pair of opposites in Christ that I have always found amazing and stirring: truth and imagination.

Christ stood unfailingly for what was true, yet he was terrifically imaginative in how he taught and defended the truth. Once, his enemies tried to trip him up by asking him a devious question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Christ knew that if he said paying taxes was unlawful, he would immediately be arrested by the Roman authorities. On the other hand, if he said people should pay their taxes, he would lose his popular support and the people would turn on him.

Jesus’ response to this carefully laid trap was terrifically imaginative. He asked to see a Roman coin and inquired whose image and inscription were on it. Of course, it was Caesar’s. And so, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At this, we are told, his enemies "were amazed at him." (Mark 12:17 RSV) Isn’t this a beautiful cleverness in defense of the truth?

And there are Jesus’ many parables. His method of teaching truth was through creative stories. How different it was from the way I used my imagination, as a child, to spin the wildest yarns to excuse myself after I’d been caught in wrongdoing. This was a way of using imagination against truth, and people can very often be “imaginative” in a way that is misleading and untruthful because it is convenient for them and their own comfort. But an artist, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, uses his or her imagination to show the world truly as it is. When Charles Dickens created the fictional character Uriah Heep, he was using his rich imagination to show something true about hypocrisy and false humility.

With Jesus, truth and imagination were always one. Perhaps my favorite story is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told it in response to Pharisees who were grumbling about how he welcomed sinners and ate with them, something no self-respecting, righteous Jew in that day would ever do. The parable tells of the older brother, who is upright and obeys all the rules just as these Pharisees did. The younger brother leaves home and wastes his father’s inheritance on riotous living. But in the end, he “comes to himself” and returns home to seek his delighted father’s forgiveness.

Vienna, Austria. 2019/10/23. "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1773) by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708-1787). Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) in Vienna, Austria.
"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni ******

There is a feast to celebrate the younger boy’s redemption. Everybody in the household is overjoyed except for the older brother, who is jealous, resentful, and angry.

"Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" (Luke 15: 29-30 NIV)

In this story we have such respect for the younger son, who sees the error of his ways and seeks forgiveness, as well as for the generosity and good will of his father, who never stopped hoping the best for his son. The person who looks small and selfish is the "respectable" older brother who wants to see himself as superior to his younger brother and therefore can't rejoice in his redemption. He doesn't want to give up his superiority or even acknowledge his relation to his brother, calling him "this son of yours." The older brother appeared "good" but in his heart he really wasn't. Unmistakably, he had the same way of seeing as the self-righteous Pharisees who questioned Jesus for associating with "sinners" they scornfully saw as utterly different from themselves. This is high-class imagination and completely factual! I suspect Jesus' nimble and creative response to the Pharisees had a far greater impact upon them than if he had just scolded them. The parables are yet another instance of where Jesus put together criticism and kindness along with truth and imagination.

There are other opposites Christ put together that we are hoping to make one in ourselves. The study of how Christ put together opposites, and how opposites are one in the painting and music that he inspired, is an important study, for which I am forever grateful to Eli Siegel, and I hope to say more about it in the future.

Citations [i] The Modern Review, October 1941, pg. 406 [ii] Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith [iii] Nevertheless Poetry Class, January 14, 1976


* "Christ the Redeemer" (Portuguese "Cristo Redentor"), completed in 1931. This beautiful statue stands 98 feet tall, its horizontally outstretched arms spanning 92 feet. Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

** "The Supper at Emmaus" (Circa 1628) by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), oil on wood panel, 39 x 42 cm.

*** "Ecce Homo" (1543) by Tizian or Titian (1488-1576). Whole name: Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio. Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) in Vienna. Translation of "ecce homo" —"Behold the man," from the words of Pontius Pilate when he presented Jesus, crowned with thorns, to the crowd before his crucifixion.

**** Antique engraving, "Christ Giving the Keys of Paradise to St. Peter." The book "History of the Church," 1880.

***** "Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" (1626) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Private Collection.

******"The Return of the Prodigal Son" (1773) by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708-1787). Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) in Vienna, Austria.


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