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Thoughts on the Master Architect Degree

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February 2008
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I’ve been going through all of the degress of the Lodge of Perfection in the Scottish Rite, re-reading Rex. R. Hutchens book A Bridge to Light as part of the Guthrie College of the Consistory study program.  I would like to write some short commentaries of my own on each of the degrees, and this is one attempt.  The degree titled Grand Master Architect is the 12th degree in the Lodge of Perfection.  I am bound by my vows not to personally reveal the contents of the ritual drama, which makes it a bit hard to write about it.  Suffice to say that the teachings include the idea of a Master Architect being chosen for his superior skill and wisdom to direct and govern a group of builders.  We look at the tools used by architects as we did in the Blue Lodge degrees with the tools of the operative stone mason.  Some of the architects tools have been replaced in the past generation by CAD programs that draw and calculate for the architect.  I tend to think, however convenient and efficient, it is not the same as using the hand tools — protracter, rule, sector, compasses, parallel ruler.  We were even shown a sliderule.  I remember my dad, who was an engineer, having a slide rule in his desk.  I liked to play with it as a boy, but never learned how to use it.

Tools make great symbols.  Like the alchemist’s use of chemical apparatus and processes as metaphors for the perfection of the soul, the tools of an architect can be taken not for their actual uses in designing buildings but instead a metaphors within the larger extended metaphor of soul-building.  Not only do we want to chip off our rough edges and fit ourselves as perfect stones for the use of the Builder; we also must learn to design our own souls, to create the plan of our life, to create the plan of who we want to be.

Masonry takes it as axiomatic that there is a Great Builder or Great Architect of the Universe.  For simplcity we call this entity God, but the word is so widely used in religious contexts that we need to be careful not to imply that we are talking about the god of any single religious faith or tradition.  What we mean, as Masons, is that there is an entity who is like a Great Architect, a Grandmaster Builder, who plans, designs, and then constructs the universe.  Not just the “natural world” outside of us, but us too.  We are part of the natural world and so designed, created, and constructed by this Being.  The drawback of such metaphors is that they imply that our souls are something separate from the created part, but they are not.  We are not material automatons into which God breathed life.  We are not clay pots made by a potter.  We are material and spiritual beings which God has made out of himself.

Mason’s think of God as a benevolent loving and wise Father.  That is only natural in a fraternity which emphasizes brotherhood.  It’s all men, after all.  But the idea of God creating us and the whole universe out of himself is much easier to undertand if we think of God as a Great Mother.  Mothers, after all, bring forth from their own bodies a new being that is separate yet dependant upon her love and the nourishment of her body.  The Mother takes substance and life from herself to make this new being.  If God is a Father, we may well ask, where does he plant his sperm?  The metaphor breaks down.  Of course, God is like both a father and a mother, self-generating and self-fertilizing.  The metaphor of human sex roles and human sexuality falls apart in the universality of God.  So, I prefer to think of God as both Father and Mother.

But is this Deity an architect?  Neither fathers nor mothers plan their children, after all.  They might try to plan their lives for them, but human parents hardly ever succeed at that sort of control.  Are we talking about “intelligent design” when we speak of a Great Architect?  Well, not exactly.  Because, again, the metaphor of the architect breaks down because it is rooted in our object and subject way of speaking.  God is beyond objects and subjects and when he plans the Universe he is planning a part of himself, something that is both born from him (or her) but also remains part of the Divine.  In a spiritual sense we can see this truth even in our own offspring or our own parents.  We are separate beings but we always have that tie to our ancestors and our children.  The sharing of genes, the sharing of stories, customs, money, habits — a thousand things connect us across generations, no matter how much we may want to think we are rebelling as teenagers.  We always remain the child of our mother and father.

But the Diety, we presume (or interpret), has even more continuity with the creations of the Divine Mind.  Plans, blueprints, drawings and notes, calculations, visions — all combine as part of the creation itself.  They are in the building, the temple. That is to say, Divine Providence, Wisdom, and skill are built into our souls.  Albert Pike, in his lecture for the twelfth degree calls our attention to the amazing potentials that are part of human beings.  Unlike all other animals, we have the capacity to learn and plan, to teach our children, and to pass on our knowledge, so that each generation knows more than the last.  This accumulation of knowledge and technique (or technology) sets us utterly apart from even our nearest ape cousins.  The brotherhood of man (and sisterhood of women) possesses the ability to use complex tools like those used by the architect and stonemason, to build magnificent works.  The metaphorical Temple is Civilization as a whole.  It is also our individual souls.  It is also the web of social relationships and moral customs we create together collectively.

Not only is God an architect, but so is each of us.  We are the architects of our own lives and our own culture because it is part of God’s nature to teach.  He doesn’t simply control us like puppets.  He teaches us to control oursleves and enables us to do so through hard work.   We learn to subdue our passions and impulses to achieve great things — to build something out of our lives.  Those among us who do not subdue their passions end up making a mess of their lives sooner or later. This is what the Biblical writers and the preachers mean by “sin and ruin.”

“Sin” simply means error.  It doesn’t mean “breaking the law” or “being disobedient to God” much less “being disobedient to bishops and kings.”  It means making mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  Part of human life is coping with our own mistakes and the embarrassment and disappointment that results from them.  Workers in the quarries of life can make mistakes and they do not have grievous consequences.  We can fix a stone that has been shaped incorrectly.  But if the architect makes a mistake, then there is real trouble.  And this is the lesson of the Master Architect degree.  We are not only apprentices, fellowcrafts in the quarries, or even master masons capable of laying stones to a plan.  We are planners.  If we do not plan our lives and seek to employ our souls to seek out the plans of the Divine Architect, we are likely to build a ruin, not a temple.

So we see, in the allegory of the Temples of Jerusalem.  Solomon built the perfect and sublime Temple, yet his own decadence and his enemies ultimately sacked it and tore it down. Even Solomon makes mistakes.  Then we see the poor Hebrews hauled off to Babylon as slaves return to their homeland and set about rebuilding a new temple.  Well, that one eventually was destroyed too, and the next.  What is the lesson here?  Stay home and stop trying to build temples?

One of the parallel myths that used to play more of a part in Masonic symbolism (until they got worried about outsiders thinking they were being too “pagan”) was the legend of the Tower of Babel.  Old Nimrod was represented as a “pagan” which is to say that he was not Jewish.  But the people helping him build his great tower were, according to the legend, the Noachites, the decendents of Noah who survived the Deluge.  The Noachites could not exactly be considered Hebrews. Their history had diverged along time before Abraham.  And yet, they shared the same connection to God that every descendent of Adam and Eve did. This is the literary context of our symbolism.  I do not mean to say that I take the stories of Genesis to be a record of historical facts.  They are myths, stories we (or in this case the ancient Hebrews) tell each other to give meaning to our lives.  The meaning behind the story of Adam and Eve as the primal parents is that we are all related to each other, we are all members of a great family.  That’s the truth in the story.  It doesn’t need to be interpreted literally.  If we say we descended from ancient apelike beings, it amounts to the same thing — we are all related and part of a great family.  It’s just a little bit better story if the parents of this family are humans instead of hypothetical ancestors reconstructed by paleontologists.

Yet, brotherhood and sisterhood are only a part of this puzzle and the Master Architect degree of the Scottish Rite aims to draw our attention to another wonderful truth.  That is, that we are also all capable of planning our lives and living together through the combinations of our plans in harmony and progress, each generation achieving greater wonders than the one before.  The next generation is going to have to be smarter than the one before in order to survive.  That is very clear today when the sheer weight of the human species is threatening to overturn the carrying capacity of the Earth.

To subdue our passions, we say, as Masons.  What does that mean exactly?  To keep our tempers?  To temper our lust?  Oh, much more than that.  Certainly anger and lust are constant problems for human beings, but we have a lot of passions and appetites and it is not so much any particular passion that we need to control as simply cultivating that God-given ability we humans have to govern ourselves.  I don’t mean to govern each other.  I mean to govern ourselves, to wisely refrain from actions that will lead to bad consequences later.  Certain actions, such as murder, robbery, lies, or running after another man’s wife — these almost always lead to trouble — “ruin” as they say.  Our temple falls apart.  Whatever life we might have built for ourselves, if we inspire the anger, vengeance, and hatred of our brothers, we won’t survive long.  Humans need each other.  We need to be part of a family, a brotherhood and sisterhood.  We do not need to be part of groups that cannot control their passions — that’s tribalism.  That sort of brotherhood is a perversion of the truth.  It is a mistake.  We need to individual draw the circle of the compass around our behavior and recognize that we will cause a ruination of ourselves and others if we go outside those bounds.  Not because God is a Great Policeman in the sky who will send thunderbolts to reap revenge.  No, Pike has it right when he suggests that Providence will bring about the ruin of the sinner, as it were, by natural law.  God doesn’t need to judge you and condemn you for murder or adultery — the acts will have natural consequences that you will be unable to escape.  You might escape for a little while, but be haunted by guilt.  Your fantasies of power or love will fall apart and crumble in your hands.

That lesson is taught through the degrees which precede the 12th.  So, by the time the Mason reaches the Master Architect’s degree, his Masonic forefathers (also brothers) are trying to teach the next lesson.  You need to not only set the boundaries of your actions with the compass of moral fortitude but, having done so, you are capable of so much more!  You are capable of aspiring to the greater good of the architect, to emulate the Creator himself by setting out a plan of action that will build a good life.  A life that will bring love and joy to yourself and others.  A life in the “pursuit of happiness” as Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence.   That pursuit of happiness depends upon first subduing your passions, living by the square and the plumb and setting the boundaries of your moral compass.  But the circle, as the 12th degree teaches, has a center and its circumference is actually infinite if they represent “the circle of God’s attributes.”  Put more plainly, if we choose to emulate God’s attributes, then the circle of our actions becomes infinite.  We are no longer confined within the boundary set to subdue our passions, but have realized in doing so the plan of the Great Architect, which is that we humans have an almost limitless capacity to be creative, to solve problems, to help each other, and to do good in the world.

Some magical and New Age traditions have promulgated the idea that “we are all gods.”  It’s a statement that can be too easily misunderstood.  It doesn’t mean that we should strive for omnipotence and do whatever we want in the name of being gods.  The wise men who pointed to our godlike nature understand that it is so only when the selfishness and short-sightedness of the animal nature is quelled and mastered.  Chimpanzees are not good architects.  It is possible that the writers of Genesis had this in mind.  Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden are a bit like apes.  Eve, bless her, cannot resist her appetite for the fruit.  It’s not all bad, tough, because although humans lose their innocence, they also stop being apes and start realizing Knoweldge, that thing that sets us apart.  Not just language, tool-using, or symbolic communication, but the ability to accumulate and pass on knowledge.  Eve, so the story tells us, can’t curb her passions, but the underlying lesson is that it turns out for the good because she ate of the tree of the knoweldge of good and evil and so began the long moral journey of humankind.  Thanks Mother Eve.

Eve means Life.  Adam means Clay.  So, if we believe in the human spirit, the life that strives for good, then we ought to pay more atention to Eve.  The serpent might have been a trickster trying to get Adam and Eve thrown out of the garden, as is the usual interpretation, or it may be that he was the symbol of wisdom, that trick of nature that caused humans to step away from their ape ancestors and become something far more full of possibilities and wonder.  First the realization of good and evil, and then the invention of the compass, the square, the rule, the plumb and level.  And eventually, all the tools of the Master Architect who by directing and teaching others can create a whole civilization, not just shelter for a night, but shelter for all the creative impulses of art, religion, music, mathematics, literature, poetry, law, politics and philosophy.  The art of the Master Architect lays forth the plan that shelters and makes possible all other human achievement.  He represents the plan-making ability of humankind itself.  To set aside short-term gratifications for long-term goals and complex visions of possible futures.

Go plan your life.

Owl /|\

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