The last post to this blog is probably a good example of less light in Masonry. Delving into Masonic mysteries tends to lead to obscurity before one sees the light. The other day a young clerk at a store asked me about Freemasonry after seeing my ring. I felt later as if I didn’t do a very good job, though the circumstances didn’t favor me — checking out in a line with people waiting behind me! I hope that I piqued the young man’s curiosity, but as my lodge education officer, I feel rather bad at the job. I do not yet have a clear vision of how to present Freemasonry. This is the same problem of concise exposition that I face with Druidry. I do not have a quick, simple answer.
Obviously, a complex of ideas like Druidry or Freemasonry cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences. The fact is that it takes years to understand the teachings which have been collected in the Masonic degrees. Yet, I grow to understand (or suspect at least) that many of my brothers come in the category sometimes called “sleeping masons.” That is, they attend the degrees, even participate as candidates in some, but do not do the masonic work required after the degree to understand its content.
“Content” is not even perhaps the best word. When it comes to Freemasonry, the distinction between the vessel and its content does not seem to apply. The degree rituals are the vessel, to be sure, but their “content” goes beyond the mere words and actions of the degree, or even the visual symbols presented to the initiate. Masonry is a collection of materials and ideas and symbols from the world’s mystery traditions and religions. Albert Pike and his compeers in Scottish Rite masonry gathered together the wisdom from all of these various cultures and traditions and examined them through the lens of Hermeticism.
Hermeticism is a lens that reveals the underlying structures of reality in a way that has been lost to the modern materialistic mindset. That is, we are conditioned to think of and experience the world as matter. Physicists today do acknowledge that there are many energies and forces which exist and are integral to the “material” world. Yet, we in the West persist in the mistaken (or oversimplified) dichotomy between “matter” and “energy” as if these two “things” could be separated. Conceptualizing them as separate things with different names is a convenience to permit us to study them scientifically. However, the split between the concepts of matter and energy (and forces) should not be taken as a true reflection of the way things are. That is, Nature makes no such distinctions, except within human minds. Human minds are part of Nature, and that is another dichotomy that needs to be dissolved to understand the true nature of existence.
Such philosophical thinking seems far away from what many Freemasons desire, yet it is the Work of Freemasonry. Many brothers seem to think that the “Work” is merely the correct and careful performance of the rituals. Although care and correctness and an adherence to the accurate conveyance of our traditions is important, it is only the beginning of the Work. Albert Pike certainly understood this. His book Morals and Dogma of Scottish Rite Freemasonry is a very long and heartfelt attempt to teach this truth: That we are engaged in the same Magnum Opus as the alchemists and hermeticists of the middle ages and the renaissance. Indeed, this Art goes back to the dawn of human history and we can even see it in prehistorical cultures.
It is worth remembering that it has only been since the nineteenth century that we in the West have had any idea of “preshistorical cultures” and academics have only barely begun to study them, let alone understand what these cultures were doing. When we have only symbols and artifacts left, it is very hard to sort out and come to agreement about what ideas and actions those artifacts suggest.
However, it seems safe to say that the ideas expressed in Hermetic thought and attributed to Hermes Trismegistus are older than the Hellenistic Age. The texts may be products of their historical moment, certainly, but the ideas expressed in them are perhaps as old as the human brain. Pike attempts to examine the “history” of human development. He follows a common belief of his own time: That humans once had knowledge of the Unity of Divinity and the mystery of spiritual Being, but then lost it. This is the Lost Logos. We once had gnosis – “knowledge” – but having lost a grip on it (probably when we started to evolve written literate culture), we humans have spent the subsequent millennia arguing and philosophizing about whether we have spirits or souls and whether they are part of a single whole Being or whether they are individual and unique, and also then about whether our souls die with our bodies or somehow are reincarnated, and how that works, etc. etc.
Pike takes the view that we lost our clear understanding of our being and have been working for thousands of years to recover it. This is the meaning behind the myth of the Fall and the various myths of Salvation. We fell from pure knowledge (gnosis) into a state of doubt and confusion that is symbolized masonically by the image of darkness. We are blindfolded, hoodwinked, as we live our lives, until each of us makes the effort (work) to return to the Light.
Light, in this sense, is not the 18th century notion of “Enlightenment.” In that period of our history, thinkers came to the conclusion that religion was getting in the way of the truth. The truth was that the cosmos was a giant machine, a mechanism made up of mechanisms. This idea captivated Western culture and has been the dominant metaphor for the cosmos ever since. In the 20th century the metaphor of the computer was added so that the machine was acknowledge to be far more complex than a mere collection of cogwheels and springs. The idea of the cosmos as a fine timepiece gave way to the idea of the cosmos as a vast computer.
These ideas about the cosmos are, in the first instance, ideas about ourselves. We humans are most interested in understanding ourselves, our own being. Scientists do so by looking at the cosmos, Nature. However, in the 18th century the scientific thinkers of the West decided that they would discard the lens of Hermeticism and instead employ only the lens of Materialism. After Descartes articulated his mechanistic metaphor to explain the cosmos and human life (or at any rate non-human life), it was not long before Academia did an about face and passionately embraced the premise that there was no such thing as a “spirit.” Everything was carnal and mechanical.
I say that Academia did an about face because prior to this turning point, universities had been dominated by theologians. Indeed, it was against this domination by theologians that Freemasonry was elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Men like Isaac Newton and Elias Ashmole, who were instrumental in the creation of the Royal Society in England, were also instrumental in fostering the Masonic lodge as a space for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience. Universities did not provide such a space in their time. Far from “academic freedom” the Academies of that earlier period would send a professor to prison for denying the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity or any number of other religious ideas.
There can be no freedom of thought where some ideas are made sacrosanct and cannot be questioned. There can be no evolution of thought or progress in human understanding of the cosmos where a few ideas are held up to be incontrovertable. Curiously, the creation of the Royal Society by these free-thinking alchemists and hermeticists did not have the effect they desired. Freedom of thought abandoned religious ideas altogether. When Reason was applied to religious teachings, they were found so wanting that they were discarded. Thousands of years of human cogitation and vision were tossed aside by this arrogant and blind generation of men, so that the 19th and 20th century became an age in which spiritual searching was ejected from universities altogether in favor of rationalist materialism. Positivism rejected visionary experience so forcefully as to render it laughable, and no one could pursue a career in academia as a professional paid thinker while openly including such ideas as the Trinity or even God in his or her thoughts about the universe.
Offended at being so rejected, religious leaders and thinkers removed themselves from academia to private seminaries and carried on their religious thinking within the narrow confines of one particular sect or another, enforcing orthodoxy upon the seminarians to a greater or lesser extent. So, the idea of the separation of church and state combined with the idea of the rational secular state to yield the separation of Faith and Reason.
Yet, through all these past two centuries Freemasonry has continued. Within its lodges and its sacred space, both Reason and Faith have been allowed absolute freedom. Free speech and freedom of thought are maintained within the institution of Masonry as the most profound necessities for peaceful coexistence and brotherly love. Modern Druidry, as it evolved out of Masonic institutions in the 19th and 20th century in England, took on this mantle and extended it to a universal doctrine of Caritas. Fraternitas is, within Druidry, interpreted to mean both sexes — brotherhood and sisterhood equal in virtue and equally necessary among men and women. This is an idea we can see in the early Irish monasteries, which included both brothers and sisters in their orders, living together, not separated by a fear of sex and the body as “evil.”
I myself believe that this Irish monastic tradition was carrying on an earlier druidic practice of including men and women in the spiritual orders of bards, ovates, and druids. Trees, animals, and even stones are acknoweldge to be our “brethren” in this broad sense, our kin, in fact. This is a doctrine shared even by American druids who grew out of the American neopagan movement. Whether they knew it or not, many of the “pagan” ideas inherited by neopagans have been preserved and fostered in the Light of Masonry for centuries. The general promotion of freedom of thought which the secular materialist universities promoted did accomplish good. For even if Academia excluded from its walls and payroll thinkers engaged in spiritual thinking, they nevertheless have cultivated a general legal system of tolerance. Whether Academia itself is to be given credit for this legal system or whether in fact it arose from Freemasonry and its teachings is impossible to say with certainty, though I think the latter more probable.
So we enjoy freedom of thought and ought, in my opinion, to go to work exercising that freedom. That means working to recover the lost Logos, the union of Reason with all the other faculties of Mind and Body. Blake had it right when he identified Reason as only one of four faculties of the human soul. Reason, he argued poetically, had made itself a God, and cast down the other divine attributes of the human being — Imagination, the Body and its Joys and Emotions, and Feeling, the capacity to love, relate, and join with others. That idea of Feeling is really Fraternitas, the virtue of brotherhood, the virtue of connection among peoples. The modern druid seeks that connection with trees and the land itself, with mountains, oceans, and indeed the whole planet as a living being.
Here are Paracelsus and Fludd and Dee and Bruno, the great natural philosophers of the Renaissance. Some modern neopagans are too quick to reject these thinkers because their thought was couched at times in Christian symbols. Such a rejection can only be explained by ignorance of their true depths of thought. Among modern pagans too often it seems there is no study, no work at cultivating understanding, gnosis, through understanding these ancestors and their minds. Instead, the modern pagan seeks direct gnosis, an epiphany or revelation that comes through well-performed ritual and freedom from the dogmas of the dominant religions. Polytheism now seems liberating just as monotheism did in the time of our ancient ancestors two millennia ago.
But all of this spiritual searching, synthesizing and balancing the ideas of many gods and one god have been going on for at least a hundred generations of our ancestors. There are those among us, and among our ancestors, who desired to join the dominant religions of their day, to be a part of a dominant group with all the security that implies. There are many others who desire to ally themselves with oppressed peoples and religions, those who have been rejected and persecuted, the victims of religious bigotry. I find myself among the latter type. Dominant religions are too often bigoted, chauvinistic and smug in their self-righteousness. The problem isn’t their religious teachings or symbolism, but this smug self-righteousness and tendency to lord it over other religious groups. The vice of Superbia.
So, I am among those brothers who are drawn to Judaism, Kabbalah, Hermeticism, the old polytheisms of our ancestors, but more than I am drawn to the familar hymnbooks and structures of Protestantism or even Catholicism. Islam because it is in fact a hugely dominant religions worldwide, holds little attraction to me, but some of the Sufi poets and their mystical ideas draw me, because they are a part of the esoteric currents that run deep in the oceans of thought.
The obscurity that exists in the esoteric schools is partly due to the realization that the Book of Nature is symbolic and all sacred texts may be interpreted and reinterpreted infinitely. The lack of simple, clear answers to life’s persistent questions makes the work of the wizard seem confusing and obscure. It is part of my quest as a worker in the the field of Masonic and Druidic education to find the way to shed more light upon the pursuit of Light itself. I feel unequal to the task!