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On the words King, Lord, and Prince

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March 2008
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In Christianity the term “King” and “Lord” are often applied to Jesus and to God the Father (Yahweh). Growing up in American culture, I have often felt uncomfortable with these terms that come out of our monarchical and feudal past. In the Bible there are very few really admirable kings. They are usually admirable for the violence they inflict on the “enemies” of their people and how well they advance the interests of their kingdom.

Americans in the Revolution rejected kingship. Thanks to George Washington, who was a Freemason, we did not establish a monarchy over the newly federated states of America. Instead, we rejected noble titles altogether. This did not itself free us from plutocracy and oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy and a few powerful families. And in rejecting noble titles, we created a kind of romanticism about them — a medievalism that has only gotten stronger over the past 200 years. Witness the genre of fantasy fiction.

I for years had trouble with all the lord and king imagery in Christian hymns and sermons. Why is it good to call God a “king”? and his cosmos or “Heaven” his “kingdom”? Why address Jesus as “Lord”? Isn’t that rather against the whole idea of God as a “father” and Jesus as the “Son of Man” and so forth? It gave me a case of cognitive dissonance.

Curiously, modern neopaganism reproduces this language of noble privilege. It is probably unwitting, as it was most likely inspired simply by Christian useage. You have a god and he ought to be addressed as “lord”. The logic behind this etiquette may have been lost on the neopagan, which is to say that one is addressing one’s god as a social superior, one with powers of life and death over you, and one distinctly removed from the sphere you yourself occupy. One grovels before a king and at best pledges feality to a lord. Most people under a monarchical system or a feudal system (or even a patrician system as in pagan Rome) were slaves to the lords, or tenants with very few rights at all. Think of the modern absentee “landlord” who owns your apartment building.

Lords (much less kings) were distant beings of a sphere of wealth and power that could hardly be imagined by most common folk. So a religion that promulgates the notion that gods are lords and goddesses are “ladies” runs the risk of unwittingly promulgating the whole mindset that goes along with those social terms. Grovelling supplicants, powerless before a being that might be helpful or might be cruel. You make your supplication and hope for the best. Offering up gifts sometimes helps. That is called bribery today.

Is that a good model for religion?

We pick our metaphors. Can we do better?

I ran across a similar problem in Freemasonry. Masons are sometimes derided for their collections of seemingly pompous titles. The term “knight” is often used in the chivalric degrees, but there are other titles such as “elu” from the French for elected delegate. Even the simple “master” is one that is not used in modern American society (except vestigally in the Master’s degree of Academia, which is universally acknowledged to be of small value). Nobody calls someone with a Master of Arts degree “master” in forms of address. Nor do we have an apprentice system of economics anymore, so underlings in modern corporations and businesses do not call their “bosses” master either.

The title “prince” is the most difficult. In Freemasonry some of the degrees use this title. For example Prince Ameth and Prince Adept. What on earth do such titles mean? The modern American is not only completely ignorant of noble titles and their significance, but is also ignorant of Latin. So, it will be the rare fellow who recognizes that the word prince, which has come to be used to honor the son of a king, comes from the Latin word princeps, which has the same root as our English word “principal”. It meant “first” among men. We see the shadow of the term when we refer to a U.S. president as First Citizen. Hardly anyone does anymore, though. We have only preserved the term in “First Lady” for the president’s wife.

But does Prince Adept then mean “first” adept? No, I don’t think so. There is a symbolic or metaphorical meaning in “princeps”. It doesn’t mean simply that one is “first” in a numerical sense, or even “first” in a superiority sense, or order of precedence — like first in line at the banquet or seated at the head of the table in the “first” position of honor. Eighteenth century society was very concerned with precedence and honor.

No, “first” in this Latin sense has to do with another concept, that of sovereignty. That is, after all, the concept that lies behind the title “king” too. Kings were not always absolute monarchs or oriental potentates. They were not always equated with gods either. The old Irish kings and Saxon kings of England were just the chosen war-leaders and magistrates over their tribe. A kingdom was just as far as any given king’s authority and influence extended. That is why we have so much talk in the early Middle Ages about “petty kings” — they had the title, but not a very big following.

But underneath the reality is the concept of sovereignty and this is usually interpreted to mean that a person is acknoweldge to be whole and complete in himself. Nobody rules over him or her. A sovereign king or queen is at the top of the pecking order. But this isn’t meant literally in Masonry, or indeed, I think in Christianity. These terms had some literal sense in the beginning of their use in religions, no doubt, but in the Christian revelation the idea was to erect an idea of a transcendental, divine kingship and lordship over the worldy kings and lords that existed then (and still do). Jesus was “Prince of Peace” the very opposite of the warlords that have dominated human civilization (and still do). The idea of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man suggests that each of us, each human being has the potential within to be a “king”. That was in its time a very radical idea, almost inconceivable.

In Freemasonry assuming titles such as “Sir” and “Knight” or “Eques” (the latin version of the term), or indeed “Prince” take those historical titles of nobility and turn them on their heads. The titles of a Mason are not hereditary. They do not indicate the inheritance of land or power. Nor do they indicate a bestowal of land or power by a sovereign monarch for services rendered to the crown. In Freemasonry, being a prince means being One. It means finding the philosophical One of the Hermeticists within oneself. It means mastering one’s own personality with all its disparate and conflicting parts to find oneness, wholeness, which is indeed the philosopher’s gold.

The Gold of the alchemist is arrived at through the creation of the philosopher’s stone, and that stone is no literal stone, no chemical compound arrived at in the laboratory of the modern chemist. No, it is a recognition, a state of consciousness in which the sovereign person (the prince) perceives Nature not as mere “stone” — that is mere inanimate matter — but as imbued with layer upon layer of spiritual substance, spiritual energy, and spiritual bodies, all of which make up our being.

This Nature, once perceived as such, is the Philosopher’s Stone. And he or she who opens the doors of perception to see the philosophical reality in the natural world, sees the cosmos as it is, not as it is merely imagined to be by the finite and limited senses employed by modern science. Is it a matter of belief? In a sense it is, but it is also a matter of knowing. Modern scientific thought separates “belief” from “knowing” — the one being something that cannot be demonstrated or proven and the other something that can be demonstrated.

There is truth in that distinction, but only partly. For in matters spiritual, one may know from experience and revelation and vision, from senses beyond the mere five employed by modern science. The sciences of the past, before the 18th century, included these more intuitive senses and yielded more knoweldge as a result. Knowledge which could not be easily demonstrated in a lecture theater, but which is not “false” because of that.

The Prince Adept knows his own sovereignty, feels the unique union with the Anima Mundi, the Shekinah, or Sophia. Poetry is the language of such knowledge, symbol, metaphor and an understanding that goes beyond literalism. Beyond literalism, whether that be the literalism of materialism, or the literalism of religious fundamentalism. The Druid is also one of the People of the Book, but the “book”, the “bible” (book in Latin) is not a single printed volume, it is the volume of Nature. The medieval philosophers understood this truth, this way of knowing: That Nature is a book which may be read and interpreted. And she may be interpreted a thousand ways, not just through the single vision of modern materialism.

Materialism deserves some criticism not for its way of seeing, but for its claims to be the only way of seeing, the only path to truth, the only describer of reality. In this, modern science has erred in exactly the same way that so many religions have erred. Freemasonry — and I believe also Druidry — demands more. It demands a truly open mind and truly opened senses that respect other people’s knowledge and beliefs with humility. Any Druid who puts down others for their beliefs is not much of a druid, just as any Mason who does so is not much of a mason.

It is hard work. We have an innate desire to believe that our beliefs are true and those of others are wrong. But I am not so sure this is entirely innate. It might be a part of how our brains are constructed but it is certainly a part of how our language and our culture have been constructed, and those things are, as Blake said, “mind-forged manacles” we have made for ourselves. Freedom — that is “salvation” — must come from our willingness to work at casting off those manacles while keeping our sanity and civility. These are true freedoms, and that true basis of being a sovereign prince.


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