I am a relatively new Freemason, only in my second year of service to the Craft. I am still learning and always will be, but I have learned enough about the Craft to realize that its true purpose is to provide a safe community of men where one can do inner work, to improve oneself morally in the pursuit of virtue and in the profound understanding of our place in Nature.
Regular Masons all profess a belief in a Supreme Being who is referred to as God. They use Biblical stories and Bible verses in their rituals and they have a Holy Book, most often the Christian Bible, on their altar. In other parts of the world where the predominant religion is something else, they may have another Volume of Sacred Law.
Nevertheless, Freemasonry is not a religion and is not, in my opinion, a “religious” organization. The notion that Freemasonry is “religious” to the extent that it supports religion has been promoted by a few members of the fraternity and has caused some changes in lodge custom, but I feel this stance is more defensive than descriptive. Freemasons have been attacked so often by conservative Christians and accused of everything from drunkenness to Satanism that the members of the fraternity have made an effort to appear more conventionally “religious” than the institution is meant to be.
That slippage of attitude is unfortunate and is detrimental to the Craft, for if a brother feels the need to rationalize his participation in lodge life by trying to convince himself that Freemasonry is basically Christian or God-fearing, or whatever, he has missed a central point of the Craft. That is, he is forgetting the origins of Freemasonry in a time (the 17th century) when religious persecution and the union of Church and State were so dominant as to be unquestioned. This error is especially easy for Americans who have never experienced a society in which theocratic tyrants ruled over private matters of conscience. At the same time that Americans tend to undervalue their constituted separation of Church and State, they continue a legal system founded on the Biblical Ten Commandments — a source of considerable cognitive dissonance in the collective mentality of our culture.
Religious “tolerance” (“acceptance” might be a better word) is only accepted now because it was nurtured in the Freemason’s lodge three centuries ago. Whatever its origin, one of the central tenets of the Craft is that men can meet on the level and on the square, which means that they can talk together as Men, regardless of their social class and regardless of their religious affiliations, if any. The Craft rises out of the religious movement called Deism, a religion (if you can call it that) which has been virtually forgotten today because it never established a priesthood or authoritarian institution to promote it. By its nature it could not do so. But it is the ideas of Deism that permeated Freemasonry at its foundations and still do, for those who can understand its symbolism. For a believer in the Great Architect of the Universe nothing could be more absurd or hypocritical than to suppose that the Volume of Sacred Law on the altar of a lodge must be a Christian Bible or to refer to this particular religion’s holy book as “the Great Light of Masonry.” Such language has, I am sorry to say, been introduced into the Craft by its too-zealous Christian brothers, who despite their zeal lack the faith in their religion to feel the need to make Freemasonry conform to social pressures. Accusations of “Satanism” or other sorts of superstitious nonsense cast at the fraternity so frightened these Christian brothers that they thought they needed to introduce rules that made a Bible part of the regular furniture of every lodge — just to avoid accusations of not being good Christians.
Sigh. Brothers of that sort (today or yesterday) have sadly missed the point of Freemasonry. To believe that the Bible is at the core of Masonry reflects such a superficial knowledge of both the history and symbolism of the Craft that it staggers the mind and pains the heart of a Mason who cares for his lodge brothers. Let me turn your attention again to the tenets of Deism, a thread of thought about religion and Divinity, which was never any sort of organized religion or dogmatic creed.
Wikipedia has a very nice definition of Deism that will make its relationship to Masonry obvious to any brother of the Craft:
Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world. Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious dogma. These views contrast with the dependence on divine revelation found in many Christian, Islamic and Judaic teachings.
Deists typically reject most supernatural events (prophecy, miracles) and tend to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe which he does not alter either by intervening in the affairs of human life or suspending the natural laws of the universe. What organized religions see as divine revelation and holy books, most deists see as interpretations made by other humans, rather than as authoritative sources.
There is a reason Mason’s call God the Great Architect of the Universe and this is it. While I do not doubt that some Christians and members of other religions can reconcile their religious beliefs with Deism, I have a feeling that very few Masons today fully grasp the ramifications. if you do not accept miracles and revelation or Divine intervention, then you have to discard or ignore an awful lot of Christian doctrine (and I suspect the same would be true for most religions.) A brother recently mentioned to me that he had heard a presentation by another brother which attempted to compare and contrast Buddhism and Masonry. At first I thought, “What an odd idea.” But then it occurred to me that at its roots Buddhism does reject the idea of supernaturalism and places emphasis on moral action, right living, honesty, and brotherly love (compassion). As Buddhism developed into a complex priesthood and temple culture it fell afoul of the same tendency toward supernaturalism that Christianity did during its history.
Today I suspect many Buddhists, like many Christians, have forgotten or never learned the simple lessons of their great teachers and have gotten lost in the glamour and mystery of lavish rituals, colorful robes, pagentry, incense, and faith in miracles.
Freemasonry is about as far from this sort of religion as can be. It arose from a cultural moment when intellectuals were turning away from Catholicism and “High Church” pageantry. The Puritans and other Protestant reformers wanted simple church architecture and austere lack of ritual. They focused on personal spiritual development but the main method was prayer and Bible reading. Masonic lodges took the impetus against pageantry and priesthoods in another direction. They created an alternative set of symbolic rituals that embody the philosophy of Reason, the Enlightenment. Who decided to couch it all in allegories and double-meanings and layers of symbolism is a fact lost in the gaps of history. But one need only look at the rituals today and read a little about how those symbols and rituals are interpreted to see that Freemasonry is profoundly Naturalistic and Humanistic. Its treatment of supernatural incedents (like being raised from the dead) in a deliberately symbolic and unrealistic way so that (one might hope) the initiate will understand that the lesson is not about literally being raised from the dead. It is about being raised out of the death and decay of ignorance into which we humans have fallen. It is about being raised out of our lower nature, the animal impulses that all too often lead to violence and murder. It is about resurrecting the Mind in Wisdom through the application of Strength of character, self-control, and the keen observation of Beauty in Nature — human nature and non-human nature.
Any brother who takes away from his initiation the smug satisfaction that Freemasonry is really teaching about Christ’s resurrection and his act of atonement for our sins is not paying attention. But the fact that Masonic lodges during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became increasingly dominated by men of orthodox and commonplace Christian faith, seems to have led to an ironic loss of the origins and purposes of the Craft. This is perhaps the real “lost Master’s Word” which is to say, the loss of Logos, Reason and its substitution with a guarded sectarianism and lip-service paid to religious “tolerance.”
In the earliest lodges, although no doubt every man was a Christian, the Volume of Sacred Law 0n the altar of Freemasonry was not the Bible. It was the Book of Constitutions, those rules that governed the good behavior and honesty of men engaged in the craft as operative stonemasons. To a large degree the Book is symbolic. It, along with the square and compasses is a source of “light” metaphorically because it stands for knowledge, learning, and language. For it is within language — one of the unique arts of human beings — that we do govern ourselves. It is not, then any specific volume of sacred law; it is the archetypal volume of sacred law we each write upon our minds and hearts. The very idea that the phrase Volume of Sacred Law could have been ever intended to mean the Christian Bible is preposterous. In the terms of both Judaic and Christian Biblical studies “Law” refers only to a few books of the Tanakh, the Jewish scriptures. It would be a very misleading way to refer to the whole Bible to call it “Sacred Law.” So, this central bastion of regular Freemasonry is, it seems to me, a corruption from its origins and meaning.
The central metaphor of Masonry is not Salvation or Covenants with God, or even Writing. It is Architecture, the supreme expression of Human Reason and Art. What could cast clearer emphasis on the Human than architecture? The hero of Masonic ritual is not a Divine Savior, a prophet, or a supernatural being of any kind, but an architect, a master builder. The Grandmaster Hiram Abiff is an allegorical character in a mystery drama of Rationalism. The drama teaches every master mason that he must never resort to violence to obtain knowledge or self-advancement in his career, that he must be patient, trust his teachers, and earn a right to the next degree of wisdom to which he aspires. He is taught that desiring knowledge purely for personal gain or ambition is wrong and leads only to self-destruction and the destruction of the very fabric of our teaching institutions. Overthrow the teacher and you end up with nothing.
But that is only one level of meaning in the allegory. These figures are also symbolic for the faculties of the human mind and spirit. The Grandmaster is our governing will, our ability to control ourselves, to put off immediate gratification of animal urges, lusts, or greed in order to accomplish far greater ends. Again, architecture symbolizes and exemplifies this wisdom. We could never have buildings of any sort unless we were able to control ourselves to work together in a coordinated way on projects. Projects of any kind.
The Deist sees the way to wisdom and understanding through the contemplation of Nature. Not just in a scientific empirical way, but through the mind of a poet too. The point is that supernaturalism is poetry, and that to advance as human beings beyond the horrors of religious wars and shallow bigotry, we must recognize the difference between empirical facts and poetic images. Viva la differance! One is not superior to the other, and both are necessary parts of what make us human.
Thus Masonry is implicitly full of poetry. The facts of Nature and human nature are presented in a series of poems, some of which are enacted as drama an some of which are simply recited in beautiful prose. But they are full of images and imagination. This is to tell us that Truth relies upon the way we interpret the world. But it is also to tell whoever has ears to hear that religions are woven of the same fanciful stuff as all other poetry. What truth they contain is poetic not historical or empirical truth.
So, you will be asking by this time, what does this have to do with pancake breakfasts and fraternity? Well, I’ll tell you. Freemasonry in the past generation has developed a strange fascination with pancake breakfasts. It is, beyond everything else, the one aspect of Masonry that seems most stuck in the mud. It reminds me of Church socials. Of course, the pancake breakfasts are ostensibly fund-raisers for charities. Nothing wrong with that. But there is also nothing Masonic about it. If brother Masons come to think that organizing and holding pancake breakfasts is the main thing to do in Freemasonry, then the have really joined the wrong club. But this is, I fear, exactly what has happened over the years. Pancake breakfasts are today what feasting in the tavern was in the 18th century. One would like to imagine that our Masonic forefathers understood the Craft better than we do. One would like to believe that the true meaning of Masonry has been lost along the way as the fraternity became so popular in the 19th century. But I suspect that even earlier, there were brothers who joined just because all their friends invited them to join and they discovered that it was a fun group of fellows to get together with and have a few drinks. Or pancakes. The fun and eating was rationalized on the grounds that it was fund-raising for charity. This seemed to tie it in to one of the virtues mentioned frequently in lodge ceremonials and lectures. The problem is that the meaning of the word “charity” has changed significantly since the rituals and lectures were written.
Freemasonry is about the search for knowledge, particularly self-knoweldge. It is about cultivating in ourselves the self-control, the will to do good, to be virtuous men rather than vicious and violent. Among other virtues, it teaches the importance of charity. But that virtue is an inner quality, an attitude of awareness and right action. Fundraising for organizations that help the poor and needy is one expression of the virtue of charity, but it can hardly be considered to be the principal one. Charity starts at home, goes the old adage, and so does brotherly love. If a Mason does not volunteer his time and talents to helping support his lodge, then no amount of fund-raising for the poor is going to disguise his moral failing. If he bad-mouths brothers behind their backs, or if he simply is resistant to the rational discussion of what will be good for the lodge and the Craft, he has failed as well. If he joins Masonry and never lifts a finger to learn about the Craft or to apply its methods to self-transformation and thinks that it is just a good excuse for drinking with the boys, well, it is no wonder that all those annoying business meetings of the lodge should seem so utterly pointless. No amount of pancakes will make up for a lack of self-examination and humility in the face of the Great Work of learning, of plumbing the depths of the soul and Nature and the mysteries of God’s Divine Plan, which is to say the way Nature works.
That questing spirit does not mean one has to give up one’s religious affiliations, but the Pope is actually quite fair in pointing out that Freemasonry allows and encourages too much freedom for a good Catholic to honestly belong to both organizations. This freedom, however, is freedom to interpret and understand the Divine Plan in one’s own way. There are no priests in Freemasonry. Every brother has the opportunity to lead and to speak on all matters of spirit at any time. In the York and Scottish Rite when brothers assume a ceremonial title of “High Priest” this is not actual priesthood but anti-priesthood. Is is a dramatic act that says, priesthoods are false and unnecessary and brotherly love and friendship is better than authoritarianism.
There is an element of serious mocking in these high-falutin titles of the “Higher” Masonic degrees. Princes, Knights, priests, prophets, kings, and even angels come in for dramatic representation, the underlying message of which is that all these “potentates” are creations of the human imagination. They are all just play-acting and underneath it all is something far more real and more profound, for underneath the priestly or kingly robes is a brother, a fellow human being. And that simple man is a miraculous wonder greater than any storybook or fairytale miracle. The Masonic dramas have a serious tone, but are not far from the kind of foolery that medieval townsmen engaged in when they made a beggar or a common workman “King for the Day.” It turned the social order on its head and exposed its artificial nature, even though the townsmen and peasants could not figure out a way to escape from that social order. Eventually, of course, they did.
So much for the sacred symbolic pancake. And what of fraternity? Well there are two aspects of fraternity. First is the genuine Latin meaning of the word, which simply means brotherhood or indeed “brotherly love.” Fraternitas is the virtue and quality of being a good brother and it is used to describe not just one’s relationship to one’s flesh and blood brothers but to all fellow men joined in enterprises together. It says, we need to love each other, look out for each other, and care about each other seriously, not as an “old boy’s network” but a human beings forming functional societies. Without fraternitas there can be no liberty or equality, indeed no healthy social contract at all. Without Fraternité, there is only cutthroat competition that ends by elevating a few at the expense of the many.
But the second aspect of the word “fraternity” comes from the Greek system in American colleges. Not the Greek language, the system of fraternity houses with Greek letters for names. The system is part of an elite mentality that is exactly the “old boy’s network”. So, being a “frat boy” is something almost the opposite of the true virtue of Fraternitas. It picks out a few people and forms a closed society. It is selective brotherhood as opposed to universal brotherhood.
College fraternities were actually modeled after Freemasonry and so it is sad to see Freemasonry being reduced to that shadow of itself. While they are good places to make lifelong friends, network, and secure a place in the upper echelons of the social order, college fraternities are nothing like Freemasonry. At least so I believe from the outside, for I was never a member of a Greek fraternity.
To all apperances, however, the system of Greek fraternities, like so many social clubs, copied the model of Freemasonry without understanding its serious purposes. It may be understandable that college boys should use fraternities more for socializing than self-enlightenment because of course they exist as a microcosm within the larger organization of higher education. If you are at a university and studying to improve your mind, then you are in large measure engaged in the work of the Masonic lodge already. Do Greek fraternities promote self-knoweldge and the cultivation of self-control and virtue? Perhaps they do, but their reputation would not suggest so.
What then is to be done with Freemasonry? For the seeker it remains an ancient and beautiful institution, a bastion for independent thinking free from religious superstition and strife. In a day when scientific organizations saturate our universities and the culture at large, we might well wonder if the lodge is not outmoded. Perhaps its work is done. Perhaps we have the secular rational society and the Enlightenment of humankind has been achieved.
Alas, my brother, it is all too clear that it has not been achieved. Those old fraternal organizations of symbolic Masons and Druids that started in the 18th century have evolved and they have changed society. But we still have a long way to go before the virtues of brotherly love, mutual relief (cooperation), truth, and respect for all living beings is accomplished broadly throughout our culture. The lessons of the American Revolution — Equality, Brotherhood, Liberty — have not been fully realized. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to see even that much progress has been made when one listens to Americans spouting off hate and rancor and religious bigotry, as ignorant as anyone in any age.
The work of Druids is less well defined than that of Masons, and Druids are only just recovering from a long sleep. But the work of Freemasons is there for every initiate to see. All you have to do is listen to the lectures and the charges and do what you are told to do. And that is to work every day to become more virtuous and more enlightened that you may become an actual part of the Divine Plan and not just a piece of discarded rubble cast aside and recycled as a byproduct of the construction process. Freemasonry asks us to place our trust in God. I don’t actually know how old that part of the ritual is. It may be just as recent as the Christian interventions in Ameican money and the pledge of allegience who felt that we would all go to the dogs if we didn’t have “In God We Trust” on our money and “One Nation Under God” in our pledge or allegience. It astonishes me how little faith some Christians have that they think God needs their help to further his Plan.
The Deist founders of Freemasonry really meant it when they said they put their trust in God. That is, they put their trust in an unknown Divine Plan, not in books written by men claiming to speak for God. Not in priests, bishops, popes, or caliphs claiming to act as intermediaries between God and men. No, the Mason actually puts his trust in God. And that doesn’t mean the Christian or Jewish God or any particular religious idea of God. All such literary or visual representations of God are what they used to call “idols” in the old days — that is mistaking the representation for the real thing. Gods by definition are beyond representation. They cannot be limited by theologians or prophets or books or artists. These various forms of expression that seek to express one’s personal idea of God are not God. That is why Exodus shows Jehovah being so coy about his name with Moses on Mt. Sinai. “Who shall I say has sent me?” asks the prophet. “Tell them I AM sent you,” says the Almighty. He’s not about to be pinned down to the name of any tribal deity. But then they managed to do it anyway, turning “the Lord” and “God” into proper names.
I. M. God
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One of the least understood symbols of Masonry is a circle with a dot at its center and two parallel tangets along each side. Somewhere along the line someone felt the need to stick a Bible on the top of the circle in order to make sense out of it. But the book is a fairly obvious addition to a simple geometric diagram. If you take a pancake and put a tiny point of butter in the center and then set down a knife on one side touching the circumference and a fork opposite and parallel to it, also touching the pancake’s circumference, you have a jolly ancient symbol.
They say that the two lines represent St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Why? Because they form perfect parallels to the life of Christ. Oh really? How so? Er, well, because one came befor and one came after. One had a vision of his coming and the other wrote the Book of Revelation about his Second Coming. See?
But I thought Freemasonry wasn’t about Christianity.
Well, the two saints were great patrons of the art of the Mason.
Really? You mean Geometry?
Well, those two saints official days come in the calendar at opposite points on the circle of the year. They are roughly at the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. The parallel lines might be taken to symbolize the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the fundamental Geometry of parallels set upon circles. The significance and utility of circles and parallels has been largely lost on us, unless we happen to pay attention to our High School Geometry teacher. But the parallel is not merely geometrical here, it is symbolic. As soon as the two saints John are identified with the lines they become symbols of the light and dark halves of the year. And suddenly, the Druids in the audience sit up and realize that there is something in the lodge that is very familiar.
It is also concievably intended to be a symbol of the larger unknown Divine Plan in which we place our trust. We look at the universe and see Order and are content and humbled by it. We look upon the terrestrial and celestial globes and can find the occupation of many lifetimes in their close study. I have heard more than one brother apologize for the second degree in which education is emphasized. It is as if they can’t quite understand why all that stuff is in their rituals. Yet it is as plain as day. If every brother Mason would devote himself to the study of geography, astronomy, geometry, language, architecture, logic, and all the other liberal arts, he would then be fulfilling his obligation to the Craft. But how many do so?
Why not just go to the university and study astonomy then? Well, not everyone can do this. But since the Enlightenment every man can use his spare time and his own wits to study these things as a generalist. His goal is not to become a laboratory scientist, a practicing architect, or a college professor. His goal is simply to expand his mind and learn, and by learning to grown in virtue as well as wisdom. Masonry teaches what secular university courses do not: It teaches that every art and science can be taken symbolically, metaphorically, poetically and so our “working tools” in life become mental tools for the more noble and glorous purposes of self-enlightenment and right action.