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The Decline and Rise of Freemasonry

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September 2013
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In a very interesting article/blog post (which can be found here) the author discusses the Future of Freemasonry in the context of its current declining membership numbers. He suggests that the kind of young man “traditionally” attracted to Speculative Masonry is one who is seeking  the integrated life of spirit and matter.  This kind of young man (and woman) exists in larger numbers now that perhaps ever before, because of the cultural changes in religion and spirituality over the past five decades.  While in the 1970s interest in Eastern philsophy and religion, enlightenment, yoga, and Hermeticism was considered on “the fringe,” today it has become entirely mainstream.  Though there are plenty of Americans practicing the “religions of the book,” there are probably an equal or greater number who are seeking something less dogmatic and more personally liberating. 

Indeed, few Masons themselves know the appeal of the treasure they have to countless young man (and women!) who have turned to Eastern philosophy or meditation, neglecting indigenous western roots to the mystical – such as Freemasonry.

One can differ with the author of this article about whether this kind of spiritual seeker is the “traditional” kind of young man attracted to Masonry.  I think for the past 100 years many men joined Masonry for other reasons, and never really were taught the ways of the Craft as a spiritual practice.  However, he may also be right in suggesting that those men who did join Masonry seeking ancient wisdom and the tools to make themselves better men in heart and soul, were disappointed with what they found — often nothing more than a social club with complicated rituals attached to it, and members who could not give a clue how to actually use the symbols of the Craft.  In other words, the Craft of “speculating” which is the whole point of Masonry according to its own teachings.  Masons ignored that raison d’etre of Free Masonry and as membership exploded in the 20th century, ignorance of the fundamental Craft exploded along with it.

Young men today want self-development, but have never even heard of Freemasonry, or think it is some kind of conspiracy secret society from long ago.  Many, I am sure, think Freemasonry is fictitious because they have only ever encountered it in fiction. 

This type of young person is both less likely to conform to that stereo type most Masonic leaders have of eligible younger members, and more likely to challenge the preconceptions and stereotypes of the various Masonic establishments.
While most likely to be “gentle” in their critiques, they are still prone to candor and frankness about differences between Masonic ideal and practice. As a result, they are not likely to be entirely comfortable with inefficient and poor lodge leadership and management.

I can vouch for that because, while not especially “young,” I have exactly this reaction. The organization needs its rigidity questioned and challenged, but it seems those Masons who involve themselves in lodge or grand lodge wish to do nothing but  perpetuate an organization that does nothing except offer high-falutin titles, awards, and installation ceremonies and banquets that celebrate its offices, titles, and awards.  The responsibility of office and the awards are not given for understanding the Masonic system of symbolic learning and self-development; they are given to men who play the game, perpetuate the forms, memorize by rote, and think that, and fun parties, is all there is to Free Masonry.

Frustration with inefficient management and brothers who ignore the newly raised younger men (for whatever reason), and the expectation that “you only get out of Masonry what you put into it,” is definitely a problem.  The new brother who came in seriously interested in symbolic learning and the Western wisdom tradition, are bound to become frustrated if they can find no other lodge brothers who desire the same thing.  As for inept management, I fear that is a chronic problem in Craft lodges, as the oldest members hold onto the management of the lodge as Secretaries or Trustees or simply Past Masters, and refuse to allow the younger members assume a place in the management structure.  Indeed, there is hardly any management structure to most lodges.  The officers have ritual and degrees and events to plan and have not the time to think about positive changes.

You do get out of Masonry what you put into it but if you do not put in Study, Practice, and Doing what the Degrees tell you to do, then you are not going to get the really wonderful wisdom and power to change that lies in plain view but missed by so many brothers. 

The younger philosophically and materially minded man of today would tend to see Freemasonry as an option for authentic human existence – as a form and approach to leading of life that sought a center within itself, and did not depend upon external authority or convention.
Such a man today is common precisely because so many conventions are challenged, and security, in the traditional sense – economics included – is increasingly rare. Such men are more likely to fall back upon their own devices in times of tumult; similarly they are likely to attempt a serious journey inward at some point in their lives.

This inward journey is an existential search — a search for meaning in one’s existence.  The lessons and symbols of Free Masonry provide such meanings is a way that is not connected to organized religion (or shouldn’t be).  Free Masonry offers a completely secular model for living morally.  Its references to God and the Bible are not intended to imply it is based in Christianity.  If Masons pay attention to what the degrees say about God and the Bible, they will see that Masonry teaches nothing about any religion.  It offers men The Great Architect of the Universe, who is given no interpretation except as a metaphorical father to justify a belief that all created people are “brothers.”  Creation — that is all that one needs to believe in to be a Mason.  It has been inserted into the basic Craft that a candidate must be able to say he puts his trust in God because otherwise his promises given in the “obligations” taken in each degree would be meaningless.  Well, it is pretty apparent that this does not work.  Masons all say they put their trust in God and then proceed to break their obligations by ignoring the content of the rituals and failing to attend lodge communications.  Far better would it be for a man to be able to say truthfully that he has faith in himself.  Then he might take sacred vows seriously.

The purpose of these “obligations” is not, as so many anti-masons think, to bind each brother to loyalty to the fraternity and its officialdom under penalty of death should he fail to do so.  The purpose is to dramatically and symbolically obligate oneself to commitment and hard work.  The vows of secrecy are also symbolic not literal: they are an easy promise to keep and so stand in for the Mason’s integrity.  The ritual obligations with their symbolic penalties that relate to the dramatic allegory of the third degree, are themselves part of the symbolism of Masonry, and the purpose is not literally to keep the ritual secret, but to practice in a relatively easy way, keeping a confidence and keeping a promise.  But, I am afraid I am in the minority in believing this.  Most brothers, I suspect, take the whole thing literally and find it weird and bewildering, probably relieved when it is over and they can concentrate on attending parties with Masons. 

The old school Mason we have seen through the past century — maybe two or three centuries — joined up because it was a popular exclusive club.  That Masonry is no longer popular is, to my way of thinking, a blessing because no men should petition a lodge unless they sincerely desire what Masonry really has to off that is unique — a system of symbols and allegories with which one can build one’s inner temple, shape oneself metaphorically into a perfectly square and true stone in the temple of Humanity. 

In seeking out data about the relationship between Free Masonry and Greek college fraternities, I discovered that the two seem to have influenced each other.  College fraternities in America go back almost as far as Masonic lodges in the Colonial period.  De Tocqueville remarked at the craze for joining private societies among Americans.  Passing over any speculation about the reason for this craze, one can find that college fraternities developed with secret signs and handshakes and identification lapel pins in imitation of Masonry.  But, at the same time, the existence among young men in college of such fraternities meant that when they graduated they could be very easily brought into the Masonic “fraternity” for the same reasons they wanted to join one in college.  Sadly, the reputation for boozing and hazing which plagued fraternities as they grew more popular also came to plague Masonry. 

Masons, far back, were lampooned for coming home drunk from their festive boards.  The problem grew until Prohibition, when lodges went dry.  Even the Shriners whose conventions had become notorious, tried to polish their tarnished image.  The Shrine was in some ways the logical extention of a confusion that seems to have happened in the 19th century. Lodges started to see themselves as simply “fraternities” in the Greek letter sense.  The word “fraternity” which in Free Masonry means a deep spiritual commitment to the ideal of universal brotherhood, became conflated with the usage in colleges, where fraternities were simply private clubs for students serving them for networking, putting on gigantic parties, and puffing them up with a sense of superiority simply because they had been admitted to a fraternity.   As “fraternity” took on these connotations in American society, Masonic Lodge began to be seen as just another exclusive club.  If you were admitted, you were really special.  This attitude was fostered by the proliferation of other organizations that were “Masons Only.”   Those groups, even where they included further “degrees,” were seen by many as just a further way to become more elite, penetrating more deeply into the eliteness of Free Masonry.

Speculative Masonry was almost lost in this confusion in the temple.  The Craft Lodge began to be called the “Blue Lodge” for some reason.  No one seems to know how it started or why.  What is significant in the name is that it took the “Speculative” out of the Lodge.  The term Blue Lodge seems to refer to the traditional colors of regalia adopted in England, but the name seems to diminish something unique and marvelous.  As Masons no longer understood how to work with symbols, and thought that Masonry was a “fraternity,” the Symbolic Lodge became little more than an entry point into this world of exclusive organizations that were “Masons Only.” 

That young men today are not interested in such empty-headed puffery, means that Masonry must change. It is irrelevant to men today so long as it appeals only to those who want to join an exclusive “fraternity.”  The apparatus is there for the taking by anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see, but to be “duly and truly prepared” to enter a lodge room as a candidate, a man must really know how to read and use symbols and allegories.  And this skill is one that has been largely lost.  Our mainstream religions do not teach how to use their symbols, except in the practice of prayer in front of a cross or crucifix.  The materialization and literalization of our culture, the loss of poetry and art, as they have been marginalized, has made the joy of symbols and of reading a picture to mine its possible meanings a lost art.  Except for one segment of society, and that is those involved in the current of the Western occult tradition. Less and less marginalized, as Wicca and Druidry are acknowledged to be legitimate “religions,” the world of Tarot cards, astrology, and magic is full of symbols and working tools. Indeed, the organizations that have carried on in the eddies of the Mainstream culture, got the whole business from Freemasonry, on the one hand, and C. G. Jung, on the other.

Jung was marginalized by “scientific” psychology by the 1980’s but enjoyed tremendous popularity among students of the esoteric. Eastern  and western mysticism met in California and from their spread far and wide a new synthesis of spiritual ideas and symbols.  I suspect that the emergence of the “New Age” movement of the 1970’s and on, drove Masons even farther away from what their system was all about. Having become an exclusive club of mainstream men of business, any hint of the occult was seen as disaster for Masonry.  The result has been a concerted effort of Free Masons to deny the esoteric side of the Craft — its roots in alchemical symbolism and the ancient mystery schools.  At the end of the 19th century, the Masons published a magazine called “The New Age.”  At the end of the 20th century that phrase was abandoned because it had been associated with kooks and hippies, and self-proclaimed Pagans and witches.

It is a tangled history, but the future of Masonry seems undeniable.  Those lodges will flourish who go back and re-learn how to use the unique symbolic system of thought for which they have been the custodians.  They will realize the relevance of the Masonic system to younger men today who are seekers of spiritual disciplines and understanding of the roots of their own Western culture.  Continuing to exclude “atheists” and to put off even “agnostics” is sheer foolishness.  Free Masonry was founded by men who questioned the religious doctrines of their time, down to the nature of the Creative Principle that brought the Universe and Nature into existence.  They were interested in “alternative” ideas about the human spirit and soul, that went beyond religious dogmas.  What is really required of a candidate for Masonry is a belief in his own spiritual nature, however, he imagines that to be.

The rituals of Masonry are all available to anyone in this Internet Age, but the texts alone cannot give full understanding of what is an experiential form of learning.  Rituals are designed to be acted out in movements and participation, and in the setting of a Lodge.  Those physical aspects are essential to Masonic ritual, as they are to any kind of ritual.  Masons do not prosletyze and are forbidden to solicit members.  This perhaps needs to be observed more strictly; for popularity has worked great evil on the Symbolic Lodge.  Only a very specific kind of thoughtful man who understands how to read symbols should enter the Lodge room door.  Only if a critical mass of such men enter Masonry can it be restored to the practices for which it was created.

Masons are promoted to leadership positions because they are good at memorizing the ritual, not because of their knowledge of Masonry, or their demonstrated leadership talents.  In many lodges today, the brother who is appointed “at the bottom of the line” of officers is the one who will say “yes” when asked to serve there.  Appointing brand new brothers who as yet know nothing of the Craft, is sheer folly.  Yet this is done on the grounds that it will get new brothers “involved.”  There must be other ways to involve them besides the officers line.  This can only be done through committees and study groups, and much discussion of the Craft itself.  Those Masons who think that the newly admitted Mason will learn something about Masonry by serving in the kitchen for a pancake breakfast, do not get it.  True, they learn something about cooperation among a group, but that has no bearing on the uniqueness of Free Masonry.  It is to the teaching of a Craft — a method of working and developing skills — that Masonry must return to make itself known.  It would be better to advertise meetings and talks about Masonry to non-masons than to rely on members cajoling their cronies into joining as if Masonry were nothing but a college fraternity or club for networking.

Can the transformation be made?  That remains to be seen and will require groups of younger men to exert themselves to change the way Masons think about Masonry and their lodge.  A very difficult challenge, but one that I do not think is impossible.




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