Saturday, June 24, 2017

Masonry and Religion, part 1

In every essay thus far, I have mentioned that, though it is an assemblage of religious men, Freemasonry is not a religion.

It is perhaps ironic that the vast bulk of opposition to Masonry, then, is from those who would claim that it is in fact a religion. The fact that Masonry is not a religion -- and that it's OK for it not to be a religion -- is perhaps the most difficult thing to explain to a non-Mason. I've seen many very learned men unable to comprehend the distinction. So it's with some hubris that I'll attempt to explain my view of it here, to assist some brother in weighing the arguments should the need arise.

That Masonry does not exclude or teach any particular religion is simply a fact. Here's what Albert Pike says on the subject, in context:
The great truth it inculcates is, that notwithstanding the existence of Evil, God is infinitely wise, just, and good: that though the affairs of the world proceed by no rule of right and wrong known to us the narrowness of our views, yet all is right, for it is the work of God; and all evils, all miseries, all misfortunes, are but as drops in the vast current that is sweeping onward, guided by Him, to a great and magnificent result: that, at the appointed time, He will redeem and regenerate the world, and the Principle, the Power and the existence of Evil will then cease; that this will be brought about by such means and instruments as He chooses to employ; whether by the merits of a Redeemer that has already appeared or a Messiah that is yet waited for, by an incarnation of Himself or by an inspired prophet, it does not belong to us as Masons to decide. Let each judge and believe for himself.
To paraphrase: We don't know why bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people. Our view isn't broad enough to perceive the whole of God's plan. Nevertheless we believe there is one, and all things will ultimately lead to Good. But we as Masons neither teach nor deny any particular doctrine beyond that. We leave that to the faith of each individual.

The reason that "it does not belong to us as Masons to decide" is precisely because Masonry isn't a religion, and it's composed of members of many religions, each with their own tenets of faith. Because it is inclusive; because it is tolerant, we're not going to pressure you to change your mind on your faith. That is not our purpose.

And it is important to note that each Mason is an individual. No book and no essay speaks for the whole of Masonry, Pike's work included. Each Mason speaks his own mind. Among us, each opinion is judged on the weight of its merit, not its authority.

An Analogy

Now, let's discuss that bit about "purpose" for a second. I'm going to use as an analogy a court of law. There are strict roles to which the officers of the court adhere, whether it be the judge who presides, the attorneys, the court reporter, the bailiff, the jury, or the gallery. There is a gavel by which the judge opens proceedings and signals people to rise or sit. There is a Bible upon which oaths are taken; and should a witness be of another faith, another book, important to the witness' faith, may be employed. Some courts are opened in prayer. The judge is addressed by an honorific ("Your Honor" in the US; "Your Worship" in the UK). Often the judge wears robes. The proceedings are conducted according to prescribed ritual. A court of law gives every outward appearance of a religious ceremony.

And yet... the jury is not a choir. The judge is not a priest. The Bible is not used exclusively. The oaths are not sacrilegious. And though the purpose of Justice is aligned with Divine will, it is for the secular purpose of Justice that the court is convened. Within the proceedings of the Court, religious affiliation is irrelevant; it is deliberately ignored save for certain universal principles like Justice and Equality.

The Court does not exist to reserve Justice for only those who follow Mosaic Law. Its officers are not restricted to Christians. And importantly, the fact that they are officers of the Court does not prevent them, upon leaving the courtroom, from continuing to follow whatever faith they had when they entered.

And with all of this, I have yet to hear of a single Christian who avows that a court of law is a religion, or that it disavows Christianity, or that it "teaches" that Justice and Equality are not divine gifts. No one thinks twice about the fact that we are left to our own devices to contemplate for ourselves the nature and origin of the principles practiced and avowed within the Court. And the same goes for other highly ritualistic organizations, such as our Legislature.


Now I called the above "an analogy", but it's more than that. It's an exact representation of a lodge's relation to religion. The proceedings of the Court express the least common denominator of all of our society at large. You might say it is the common expression of our devotion to Justice.

So it is with the lodge. But because a lodge is composed of people, all of whom have expressed faith in a Supreme Being, our common expression more visibly reflects that belief. So we open and close every lodge in prayer. Literally, it's the least we can do, as everyone in the room believes that we must invoke the blessing of Deity for all great and important undertakings. As H.L. Haywood observes in Symbolical Masonry [1923]: "The prayer is in the Masonic ceremony because it must be in the Masonic life, and the important point here is not how we came to pray, but why we do pray; and the reason we do pray is that we cannot help it." For the same reason, we have scripture displayed. It's the same scripture that we would otherwise use in our various churches. But because we are of diverse religions (or denominations within a religion), we leave all matters of religious doctrine out of our proceedings. Instead, each brother carries his faith in his own heart. We refer to God by titles that are common among us, of which He has many, and which are not exclusive of any other titles He may have. What you see of religion in the lodge is not a teaching of doctrine... it is the common expression of our devotion to Brotherly Love.

Believing as we do that God is creator of all mankind, and that He would have us love our neighbors, and that this charge was never limited to those who share a country or a building or a doctrine, we gather for the purpose of promoting Brotherly Love.

For that is the purpose of the lodge. Brotherly Love brings us together for mutual support, the aid of those who are distressed, of our widows and orphans. Beyond that, we extend our charity to our communities; to fund hospitals and therapies and medical research through our appendant bodies like the Shrine and Scottish and York rites. The very word "charity" means "love". We do indeed concentrate on charitable acts, but it is not at all accurate to say that we "teach salvation through good works". Masonry does not teach that doing good works will bring you salvation... in fact, it is not our mission to teach salvation at all, as that is taught in church. For instance, it is the teaching of my Christian faith that leads to this syllogism: good works are the inevitable fruit of faith; every Mason is a man of faith; therefore Masons do good works. As with prayer, we do it because we cannot help it.

We encourage good works because it is always our aim to improve ourselves. And though we will never reach perfection, that is and should ever be our goal. I personally like having an unattainable goal. No matter how hard I try, no matter what I do, there is always more. My best efforts are always ahead of me. At the same time, knowing that my goal is unattainable reminds me that I will never achieve it on my own merits. As a Christian, the very attempt highlights for me the immeasurable gulf between that which I can achieve through my own efforts and that which I will nevertheless attain through Grace. My quest for perfection helps keep me humble before God.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Masonry and Politics

We as Freemasons like to tell ourselves that there are two things that we do not talk about in the Lodge: Religion and Politics. And yet both exist, after a fashion.

Although Masonry is not a religion, and we do not discuss denominational doctrine in the Lodge, Masonry is an assemblage of religious men. Each of us brings our religion with us, individually, into the Lodge; and collectively we acknowledge a Supreme Being. That is as it should be. We should bring our religion with us everywhere, and it should affect our decisions. Scripture is the guide of our lives, whether it be a King James Bible, or the Torah, or some other book that reflects the religious views of the membership.

And though we do not discuss politics (as it is a divisive subject that often undermines the Masonic purpose of bringing disparate people together in friendship), we still vote for the officers of our Lodge and for new members for the same. Conversely, we take Masonic principles from the Lodge into the world at large; for what good is a moral education if you do not use it?

As I write this, an election has just concluded in my home district, and I found myself thinking about the way a Mason should consider a candidate... not just in the Lodge, but without.

I consider three jewels of the Lodge: the Square, which teaches us to treat all men squarely. Not just Masons, but all men.  The Level, which reminds us to treat all men with equality.  The Plumb, which reminds us to remain true and upright before God. In my religion this reminds me as well that there is no hiding our intentions from He who is also the Supreme Grand Architect of the Universe.

I consider our Great Lights: the Holy Scripture, which is the rule and guide of our lives. Once again, the Square. And also the Compass, which reminds us to keep circumscribe our desires and keep our passions within due bounds. In considering this phrase, we must discard that certain amount of carnal baggage attached to the words "passions" and "desires". They are anything we desire or are passionate about.

This leads me to think about the cardinal virtue of Temperance, which is yet another way of describing the purpose of the Compass... to keep us from allowing our passions to lead us into excess; of Prudence, which allows us to act judiciously for the greatest good; of Justice, which allows us to render unto any man his just due regardless of station; and of Fortitude, which gives us the strength to do all of these things.

I consider the three great tenets of a Mason's profession: Truth, which is the basis of every moral virtue; Relief, an expression of our charity that extends beyond the confines of the Lodge; and particularly Brotherly Love, by which we are taught "to regard the whole human species as one family—the high, the low, the rich, the poor—who, as created by one Almighty Parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support, and protect each other."

I consider the Constitution: that of my country, of which I am an obedient citizen; but also that of my state; and that of my Grand Lodge. I considered the values prominently expressed in each of them; and also the passions and desires that were omitted.

I lecture newly-made brethren on these very topics. And quite a long time ago I made a decision in my life that I would not teach a thing that I did not believe. There is nothing in Masonry that conflicts with any of my religious and moral beliefs. That we should be good, fair, upright, honest, temperate, just, prudent, brave, charitable, and equally loving of all people is not arguable. If I came across a person who thought it was worth arguing, I would morn him as a lost soul. 

Since becoming a Mason, I contemplate these symbols, teachings, precepts, and principles each and every time I cast a vote, inside or outside the Lodge. But the most important question I ask of myself is this: 

What do I believe? 

Before I vote -- before I pull a lever, raise a hand, or drop a black or white ball -- I remind myself that the fruits of our faith are found in our works... meaning, our actions. Do I believe all of those things above, or do I merely profess to? And if my desire runs contrary to those principles, I employ my Compass. I draw a boundary, beyond which I cannot allow myself to cross, lest my prejudices and passions betray me, and within which I cannot materially err.

For more on the subject of Masonic voting, visit