PS Review of Freemasonry

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voltaire writing
"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 6
Bro. Gerald Reilly
Spring 2009

by Bro. Gerald Reilly


“...The Da Vinci Code describes a somewhat dramatic learning curve
for Harvard’s professor Robert Langdon.”


“...every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith – acceptance of that which we imagine to be true. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday School. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.”  Da Vinci Code p. 451


Well, it is not every day, along our quest for Masonic improvement, that we quote from Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps a sort of interesting little book; it might even make a name for itself! It seems to be a triumph of uninformed popular belief over academic rigour. That is to say, The Da Vinci Code describes a somewhat dramatic learning curve for Harvard’s Professor Robert Langdon.


As Freemasons we are people who learn through allegory and therefore perhaps for a moment we could consider the boy who cried wolf. A young man cried that there was a wolf in the vicinity and the hunters took up arms to protect the community; however, no traces of a wolf were to be found. This deception was repeated and repeated until this cry wolf was ignored. Then, a wolf did appear, the boy’s cries were ignored and he was devoured. How is this to be understood? Is it not an allegory, a fabrication, to communicate a moral statement suggesting that telling lies is unsustainable? Fine, but on the other hand, what if someone asserted that before they could be persuaded that telling lies was unsustainable knowledge would be required of when it happened, where it happened and who was the young man. How might that be understood and what sense  made of it?


“...matters of fundamental human import are forged in the crucible of human experience...”


The import of the crying wolf allegory may not be something that will be demonstrated by researchers rummaging about among hitherto unrevealed documents; rather perhaps demonstrated in recognition of the vital nature of moral communication. That is to say, matters of fundamental human import are forged in the crucible of human experience rather than handed down in PhD theses. Indeed, and as yet, a PhD is not a requisite for becoming a member of a movement that defines itself as being a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. Hopefully satisfactory Masonic experience, understanding and progress are not depended on obtaining a PhD.

Perhaps to know that a person is a Freemason informs an observer about him or her; hopefully, it is something positive ranging from morally good to morally excellent. Perhaps to know how far a person has progressed in Freemasonry informs about their level of commitment to the movement; hopefully, there may be some linkage between the two. Perhaps to know of which side degrees a Freemason is a member tells you what sort of Freemason he or she is.


On one hand, and on becoming a Master Mason, a person is a mason indeed; on the other hand, there is the “completion” of Initiation, Passing and Raising through further degrees followed by a world of additional degrees available to Freemasons who have an ear to hear. Each one claims unique features offering additional insight into Masonic origin and meaning. Perhaps it is the case that in each grand lodge there are different sets of circumstances from which additional degrees have taken their rise and this might indicate why they are organised in different ways.


(Is it the case that in the taking of degrees there is no end?)


Shared among some Freemasons there is a view that the Freemasonry which became constitutionalised in 1723 was fabricated, in part, from an understanding of earlier practices and rituals of operative stone masons. It incorporated the ethic of both the worker and the produce of his or her labour being fit for purpose. This might include many strands of human experience that combined, perhaps by some form of osmosis to produce a fraternity based on brotherly love, relief and truth. Since then it has spread across the planet assimilating, being assimilated and by schisms rent asunder.


The first ninety years of English constitutional Freemasonry included the interaction of “Ancients” and “Moderns” culminating in a union in 1813 that, four years later, recognised an additional degree known as The Holy Royal Arch. Until recently, this was understood to be the completion of a Master Mason’s degree, something with which very few high ranking Freemasons are without and membership of which is required for some additional degrees. As previously indicated, a fundamental view of Freemasonry is that essential learning is obtained through the working of degrees. The more degrees you take, the more as a mason you know and understand. (Is it the case that of the taking of degrees there is no end?)


It is the case that there are many Freemasons, possessing both the resources and inclination, chose to spend parts of most days per week engaged in Masonic activity. Additional degrees provide a variety of rituals and changes of faces. For those who seek high office their support of additional degrees may facilitate preferment; and why not, it shows a level of commitment. However it may pose an insidious challenge.


“...many of the additional degrees. They can be understood as being fabrications of relatively modern manufacture....”


It is generally understood that an essential element of English constitutional freemasonry was that religious differences were not important enough to introduce into, or mar, the practice of brotherly love, relief and truth. That is to say, a belief in some sort of undefined supreme being was deemed as being a satisfactory basis for peace and order among enlightened people. A particular religion was neither a requisite for nor barrier against Masonic membership. Perhaps the same should apply to the additional degrees!


Whilst masons are happy to believe in the emergence of Craft Freemasonry from the mists of time and wisdom the same cannot be said of many of the side degrees. They can be understood to be fabrications of relatively modern manufacture. Further and worryingly, membership of some of these degrees requires a belief in a particular religion which is demonstrated by either by oath or written declaration. It is the case that the additional degrees that are recognised by a grand lodge are often administered by a separate organisation; however, perhaps this should be seen as no more than an administrative convenience. But, this means that a person will join the Craft, an organisation that does not espouse a religious preference to find later that progress might only be facilitated through membership of additional degrees requiring a particular religious belief.


If this is the case, the practical implication is one of moving goalposts. More worrying is the possibility that an essential landmark, principle, ethic of freemasonry is being confronted. As indicated above, a founding tenet of the organisation was that religious differences would not intrude. Indeed, the view could be taken that Freemasonry took its rise in promoting a celebration of diversity, human rights and respect for experience that is different. By prescribing a particular religious requisite for membership of an additional degree, a fabrication is being given unwarranted status; it is postulating a when, where and who where such issues are neither appropriate nor warranted. Surely it is not too much to ask that additional degrees might reflect the inclusive values of The Craft rather than exclude on sectarian grounds.

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