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
Winter 2008

by Bro. Gerald Reilly

"For at the Building of the Tower of Babel, the Art and Mystery of Masonry was first introduc'd, and from thence handed down by Euclid, a worthy and excellent Mathematician of the Egyptian, and he communicated it to Hiram, the Master-Mason concern'd in the Building of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem." 

Samuel Pritchard Masonry Dissected  1738


In publishing Masonry Dissected the view could be taken that it was not Prichard’s intention to flatter Freemasonry; this is perhaps confirmed by his assigning its operative origin to the construction of the Tower of Babel! Twice in his Constitutions Anderson refers to "the confusion at Babel" as a point in a time-line reference and interestingly suggests, "...the Sciences and Arts were both transmitted to later ages and distant climes notwithstanding the confusion of languages or dialects which tho’ give help to rise the masonic faculty and ancient universal practice of conversing without speaking and knowing each other at a distance... "


What then are we to make of the biblical account of the Tower of Babel? Perhaps we are entitled to some preliminary confusion as prior to its construction we are informed that the families descending from Noah were, "after their tongues". This is immediately followed by, "And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech."  Notwithstanding, it was then decided by the Canaanites, of the line of Noah, Ham and Cush, that on a plain in the land of Shinar, they would build a city with a tower whose top reached to heaven. This was intended to ensure their homogeneity.


However, it would appear that Pritchard was not familiar with the text in Genesis Chapter 11 for it clearly states that they said to one another “let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly” and that “they had brick for stone and slime for mortar”. No self-respecting operative freemason would be involved in such an undertaking. Therefore, we must reject his assertion that it was from Babel that Freemasonry took its rise; indeed, to suggest that it was is taking the rise out of Freemasonry!


Returning to the narrative in Genesis, it appears that this oneness of language was deemed to lead to unrestrained imagination. Therefore, it was by extra-terrestrial intervention that language was confounded, the people scattered and the construction remained unfinished. That is to say, Heaven and Earth did not meet at Babel. 


How are we to understand this “confounding of language”? Perhaps in the first instance it indicates that before another tongue could be understood there was a learning process involved; multilingualism does exist although, for Freemasons as Anderson indicates, signs and tokens may have mitigated linguistic limitations.  However, post-Babel, might it not be the case that there remains a measure of confusion within language? Delightful though it certainly is, we cannot really claim to derive meaning from that delightful sound, made by babies, and designated “babbling”. For, what ever we may think and feel, babbling from the mouths of “babes and sucklings” cannot provide propositions that either can, or cannot, be the case – even with unrestrained imagination. Yes, the claim is being made that if a proposition can neither be the case, nor not be the case, it confounds and confuses - though “scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth” we are seeking clarity.  


The task for a freemason is to consider all propositions and apply to them a test of meaningfulness. (Perhaps this would explain why religion and politics are not to be discussed within the lodge!) Therefore, and with that, we must head for the temple. The allegorical significance of King Solomon’s Temple is something that unites freemasons “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” even though unable to understand the speech of one and others grand lodges. A main purpose for building the temple was to provide a worthy location for the Ark of the Covenant at which place the whole, the extent of things in the context of the over-all, could be considered by an individual. A place where heaven and earth might meet: a place where the imagination could be unrestrained.


On the other hand, a temple was an administrative centre, a place where God and the mammon of unrighteousness met – money changers et al! Perhaps it is the case that on that threshing floor in Jerusalem the site where “temples”, Jewish, Christian and Islamic converge, combine, coagulate, compete, challenge and confront! Without a doubt, the urge to build bigger and better has been an incredible incentive. Where a deity has been the fiction to maintain a polity it has been the practice to build an edifice that has over-powered and subsumed all that looked thereon. Perhaps Abu Simbel being a bench-mark that others have sought to emulate. Indeed, when an edifice was constructed on the purported site of an ascension it posed a challenge that was met by crusades and cathedral building: the former unsuccessful, the latter stunning. Both activities well combine to provide the romantic fiction that underpins some aspects of contemporary Freemasonry. There is no problem with that – an essential strand of the European Enlightenment was indeed romantic – perhaps the troubadour’s legacy found in Goethe and Wagner. 


However, perhaps it would be helpful to return to basics and consider a challenging New Testament text. In The Acts of The Apostles we read in Chapter 7 that “Solomon built him a house. Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands”. The original disciples “broke bread from house to house eating their meat with gladness and singleness of heart”.  The festive board does not have to be a million miles away from this.  Sharing a meal is a serious human activity and from this association and sociability there can be a reinforcement of moral determination and decisiveness.


However, where should such a meal be celebrated; what might be the import of the indication that “The Most High” does not dwell in temples made with hands? Oh dear has there been labour in vain? It has to be the case that temples were constructed to be a statement of command, control, compliance and conformity. Yes, they were so big - dwarfing anything around – there in your face.  Perhaps the view could be taken that behaviours within temples are exaggerated and do not always concur with behaviours outside. But, it is the behaviours outside that are the test. That is why the temple experience is perhaps an ideal and perhaps largely unattainable.


If the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands where does this leave Freemasons? As persons we are temples not made with hands and with us there “dwells” the potential for worthiness. Yes, daily masonic improvement is that which advances us and if faithfully applied will advance all those with whom we engage. That is to say, we are what we do. But, what are we? Perhaps the world is all that is the case; that my world is my language and the limits of my world are the limits of my language. In Acts Chapter 2 we read of Pentecost and devout men of every nation under heaven and they were confounded because, every man heard them speak in his own language. Ah, here is the mitigation of Babel!  Not in a temple but in a public place. Yes, Freemasonry has to be demonstrated where we are.


Yes, language can be the means of divide. Not confusion among languages, which can be sorted; rather, confusion within language where we have a seriously less than clear understanding of another’s worldview. We assume it is so different to our own and yet with a little clarity we can realise that there is more that unites us than separates. How and why is it that the mote of difference over-powers the beam of convergence?


Diversity must be understood as a power that can enable Freemasons to understand and respect different views, can enable us to avoid institutional disrespect and can enable bridge-building between the shared areas that would otherwise remain apart.                                 

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