Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Lutheran view of Freemasonry and a response

There's a lengthy evaluation of Freemasonry on the "Lutheran Church Missouri Synod" web site that I thought I should respond to because it has some very inaccurate ideas about what Freemasonry is and what it communicates. I don't mean to insult or impugn Lutheranism. This isn't an issue that I see as a conflict of any sort. It's possible to be wrong about Freemasonry and still be good, honest and truly pious people. Given that, let's proceed to the details:
... most Christians in the United States (at least 90 million, including Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the LCMS and other Lutherans, as well as Evangelical churches) belong to churches that forbid membership in Freemasonry because they regard it as incompatible with Christianity.
I don't want to spend too much time on demographics because I don't think this is a matter of a vote. There was a time when the vast majority of religious bodies were opposed to many things that they now accept, ranging from democratic governance to public musical performances. However, I should point out that Wikipedia has a somewhat more objective view of these statistics. It's also the case that Catholicism officially opposes membership in the Fraternity, but many devout and pious Catholics continue to be members and that the Church has been softening the edges of the relationship with Freemasonry for decades, though there are still many in the Holy See who are adamantly opposed to open endorsement of the Fraternity. My point, here, being that it is a more complex picture than is being presented.
Why is it incompatible? Because the Masonic Lodge is held to be a deistic religious organization that requires belief (members must swear an oath) in a god that is not the triune God,
This is simply inaccurate. Freemasons are required by our Constitutions and Landmarks to accept as our Brothers only those who have a belief in a Supreme Being, but we make no representation about what those individual beliefs might be. If you are a Lutheran who believes in the triune God, then you are welcome to join and we will never ask you to modify your beliefs, nor will we discuss those beliefs or the beliefs of any member in open Lodge. Members are free to discuss religion with each other in informal settings, but we use religious text only for purposes of allegory in the Lodge. We do not discuss politics or religion otherwise. The Holy Bible (always present in a Lodge of Masons) is there to illustrate our moral lessons. Preaching a specific faith from it or any other religious text is outside of the scope of Freemasonry.
... and a god who is accessible apart from Jesus Christ through any religion that believes in god as Creator.
I think that this is the source of the misunderstanding. We Freemasons embrace the diversity of the beliefs that our members have. We do not, however, tell them how to practice those religions. We teach a system of morality which we believe to be compatible with every religion, but we do not modify or alter the way in which a man interacts with his God. If you believe that access to the divine is always practiced through Jesus Christ, then Freemasonry does not contradict that. We don't tell you that your religion is right or wrong, and we don't assert that any other faith is right or wrong. If you do, that's fine, just don't bring it into the Lodge where, once again, we don't talk about politics or religion.
In addition, they teach that entrance to the life to come is gained by following the precepts and morality of Freemasonry, that God will let them into heaven merely because they have been faithful Masons.
This is not a teaching of Freemasonry. Our "degrees" which we use to initiate candidates are allegory. Any attempt to take any of that allegory literally is not a part of Freemasonry.
Lutherans view Masons as belonging to a religious organization that practices idolatry ... The LCMS holds that membership in the Masonic Lodge (a) breaks the First Commandment because the God believed in and worshiped by the Masons is not the true God
as covered, above, this is not true.
and (b) denies the Gospel of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by teaching that entrance into heaven does not depend on Jesus, but instead depends on being a Mason.
as covered, above, this is also not true.
Masonic ritual claims that Freemasonry descended from the events surrounding the building of Solomon’s Temple. Other authorities have asserted that Masonry began at the time of the Tower of Babel, or even with Adam himself. Most informed Masons reject such assertions, however, and hold that Freemasonry, as we have it today, dates from 1717 when four Craft lodges met in a London tavern and established a constitution for “Free” and non-working Masons.
This is somewhat misleading on two points:

First, the origins of Freemasonry dating back to ancient times are, for the most part, a symbolic notion. We do not assert that there were Lodges of modern Freemasons at the building of King Solomon's Temple. We use the building of that temple as a symbol of our teachings and as such date the origins of our Craft to that time.

Second, the date of 1717 is, as stated, the founding date of the United Grand Lodge of England, but Freemasonry did not begin there, only the first national body to govern Lodges of Freemasons. "Speculative Masonry" as differentiated from the operative science of stonework, has been tied to practices which extend back at least 100-200 years prior to that date.
Masonic scholars also recognize that the teaching and practice of Freemasonry comes from a variety of sources. These would include the Bible, the Knights Templars, Jewish Cabbalists, Rosicrucians, ancient mystery cults, gnosticism and Middle Age stonemasons.
This isn't entirely accurate. While it is certainly true that many of these groups were actively involved in Enlightenment era philosophy, and so any philosophical and moral endeavor of the time would necessarily share views with many of these groups, if it was well informed, the assertion that "Freemasonry comes from" these groups is misleading. Freemasonry comes from the craft guilds of England and Scotland, in so far as we can trace its origins directly. That is as much as we can clearly assert. Obviously, Christianity has been a strong influence on the Fraternity and obviously the moral philosophies of the Enlightenment were a strong influence on the Fraternity. These things we know with reasonable certitude, in some cases backed up by significant historical documentation. Anything else is speculation.
Whereas the (operative) working stonemasons were Christian, the new nonworking (speculative) masons decided to be more inclusive in their membership requirements. In their constitution of 1723 the nonworking masons held that masons only were required to believe “that Religion to which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves” (Whalen: 37). In other words, only faith in a Creator God was now required, and specific religious beliefs (such as faith in Jesus Christ or the triune God) were no longer necessary. Any person who believed in God was welcome to join. Only atheists, women, children, the insane, or the physically deformed were disallowed membership.
While this is strictly correct, I want to point out that there are some weighted terms, here. "No longer necessary," could be taken to mean that Freemasons do not view those beliefs to be a religious requisite, and while some Freemasons will doubtless feel that way, there is no universal religious view among Freemasons. We are a body where men of different faiths regularly meet and shake hands as Brothers. They may disagree in particulars of their religions, but they do not disagree as men, in the particulars of being moral and upright.
Freemasonry has had a storied history in the United States. Many early patriots were Masons, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and eight or nine signers of the Declaration of Independence. As many as 14 Presidents have been masons: Washington, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Garfield, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Ford. In 1923, about 300 out 435 U.S. Representatives were Masons, as were 30 out of 48 U.S. Senators. Between 1949-1956, eight of nine Supreme Court Justices were Masons. By 1981 only one Justice was a Mason. The Senate Congressional Record of September 9, 1987 revealed the following belonged to the Masonic Lodge: 41 members of the Federal Judiciary; half of the membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee; 18 Senators; 76 Representatives.
All true, as far as I am aware, though the modern demographics are not, as far as I know, available, so I cannot say whether there are more or fewer Freemasons in each category. I can say that Freemasonry has risen and fallen in membership in a relatively distinct pattern related to the prevailing views of society on the establishment and that pattern varies from country to country. A Google Books Ngram search reveals that the pattern of interest in the Fraternity is more or less similar to that of Lutheranism, which is not terribly surprising. As interest in religious practices ebbs, it ebbs more or less universally and as it grows it also does so broadly.
What do Masons themselves say are the official authorities for their beliefs and practices? All Masons consider their ancient ritual to be a chief authority, as well as the Grand Lodge in each region. In addition, almost all Masons consider the following three books to be authoritative interpreters of official Masonry: (1) Coils Masonic Encyclopedia by Henry Wilson Coil; (2) The Builders by Joseph Fort Newton; (3) Mackey’s Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry by Albert G. Mackey. The secondary literature that I have used as some of the sources of this study, quote extensively from these authors to prove their case.
Different groups of Freemasons will definitely assert the usefulness of different texts, but those are certainly ones that are referenced.
At the heart of the Masonic Lodge is the Blue Lodge, to which all masons must belong. The Blue Lodge consists of the first three degrees of Freemasonry: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. Each of these degrees includes elaborate ritual and extensive memorization that candidates are required to perform at three different meetings of the Lodge. A candidate must be accepted by all members of a Lodge.
This is correct, but somewhat misleading. There are no "first" degrees of Freemasonry. There are the three Blue Lodge Degrees and upon completion of those degrees, one is a Master Mason, recognized around the world as such. There are appendant bodies, but to describe the Blue Lodge as the "first three" degrees might lead some to think that later degrees constitute further rank or status in the organization. This is not so. The only "level above" the Master Mason is that of the officer line in which any Master Mason may take part and that of the Grand Lodge of their jurisdiction.
Those who have completed the three degrees of the Blue Lodge may choose to go on to either the Scottish Rite (which has an additional 29 degrees) or the York Rite (which has an additional 7 degrees).
That is true in the US except for the fact that York Rite has 11 core degrees, and this list left out the Shriners International and several invitational bodies. You also only counted the 29 core degrees (4th through 32nd degrees) of Scottish Rite, leaving out the one "33rd degree" which is bestowed upon members of the Scottish Rite who are deemed to have contributed substantially to that body.
Members are not required to attend meetings, but they are required to pay annual dues. Meetings are held weekly.
These details vary by jurisdiction, but it is much more common for meetings to be monthly and attendance is typically required, though the penalties for non-attendance are essentially non-existent in most jurisdictions. The regular meetings or "stated communications" are an essential part of the governance and stability of the Blue Lodge system, and so are not viewed lightly by Freemasons.
Meetings must be held in a room without windows,
Most Lodge rooms that I have been in have had windows, though during meetings, they are often shuttered. The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts to which I belong does not have windows in its meeting rooms. There is no requirement that I know of, here, only common practice. We do seek to keep the room private as our business meetings and rituals are considered our private business.
At the heart of the Christian critique of Freemasonry is the allegation that Freemasonry is a religious organization that requires certain beliefs about God. Many Masons stridently disagree, claiming that they are merely a secular organization. But is this true?
Neither of these claims are strictly true. Freemasonry is a religious organization in the sense that we present religious material as allegory and require a belief in a Supreme Being, but we are not a religion and, as discussed previously, we do not require any beliefs about God beyond the fact of that belief.
And what do authorities of the Masonic Lodge say? Webster’s New World Dictionary defines religion as “(1) belief in a divine or super human power . . . to be obeyed and worshipped as the Creator and ruler of the universe; (2) expression of . . . belief in conduct and ritual.” Masonry involves all facets of this definition.
Masonry requires a religious belief, but so does being a chaplain in the military. The military is certainly not a religion even though they have an office which requires religious belief and ritual. Instead, it invites members of many religions in to act upon their own faith and the requirements of the organization in order to meet the obligations of both.

Freemasonry can be seen in much the same terms.

The author then quotes Albert Mackey, a Masonic author:
On the contrary, we contend, without any sort of hesitation, that Freemasonry is, in every sense of the word except one, and that its least philosophical, an eminently religious institution
And who could deny this? Of course, we are a religious institution. But at the same time, not having our own unique belief in a deity, but that of our members, we cannot be a religion.
... questions must be asked, “Who is the God that is worshiped in the universal religion of the Masons? Is it the God of the Bible?” Mackey favorably quotes Higgins: “Be assured, that God is equally present with the pious Hindoo in the temple, the Jew in the synagogue, the Mohammedan in the mosque, and the Christian in the church”
This is being misinterpreted, and I think it is the central mistake made by the document.

The word, "God," has two meanings, here. One is the symbolic term that we use in Freemasonry to encompass the beliefs of our members and of the allegories of our rituals. One is a very concrete term used to refer to the deity of specific religions. Freemasonry is not making assertions about Jewish faith, for example, and what it must or must not accept about other faiths. It is not asserting that the Jewish God is the Christian God, but that the Masonic notion of "God" or "Supreme Being" is equally both of these. This is a very important point which, if mistaken, can lead the otherwise intelligent reader to vastly misinterpret what Freemasonry is attempting to accomplish. It is a common tongue for men of all faiths to use to communicate (even when translated into other languages) but it is not a common religion, nor an attempt to merge those religious beliefs.

This confusion is why, when speaking to the public, we typically try to use the term, "Supreme Being," as it makes it clear that we are not trying to make assertions about what any member's personal concept of "God" is or is not. Within the Lodge, we tend to use the world "God" more freely as we all understand what is meant and, more importantly, what is not meant by the use of the term.
Some religions are monotheistic and believe in a personal God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), others are polytheistic (some traditions within Hinduism), or believe in an impersonal God (Brahman in Hinduism), Christians teach that the only true God is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While Catholics and Lutherans and some others believe this to be true, not all Christians do. However, Freemasons welcome them all and serve them equally from our dinner table as well as from our hearts and minds.
Moreover, in its rituals, its meetings, and even in casual conversation within the Lodge, Masonry forbids its members to confess that the triune God is the only true God or to mention the name of Jesus.
This is a misleading statement. As I've said previously, we don't discuss religion directly within the Lodge except for the purpose of an opening and closing, non-denominational (in most jurisdictions) prayer. We also don't discuss politics, but we don't, by avoiding that topic, endorse or reject any political parties (with the possible exception of the 19th century US "Anti-Masonic Party" which I presume most or all Freemasons did reject, but still would not have been appropriate for conversation within the Lodge).

However, there is another, subtler problem with the above. The statement, "in its rituals, its meetings, and even in casual conversation within the Lodge," implies a misunderstanding of what a "Lodge" is. The meetings in question are the Lodge. The Lodge is not a building, but the gathering of Freemasons for official business of the Fraternity. It begins when the Lodge is "opened" and it ends when the Lodge is "closed". There might be side conversations during a lull in activity at such a meeting, but for the most part, such events are either a business meeting (for dealing with expenses, balloting new members, etc.) a lecture on some Masonic topic, or initiation of candidates, so the restriction on religious and political chatter is not extended to truly "casual conversations." Indeed, I have taken part in many discussions about religion with my Christian, Jewish, Muslim, non-dogmatic or otherwise affiliated Brothers after those meetings. I enjoy these conversations as do they, but they are not a part of Freemasonry in any official capacity.
It rejects the deity of Christ and teaches that he was only a man on the same level as other “great” religious teachers such as Mohammed, Confucius, Zoroaster, or Buddha. Additionally, it claims that its God is superior to all sectarian gods, such as the Christian triune God.
These claims are absolutely false, and they are antithetical to the beliefs of the majority of our members of many faiths. I find this bald assertion to be quite upsetting as it is made on behalf of a religion to which many of my Brothers belong!
Therefore, can a Christian in good conscience worship and pray to this god of Masonry which they claim is all gods, behind all gods, in all gods, and above all gods? Masonry worships a god that can be worshiped apart from Jesus Christ, and therefore its god is a false god.
As there is no God of Masonry and there is no worship of a God of Masonry, this section proceeds from multiple false assumptions.
... in the ritual [non-Masons are described as being] in darkness (including Christian candidates). Only those who become Masons are brought to the light. This totally repudiates the teaching of Jesus, the Light of the World (John 1:4-9; 8:12; 12:46), who says that all those who believe in him dwell in light and are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16; Eph 5:8; Col 1:12-13; 1 Peter 2:9), and all those who don't are in darkness.
In both Masonic and Christian tradition, the term "darkness" is used metaphorically to refer to being in a state of ignorance of the teachings of each body, respectively. There is no contradiction, here, nor any "repudiation," endorsement or commentary on Christian dogma. In general, I'm going to avoid commenting on the details of the rituals, but I can honestly say that I have never seen any Christian or, for that matter, a member of any faith, balk at the ritual as presented in context. I would warn people away from reading online documents which claim to be the rituals of Freemasonry for many reasons: they are not always accurate; when they are, they are often not current; and when they are current, they lack a great deal of context required to understand their allegorical and symbolic significance.
The Masons also explicitly declare that entrance into the life to come is earned by their Masonic good works and purity of life.
We teach a system of morality and that system connects both to this life and to the one to come, but we do not teach that strictures of a specific faith either are or are not required along that journey. That is for the individual and their faith to determine. Again, this is important context which is not easy to understand when simply reading leaked versions of our rituals online.
According to their ritual, ...
I find it strange that an abridged and somewhat disjoint version of the Third Degree of Freemasonry is presented in the document without commentary or critique. Why bother to disclose such information if not to make a point?
At every Lodge meeting the Bible sits open upon the altar. This gives the impression that the Masonic Lodge is a Christian organization.
It does not give that impression to any Freemason, however, and even simply touring a Grand Lodge in any state of the US would clear up that misconception.
As has been shown above, this is anything but true. Actually, the Masons teach that the Bible is only a symbol of the Will of God, and that the contents of the Bible are not the Word of God.
This is absolutely and categorically untrue. Freemasons teach an allegorical lesson, in part using the text of the Holy Bible, but we do not assert the nature of the Holy Bible any more than the we assert the nature of the working tools of operative stonemasons, which we also use symbolically. It would be as foolish of a Freemason to assume that he had learned about Christianity or any other faith from the Lodge as it would be to assume that he had learned to lay bricks!
Moreover, according to Coil, Masons are not required to believe any part of the Bible (Quoted in Ankerberg 1989:48).
As we've already covered, Freemasons are not required to be of any particular faith, so I cannot see why Coil's statement is a shock at this point.
In addition, any holy book of any religion can be placed on the altar, depending on the religion of the majority of the members. The Koran is placed on the altar of Muslim Lodges, for example.
The Holy Bible is unique in Freemasonry, but certainly in other Grand Lodges, it might not be the primary symbol of Holy Law. Like our use of the word "God" to encompass the beliefs of our members, so too does the book on our alter encompass the books of Sacred Law that are unique to each of them.
In each of the first three degree ceremonies, the candidate is asked to make an oath ... In each oath, the candidate calls upon himself [the "ancient penalties" such as] a violent death, if he ever [violates that oath] ... It is sinful to invoke God’s name or take an oath in unnecessary or frivolous matters and is a violation of the Commandment, “You shall not take God’s name in vain.” Jesus speaks against this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Those who have sworn such oaths should repent of them, and are not sinning if they break them.
I've abridged this a bit because I have, in fact, taken an oath (which I will not repeat here) but suffice to say that the "ancient penalties" are yet another symbol of Freemasonry. One of those symbols which you will see if you tour a Lodge is the rough and smooth ashlars. These are blocks of stone which are used to symbolize the cutting away of the imperfect and of striving for the perfect. However, we most certainly do not propose to go around hacking off the edges of our members! So too, do we see the "ancient penalties" of our obligations; they are a symbol of the great meaning and import of our oath, which is undertaken in anything but an "unnecessary or frivolous" way. I do not see any contradiction, therefore, between that most solemn oath and the admonitions of the Commandments and Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, I believe that Freemasons who are Lutherans are every bit as entitled to their beliefs as any other, and if that is ever challenged, then my Lutheran Brothers can know that I will speak out on their behalf! May God be with you and may we all strive for our respective, more perfect selves.