Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Honest Trailer: Freemasonry

Symbols often obscure the
discussion of Freemasonry
with non-Freemasons.
Continuing the trend from my previous article, Everything Wrong With... Freemasonry, the title of this article also refers to a popular YouTube movie review channel, but this article is equally as serious as the first. Previously, we discussed the anti-Masonic claims, but I suggested that I would also write about what Freemasonry really is and give a positive perspective, rather than just disclaiming the negative. That is the goal of this article.

So let's begin at the beginning. Most attempts to summarize the benefits of Freemasonry fail to be coherent or are overly simplistic. Typically they are in the form of vague language such as "Freemasonry is a system of morality," or, "Freemasonry teaches a set of moral lessons using an abstract and symbolic language." To the uninitiated, this sounds not only strange, but arguably like the doublespeak of a cult, and I think tends to alienate more prospective members than it attracts. Instead, I'm going to try to break down what kind of people would be interested in Freemasonry, what kind of people would not and what the former would get from it in simple language without using vague terms like "system" or arm-waving at what we do by calling it "lessons."

First, some basics so that we're all on the same page: Freemasonry is a fraternity. You've probably heard this, but it's probably a less useful term than we might hope. The term has come, primarily, to refer to the Greek system of fraternities on college campuses. These organizations are, to some extent, modeled on Freemasonry but they are not Masonic bodies and their goals can vary widely. Instead, Freemasonry is a fraternity in the sense that it is a social organization of men with a common set of interests.

Freemasonry is also an initiatory body. That is, we have an initiation ceremony that must be undergone before one can become a member of the organization. This initiation is broken up into three parts: the Entered Apprentice degree, the Fellowcraft degree and the Master Mason degree.

Each degree teaches a set of philosophical ideas that are deeply entwined with the notions of deity, charity and self-discipline.

To return to the goal of this posting, now that we've established the basics, let's get to the questions:

Question: Who would be interested in Freemasonry?

Any man with a belief in a Supreme Being who has a desire to answer larger questions in his life than those of his own benefit. More specifically, Freemasonry provides a man with a massive and highly concentrated set of teachings through these degrees and Freemasons have literally spent their lives unraveling those degrees and determining what they mean to them. Men who find that philosophy is fascinating but daunting because of its extreme breadth and thousands of years of history will often find that Freemasonry gives them a way to "find their depth" and learn at their own pace. One can comprehend the degrees merely as initiation formalities and otherwise enjoy the company of their new Brothers or one can dive deeply into the symbolism and tradition of those degrees in order to become a true scholar of the Fraternity. Both types of men are welcome in our Fraternity.

Question: Who would not be interested in Freemasonry?

If you read the above paragraph and concluded that this sounds like a bunch of intellectual self-satisfaction, then you're probably not going to get much from the Fraternity. You could still join and could still derive enjoyment from being a member, but it would be a bit like going for a "swim" in the ocean and never doing more than getting your toes wet.

Also, those who are either atheists or are offended by abstract discussions of religion or the presence of those of religions other than their own are going to find that the discussion of deity in the Fraternity is either too ubiquitous in the former case or not specific enough to avoid offense in the latter case. Freemasonry teaches its lessons about a set of moral truths through allegories and metaphors that deeply involve deity and abstract references to Abrahamic faiths. While there are many non-Abrahamic faiths represented in Freemasonry, we all use that lens to understand the ideas being taught by these degrees, to some extent.

Question: What is the role of esotericism in Freemasonry?

This is a question that's come up more than once, and I think Freemasons try to dodge it more than they should. Freemasonry is fundamentally esoteric. Our degrees are "hidden" in the sense that we do not discuss their content publicly and the literal meaning of the word "esoteric" is "hidden knowledge." In that sense, Freemasonry is esoteric. However the term has come to mean something more specific. It often refers to the idea that there are specific sorts of mystical beliefs and practices which are not part of mainstream theology or philosophy and which claim a deeper understanding of both of those areas. Esotericism is, in this sense, a broad label for several specific sets of practices and bodies of knowledge ranging from Kabbalah to Theosophy to Sufism to many forms of quasi-religious practices.

My answer to this question, then goes in two different directions. First, Freemasonry provides a philosophical context which is cognizant of these traditions and within which it is possible to discuss them rationally, but it is not a part of them, nor is it simply a gateway to them. In the same way that Freemasonry embraces members from most religions it also embraces those who are or wish to become students of each these esoteric ideas. There is a rich history of Freemasons who have, in fact, done just that, but Freemasonry stands on its own and is not simply some esoteric tradition's front door.

My second answer is that there are elements of Masonic lessons which can be interpreted as nods to dozens of esoteric practices throughout the world. But the key word, there, is "interpreted." The degrees have no "correct interpretation." There are people like Albert Pike and Manly P. Hall (who I'll point out do not entirely agree with each other's views) whose interpretations are deeply esoteric while there are others like Thomas Smith Webb whose interpretations are much less so.

Each man must determine what the degrees mean to him, and no Freemason can definitively tell any other that his interpretation is "wrong" unless it clearly runs counter to the text of the degrees. So the role of esotericism in Freemasonry is as one of many possible interpretations of the meaning of our system of degrees, as is the role of specific dogmas from religions. These are the tools of the individual, however, not of the Fraternity as a whole.

Question: If Freemasonry has been around for hundreds of years, is there anything left for me to contribute?

Yes! Right now is a particularly excellent time to contribute to the Fraternity in terms of your time, thoughts and leadership. Over the past 30 years or so, membership has declined in all fraternal organizations and many religions as the general public's interest in many related topics has waned. However, the millennials are beginning to show an interest in those elements of society once again. The numbers of young applicants to the Fraternity is growing rapidly, and we need people who can take on a leadership role in order to guide them and reinvigorate the Fraternity around their unique perspective.

The unfortunate stereotype of the Fraternity as a social club for retirees is primarily a result of that decline in membership, so the next generation really does need to carve out their own Freemasonry to some extent. As the Fraternity grows once more, we will need capable members to re-discover lost institutions and re-contextualize them without losing their essence. There is, in short, no better time to be a Freemason with the possible exception of the early 18th century when the Fraternity was first extending itself beyond its comparatively small origins.