Friday, January 22, 2016

What is initiation, why is it secret and how does society benefit from it?

The Initiation Chamber
Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii
I've made the outrageous claim before that society makes great strides when the initiatic tradition is intact and widely adopted and that civilization suffers when this is not the case. In order to even begin investigating the validity of that claim, we need to understand what it is we mean by "initiation" and how it works. This is the goal of the present article.

So, what is initiation? In its simplest form, it is the recognition of entry into a new role or subculture in a larger society, using a system of ritual, performed exclusively by those who have previously been initiated.

Let's look at some examples to clarify what that means: When a man is going to be married, most Western cultures have some sort of ceremonial celebration at which the man is prepared for his new role in society as a husband. In the US we usually call these "bachelor parties." Similarly, when one joins the military, there are many distinct rituals of bonding and acceptance performed as a part of "basic training."

Within the societies which perform stand-alone initiations such as Freemasonry, Rotary and so on, the role of the initiation is not merely a demarcation which one experiences and then moves on. It is an entry into a fellowship, but the process is still very much the same.

We now have a sense (if only by example) of what initiation is, so why is it almost always secret?

Certainly, there are elements of many initiations that are considered private matters (bachelor parties might involve watching a "stag film" or, more commonly in the modern day, hiring an exotic dancer; military initiations might be considered violent by outsiders; etc.) but this is not the primary reason for secrecy.

Rather, secrecy is a part of the reason for initiation. Forming a hidden "token" of belonging between the initiate and the existing members of the group makes the act of initiation meaningful. We see this in every trivial act of initiation from the proverbial "keys to the executive washroom" to the programming communities where contributors who have been accepted into project are given permission to submit new source code.

This gives us a reference point from which to begin to talk about how initiation benefits the individual, the group and society at large.

For the individual, initiation is a signpost. Before and after initiation one leads different lives: the exoteric and the esoteric. By creating and valuing an esoteric context, we promote the notion that there is meaning and value in belonging and contributing to something which is more than just the sum of its individual members. This idea, in turn, is the hallmark of functioning societies.

To quote Yeats' poem, The Second Coming, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." It is this lack of conviction on the part of those who have the most to contribute which initiation is meant to address and resolve; not simply by bonding the initiate to the existing members, but by bonding them to the initiatic body itself and teaching them that they can add value to their cultural context by seeking the acceptance of their peers.

In a future update, I will address specific historical examples of societies with and without strong initiatic traditions....

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Eye of Providence, Freemasonry, Illuminati and the Great Seal of the United States of America

Last Supper at Emmaus
Jacopo Pontormo, 1525
There's a great deal of misinformation around the eye in the triangle symbol and what it means. I'd like to clear that up. FIrst off, it's called "The Eye of Providence."

The Eye of Providence inside of a pyramid is not "the Illuminati logo". The symbol of the Illuminati was the Owl of Minerva. The Eye of Providence was a symbol of the Christian notion of divine providence circa the 15th century in art, but was adopted by many different organizations in the 17th and 18th century as a symbol of the omniscience of deity without being specifically of any one religion.

It was in this sense that Freemasonry, not the Illuminati, used the symbol (though, also not as their primary symbol or logo, which was the Square & Compasses), but it did not appear inside of a pyramid. The conflation with the pyramid probably arose from The Great Seal of the United States where the Eye of Providence represents the providence of God with respect to the founding of the nation from 13 individual colonies (hence the 13 stones making up the base of the pyramid). This providence is clearly explained in the Declaration of Independence, where it is clear that one of the most important aspects of the founders' claim to the right of self-rule, in the face of centuries of monarch-lead claims of divine right to rule, was divine providence. But note that the eye is not inside a pyramid on the Great Seal either! It's actually inside of a triangle. We'll get to where the eye started to go in a pyramid later on...

The Great Seal, like many other uses of the Eye of Providence in the 19th century, had little to do with other uses, so much as it generically represented the philosophy of one group (the framers of the early US system of government). Was it used because of Freemasonry's use? Probably not, but we can't know for sure. Freemasonry was one of many groups that routinely used that symbol in the 18th century, and it was probably used more to avoid specifically referring to any one group or philosophy than the opposite.

The eye is routinely associated (by conspiracy theorists as well as well-meaning enthusiasts) with the Eye of Horus, a symbol from ancient Egyptian mythology. The problem with this theory is that there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and the eye as a symbol of the awareness of deity has cropped up in many isolated systems of iconography from Eastern religions such as Hinduism to the Western aboriginal folk art. There is therefore no particular reason to assume that the Eye of Providence had to be based on some previous icon, and there is no evidence to cause us to do so.

So, why are we so convinced that the Eye is a symbol of the Illuminati and that it was displayed inside a pyramid? Well, that all gets to a funny little thing that happened in the 1970s. Robert Anton Wilson published a story called The Illuminatus! Trilogy which was a comedic, science fiction take on just about every brand of conspiracy theory, and it based its titular organization on what had been a relatively obscure bunch mostly of interest to historians for their alleged influence on the later Jacobins: the Bavarian Illuminati. The book developed most of the sorts of memes that we're familiar with today regarding the Illuminati including absurdly broad influence over governments, religions and secret societies; contact with aliens; the whole works!

It also featured on its cover the Eye of Providence inside of a pyramid... probably influenced by the Great Seal.

The Eye of Providence is an important part of the history of post-enlightenment symbolism and it's sad to see so many people ignoring its actual history in favor of comedy/sci fi. I love good sci fi, but I try not to confuse it with history.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Faith and the Craft

Ian Edwards'
Leap of Faith
We use the word "Faith" all the time as Masons. It's a part of the lessons of the first degree, but how many of us think about what the word means?

Obviously, faith can refer to a belief in deity, but I think that Freemasonry uses it more specifically than that. When we use the word, I believe that we are very particularly talking about the acceptance of and trust in the idea that the world is not simply random. That is, that being of good character and seeking Light has meaning. None of the other lessons of Freemasonry have any value whatever without this foundation, so it must be accepted by the new Mason before he can even proceed to be obligated as an EA.

Let's look over some of the definitions that others have used and compare to this analysis.

Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry defines Faith as, "synonymous with confidence or trust, and hence we find merely a repetition of the lesson which had been previously taught that the first, the essential qualification of a candidate for initiation, is that he should trust in God." Note that he points out that it is this "trust in God," not just a belief. It is the faith in, "evidence of things not seen," which allows us to accept that we, our Brothers and the lessons of Freemasonry have merit and meaning.

We also direct the Worshipful master, in the Charge as given in Webb's Illustrations, to a "diligent observance of ... the Holy Scriptures, which are given as a rule and guide to your faith." Again recall that the VSL is a symbol, representing the scriptural dogma of a given Brother's belief. It is this faith in the codified meaning of one's beliefs, handed down through generations that the Brother who has attained the Oriental Chair is admonished to observe. Not because there is a dogma which Freemasonry is advocating, but because it is that faith in the continuity of the wisdom from which Freemasonry derives which enables our Craft to proceed with their work.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Is This Your Work? The Journey of a middle-aged, young Mason

In 2012, I was part of a local gaming group. We played a variety of games including some of the euro-import board games and various roleplaying titles, usually focused on rich story and political intrigue. One of our gamers was a really interesting character. He was a former rabble-rouser and very politically aware and active liberal guy who also happened to be gay. All of this may seem irrelevant, but it formed a picture in my mind of who he was and how I expected his life to be.

Then that all changed. One day, he told me he was a Freemason. "Wait... what... you?!" I must have asked with some obvious incredulousness. Yes, he was one of those old guys that sat around talking about Elizabethan politics over brandy and a cigar... or at least that's what I thought Freemasons were when they weren't out driving their clown cars.

This drove me to learn more. I started studying Freemasonry a bit and asked casual, low-key questions every now and then, trying not to step on any need for secrecy that would prevent his answering further questions.

This was at a time in my life when much had changed. I'd come out as bisexual to my friends and family over a decade before, but the process is never quick or simple. One of the more unexpected and tangential results of that transition was a change in my beliefs. I'd always called myself an agnostic. I didn't deny the existence of God, but neither did I think that there was likely an old man in the clouds waiting for me to pray to him. I had no particular faith, but more and more, as I questioned my role in society, I also questioned my role with respect to existence.

That all came to a head as I investigated Freemasonry. I started reading about men like Ben Franklin who identified as deists, and I looked into their beliefs. The classical deists were more or less Abrahamic theists without the dogma and generally held to a non-interventionist view (e.g. no miracles).

I thought: if this Franklin fellow could be a Freemason and hold more or less the same view that I do, why can't I?

So, I approached my friend and asked about joining the Fraternity and how one went about doing so? Did he have to ask me or could I just fill out an application?

I was invited to the Lodge and given a tour. My silly questions were answered and maybe I asked one that wasn't... I don't remember, but I know I asked about why women weren't in the Fraternity and why there were secrets and whether anything I'd be asked to do or take an oath to would violate my conscience... all of the usual stuff.

He reassured me on every point that this wasn't the kind of group that someone like himself would have any problem with, and so I was unlikely to be concerned, but that Freemasonry isn't a prison, and I was free to turn around at any time.

With this assurance, I took my first step. I came back for an interview and the application process a little while later and then panicked over whether or not they were going to reject me... it took so long (probably a month or two, but I was really wound up about it at the time).

In the end, my journey as a Mason began the way all of the worthy Brothers before me have begun: with that first step forward to the door of the Lodge room.

After my initiation, my mind was swirling! There was so much there! There was morality and philosophy and history and a kind of art that I had never experienced before! Like every earnest Mason after that first degree, I was overwhelmed and, of course, I'm still unravelling that experience today.

What struck me most in joining the Fraternity was not just the eagerness to have another set of hands... I expected that, but the eagerness to teach, to discuss, to puzzle out the nature of our work. This is now my work, and it will be judged by future generations, I suppose. Is it good work?