Sunday, May 2, 2010

Appreciating Diversity, Focusing on What's Important

"'In non essentials, variety; in essentials, unity' might have been written of Masonry. It matters little how we wear the apron in given degree - so be it that it is worn with honor. The method of giving a sign or a pass matter much less than that what we do is done with understanding." MSA, 1934

According to the General Regulations published by the Grand Lodge of England in 1723 "Every Annual Grand Lodge has an inherent power and Authority to make new Regulations or to alter these, for the real benefits of this Ancient Fraternity; provided always that the old Land-Marks be carefully preserved." However, these landmarks were not defined in any manner. An early attempt at this was in Jurisprudence of Freemasonry 1856 by Dr. Albert Mackey. He laid down three requisite characteristics:

   1. notional immemorial antiquity
   2. universality (of usage)
   3. absolute "irrevocability"

He claimed there were 25 in all, and they could not be changed. However subsequent writers have differed greatly as regards what they consider the Landmarks to be. In 1863, George Oliver published the Freemason's Treasury in which he listed 40 Landmarks. In the last century, several American Grand Lodges attempted to enumerate the Landmarks, ranging from West Virginia (7) and New Jersey (10) to Nevada (39) and Kentucky (54).

One Grand Lodge even added ritual as an unchanging landmark when they were in the process of making drastic changes in their ritual!  Rituals today of course bear little resemblance if at all to rituals of old, and the lectures are relatively modern appendages added to make the degree work more meaty (some say boring and dull) and also to give various brethren in the lodge something to do.

There is much to be said for doing away with these lectures that are now often longer than the ritual itself; particularly that they trample on the individual's freedom to draw meaning from the rituals as they choose, not as some long winded 19th or 20th century lecturer chose.

Joseph Fort Newton, in The Builders, offers a simple definition of the Landmarks as: "The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the moral law, the Golden Rule, and the hope of life everlasting." While that sounded fine and expansive, Newton excluded blacks (along with women and the disabled and others considered undesirable.)

The noted American 20th century jurist and influential Freemason Roscoe Pound subscribed to six landmarks:

   1. Belief in a Supreme Being
   2. Belief in the immortality of the soul
   3. A "book of sacred law" as an indispensable part of the "furniture" (or furnishings) of the Lodge
   4. The legend of the Third Degree
   5. The secrets of Freemasonry: The modes of recognition and the symbolic ritual of the Lodge
   6. That a Mason be a man, freeborn, and of lawful age.

Pound omits however that the legend of the Third Degree itself changed and in fact the expansion to three degrees was itself an "innovation".  Pound assumed a Bible would be that book of sacred law which is hardly an innovation considering Freemasonry in its early days was not at all religiously tolerant but overtly and uniformly Christian. Moreover the modes recognition were repeatedly changed from time to time due to them becoming too well known by non-Masons in any particular jurisdiction. The modes of recognition were also different from place to place due to the difference in origins of various jurisdictions.

As for "freeborn", the notion was used as an argument for years that blacks under various governments did not enjoy the full rights of a freeman (even when said men were not born enslaved and slavery had been abolished.) This meant that the idea of "freeborn" was hardly one tied to innate rights but to the political situation of any given time and a lodge's interpretation.

Masonry thus simply was not and in some cases is not recognizing groups of men as born with the same innate right to freedom.  There has been great progress.  And it has been diversity at the lodge level rather than jurisdictional conformity that has led to an evolution away from those policies.

In the 1950s the Commission on Information for Recognition of the Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in North America arbitrarily looked to three "ancient Landmarks":

   1. Monotheism — An unalterable and continuing belief in God.
   2. The Volume of The Sacred Law — an essential part of the furniture of the Lodge.
   3. Prohibition of the discussion of Religion and Politics.

Addressing these in reverse order; the third item as a Landmark can be dismissed easily since the whole notion was added long after the founding of the Grand Lodge of England and does not appear in original manuscripts. As for the second item, we need only to recall the evolution of Anglo-American Masonry from a Christian institution to a "religious" one.

The first item is of more interest not just for its status as a Landmark but because of its effects on the culture of the lodge. The terms "Monotheism — An unalterable and continuing belief in God" are specific, as it precludes "doubt" which is usually an acknowledged part of the path of faith in major religions. Also this specificity Monotheism may run contrary to Christian trinitarian doctrine.

We must accept that Freemasonry is neither a religion (for it does not have a set of basic and unchanging tenets) nor an inerrant and unchanging institution. Those who try to make Freemasonry something it is not and those who try to foist that upon others do Freemasonry and their brethren a great disservice.

Too often we see Masons dry, quiet and deadly serious about something that frankly draws its real meaning from lively, convivial engagement. Even the language of the business meeting, once perfunctory and common place becomes exalted in its strangeness though it was never intended to be. It is likely that these Masons who exalt function are seeking to bring something they lost in the Church, or personal religion into lodge; just as it is that those Masons who are the least intellectually developed or least academically successful take pride in uselessly exact memorization and recitation of procedural items in the lodge. (Stricken indeed are lodges dominated by such men, for they are the clear conscience but bloody handed assassins of many a lodge.)

It is important then that we remember: Masonry makes a claim of good will and brotherhood.  It makes no certain moral claim nor does it aspire to spiritual deliverance in its own words and observances, as religions do.

In fact Freemasonry has had many errors in its past and has so today whether that be in its regulations or its operation.  And perhaps the only thing that is universal and unchanging is paradoxically that that it is never universal nor unchanging.

Unfortunately, grand lodges and busy individuals have sought to not only make their changes but to enforce whatever their version of orthodoxy at the time.  The various victims have been neighborhood lodges, lodge traditions, various historical rituals, internal charity, bonhomie, religious or irreligious environment as fitting particular lodges, individual lodge character and the ancient rights of lodge autonomy.

Naturally there will be brethren who stand by their version and interpretation of Freemasonry.  That is the way it should be.  In diversity not uniformity there is tolerance and respect of different interpretations and traditions. The administrative energy used in enforcing conformity in our lodges is probably best used to righting ourselves.

Eagerness to reproach or correct others is an ugly flaw inside or outside of the lodge, though many Masons can attest, it is flaw that rears its head often in lodges whether concerning more consequential business or inconsequential procedural issues. Lodges would likely run in greater accord if Masons took to heart the words in the Book of Matthew, why behold you the speck of sawdust that is in your brother's eye, rather than the bit of wood that is in your own eye?

So it holds in the true practice of Freemasonry that we cannot forbid those Freemasons from rejecting among their own other versions and interpretations.  This is when we find the true test of Masons: one group clings to something finds another objectionable and another is just the opposite yet both groups maintain their perspectives.  Can each group still hold the other in fraternal regard even if in cool disagreement?  We show our own ignorance of the variety in the history of Freemasonry when we try to stamp out or denounce other practices.

What we can do is to appreciate the variety.  The more varied Freemasonry is, the more opportunity there is to have something which brethren support.  And should we find certain procedures in a lodge to be in some ways wrongheaded or tiresome we may find it best to avoid this part of lodge life or even to leave that lodge altogether for one more to our disposition; but we may also stay knowing that someone who we care about in the lodge actually finds good in the lodge's practices.