KNOWING OUR TRUE PURPOSE CAN SAVE US
Hon. John Randolph Martin 32°
Lately much has been written about the true purpose of freemasonry as either a charity or a fellowship and the difficulty in renewing our fraternity and refilling our ranks. The argument between charity and fellowship misses the point and shows why we are having trouble with the renewal of masonry.
Until we start concentrating on the true purpose of freemasonry, we cannot expect to fix what needs to be fixed, if anything. That is because we are trying to repair the engine of our masonic ship by changing the propeller or refashioning the bow. The real engine that keeps masonry going is its true purpose. The true purpose is not fellowship nor is it philanthropy, although these are the propellers that can drive it through the water. Nor is it one-day classes or affinity lodges, although these can be a well-fashioned bow to help us plow through the water. No, the true purpose, the engine of the ship, is currently too often overlooked. This purpose is to provide a rite of passage for acceptance of a man into Western Society. Somewhere along the line in our history as an organization, we started to miss the point.
What do the "Iron John" Drum Beaters and the Promise Keepers and the young men who are confused by trying to fit into our "new" society with its "feminist" rules all have in common? They are looking for the same thing that all other males in all other societies on the planet are looking for: recognition and inclusion as a man into adult society. This is also a part of the need for "male-bonding" that popular psychologists tell us about. It comes from a shared, ritualistic or actual, life-or-death experience. Clearly, this sounds like our fraternity.
At this point, it may be well to define a rite of passage.
A rite of passage in the anthropological sense is an initiation into a group or fraternity like freemasonry that is composed of adult males. The fraternity conducts the initiation ceremony, the rite of passage, and provides a continuing membership for the initiates after the ritual is completed. Becoming a recognized member of this group of adult males gives the men full adult status in their society. In some societies, this rite of passage can be an important requirement for marriage and status as the head of a family. In most societies, the rite of passage may be of lesser importance but is still necessary psychologically for the men to participate in full manhood.
We conduct such an initiation into Modern Western Civilization. Freemasonry, providing a rite of passage into manhood, developed as Western Civilization modernized in the 1700s. As our predecessors developed a civilization that became a pan-European culture and then a global culture, freemasonry provided a rite of passage that spread and established itself as a part of that culture.
How does this knowledge give us the tools to regain our position in Western Civilization and avoid extinction? If we recognize that we are first and foremost a group that provides a rite of passage, we will make changes, if any, that are needed to improve ourselves as providers of such a rite. For example, if we advertise, we will advertise ourselves as what we truly are, and this advertising will work because it will tell everyone in society why they need us.
Men will see that they need us as one of the rites of passage to become whole male members of the society at large, fulfilling that psychological and sociological male need. Women will see that they have nothing to fear and much to gain from their men becoming masons. And the society at large will see that we are a healthy, natural part of a pluralistic and tolerant civilization.
This is where the argument between our purpose as a philanthropy or a fellowship falls short. Trying to present ourselves as a religiously-based fellowship often makes us look like a competing religion. Also, trying to present ourselves as a philanthropic group can makes us look like a competing charity.
Even though we may legitimately think that we are a fellowship or a philanthropy or something in between, the rest of society can see that we are a group of adult males conducting a rite of passage. The more we present our fraternity as something other than that, the farther we stray from the acceptance that we can have by emphasizing the obvious. For example, rites of passage are generally done in secret, and no one expects anything else. To claim to be something else can make us look to the outside world as if we are hiding something dangerous with our "secretive" behavior.
In much the same way, trying to boost numbers with one-day classes or affinity lodges misses the point if we do not stress that this initiation means something: that it is a rite of passage for our civilization. Rites of passage must be a little tough, even if they are only ritualistic and not a true "torture to your flesh".
We can survive and prosper conducting a rite of passage to adult manhood in Western Civilization. We do not have to accept everyone. True rites of passage have restrictions, and ours does, too. The man must be "free born, of lawful age and under the tongue of good report." Not everyone in a given society qualifies for the complete manhood initiation nor do all men attempt or pass the tests of the rite of passage. But the religious and political leaders of the society all recognize the rite of passage for what it is and often support it even if they are not members, because they can see that it is a threat by the way it truthfully presents itself.
With the greatest love and concern, we must take a new look at ourselves. Whether factual or not, we have heard our brethren talk about lodges that might gain a thousand members using one-day classes and yet lose hundreds per year from disinterest. Other brethren say that we have nothing for young members to do but study ritual and suggest that we need something else, like affinity lodges, where men of like interests can gather within the mason order.
These arguments miss that first purpose of freemasonry is to make freemasons. In nature, reproduction is essential as the means of continuing life. In our case, initiations insure continuation. This should be easy, but we have over-analyzed and over-emphasized our non-initiation functions to little avail. Why has this not been a success? Because providing an initiation into manhood is the primary reason that we exist. Most men take our initiation ceremonies, go on to other endeavors and continue on with their lives with fond memories of the lodge and an occasional beneficial act. But a few continue learning and performing the rituals, and this maintains our ability to perform the rite of passage that is the reason that we continue to exist.
If young men are disappointed with our business meetings because we seem to discuss only paying bills and with our other meetings because they are mostly for learning ritual and teaching proficiency, they are missing the point. And so are most of us. We concentrate on these things because this is what we are. We provide a rite of passage, not exclusively, but primarily.
I am NOT saying that this is the only thing that we should do! I am saying that if we concentrate on our ritual and our performance and our primary purpose, our lodges will survive, the craft will survive and there will be plenty of masons and lodges for all the other affinities and charities.
This may sound like it is just too simple a solution, but once we identify our true purpose as performing a rite of passage, our efforts in retention and renewal can be directed toward changes, if any, that will more likely to result in improvements.
Brother John Randolph Martin is a United States Administrative Law Judge in Houston, Texas, and worked as an attorney in South Carolina for many years. He has earned a BA, MA and JD from the University of Oklahoma. Judge Martin is also a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve and served overseas in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Judge Martin was raised in Dentsville Lodge No. 398 in 1982 in Columbia, SC, and received both his Scottish Rite and York Rite degrees during the next year. He is now a member of Orange-Charlestowne Lodge No. 14, Dalcho Consistory, South Carolina Commandery No. 1, and the Omar Shrine, all in Charleston, SC, as well as the Philalethes Society and the Texas Lodge of Research.