Our Moral Mission
This article was written for Masons in response to statements by James C. Holly of Beaumont Texas who addressed the June '92 convention of Southern Baptists in Indianapolis. Holly, reported by the Associated Press, said that "Masonry is non-biblical, anti-Christian, wrong in its doctrine about God" and practices "occultism". At least 10,000 copies of a booklet calling Masonry "devilish...its occultic, Satanic, and sensual nature is an evil that must be removed from the church...it is incompatible with being a faithful Christian or a Southern Baptist." The convention has moved to investigate Freemasonry for one year before making any policies against the order.
Periodically, we, as Masons are attacked by various religious leaders, who presumably have never taken a single degree; and thus know nothing of Masonry's inner purposes. While the terminology of their attack demonstrates their ignorance of our order, so does the weakness of our response indicate our own lack of self-knowledge.
While we know that we are not a Satanic cult; not anti-Christian; not even a religion; and several other 'nots'; we have difficulty stating what we are. What is our purpose? Beyond (definitively) stating that we require a belief in God; and are (theoretically) tolerant of all religions and nationalities; and (abstractly) that we exist to make good men better...we have only our ritual to fall back upon for further explanation. Here we meet with our great difficulty.
The usual response by Masons who hear of an attack is amazement, a little curiosity, and then dismissal. In a way, this is good for the greater number of occurrences; for no response is better than a weak response. One of our detractors, an ex-Mason, stated "Most Masons are not knowledgeable of what they are participating in and they don't take seriously what the lodge officially says". Most Masons' gut reaction would be to say 'Hey, who does this guy think he is?' and then let the accusation fall to the side never taking issue at any depth. But I agree with him.
Most Masons live as social fellows. While this aspect, (or should I say opportunity), is only one of the many fruits of the Masonic tree, it by no means represents the root. Further, if one only enjoys the fruit and cares not for the root, then the tree will die.
To continue the analogy, the trunk of the tree may be represented by our ritual. Here we find another group of Masons who attend only to this great support of Masonry. But again, this is not the root. The ritual gives us our tools, it is only the delivery system. With these tools we may tend to our Masonic garden; expanding the girth of our ritual trunk; improving the multitude of branches that connect us all; and profiting from the many fruits. But the root requires digging.
What is really in the depths of our ritual? What is the nutrient that we would use to make "a good man better"? What is the emphasis of our ritual. What should a man understand from our allegories? What is our mission? To whom?
The answers are found in a study of morality. To many this is a vague word representing 'doing or being good'. It is a word used synonymously with ethics. As a study, it is a branch of philosophy. Opinion relating to moral issues have both created and divided nations. It is the foundation of religions and is the tap root of Masonry.
Historically, as thought developed through the centuries, definitions of what is 'good' or 'moral' have not remained the same. Societies reflect change in moral forces; as moral forces change from societies reflections. At one time, what was good was defined only by the church. Determinations by the Pope became the law of the land. 'Rules' of moral conduct where debated in Rome and delivered by messenger to the ignorant masses. Breaking the moral laws of church resulted in at best, excommunication; at worst torture and the stake. The church in Rome was not the only body that determined right and wrong. Kings of every land made laws that reflected their personal or social belief systems. Morality was legislated.
When Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in 1517, other doors opened in minds of men. Several major belief systems arose regarding moral issues. Some systems based their belief on principles rather than laws. The philosophies of the Greeks, Socrates and Aristotle, began to shine in European' minds.
By the time of The Age of Enlightenment (1700's), men realized that morality stood of its own accord with Reason as guide. Morality became an individual's responsibility and he was held accountable to his own reasoning powers and methods. Morality began with self-determination and self-guidance. Philosophical movements of the time where aimed against superstition, ignorance, traditional knowledge and wisdom. Critical interpretation of the scriptures brought about a weakening of religious orthodoxy.
The Enlightenment was a time when men broke away from the strict grasp of the church. Pure philosophy and science along with art for arts sake became the theme of the day. Reason to the Enlightened man was sharpened by logic and 'natural philosophy' (the Liberal arts and sciences) and with it he could "...trace nature through her various windings to..." The universe was seen as a vast machine whose connecting proportions could be viewed and discovered with delight by the aid of mathematics. Newtons 'Principia' had penetrated the public mind; popularized by men like Ben Franklin, Voltaire and Rousseau.
Literary clubs and salons became popular. The Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians and many other 'Enlightened' societies had their beginnings here. Circulating libraries and periodicals fed the public hunger for knowledge previously held captive by the church. This was indeed a hot-bed for Masonic growth.
Classical Enlightened thought appears incompatible with ortho dox Christianity. Modern secular faiths such as positivism, materialism, rationalism, ethical culture, and humanism; which reject pure Christian dogma, all began during the Age of Enlightenment. Deism, expounded by Voltaire became quite popular. "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him," was one of Voltaire's favorite aphorisms. No wonder the church felt so threatened. They were losing control.
This is our Masonic beginning. The church, both Catholic and Protestant felt aggression from the Age. Today they still battle any type of secular Humanism. Masonry began in the Age of Enlightenment, passed its childhood in the Age of Reason and spent its adolescence in the Age of Romanticism. Our ritual abounds with the reflections of these ages. Deism, natural philosophy, the liberal arts and sciences, illumination, liberty, equality, are captured in our ritual for perpetuity; much of which can be found in our second degree lectures.
And yet, while the Age of Reason (1790's — ) mocked Christianity, and setting up Reason as the only true deity; the Bishops of France wearing Liberty caps instead of miters — Masonry resisted this approach to atheism. A deeper study of what was retained in our ritual will reveal the same morals found in the 'pre-enlightenment' church. The Cardinal Virtues; Faith, hope and Charity; many of our lecture symbols; the Saints John; are all Christian.
Philosophically, a study of the Virtues would prove most enlightening. Virtue itself is an old-fashioned term to most people. It represents personality traits as what make up 'character'. Virtues are things such as honesty, kindness and conscientiousness. These things are believed not to be innate, but must be acquired by teaching or practice.
Moral virtues must be distinguished from moral principles. The Age of Enlightenment sought principles in all things, it attempted to reduce all the universe to numbers that could be put in a book. The Age of Romanticism retaliated against this by saying:
"Enough of science and art:
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart,
that watches and receives."
During this age the Virtues flourished. Yet there was a difference of opinion regarding how to achieve moral good. While the philosophers agreed that morality is concerned with various values, they differ at how to arrive at an application of these values. Some say goodness is arrived at through objective activity (by principle), others say through subjective reality (by being). Saying 'Virtue' represents the choice of being. Plato and Aristotle viewed morality this way; that morality should not be conceived of as rules and principles, but with the cultivation of traits and character. The moral issue is not to 'do', but to 'be'. Or as we say, "to make a good man better".
To say that our four virtues are 'Cardinal' virtues is to say that these are the root virtues from which all others flow. This is no off-the-cuff statement, this is obviously thought out. The words in our rituals, while quite archaic to some, are indeed specific. Philosophic (speculative) science is vary exact; Cardinal virtues mean 1) they can not be derived from one another and 2) all other moral virtues can be derived from or shown to be forms of them. Plato and the Greeks conceived of four virtues also: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice. A little different from ours.
The Church has seven Cardinal Virtues, three theological "Faith, Hope and Love (a biblical study will show that in various versions of the bible Love and Charity are interchanged, see 1st Cor, 13:1) and four 'human' virtues "Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance and Justice" Today many secular moralists have reduced the Cardinal Virtues down to two, benevolence and justice. Compared to most post-industrial materialistic philosophies, we Masons and the Church are not too extreme from each other.
Another point of similarity in moral approach is that known to philosophers as the 'moral ideal'. An ingredient of morality again geared toward defining morality as a way of being, rather than doing. This is through 'emulation' of traits found in other exemplary persons like Jesus or Buddha. We choose our ancient Grand Master. In the appendant bodies of the York and Scottish Rite, there are many exemplary personages we are taught to emulate. Mostly all biblical. At the apex are included the Knights Templar, being highly Christian in origin. Moral ideals of chivalry and duty are found in all of our degrees.
A march through the Ages will teach that those who wish to find conflict will do so. Yet Freemasonry has ever sought harmony. Harmony in an age that rebelled from the Church. We have preserved the best from all Ages and have accepted the role as archivists of moral truth. We have preserved our integrity when others swayed with the winds of time. We accepted Reason as a guide, but we did not make it our God. We support human equality, liberty and education; but not to the exclusion of the Church. Unlike some in the Church who would exclude us.
We have a moral mission. Within our ritual is embedded a point of view, an approach that teaches values that are at once theological and yet not exclusionary of the other aspects of our being, particularly the intellect. We have seen the changing of Ages, a few represented here on these pages. There may come a time, perhaps even now, when what we have locked in the repository of our breasts will need to come to light.
We are the keepers of that Age of Enlightenment. The age when man learned to stand on his own two feet and began traveling westward. Masonry will ever be that mystic temple in the west, at the boundary of wandering. It's mission is to deliver that message to the future that says, "Go no further, and stay within due bounds!". Ever preserving the Square of Virtue for future generations saying 'Be this...'.
If the leaders of the Church continue to attack they will be stopped by their own hearts, for therein lives our common God, who is the cause of all things in existence, both known and unknown. Although 'we' believe in the acquisition of 'Truth' through the attainment of 'knowledge'; and they, that God is unknowable; we are only separated in this. Let us continue to search; and they continue to wait. But let us all live in harmony.