The following article comes from the book Alberta Workshop which is a compilation of the theme speeches of the first 25 years of the Masonic Spring Workshop held each April in the Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta. Bro. Tom Jackson (Pennsylvania) called this the best workshop available to rank and file Masons anywhere.
Bro. Ken Windolff
We live in an age of disillusion. What hope is there then that we may find our way out of the present dilemmas created by cynicism and disenchantment? We are on the threshold of a new freedom, and clearer purpose, fashioned to the nature of man. This is a time to take our eyes off our own feet and look forward with mankind, changing the present as we live it.
Morality is concerned with the questions, what do we mean by “right” and what is the point of right? Man is inescapably the custodian of evolving life on this planet. Moral values are thus those values which should allow him to operate positively and creatively. An individual is naturally endowed to attain adult life equipped with a responsive moral outlook, as distinct from a sense of guilt drummed in by an education based on rules and the fear of breaking them. The development of this capacity is the means towards a full maturing of responsibility in the individuals inward life and in his relationships within society and in the world at large.
There is evidence of an increase in individual desocialization, alienation and stress: the delinquency figures, the drift to drugs, apathy, character disorders, feelings of purposelessness and lost significance, despair suicide. It is not only that all these exist in society — they will in any circumstances — but that they are insidiously increasing. It is as if more and more people were passing a vote of non-confidence in life as it is. Civilization appears to be getting over-strained.
The temptation at such a time is to seek a solution in some supposedly better state of society that existed before the uncertainty set in. “Back to the good old days” has usually been the slogan when societies have faced critical times in the past. But the good old days have never provided the answer. To me, the way out of a crisis is to look forward and try to identify ideas and values to deal effectively with the new conditions that have themselves precipitated the doubt and malaise. Today this task faces you and me.
Take that yardstick you like to measure the moral condition of society in the past, at any point you like, and you will nowhere find a situation that, by comparison, makes modern society look decadent. Suppose we consider concern for others as a measure of social virtue. Never has so much care been provided for those in need as today. We have to set against modern welfare and justice how things were a number of years ago: the harsh treatment of criminals, public executions, schools where flogging was a constant occurrence, brutality to the mentally ill, and much else besides. Some people point accusingly at the gas chambers of the last war as irrefutable evidence of man’s moral degeneracy. But is it? I think you will agree the significant point about the war against Fascism is that mankind WAS revolted by what was happening in Germany and elsewhere. The civilized world rose against the loathsome social disease and smashed in five years the New Order planned to last a thousand. At earlier times in history, political acts of hate as murderously destructive in intent were tolerated, even applauded, in the conducts of religious rivalries or war. The awful thing that the Nazis did was to take this hatred and insensitivity towards a rival ideology — the abominated out-group to its terrible, logical conclusion. The subsequent strong reaction felt around the world was a measure not only of horror but also of man’s advance in humanity and tolerance. This is not meant to be a sneer at our ancestors, they were what they were, and what we are: Mixtures of kindness and cruelty, sensitivity and blind indifference, virtue and vice. But they were not, by any comparison, our moral superiors. On the contrary, allowing for ups and downs and setbacks, the kindliness and sensitivity of human societies have slowly been becoming more and more in evidence as the centuries have passed. Progress in humanity is undeniable.
What, then, is all the fuss about? I believe it arises from several sources. Established authority is now widely challenged: this makes people nervous. Secondly, people are apprehensive because, in some fields of life, person-to-person integrity has diminished, and commercial expediency has taken its place. You buy something in good faith; it falls apart, and nobody seems to care. A pipe burst; the plumber promises to come for certain, but never turns up. A heavy bill for car repairs arrives you pay it and then discover that the work has not been properly done. There is a feeling that you cannot rely on people as you used to be able to. That is the practical everyday aspect of our moral quandary. Another aspect is the crisis of outlook and attitude, arising from the transformed situation of modern man. Hundreds of years of “Normal” development have been telescoped into the last fifty. Astride the present, with one foot still in the past and the other reluctantly moving towards the future, we feel uncertain and lost. Man has only to find out how to co-operate honestly and effectively and the quality of the human lot throughout the world can be lifted to heights unimaginable a century ago. Yet, instead of excitement and satisfaction, we feel anxiety and frustration, and guilt. We are losing heart because it all seems too much for us. We are somehow failing to connect with the possibilities.
This faltering in commitment and vision is evidence not of moral decline but of failure to develop the level of moral maturity that man’s new powers and responsibilities make necessary. To be as good as ever in the past, however good that may have been, is not good enough. We shall have to learn to be morally more mature than ever before. The human species, now very largely in control of this planet, is out of the nursery, with its set rules and taboos. The days of certainty have gone. We are facing an unpredictable future. As we move into it, we have to find, test and learn to share principles that will enable us to enter into our inheritance as responsible wardens of our own lives, of society, and of the world in which we live.
The core of the problem is that the rapid process of change to which men are struggling to adapt themselves has knocked away the very props with which people, throughout history, have been supported morally. It is not through idealizing the past and heaping blame on present failures that we as masons can tackle the moral crisis of our age, but by understanding the nature of our condition and the strains it is imposing on individual life and the social framework.
One dramatic change with profound moral implications is the change from small communities to mass cities as the characteristic habitat of man. A stable, intimate community is known to be a dependable moral support. It creates many values, relationships, mutual obligation, and example which is a dependable source of moral strength. A mass society is an impersonal society, a society of specialist functions, strangers in brief contact, high mobility. Mass society also produces pace and stress which can themselves be demoralizing. too much to do in too much of a rush means that something has to go, or be dealt with careless haste. Each defeat leads to lowered aspiration, hence to frustration and finally, perhaps, to a habit of defensive indifference.
The alternative to moral behaviour sustained by community or fraternal relationships is for individuals comprising any community or fraternal society to attain sufficient moral autonomy to stand on their own feet. such people are also the SOURCE of community or fraternalism in the modern world because they are equipped to create brotherhood everywhere they go. Man and masons must strive to be morally autonomous, capable of creating fraternalism and brotherhood, and concerned for others all at the same time, to me an example of heightened moral capability. In other words, walking tall. Morality is not so much a change of custom as it is a change of character. This is where you and I as Masons have a distinct advantage and moral obligations to each other and to our fellow man to direct change. The simple truth stares us squarely in the face: despite the seeming success of organized religion, most people are still ethically and religiously illiterate. We mouth religious slogans which we have imbibed in our childhood; but we fail to act upon them because we do not really understand them, in adult fashion. Unfortunately, we have learned religion much as we have learned how to walk — after we absorbed the fundamentals, we stopped thinking consciously about them. As adults, we no more ponder carefully what we mean when we spout religious phrases, than we stop to consider the fluent movement of one foot after the other.
Some people imagine that religion can be used, like any other item of consumer goods. All you need to do is reach for it, take it off the shelf, stir and serve: “Instant salvation” they label it. But when we use religion, instead of allowing it to use us, we always end up abusing it.
Some “use” religion as a prop to shore up sagging nervous systems. They rely upon it for security and strength they refuse on their own. They would like to see life as neat and easy, a sweet and simple affair. So, they reach for “the Man Upstairs”, as they would say, reduce Him to their size, and carry Him in their vest pocket — on the left side, nearest the heart, of course!
Others turn to religion as a respectable means of hallowing their hates, not their loves. Because of unhappy temperament, some thrive only in vindictive isolation, fenced off from their neighbours. They need wide barriers and high walls to be happy because, inside, they are so unhappy. They flee from the world because they are afraid of it. They cannot abide its open societies, its changing patterns, or the possibility of being persuaded by its convincing opinions. this kind of religion is “useful” because it is safe — safe from the challenge of involvement in the lives and needs of others. but it can only be “used” by “us” never by “them” and so, it is really an abuse of religion.
Still others, the dependent and the emotionally immature, imagine that they can quickly don a cloak of piety, grab the horns of the alter, and easily acquire foolproof protection from anxiety and trouble. They are looking for shortcuts to circumvent the touchy and thorny issues of life. Unfortunately from what they have heard about religion it appeals to their cowardly feelings, not to their courage. But this misuse of religion only succeeds in making people weaker still.
Religion, thus, often comes under attack by those who label themselves as “intellectuals”. no one can argue the need for rationality in human affairs; we avoid the light at our own peril. Intellectuality, unhappily, is a sadly missed element in our political and cultural life. And yet, knowledge by itself can do hard rather than good; this is especially apparent when we observe the manner in which many modern intellectuals “ply their trade”. They have succeeded in fragmentizing the world even as they have been successful in splitting the atom. In our day, the pursuit of knowledge is often equated with intensive specialization in fractional fields of investigation. The intellectuals are indeed right when they speak of the need for rationality in human behaviour. They are wrong when they identify wisdom with facts, insight with information, humaneness with knowledge. Indeed, our generation suffers not so much from a lack of knowledge, but rather from the absence of a passion for its righteous use.
Ours is an “expert” society so highly involved and so technical that most of us leave decisions and conclusions to those whom we think are more competent. We worship and deify the technician. but, truth to tell, while they often look like gods, they sometimes act like fools. They take the adulation of the public far too seriously imagining themselves really to be what the less-informed public thinks are.
There are no greater follies than those of the so-called wise man. When he errs — he errs large! He may be sure of his knowledge; he is, often, much less sure of himself. Sometimes his over-concentration and “expertness” serve to trip him up; he thought he knew everything, and he should have known better.
We admire proficiency and mastery and in our technological age, those who know a lot about precious little, reach top status. In blind unsophistication, we snub broad, humane knowledge in favour of “specialized” information. Or what is worse: we disqualify the good man on the grounds that he is not the best man. The obverse is more likely: the “best” man is not always a good man.
There are those, in addition to the intellectuals, who also consider their views of human progress as an all-sufficient approach. These look to the law as the principal way by which man’s ethical and social dilemmas may be resolved. Law, like rationality, is a necessary and vital force for human betterment. It is a valuable weapon, for it can coerce our worst nature by whipping it into better shape. Legislation for human progress is a significant and indispensable tool of the humane society. Yet the law cannot become a substitute for human will, for it functions only negatively, only when it has been broken. The Crucial problem in the moral life of man centres upon the positives, not the negatives; not only upon overt actions but upon covert intentions. Too, often, law but enshrines the lowest of our common denominators and necessarily avoids dealings with the “imagination of our heart” the truly crucial centre of our moral or immoral activities.
Once, so the tale goes, a plague raged among the animals. The lion, ruler of the animal world, determined to set up court to discover who among his subjects had sinned, and was thus responsible for bringing the dreaded pestilence upon them all. All of the animals were summonsed to appear before the court and confess their wrong-doing. The tiger, the wolf and the bear openly admitted that they had maimed, destroyed, and killed animals and humans, without a shred of mercy. Despite their voluntary admission they were exonerated from all blame by the judge. Said the lion: “You are held guiltless since you have only done what is expected of you”. finally, the lamb made her appearance at court. The lion maintained a persistent and penetrating line of questioning. At last, the lamb did recall that on one particular occasion, because she was very hungry, she had eaten the straw which stuck from the shepherd’s shoe. Without further evidence or investigation the lion pounced on these words, and hotly pronounced the sentence of guilt. Roared he: “For this grievous sin of the lamb, this terrible disaster has befallen us all. We condemn her to violent death — to be torn apart by the bear, the tiger, and the wolf.”
The animal kingdom may have its own problems and thus abide by its own peculiar rules, but this is no excuse for man to emulate the beast. Law is the armour of the weak; it constitutes their only humane defence in the presence of the mighty. But it, too, is not immune from the selfish, haughty manipulation of the powerful. When the strong use the law as if it were intended to “protect” them from the weak, they destroy its spirit, using it to abuse it. Often, law gives unethical majorities legal but immoral power. Inevitably, there is an ethical lag between law and the achievement of a more humane society.
For all these reasons, the world, for its humanity, depends upon its majorities more than upon its minorities; more upon the weak than on the strong. Power corrupts man, distorts his vision, deflects his moral sense. Instead of seeking to protect the unprotected, the powerful turn the tables on them, exploit their weakness, make a joke of their frailty. But ultimately history foils the mighty because it is hinged to the law of “measure for measure”. The strong ones may grow from strength to strength only to trip over their own power lines. The meek can survive to inherit which the mighty fall under their own weight.
The witness of conscience is found in the “have-nots” the “haves” are often too busy getting bigger. And so those who have something to offer society need not pine after bigness: the tragedy lies not in being small or outnumbered but in desiring to become “as big as the biggest”, “as powerful as the mighty”. Majorities, then, have more to gain, less to lose when they encourage the rights of creative minorities within their midst. They can hope to survive only if they listen to what the powerless are saying and support their right to say it. Minorities may depend upon the majority for the right to live. But a majority needs its minorities even more; it depends upon them for its moral health and its ability to survive creatively.
It is therefore my conviction that the fundamental basis for ethical achievement is rooted in a religious attitude towards life. Unless a man can view his neighbour as an equal in the sight of the One God, as a fallible, faltering, co-creature in need of mutual sympathy, understanding, and love, neither the purely rational nor the purely legal approach to human betterment can avail us. Among the ancient iconologists, equality was symbolized by a female figure holding in one hand a pair of scales equipoised and in the other a nest of swallows. The moderns have substituted a level for the scales and this is the masonic idea. In masonry, the level, symbol of that equality, is the very essence of Freemasonry, all, let their rank in life be what it may, when in lodge are brothers.
Religions were the first to teach love. but few adults have gone beyond a juvenile understanding of its truest, deepest significance. Unless we get to the core of its meaning we shall all probably die loving the wrong things, in the wrong ways. To survive, we need an adult Declaration of Love — one that will educate our hearts as successfully as we have educated our minds.
For those who still care, and I hope this would include all masons, is a suggested preamble to such a Declaration:
- We pledge our lives in true faith, to seek to love people for what they are not to reject them for what they are not.
- We stake our belief in earnest on the proposition that unless we seek to love others in ways that earn their love, we ourselves cannot be loved.
- We affirm with the fullness of our being the truth that real love requires real concern. Indifference to truth and kindness deflects our intentions, makes them into pious but ineffective syllables of solicitude.
- We shall be firm with ourselves in guarding against self-righteousness and self-justification. Instead of asking “what’s in it for me”, we shall ask: “what can we do to help?”
- Above all, we shall be patient, conciliatory, eager to forgive, ready to admit our own guilt and error.
And even those who “love” the world, their neighbours or strangers according to crisp scriptural imperative must learn to couple love with freedom. When do you love your neighbour, and how? When he thinks as you do, prays as you do, votes as you do, acts as you do? If so, your love is not love, it is hate for differences, inverted as love for similarity. The real test of our love comes when we let him who must be himself, be himself and love him for what he is; not for what he is not.
It is adult religion we need; no primitive, childish faith will do. I believe the Lodge does a fine job of educating us all in these lessons of applied love. It is up to each individual to practice the same. We must play an important role as the conservers of the ennobling values of the past. We must help to create individuals whose concerns are social; to mould societies whose goals are humane. And to achieve these ends, we must practice the teachings of our great fraternity and be willing to keep alive the search for truth, even under penalty of being in the minority, earns for itself a vital place in the lives of men.
Suppose you went to a fortune teller and she said, “My I have good news for you today”. Of course you would want to know what it is, “The crystal ball says you are going to heaven; ah, but here is the bad news.” “What is it?” “They are expecting you tomorrow!” If any one of us were told this today would we improve our relationships with our God, fellowman and brothers? Would we attempt to walk a little taller in hope of a great reward? Suppose that the membership of your lodge were limited to twenty five of the most faithful members, would you be in or out? If you membership were limited to a year, and it came up for a vote annually, would you make it? In a Rotary Club if you fail to attend sixty percent of the time, or if you miss four weeks attendance in a row, your membership is terminated. Suppose that your lodge membership depended on that, would you be in or out?
Brethren, as we leave this beautiful mountain setting let us resolve to seek out untravelled paths of brotherly love and friendship. The Lodge is our common bond and there we unite, free from the cares of the world, in our quiet search for truth and in closing let me say, you can spend a weekend with some people; with masons you invest it. Enjoy yourselves for the remainder of the weekend.