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.
TODAY’S MORALITY — MASONRY AT A CROSSROADS
A Critique of Freemasonry's Critics
Bro. Jim Roberts
Whenever one tackles a difficult subject it is not always easy to find a starting point. It’s something like the man who got lost on one of the backroads in Ireland and stopped at a farmer’s gate to get directions to Kilkenny. After a period of confused cogitating the farmer scratched his head and said: “If I were going to Kilkenny, I wouldn’t start from here ... And by the time I have wound my way through the two papers I have prepared you might well say that I got lost several times on my way to Kilkenny!”
When we examine the title of this year’s theme for the Workshop you might well wonder at the sanity of anyone who in two papers would dare tackle two immense subjects, i.e., “today’s morality” and “The future of Masonry”. Both you and I know that this is not possible. Indeed, the themes might have been reversed, i.e. “Society at the crossroads” and along side of that “Masons’ notions of Morality”. In a way, this is the path I am going to follow. for no one will deny that we, as a society, are at a crossroads of some magnitude, and the changes we have seen in our social and individual mores over the past two or three decades — which are still going on — will have serious ramifications for the future of our society. I am going to deal more specifically with those changes in the next paper.
I would also like to say at this juncture that I am not going to deliver two moralistic and moralizing lectures — despite my calling. Neither are you going to be let off easily. In my particular profession there is a short cryptic proverb that covers it “we are here to comfort the afflicted — and to afflict the comfortable!” If Masonry is under the gun in our society, we must not forget that we are also members of that same society, and we must examine ourselves in a serious fashion. I want to help that process today and tomorrow.
Let me begin our examination with a short statement about morality. Actually I prefer the term “moral philosophy” for the term morality often indicates a kind of rigidity that allows no freedom of choice whatsoever. A moral philosophy, on the other hand, is one that is based on a search for truth based on principles that are god given and shown to be such. In any search for truth there must be latitude enough to permit light to come from every available source. The working tools of the Mason, for instance, are the principles by which we function; the philosophy which we embrace is our search for truth, and it must be an honest search that allows us to correct error and uphold what is true. A moral philosophy is based on three things: First — that a person has the ability to make moral decisions; Second — that he has the capacity of applying moral and ethical decisions to life’s processes; there is also a third dimension that is often alluded to in Masonic teachings. Mabel and William Sahakian in a little book by the name of Ideas of Great Philosophers says “Ethics may be defined as the study of right conduct AND the good life”. Consistent with our moral teachings Masons are taught that ethics are the elements of human behaviour that bring harmony to our existence and to the lives of those around us. Ethical decision making is not simply a duty to do that which is right; it should also be a pleasure, for our fellow human being is being assisted by that kind of motivation. On the other hand, as we are well aware, unethical or immoral behaviour is that which sows the seed of disharmony.
But if immortality is that which brings disharmony, then why is our social setting bent on doing that which is self-destructive? The Time Magazine of just about a year ago had on its front cover: “Whatever happened to Ethics?” with a subtitle that spelled out what they were driving at.. “assaulted by sleeze, scandals and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings...” And a graphic displayed a compass — not the Masonic representation — but a mariner’s compass, with the needle wavering between right and wrong. The articles that followed painted a dismal contemporary scene — and if things do not change — an even bleaker prospect. No part of American (or Canadian) life has been untouched by the blight of this “Upas” tree — business, politics, entertainment — and even religion! Most of us are aware that the PTL scandals involving Jim and Patty Bakker has had a devastating effect on TV evangelism — as indeed have the more recent revelations of one Jimmy Swaggart. I can’t say I am sorry that it has happened — but I am sad about the way it happened.
And who have become the ‘High Priests’ of judgement in our time? Why the media, of course! They are most willing to confess the sins of any who have erred — and especially those in high places. their judgement has been withering and lacking any kind of compassion. The strange anomaly in all of this is that while the social fabric seems to be full of holes and the walls of morality seem to be crumbling, the daily media is hardest on its public figures. Gary Hart, a Presidential nominee in the US is condemned for doing that which every soap opera from DALLAS to ANOTHER WORLD upholds as being normal. Another candidate is caught stealing someone else’s prose and is damned as a plagiarist. God help any of us who speak publically because I am sure that many of us commit that sin regularly! (I know that I am comforted by the words of a famous bostonian preacher Henry Ward Beecher who said, “All work and no plagiarism makes for dull sermons!”) On the other hand, an American Hero is propelled to fame by TV even though he is a self confessed liar! In the whole area of morality and ethical decision making, society is on the horns of a dilemma. I am going to try to say “why” in the next paper.
One of the questions that is being raised by those in the craft and those outside of it is the nature of Masonry today. Masonry has many critics and we have to examine what it is they are saying. We might preface this with the question “When has Freemasonry ever been without its critics?” From its inception, there has always been for many a dark cloud over Masonry. And within the craft there are those who have sought changes and certainly in some instances, changes have been made that have made Masonry a better fraternity. And I do not doubt that this will go on. Since I began the preparation of these papers, I have read two books by those who see that we must make necessary changes — as they see it — but some of their proposed solutions leave much to be desired. Lynn Perkins in a book entitled Masonry In a New Age has as some of his titles “Masonry at the Crossroads”, “The Unrecognized Masonic Crisis”, “Freemasonry in Transition”, and so on. But for me, at least, he does not offer solutions that would not also change the very nature of the Craft. A more reasonable approach to change is found in L.C. Helm’s work A Modern Mason Examines His Craft, but even here he would be found to be controversial by many. Anyone who criticizes the Craft from within do it from that they consider good premises, and I think we need to hear what our members are saying. We should have the latitude to debate in good faith without feeling that we are threatened, or undermining the institution.
But what about those outside of the fraternity? How do we respond to those who are our profoundest critics? In the last several years there has been an escalation in the criticism of Masonry by a small but very vocal group of people in our society. I had not realized just how strident this criticism had become until about five years ago, when as Chaplain of Masons in Alberta at that time, I was asked on two or three different occasions to look at the problem. And I was surprised to learn of the extent and the depth of their enmity. I think that most of us know that a lot of criticism of the Craft has been with us for a long time. And we also know that there have been times and places where simply being a known Mason was life threatening or at the very least, merited social ostracism. As individuals and Lodges, we do not treat the detractors of Masonry very seriously. ON the one hand that may be a good thing — but on the other it may do us harm in the long run. We could spend a lot of time building fortresses against attack, only to discover that the rabid anti-Mason will always find a way in. We cannot afford to be insular or separated out from the world, for we are a part of that world. But as Masons, we ought to know what our critics are saying for at least two reasons; First — so that we can discern among ourselves the errors in their judgement of the craft; and just as importantly; examine what they are saying and ask ourselves how responsible are we for those attacks upon us. Perhaps in this kind of exercise, we can frame some kind of uniform response to our detractors.
However, before dealing with our severest critics, I would like to ask a question which was raised at one of the informal area meetings held in Calgary earlier this year. The question in one form or another was this: “How do you think Masons and Masonry are perceived by the public at large?” The short answer might well be that the majority of the public has not really given the Craft much of a thought at all. The very nature of our Craft does not lend itself to that same kind public attention. But when the Order is criticized publically, then the average person is likely to believe what they read without too much critical judgement. The most visible Mason in the minds of many are the Shriners on parade and as good and valid as their charitable work may be, and as colourful as their dress and as diversified as their activities in a parade, yet they represent a very small part of the Masonic Order, and from what I have observed do not reflect very much of the Craft as we know it. Still others look upon us as a “secret society” occupied with their own interest and do not seem to be in touch with the real world. There are others who are a bit more knowledgeable, usually those with relatives in Masonry who see them playing an important social role in their public attitudes. In smaller communities Masons are often seen as being those among the leading citizens of the town, with many of them serving both civic and community organizations. And, of course, the feminist movement views Masonry as the last bastion of male chauvinism, feeling that it is alive and well in Freemasonry. I think that it is fair to say then, that Masons are not generally perceived to be a threat to our society nor are they viewed as prime movers in the social setting. But, as I have intimated before, when Masons do get spates of publicity, it is usually negative and quite baseless — but the public will often believe what they hear and read.
There is a minority, however, in our society who are strident in their condemnation of Masonry. They view the Masonic Order as demonic and treacherous, and their sole object seems to be the destruction of the Craft. The group is not large, usually religiously motivated from the extreme fundamentalist fringe, and are well organized and look for any and every vestige of that which will downgrade Masonry.
I want to therefore, examine what the major critics are saying — and only then in part — and to also examine two other things; First — what is the appropriate response and; secondly — how much are we responsible for what our critics say — if indeed we are. I hope what this will do is generate some further study by the craft lodges. There are two areas where you can get grist for the mill. A little book that gives a historical perspective in a few pages is where you can begin. It’s entitled “Let There Be Light” and subtitled “A Study in Anti-Masonry”. It also has some current material but the book clearly demonstrates clearly just how old and persistent some of the criticism have been. The other volume is one that has aroused great controversy for many Masons is Stephen Knight’s polemic against Freemasons entitled, “The Brotherhood”. Stephen Knight was a gifted writer who was able to blend half truth with falsehood so skilfully that the uninitiated will read his books believing all the Knight has set down. Only his hate for the Craft has rendered him weak in his presentation. The title of his book “The Brotherhood” may sound harmless enough until we realize that he uses the term “brotherhood” in the same sinister fashion as when applied to the Cosa Nostra or Mafia. He describes Masons as anarchists, manipulators, a law unto themselves and are fed by false concepts of religion which in turn has made them a source of corruption in the Church and State in England. And the fact that both the Church of England in Britain and the Methodist Church in England have launched enquiries into the Masonic Order testifies to the importance they have placed upon works like those of Knight’s.
Let us then look at three or four critiques. The one that is the most persistent and ancient is that Masonry is a religion that practices dark cultic acts, and uses symbols that come from a dark mythology. In fact as late as this Fall there was an ultra-conservative preacher here in Alberta who managed to link into one address “Mormonism, Masonry and Magic” and he was simply reciting the old litany found in the vocabulary that they use. They carry their condemnation to the point that the one we call God is really Satan in disguise. And where do they get their information? Why, right from our rituals of course, where our critics see allusions to ancient mythologies that are there. But they are also there in portions of the volume of the Sacred Law of the Jews and Christians.
I am certain that none of us who are here today labour under the illusion that what goes on in the Craft is not known to others. All of that which is written in rituals, as well as our oral tradition is available from the nearest public library. Not all information is correct, but it comes close enough. Where did it come from? Masonry has always been blessed — or cursed — with its disgruntled ex-members, for whom any previous obligations are inconsequential. And as Stephen Knight so clearly indicates, they will stretch the truth into a lie and what they produce is a caricature of Freemasonry — a parody of the real thing. Our obvious response is to say nothing to critics of this kind, for they will not listen anyway. However, when there are families that are divided because of this false publicity and there is strong urging on the part of a family to have a Mason leave the Craft he dearly loves, then it can become a real problem. And sad to say, more than one Mason has left the Craft to keep peace in the family. H.L. Haywood says that there are many theories that have been put forward to discredit Masons — all the way from being assassins or Mayan Indians in disguise, or have taken Druidic obligations — (whatever they are) — and Haywood says that despite the multiplicity of backgrounds, the critics all have one point in common: “that they ask a Freemason to believe that Freemasonry was never itself — but was always something else in disguise”. What we Masons need to do is to get the message across to the loved ones of Masons who are under pressure, i.e. we are a fraternity. It’s not easy, but we ought to give it a try!
The second point that anti-Masons make is that we are a law unto ourselves — and what is more we counsel breaking of the law where a brother Mason is concerned. In a program last year there was a phone-in show where this was unequivocally stated by an anti-Mason — and this charge has been repeated often. As Masons we know differently, for we are counselled to be obedient citizens of the state. Our response to this should be to examine our ritual and take out those offending portions if they seem to indicate that we counsel breaking the law. And as Masons we are fully aware that we are called not simply to be law abiding, but to promote justice and equality for all citizens of our land.
The third critique that is cause for much comment is that we are a “secret organization”. But as the old saw has it “we are not a secret society — but a group with secrets”. Secrecy as such, has a rightful place in many of our institutions and organizations. Cabinet secrecy is essential or government would always be at risk. It is essential in the Intelligence services, providing it is not abused. The early church had to have secret signs to protect it from being obliterated by a zealous enemy. However, nothing offends a hearer more than to say to him or even infer, “I belong to a secret organization”. One conjures up visions of the CIA and KGB at work in dark ways. In the book “The Clergy and the Craft”, forrest Haggard says “The matter of secrecy has been greatly over-rated as far as the Freemason’s Lode is concerned (but) secrecy will have to remain because this is a fundamental concept — but it should be noted that secrecy implies a fellowship...” while it is difficult to explain to the outsider why there is a secret nature about the work, we should always be careful to point out to the detractor that our mode of life is not a secret at all, and that we hold firmly to the principles of brotherly love, help for the helpless and truth in all things. These principles cannot be hidden from the world in a good Mason’s life, for they are the basic tenets for Masonry.
The last critique of the anti-Mason is one that has serious ramifications for both the Craft and the religious institutions of our society. For there are those who in Dr. Jack Collett’s words “... some Freemasons claim that their Lodge gives them all the religion they need and that they feel they have no need of the church (or synagogue or mosque)” He goes on to say “any Freemason who makes such a claim has completely misunderstood the teachings of the Craft and is doing a serious disservice both to the church and the Lodge.” Once again there is truth in the statement “Masonry is not a religion, but is religious in nature”. We say our prayers, invoke god’s blessing upon our proceedings and we claim our devotion to god under a number of different titles and express that in a variety of ways. And of course our obligations are made in the name of God, as we have come to understand the nature of god. When a person enters the Lodge he does so “under the tongue of good report”. Masonry has never offered to take “a sow’s ear and make a silk purse” of a person of ill repute. It takes a “good man and makes him better”. Masonry offers no “plan of salvation” — it simply offers some help along the way. Whatever else Masonry may be able to do, it cannot “aspire to supplant the church ... (nor) can a Freemason’s Lodge hope to satisfy the spiritual life of man expressed in (his faith).”
However, Masonry does what no sectarian religion can do. It accepts all who profess a belief in god and attempt to walk in a moral path. But the Craft does more than that. It has the capacity to strengthen the bonds of individual faith, even as we are kneeling with others whose expression of faith are different. All are strengthened as they kneel together, as Masons we will, (in Dr. Collett’s words again) — “never treat lightly the divine ministries of our (individual faiths)” but will honour them with his presence and commitment. I am not attempting to make a pitch for a church — but to say that we must be careful that we do not conclude that our Masonic experience is comparable with that of religious commitment and that is all we require. “Truth, honour and fortitude” was the secret combination of life of Hiram — and added to those was that of piety — all seen in obvious form in the way he lived. We can do no better than our Master... In the next paper I am going to look at the question of Masons and Morality, for it is here that our pilgrimage to a better way of life must begin. If indeed we are at a “crossroads” then what are we going to do about it?