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
In the last paper I made some statements about the meaning of morality and ethical response. I want to recall two items for you. Any moral philosophy is not simply obeying a rigid set of laws, but is a basis for studying appropriate responses. And secondly: a good moral philosophy is one that attempts to bring harmony to the whole of life — and that includes our brother’s and sister’s lives as well. In Haywood’s book More About Masonry, he has a chapter that is well worth your time to read entitled “Masonry and Ethics”. He makes some observations that I am sure you would agree with, but I wonder how well we apply them. He says, “when a man is good to himself, his goodness is identical with what it is when he is good to another”. That is another way of saying “love your neighbour as yourself”. He continues, “there is no such thing as private morality — still less is there any difference or conflict as between private and public ethics... neither is it true that the external world in which we live and move is morally neutral or “non moral”. What Haywood is saying is that the world is made up of people who have concepts about ethical action, and that is what society reflects. As Masons, we are a part of the world’s scene, and it would be unwise for us to think that we are untouched by the moral perceptions — or lack of them — in our society. But we must also realize that we, as individuals, have some power to change what we perceive to be wrong. But perhaps we ought to examine the basis of much of what is, in my opinion, wrong in the world in which we live.
Let me preface my comments with a statement that I believe to be true. Whenever new ideas or radical changes are introduced into our society there is a sincere desire usually to make the world a better place in which to live. No one sets out to destroy the world for they know, they too, will be consumed. The desire for change normally includes making our society more efficient, more hopeful and more just. Every ideology was spawned in an imperfect society hoping that a utopia would emerge. All have succeeded only partially, all have failed in one way or another.
In the Western world in particular (although no part of the world is untouched), there are many areas in which change of the most radical kind has taken place. And in most instances they have cut both ways — for good and for evil. Let’s look at three among many.
The first arena of change has to be our technology. In a book written a few years ago now, Jacques Ellul, a French lawyer, sociologist, theologian and author wrote a book entitled La Technique translated into English as The Technological Society. The gist of this book is, that though we are helped immensely by the new technology (and it has advanced by leaps and bounds since he wrote the book), he warned that technology in and of itself is ammoral — that is — “hi-tech” has no moral principles unless we as human beings bring moral principles into what we undertake using this technology. If we do not, he says, then we shall find that our technology will control us. For him the threat is real. We must admit that as efficient and labour saving as our new technology has made us it has also opened doors to its exploiters and has in many ways created insurmountable problems for those who depend on its use. The possibility of misuse and lack of moral control is already known to us and has penetrated those areas of business and other disciplines that were once considered impervious to misuse. And we are well aware that this technology can place tremendous power in the hands of a relative few who have the capacity to use it in an unscrupulous way. A textbook on moral principles has not yet been written in this area.
The second area where there has been considerable change is in the arena of human rights. Human rights legislation has come about because of the obvious inequities in the treatment of human beings. There is no question in my mind that this has long been needed. Through our concern for human rights the rights of women have been addressed; the rights of minority groups especially our native people have been heard in more meaningful ways; and the poor, the disadvantaged, the visible minorities have a voice where at one time it was lost in the strident noises of a society that seemed not to care. But as good as human rights legislation has been, there have been many in our society who have used — or should I say abused — the legislation in a selfish and immoral fashion. Not a day goes by without a report in the media of some form of what I consider to be a mis-application of what the Charter of Rights was intended to do. For many people human rights means license for them to act in an entirely uninhibited fashion with as few restraints as possible and without any concern for what it may mean to others in society. What has really happened is that there has been an erosion of social rights and the excesses and the selfishness of a few has made a mockery of the Charter. Our police and court systems are very often hamstrung by that which was meant to create a basis for social justice for all. Only too often real justice is perverted because of some technicality that has to do with individual rights and has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the individual. When human rights are based solely on individual rights, then it no longer has, what I consider at least, a true moral connotation. There must be room for the rights of society as well. I know that there are those who will say that such a conclusion is simplistic, but from where I sit I have no other criterion by which to judge.
And the third area which has a bearing on all other areas of change is that the standard of morality has changed in our society. Now I am sure that none of us would really like to go back to the ‘blue Sundays’ and ‘black and white morality’ of the era of our youth; at least mine which was a long time ago! There was a time when wrong-doing had no defence. My father was not a man of many words but he knew how and when to take appropriate action and was well acquainted with that part of my anatomy in anything but an artistic way. But in the lifetime of many of us there has developed a permissive morality. The chief spokesman for this “new morality” (as it has been called) is one joseph Fletcher in a work entitled Situation Ethics. He discards the notion that we require any “thou shalt nots” with respect to human behaviour. Our ethical decisions should be made out of the motive of “responsible love”. He says that in all of our actions requiring moral response let the situation decide the ethic and as long as we do this in a responsible loving context then it is OK. But the illustration that I remember the best was a quote at the end of an article in TIME which asked the question “What meaning does ‘responsible love’ have to an eighteen year old boy in the back seat of a car with a sixteen year old girl?” As well motivated as the author may have seemed to be, he opened a Pandora’s box of mischief the like of which we find hard to duplicate. It has become a purely selfishly based ethic, and what, at one time seemed to glue a society together has been dismissed as “old hat” and “passe”. The rules of the game of life are gone and we all know that even the simplest game requires rules of some kind. The ramifications of this, once again, goes far beyond the individual and has infected the roots of our society. Lifestyles that were once considered to be anti-social or possibly destructive have now been embraced. The norm for the primary groups of society was once the nuclear family — now there are many options — serial marriages, common law relationships with no sense of commitment in many cases etc. And right now in our church (as you must be well aware) we are battling with the whole concept of the place of the homosexual in society. Many of us can see the need for their rights as individuals, but cannot see their lifestyle as acceptable as a norm and concerned people all across Canada are attempting to struggle with the whole issue. And those raising the questions are not bigots nor are they unfeeling. There is a genuine concern about a group of persons in our midst about whom no one has any definite way of defining who they are, and we are struggling with that. The fact remains that our whole society is plagued with the permissive morality, and if we fail to address it in our lives and in our lodges we do so at our peril.
Society then is at a crossroads in many areas. But with is we as Masons are members of that society along with our many brothers and sisters who are not in the Craft.
When we enter the Lodge we bring with us some of the baggage that has been laid on us by the world. While we are in the Lodge we leave it just outside the door, but we pick it up again as soon as we leave the “sacred retreat”. And though we have been counselled ever so clearly to go out into the world with higher and better resolves, I wonder how many of us — and I include myself — take with us the working tools of the speculative Mason. If we leave the working tools safely in their box, then of what value are they?
One of my earliest experiences in Masonry is now a great embarrassment to me — and I trust that you will keep this a secret among yourselves! During the first degree a brother presented me with the working tools of that degree. And he handed me a most beautiful crafted twenty four inch gauge — and it was mine — for he said “I now present you with the working tools....” But he reached over and took it back! My feeling was a mixture of shame and guilt. But in reflection I learned a great lesson from that — not immediately — but gradually, as light in Masonry often is. What that brother was giving to me that night was no less a gift for they were not crafted artifacts but useful speculative tools for the world of which I was a part. I wonder, my brothers, if we do not leave the working tools in the Lodge to be on display again at the next meeting. I wonder if its not only “the secrets of Masonry we lock up in the safe and sacred repository of our hearts” — but the meaning of the square and compasses as well. Oh yes, we are counselled to take our precious teachings with us into the world. My question is “How well do we undertake that counsel and apply it?”
Now I realize that I am skating on thin ice for some — and there will be those who will be having “roast minister” for a bedtime snack tonight. but I want to warn you I am a tough old bird. And I believe in Harry Truman’s famous aphorism “If you can’t stand the heat stay our of the kitchen”. I want to relate an incident that is non-Masonic to illustrate something about our responsibility as Masons. The incident involved a young lady who I did not know — I just happened to be there as an onlooker. She was a nice looking girl well dressed and smart appearing. And around her neck was suspended a gold cross, beautifully crafted and no doubt prized by her. But something, I don’t know what, disturbed her and her language took on enough colour to make a sailors blush. Whatever she may have been proclaiming by the cross suspended from her neck, it stood silent in the face of what she was proclaiming to her listeners. What she revealed to me was not what the cross represented.
I want you to know that I was not raised in an ivory tower away from the real world. Before I was in the Ministry, I was in the army for seven years and in industry for another five, and I obtained a finely honed vocabulary from those experiences. And I am sure that there were times when I used inappropriate language only to regret it later. I guess there are also times and places where it might be considered OK by the group in which we find ourselves. But there are times when it is not only not necessary, it is entirely inappropriate. Festive boards are meant to be a time of good fellowship, laughter and story telling. but the honour of the craft suffers when some stories are told. And I can’t tell you in all candour that I inwardly cringe when I hear some of the stories that are told, not because of my calling as a Minister, but because I am a Mason who really believes that we cannot leave behind in the Lodge Room those things that we claim to be a part of our daily living. I don’t accept the dictum of many in our society that “boys will be boys” and that is sufficient excuse for off-colour humour. I accept only “Masons must be Masons”.
My friends and my brothers, we are called to be leaders in our society — and if we do not begin to exercise responsible leadership in our fellowship, then where does it begin? The theme of the Grand Master this year — as we are all well aware — is “Brotherly Love Exemplified — The Freemason as a Role Model”. A “role model” is a new, but more effective way of saying “a good example”. But it goes beyond that simple definition. A role model is a living human being who exemplifies all that I would like to be, and endeavour to follow. None of us is that “perfect ashlar” — we are on that pilgrimage from that “imperfect” to the “perfect”. We would like to attain. As we are well informed in the teachings of our order, our love for our brothers and sisters has first call upon our gifts and graces. The role model therefore, begins in the Lodge and at the Festive Board. And this my brother was the earliest recollection of Freemasons that I had — Masons were the cream of the men in the town where I lived, and had ideals that I felt I could follow without misgiving.
The role model then begins in the Lodge, but it is in the society of which we are a part where we hone our skills and use those principles and landmarks that should set us apart from many others. We are called to be as Masons, role models in our homes for we are the ones who are teaching the leaders of tomorrow — our children and grandchildren — giving them physical, spiritual and moral guidance that will assist them to cope with what is often a cold impersonal computer oriented society. No matter how efficient our high-tech society has made us we still require the love and the care of a human being in our dealings with each other.
We are called to be role models in our communities — to be caring and responsible leaders of children’s groups in our communities and our churches. And many of you are. In our lodges it is clear that we have a mandate to care for the impoverished, not only in body, but impoverished in mind and spirit as well. Our concern must extend into the homes of the shut-in, the lonely elderly, those in nursing homes and extended care units. As leaders our lives must demonstrate that we are committed to the good for all humankind — not only in words, but in deeds also. And in that leadership we are making the world a better place in which to live.
We are called to be role models in our daily work. Nowhere is it more important to observe the plumb line dropped into our midst that in our daily labours. For it is here that the principles of truth and justice, fair play and tolerance are to be seen. Immanuel Kant a philosopher who had much to say about ethics and moral behaviour said in what is called “The Categorical Imperative”; “act as if the principle from which you act were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature”. Hence, if you can see your way clear to save a few bucks on that tax form — and only you will know — listen first to what Kant says: “Alright, then, let’s make it universal law — everybody can do it”. Or let me put it another way — the Golden Rule which is found in one form or another in many faiths says; “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Principles are not items that are used just where they are essential to our own well being — they are valid at all times. In other words, my brothers, we are called to be role models wherever we are and no area of our life is exempt. We do not have an option as men or Masons in the world.
I want to conclude with a couple of thoughts that may not relate, perhaps, but are important to the future of Masonry. If Freemasonry is indeed at a crossroads today there may be many reasons certainly more than I have mentioned. some have suggested that we need to update the way we do things, both in the ritual and the conduct of the Lodge. Others have said that we need to have a better image in society that we need to become more relevant in the modern world. Still others would like us to be more service oriented. And with L. C. Helms, I would agree that there are many areas that we could examine and make those kind of changes that would enhance the meaning of the Craft for both ourselves and our society. But the future of Masonry has always depended upon the people who make up its membership, and especially the leaders of today and tomorrow. We can tinker with the machinery, change its program structure, amend the Ritual and so on, but in the last analysis it is who we are in our Lodges and our society that will determine our destiny. L. C. Helms says near the end of his book A Modern Mason Examines His Craft that we must plan with both our heads and our hearts. “Each Freemason actively involved in Masonic activities must remember the simple children’s saying, ‘if it is to be, it is up to me’”.