Monday, January 28, 2008

Furtive, conniving and ridiculous?

In his article about the UK's Internet Lodge 9659, William Shaw writes that in the 1970's, thanks to a high-profile bribery scandal involving a Mason, "The once-respected fraternity became perceived as furtive, conniving and ridiculous."

From what I've seen of the uninformed general public perception of the Freemasons (read: people with no personal knowledge or experience with Freemasonry other than what they read in an Alan Moore comic book or saw in a movie), that's a depressingly succinct description... the Masons are either a shadowy force bent on global domination, or a bunch of silly, self-important old guys with funny handshakes, aprons and hats.

Of course, if you want both angles at once, this week's episode of Psych, revolving around skullduggery by members of a secret society, probably won't disappoint. From what I've glimpsed in the teaser commercials, at least it looks like a fictional fraternity. And I'll admit, I'm a fan of the show, so I'm actually sort of looking forward to it... a light comedy take on the subject should be a lot easier to watch than all of the tabloid "documentaries" that I'm always ranting about.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Locked & Loaded

I just arrived home from a good day's work on the house to find the February newsletter from my lodge, wherein was the date for my first degree. No schedule conflicts, hooray! I will be initiated with three other brothers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Profane Perspective

(This is a long one, but it's been in my draft pile forever and not finishing has been distracting me from getting other stuff done. I'm going crank it out and have done with it. Thanks for indulging me. -A)

Because I've had so long to research and reflect upon Masonry without actually being inducted, lately I've found myself trying to step back look at the Freemasons from the perspective I had last May.

I knew next to nothing about the craft, with a few misconceptions and the totally baseless, vague sense of suspicion that seems to have permeated American culture thanks to the usual suspects... from Leo Taxil to 21st century pop culture. I also think that, in this age of being able to call up nearly any fact with nothing more than an internet connection and some search engine know-how, people are just growing increasingly, automatically suspicious of any collective type of secrecy. It doesn't matter if you tell someone, "yes, there are secrets but they're really only limited to parts of the rituals, grips, and tokens... and you can go find those on the internet/at the library/at Barnes & Noble," the assumption seems to be that if you won't spill the beans in spite of the beans already having been spilled, you've got to be up to something.

That perspective is misguided and unfortunate... it reminds me of people who say, "Well, if you're not doing anything illegal then why do you care if the government taps your phone or reads your e-mail?" I think that what's missing from the current popular responses to questions about the Masons' secrets ("Not a secret society, a society with secrets", the Ben Franklin quote about the biggest secret being no secret at all, "You can find all the secrets online") is a follow-through explaining why anyone would bother to uphold an oath to protect something that can no longer be protected.

Instead of being vaguely evasive, I think a better response would be a proud explanation that being a Freemason means something, that we're proud to belong to such an old and storied organization, and that upholding the oaths is a way to signify what it means to be a Mason. That being a Mason is about being upright and true to your word. It might be a little harder for people to raise their eyebrows at a statement like that than "I won't tell you, but you can go look it up at the library." Bro. Brent Morris said something to this effect towards the end of one of those Discovery or History Channel shows (I won't call them documentaries) about the Freemasons, and it was probably the most illuminating moment in the whole program.

Early last summer, before I had even set foot in a lodge, I was obsessed with the notion of meaning. At the time I had trouble describing what I was after, I think mostly because I hadn't yet absorbed a good sense of what goes on in a lodge. What was nibbling at the back of my mind is that curious overlap between the spiritual/religious and the social. Nobody questions that a religion's customs and rituals hold meaning for their practitioners... not even most atheists would dispute that. What about Freemasonry? It's such a peculiar institution, "religious but not a religion", as one description goes. From that secular perspective, it's hard to parse what the rituals and obligations mean, if they're not to be ascribed to a system of worship. I know that was one of the things that really puzzled me when I first began looking into Freemasonry.

Reading many a Mason's weblog in the ensuing months has given me a wide enough set of perspectives to realize that there is no one, single meaning behind it all. For some it's a deeply spiritual outlet in their personal quest for enlightenment, or self-improvement. For others it's a time-honored fraternity with an illustrious past, in desperate need of rehabilitation and/or protection from uppity whippersnappers. For a lot of men, it's about just being able say you're a Mason and wear a ring or lapel pin even if you never go to lodge.

For my part, I stumbled onto Freemasonry in search of something like "Boy Scouts for grown-ups", and that's still a phrase I use to explain to some friends why I decided to join... when I'm talking to a former scout who really enjoyed the camp-outs and troop meetings, their eyes light up and they know exactly what I'm talking about. One of my absolute favorite descriptions of joining the Freemasons is in this discussion forum thread, where a Mason says "For me, it was like slipping into a comfortable old coat and finding a note in the pocket."

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who, even if they had absolutely no prior opinion about the Masons, would read Freemasons for Dummies from cover to cover, put it down, and still say, "but what's the point? Why would grown men put on aprons and funny hats and spend so much free time doing that? Do they actually take it seriously?"

My response to a reaction like that? "Results may vary." It's like the fine print at the bottom of the weight loss commercial; just because they're showing people who lost 150 pounds doesn't necessarily mean you will too. Joining the Freemasons because you're enchanted by the idealized, noble, englightened fraternity of gentleman philospher-philanthropists you've read about online doesn't necessarily mean that's what you'll find at the lodge down the street.

If you try to lose 150 pounds overnight (or drag Freemasonry kicking and screaming overnight into your vision of what it should be), you're going to get frustrated and disillusioned. If you have the will and the patience to work at it over time, though, you'll get there.

So what are my expectations as someone who has been accepted but not yet inducted? Over the past seven or so months I think they've gone from "lose 150 pounds" to a more realistic "lose maybe 50 pounds, keep it off, and see if I can't continue the trend."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Masonic Hall & School - Keachi, Louisiana

Masonic Hall & School, originally uploaded by MJW's.

Not my photo, but worth sharing.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Musings on Faith

Recently on Ask MetaFilter somebody asked the question,

"How to secularists deal without the comfort of religion?"

I thought the discussion thread that follows was quite interesting, and so I forwarded it to my longtime friend J, with whom I've had stimulating conversations about religion and spirituality in the past. The last time we got onto the subject was about 5 years ago, and at the time I remember that he said he identified most with Scientific Pantheism, even if he wouldn't go so far as to call himself a Scientific Pantheist. I don't remember what I said at the time... Then as now I would have had a difficult time describing my personal sense of faith, which has evolved from my upbringing in the United Church of Christ.

Were I put on the spot and commanded to declare a religious affiliation, I would have to say Christian, even though I have not regularly attended a congregation since I was in high school, nor is my personal construct of a supreme being of the "old guy with a white robe and long beard" type. The more I have learned about other religions, the more nebulous my sense of "God" has gotten; there are so many similarities from faith to faith that I cannot subscribe to the notion that the monotheistic God I was raised to believe in is somehow fundamentally different, or more or less valid than the monotheistic Gods other people are raised to believe in.

During our renewed discussion on this subject, I found out that J. has moved beyond pantheism to atheism; I had made a comment to the effect that I tend to feel sorry for militant atheists - not because I believe they are going to hell, or that they're bad people, or that they're somehow inferior to me, but because they so often give me the impression that they find little joy or wonderment in the world around them. J. countered that he knew very few atheists who didn't feel some kind of awe when presented with a beautiful sunset or stunning vista... or, for that matter, an elegant mathematical formula or piece of software code. It's just than an atheist doesn't make the added distinction of attributing those things to a supreme being.

The thought that keeps rattling around in my head is, then, how is being in awe of nature itself --or the raw physics and geometry of the universe, to put it more fundamentally-- not a kind of faith unto itself? I understand the desire to decouple it from the notion of a singular deity or formalized system of worship, but it seems like that's a semantic distinction, and that everyone is dancing around two sides of the same coin. I think people get hung up on semantics, and always approach the topic of religion with their own baggage (good or bad) and prejudices - I know I felt sheepish reading J's response after I had painted atheists with such a broad brush.

When I petitioned to join the Freemasons, I didn't have to grapple with the 'Supreme Being' question at all, but the modern, skeptical, analytical, 21st century part of me felt like I ought to... I don't often sit down and question my faith, but when I do I'm a little bit surprised to find how strong it is.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

An important distinction

I was over at The Burning Taper a moment ago and noticed a small declaration in the sidebar:

This is not a Masonic blog.
This is a blog by a Free Mason.

The Examined Life, too, is not a Masonic blog. Most, if not all of the posts I have made here are related to Freemasonry, but (and I should put a disclaimer somewhere in my template to this effect) the opinions expressed herein are strictly my own, and should in no way be interpreted as representative of the views of my lodge or grand lodge, nor should they be interpreted as claiming to be somehow authoritative. Not that anyone (to my knowledge) has received them as such.

When common sense is exercised, such a disclaimer should be implicit, but in light of some of the incivility I have witnessed in the Masonic blogging community over the last couple of months, I want to say it again:

This is not a Masonic blog.
This is a blog by a Free Mason.

Part of the reason that I have posted so little since the summer has been that after all of the voluminous thinking out loud that I did back in June and July, I have worked things out for myself and feel like I have a pretty good sense of what to expect when I am finally made a Mason.

In June I spent many hours scouring the internet for information about Freemasonry, trying to find the elusive answer to the big question, "What the hell do you guys Do?"

Early on I latched on to the more spiritual, esoteric answers to that question, excited by the thought of joining a venerable group of free-thinkers and taking part in centuries-old rituals to help further the fraternity.

Later on I realized that the much maligned Potluck-and-Cribbage-Tournament aspect of Freemasonry holds its own appeal. After years of living in one community, working in another, and not making many friends in either, good fellowship is something I am very much looking forward to.

As flamewars erupted over last year's events in West Virginia and Ohio, I also realized that I am just as likely to find disagreements, sometimes acrimonious, inside the lodge as I am in the PTA, in a church congregation, or on an amateur softball team. Freemasons should aspire to subdue their passions, but they aren't Vulcans.

In other words, it comes back to another saying you often hear applied to Freemasonry: You get out of it what you put into it. For me this is best summed up by this excellent diagram (and accompanying article) by Bro. John Belton. That unique overlap of social, spiritual, ritual, and intellectual is what drew me to Freemasonry, and it seems like Masons who work at balancing these aspects will have the best experience (and make the best experience for their Brothers.)

I should point out again, however, that I have drawn all of my conclusions on second-hand experiences of American Freemasonry in the 21st century; once I am actually inducted and begin participating in my own lodge, I may find myself singing a drastically different tune... or not. I don't want to speculate, hence my relative silence as I await the first degree.