Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Your Founding Fathers' Freemasonry

In his post John Quincy Adams, Masonry & The Free, Invisible Car, Wayfaring Man examines a stinging description of Freemasonry by John Quincy Adams in a letter to William A. Stone in 1832. Here’s a brief excerpt that sums up Adams’ view:

...nor is it conceivable that any such Entered Apprentice, on leaving the lodge after his admission, should fail to have observed, with pain and mortification, the contrast between the awful solemnity of the oath which he has taken, and the extreme insignificance of the secrets revealed to him.

It’s actually not so much different than the tired quote from Benjamin Franklin:

The great secret of Freemasonry is that there is no secret at all.

At risk of putting words in those esteemed gentlemens’ mouths, here’s my take:

Adams is saying that upon being initiated, the new Entered Apprentice’s first reaction is, “That’s IT?!” Adams then posits that the full initiation is spread across three degrees to keep those disappointed candidates hoping for the real secrets in the second and third degrees; otherwise, everyone would bail after the first.

Franklin is saying that you’re missing the point if you obsess on the secrets and ignore the three virtues of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

It seems like there are two main types of disappointment expressed by new Masons here in the 21st century. One is from candidates who are expecting “instant enlightenment,” or as Wayfaring Man writes:

But there is another group of men who have passed through the west door: these men are under the impression that when they reach the third degree they will be given the spiritual equivalent of a new car, and when they find that this is not the case, they lose interest rapidly.

The other kind of disappointment is from Masons who are excited to join the fraternity after reading about its role in the 17th and 18th centuries… how it provided a safe haven for open-minded men to learn and discuss philosophy, spirituality, and science on the level. Upon joining, though, they feel they can’t find any brothers interested in discussing something more stimulating than who’s going to man the griddle at the next pancake breakfast. 2 Bowl Cain writes:

American Freemasonry of the 20th and 21st century has changed and become a 501c10. The Freemasonry of our Founding Fathers is dead and gone in America. Pre 1800’s it was an entity on its own. Today it is one of many other 501c10’s.

The conclusion of these Masons is that three degrees have become little more than a vestigial curiosity and otherwise there’s not much separating us from the Elks, Lions, or Kiwanis. To borrow the car analogy, these new Brothers are expecting to learn how to build a car from scratch, and are crestfallen when they’re handed the keys to a regular old Chevy that’s already been built.

In their disappointment, some of them never discover that the Chevy is a 1958 Corvette Roadster, which needs a lot of work but will be a priceless classic when it’s done.

The thing that seems to be constantly overlooked in these comparisons of modern and early American Freemasonry is that our society has undergone tremendous changes since the revolutionary period… industrialization, urbanization, and then the backlash and willful self-isolation of suburbanization. We’ve invented cinema, radio, television, video games, and the internet. These changes have all affected the ways in which we interact with others and view the world around us, and even if our ceremonies and language haven’t changed much in the last 200 years it’s not reasonable to expect the Masonic experience not to have changed along with the rest of society.

The plain truth is that Freemasonry isn’t needed today as a safe, private forum to discuss political and religious matters in the same way that it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. While you’ll still find plenty of intolerance and small-mindedness on those subjects throughout this country, you generally needn’t fear being jailed or executed for expressing yourself in public.

So what is our relevance?

One of the biggest scapegoats for the decline in membership among all fraternal/service groups is the fact that the free-spirited baby boomers rejected these groups as part of “The Establishment,” and left their parents’ generation holding the torch from the 1960's onward. As generation X and Y have come along, we have been inculcated with the notion that the Masons, Elks, and Odd Fellows used to be popular/relevant/bigger than they are today, but nobody except a few old guys belongs any more. As institutions they have been stripped of any kind of relevance as far as younger generations are concerned, because in so many cases our parents never felt any relevance either. My generation’s attitude seems to be “Aww, it’s kind of quaint that there used to be organizations like that, instead of the way society is now when nobody knows their neighbors or gets involved in their communities. Oh well!” The thought of joining such groups ourselves doesn’t even occur to us unless it’s a family tradition, because we never got those cues from most of our parents’ generation.

I can still remember quite clearly my deep sense of surprise last year upon learning that a 26 year old co-worker was a member of the Elks. The idea of a young guy joining one of those clubs who met in those old buildings I’d been driving past for years knocked something loose in the back of my head, and ultimately led to my becoming a Mason. While I was attracted to the Masons in particular because of its emphasis on the art and science of character building, in a more general sense I joined because I wanted to feel some of that sense of community and fellowship that was lacking in my life.

I think that we are sometimes too quick to dismiss that basic, social/community aspect of the modern Masonic experience as being “just like the Elks” and therefore somehow distasteful. As humans continue to create more diverse and effective ways to isolate and distract ourselves, plain old fashioned social gathering and interaction will become an increasingly valuable commodity. I don’t see that as anything to be ashamed of.

As for the “missing” philosphical aspect of modern Freemasonry, I think that we newer Masons have the wrong expectations when we petition… there seems to be this concept of esoteric or philosophical discussion as a monolithic thing, like a bullet point on the meeting agenda:

  • Open Lodge

  • Read minutes

  • Read bills


  • Close Lodge

The approach seems stilted to me; I wouldn’t sit down next to a Brother at our next dinner and say, “So, would you like to have an esoteric discussion about Masonry?” Sitting down next to a Brother and asking a more specific question like, “So, what were you thinking about during the second section of the third degree?” is a much more targeted question that might jump start an interesting discussion about what Masonry means to the other Brethren at my lodge.

It’s not reasonable to expect the lodge experience in the United States (and from state to state, district to district) in 2008 to be the same as it was in England in 1717. Nor is it reasonable to expect broad changes to happen or be embraced instantly, no matter how spoiled we are by one-click shopping and overnight delivery.Keep in mind how long it takes to become a Master Mason in some jurisdictions: at least one month between degrees in most of the ones I know of, and longer than that in others where they’re serious about proficiency. It was 8 months between the day I applied and the night I was initiated.

Keep in mind how long it takes to become Master of a lodge: seven years assuming there’s a full officer line and nobody drops out. When was the last time you spent seven years working on anything except perhaps your Master’s degree or PhD?

The first operative mason who had an idea about how it would be possible to construct soaring, thin stained glass walls by using flying buttresses probably didn’t figure it out during the first year of his apprenticeship. He probably didn’t get it right on the first try, either.

If we aren’t finding the experience we seek, it is up to us to draw the blueprints and provide the guidance, and more importantly the patience to bring it to the Craft.


Wayfaring Man said...

Thanks for the hat-tip to my post, although I'm not sure that I shouldn't tip mine to you - well done, far better than mine. I really enjoyed your extrapolation ... and of course, the blinking type.

You hit the nail right on the head - it really is like some of these newer members expect Voltaire to suddenly walk out of the preparation room and start asking questions about Cartesian dualism, and By Moloch! if that hasn't happened by the third lodge meeting - TO HELL WITH THIS, I'm OUT OF HERE!

We can't all be Benjamin Franklin...

Neal said...

I'm very glad to have read your entry, Brother. One thing that I love about modern Freemasonry is that individual lodges, even within the same jurisdiction, can be so very different. One lodge may focus on community involvement, another on entertainment affairs and dinners, and yet another on studying esoteric symbolism. I think that it's paramount that we work on proficiency and excellency in our ritual (newcomers deserve this); after that, lodges have the opportune freedom to work as they will -- within the boundaries circumscribed by their by-laws and those of their jurisdiction, of course.

It is interesting to me that Masonry can work so effectively even despite our cultural changes. I see men everyday who are truly fashioning themselves into stones of integrity that support the fraternity and humankind as a whole. When you have the right conditions and when brothers work together, Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty happen.