Monday, August 10, 2009

Templar Musings

Back in May I wrote about my resurgent interest in the York Rite, due largely to a Brother who has become a dear friend and who is heavily involved in all three York Rite bodies (Royal Arch Chapter, Cryptic Council, Knights Templar Commandery.)

I have long assumed that I would stop short of joining the Knights Templar, as I cannot honestly call myself a Christian despite having been raised in the UCC. Online discourse about whether or not a non-Christian can or should join is interesting, and seems to reflect three prevailing attitudes:
  • The ritual is to be interpreted literally and no man should ever petition a Commandery or take any of the Templar obligations unless they are a devout Christian.
  • Templar ritual, like the three Blue Lodge degrees, is full of veiled symbolism and as such, explicit references to Jesus or the Christian trinity are symbols for deeper truths. Insofar as you are not made uncomfortable or offended by these references, you can be a Templar.
  • It's fun to dress up in pseudo-military regalia and play with swords - don't sweat the obligations, man!
It's a question that leads to much interesting discussion, and to some extent reflects on the debate about the future of Craft Lodge Masonry. I've been thinking a lot over the summer break about the age old question of what Freemasonry is - the thing that troubles a lot of people about the current state of Freemasonry in the US is that new guys have a different vision than the old-timers, and there's an idea that someone has to be right, and there's an awful lot of energy spent complaining and debating about who's right and who's wrong.

My own current take is that Freemasonry is what you, an individual Mason, make of it. If all you want out of lodge are stale crullers and arguments over bills, then more power to you. It seems like kind of a waste of your obligations, but I won't begrudge you your comfortable routine. I can put up with those things while I'm pursuing what I want out of Masonry, which is better ritual, a little bit more pride in our institution and lodge buildings, and a place to get together with good men in an increasingly shallow and depressing society.

I've been pretty active in my mother lodge for over a year now, and to a lesser extent I'm engaged at the district level and also my great-great-great grandfather's lodge here in my own town. Among all the lodges I've visited and Brothers I've met, what I'm finding is that if you take the time to get to know a lot of Masons just a little bit, you'll start finding subgroups among the larger collectives of individual lodges or districts. Masons who really dig old regalia. Masons who like single malt Scotch and cigars. Masons who are particularly adept at ritual. Pretty much any interest you can think of, you can find other Masons who are into it and inclined to flock together.

And what's interesting is that many of these Masons AND groups overlap in different places, like a big colorful venn diagram. Nobody needs to pledge fealty to one particular Masonic clique; I can get my ritual fix by visiting lodge X who does particularly good degree work, and I can get my regalia fix by hanging out with Brother Y, who may also happen to introduce me to some very interesting books about US History and tell me I should talk to Brother Z, who's really into history. It's all good, and I think in some ways essential to our health as an institution. Can you imagine how awful your lodge would be if everyone was interested in the exact same things and had no new ideas to bring into each others' spheres of influence?

To put it another way, consider the typical workplace that lets employees listen to the radio. It might start out with a manager choosing his favorite rock station. If enough coworkers complain, it might get switched to a country station for a while... but if the manager can't stand country, maybe they'll try a top 40 station. Eventually, it gets changed again and again until it winds up on a crappy soft-rock station. And there it stays because while nobody really likes it, at least they all hate it equally. It never seems to occur to management that if the overhead speakers were shut off altogether and each office pod were allowed to pick its own music, everyone would be much happier.

Freemasonry definitely has some systemic issues facing it (jurisdictions that may have seen a spike in raw membership numbers from one-day classes or other membership drives are finding that it's not only about getting people to join, it's about getting them to come back to lodge), but ultimately I think it's more about Brothers making their visions of what Freemasonry could be happen for themselves than imposing those visions on one another without stopping to ask what floats their boats.

As to the Templar question: my impression based on Templars I've talked to, and things I've read online is that there is almost a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regards to one's assent to the explicitly Christian aspects of Commandery, at least in the United States. That is to say, it will be generally assumed by members of the order that you are a Christian. If you're not, but take the degrees anyway then it's pretty much up to your own conscience as to how faithfully you are upholding your Obligations as a Knight Templar. If you dissect these requirements semantically and interpret them to mean simply that you must believe that the Christian religion exists, and that you'd defend its right to exist, is that good enough for you? Is it good enough for the Brothers in your Commandery if someone learns that you attend a Unitarian Universalist Church or a synagogue and demands an explanation? Is it good enough for Great Architect? In the end, that's what really matters.

I was greatly amused by this anonymous comment to a post on this subject at

Templar: You know this is mainly a Christian organization and most of the members are Christian, right?

Non-Christian: Yup.

Templar: And that we refer to Jesus by name as our Lord and savior, and that he died for our sins.

Non-Christian: Well, he is your savior and he did die for your sins, who am I to say he didn't?

Templar: You have to swear to defend the Christian faith, are you okay with that?

Non-Christian: Sure, why not?

Templar: The Order revolves around strictly around Christian histories...

Non-Christian: Those are good histories.

Templar: ...and faith.

Non-Christian: It's a decent faith, too.

Templar: Well, I just want to make sure you can be comfortable with all of the Christian references to ensure you won't take offense.

Non-Christian: It's no problem with me.

Templar: Do you like wine?

Non-Christian: I love it!

Templar: Great! You got $100?

Non-Christian: Yup.

Templar: Excellent! I'll get it from you Wednesday at the Lodge.

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