Friday, September 18, 2009

Dan Brown Got It Right

“The doughnuts are on the table in the back Brother, make sure you don’t spill your coffee.” The night would be a busy one, the minutes were not read from just before they had gone dark, so there would be the minutes from that meeting and the installation. The speakers would be mentioned again and a brief tidbit of each speech would be reflected upon again in the event that something had been missed the first time.

This meeting is a little different, Dan Brown’s new book, the Lost Symbol, had arrived in mailboxes and many people had read it, had at least unwrapped it, and many more would read what everyone was saying about it on Google, and pretend to have read it, and some, as is their general approach to things, would have already formed a strong opinion of it (these folks never have anything other than strong opinions) without have read or researched the book at all. The strongest opinions, it would appear, are born of ether and not research, so it is best not to let them go.

The discussion this day, following the minutes, would be how to “handle” Brown’s book and what a Brother might say or do if approached by a potential member….and that’s where Dan got it right and the Craft got it wrong Brothers.

The constant downturn of membership has not stopped those who just know how to fix it from taking the reigns of every “Masonic” situation and turning it into a membership problem. We don’t have a membership problem, we have a perspective problem.

There has been a debate brewing within Masonry for years and to some degree Masonic education has caught on enough that not even the appendant bodies can ignore it. To some degree, Scottish Rite Masonry is leading the charge in this, at a conservative pace, but much better than no pace at all, which is the educational programming some lodges have chosen to follow.

The debate has been between educational Masonry and membership Masonry and is sometimes taken as esoteric Masonry versus exoteric, or that which is sometimes deemed “Fish Fry” Masonry as a term which is specifically meant as lightly derogatory to the form Masonry which is loaded with lapel pins, pancake breakfast, fish fry’s, and a believe that Masonry is a predominately good Christian organization that should really step up its efforts to relieve the poor or give to charity.

The question of the debate regardless of the side of the table you are sitting on, regardless of whether you thought you were only arguing membership or not, is HOW TO DEFINE MASONRY. A failure to realize this has created the reactionary stance of grabbing for members wherever we might find them. Those that lean towards educational based lodge experiences tend to be of the esoteric bent, but not always. There are a number of academically inclined Masons with little regard for some of the esoteric aspects of Masonry as an applied philosophy and enjoy the esoteric as research project as one might delve into anything that is little or less known. The membership camp is of the belief that a healthy lodge is one that is doing a lot of degree work and the biggest problem with Masonry is the shotty degree work and the lazy people these days wanting to stay home in front of their televisions instead of dragging butt to lodge and working to keep things going.

What is really being argued here is this. Group A would like to define Masonry as:

A philosophical and Initiatic society.

Group B would like to define Masonry as:

A fraternal organization that does good deeds.

Because we have failed to define ourselves in the recent decades when young men asked about us, society has done it for us. The answer was that an organization that can even define itself is, in large part, irrelevant. Thus, you had, “Freemasons, huh, I think my grandpa was one of those.”

Enter the Da Vanci Code. Brown defined the Fraternity in a roundabout way with his book. He defined the role of the secret society, which, by default, Masonry got some of the attention. Brown said that secret societies kept secrets and that some of those secrets could rock the collective consciousness of mankind back on its heels. This caused a problem for the Craft, in that, we were not prepared to discuss the Craft to that degree, because so many members of the Fraternity had not studied a single Masonic book, researched a degree, and in no way could discuss academically, philosophically, or intellectually a question about or accusation against the Fraternity. So, the argument became that there were no secrets at all, Google could find them for you, we are not ancient, our origins are not debatable, and whatever we are or wherever we come from, we are not mystical, spiritual, chivalric, or old. We are likely a modern English invention of men who like to dress up in the old days (we have often done away with that so please don’t let it keep you from joining), perform ritual (hey, we are not doing the WHOLE ritual anymore so please don’t let that keep you from joining), and meet in private (private isn’t like secret, there is nothing nefarious, or even interesting that happens in private and if you miss a meeting or all of them we understand, but if you could pay your dues on time or near on time or only one year late, that would be great). So, in effect, we communicated:

1. We are a Fraternity, not a secret society.

2. We don’t have secrets, and even when we did, they weren’t valuable or useful in any manner.

3. We don’t take ourselves or the work seriously.

4. We really need members (read in we are hurting for membership because we do not offer anything of value.)

5. We are not sure why we are doing it either, we have said it isn’t secret, it isn’t really Fraternal because real Fraternities demand participation, and we are not really……relevant…hmmm….hey did we mention that there are brochures and petitions on the table in the back.

6. We have no mysticism, mystery, or spirituality. We don’t want these things in lodge because they might offend an evangelical Christian, which by the way, we accept men of all faiths, but really we are mostly Christian and work hard to make sure that no Christian, even the ones with motives ulterior to the Craft, are offended, because like we discussed earlier, we are not sure what our motives are beyond seeking membership. (Note: if your only motive is to grow, you will likely see some growth. But keep this in mind, even weeds and viruses like to grow, and if this is your only motive, someone will make a living trying to destroy or eradicate you.)

7. Ooh, ooh, ooh….we give money to stuff.

My Brothers, this reaction is detrimental. I have seen it occur for another reason, besides knee jerk. It occurs when we do not know our own Craft or seek to deny or apologize for it.

If you are a Mason and you are attending a lodge where education is absent, if you have read little on Masonry, little on philosophy, if you have done the chairs but never conducted an in depth study of the ritual you used, if you believe that Masonic philosophy is the rote memorization of words, if you have recommended a man to the Craft whom you did not know very well simply to sign the first line and get another warm body, if you first learned of the theories in the Da Vinci code from the Da Vinci code but had been a Mason for decades, you must educate yourself and then others. Because my Brothers, when we are not helping the Craft, we are hurting it and it is important as Masons, that we conduct regular and honest self examinations. If our lodge is stagnant, it might because our frustrations with Masonry never move beyond ideas and conversations in the coffee room or parking lot. If you have a frustration, a question, a problem, a desire and do not move on it, do not act on it, then you are adding to the death of all good ideas that die in committees of inaction, even the informal ones.

My Brethren, it is time to declare that the Craft, is, in fact, a philosophical and Initiatic society. I am disheartened that Dan Brown took the time discover Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and the ancient mysteries and we still have members who have never studied the Pythagorean or Hermetic philosophy and cannot speak to the influences of each upon the rituals in our Craft. I am disheartened that Carl Jung used our philosophies to develop his understanding of speculative alchemy, yet most of our own members are not aware of the power of alchemy in a person’s life.

I am completely and utterly disheartened that the Lost Symbol is being addressed as a potential membership grab. Oh, we are not calling it that. We are claiming that we should be ready to answer the questions when they come, and with this I agree. It is the underlying message that there will be all kinds of folks, read in healthy young potential members, asking those questions.

We are not ready for those men and those who answer the question might just get this one drastically wrong. Before we can answer anything to anyone on the outside, we better finally answer the question of what we are first, and we better get it right. Our list of answers should have the following:

1. We do have secrets.

2. We do practice a form of ancient mysticism.

3. We are spiritual in a way that is so deep, so devote, so beautiful that we have trouble putting it in words. For reasons I can’t explain in material and mundane ways I am drawn to lodge, drawn to the ritual, and drawn to our ancient practices. I love it, but I can’t completely explain why and that is part of the secret…how it touches each of us.

4. There are esoteric aspects to Masonry that border on the fantastic. (If you have not studied as much as you would have liked, or maybe even that you should have, this is a great time to be honest and say, “Look, there is a whole lot of stuff out there that I have not studied yet in depth, you could make a lifetime study of our deepest and truest philosophies and some men, like Pike, Hall, and Wilmshurst have. And it’s not just the old guys, we have guys like Kirk MacNulty, Tim Hogan, Mark Koltko-Rivera, and others deeply affected by the Craft who are creating a whole lot of wonderful and philosophical material to devour anew.)

5. And…we better have this one ready to….”No, I can’t recommend you.” And Brothers, stand tall when you do this. You do not owe an apology to the man who shouldn’t be a member and you don’t have to start this one with, “I am sorry, but no.” Why are you sorry for protecting your Craft?

Brothers all, Dan Brown got it right. In so far as the Fraternity is a guardian of a lost secret. Dan Brown got right when we said that we harbor ancient wisdom. Dan Brown got it right when we studied the Kybalion, the Zohar, and the mystical traditions. Dan Brown got right. Will you?

We have a choice here. We can read the ancient tomes, the current philosophies, and the blooming Masonic writers. We can meditate upon our discoveries and utilize Masonic philosophy as a more than passive part of our existence. But first we must face some hard and brutal truths.

The Fraternity is not for everyone. It never was intended as such and is never going to work as a roof for all houses. When we have lodges that are failing, when young men go to a lodge after reading the “Lost Symbol” or books like it, or after reading the Kybalion, Morals and Dogma, or some old tome on alchemy and find poorly executed ritual by men who have never read a Masonic book in their life and believe that planning the next cooking event is of paramount importance, we have allowed a major and critical disservice to the Craft.

We must allow for idea that some lodges are going to die and it is likely because they should. Masonry is Lockean in its function and capitalist in its design. Don’t misunderstand me. I am speaking metaphorically of capitalism and providing that when the product has failed to meet the consumers expectation it should die so that the new and improved ideas and functions rise from the ashes as a new phoenix takes flight, or at worst, which still isnt’ bad, something that is not functioning properly stops functioning. I am aghast that we can be collectively upset in large numbers at a bailout of governmental proportions, but seem content to bailout failing lodges by joining their ranks in name only to keep a number alive. We don’t meet in lodges, we meet as a lodge.

A smaller, more precise, and properly funded Craft is needed. You want a successful Grand Lodge, cut away the failing and unused lodges, focus your efforts on those that will drive Masonry forward and truly understand it. We clamor for members, but those same misinformed and ill intentioned men end up in chairs stalling change at your Grand Lodge level and voting against even the smallest of necessary budget increases.

If a lodge is not a philosophical, enriching, and enlightening gathering of good men who study, know, and love Masonry, it should not be a lodge. Dan Brown has managed to discover the Hermetic origins of our philosophies, but we have members who have never read a single Masonic piece of literature. Right now, as we try to progress the Craft, the mantra goes that Masonry can be different things to different men. No it can’t. The proof is the fact that in many places it is failing. It will continue to fail until it defines itself and does so properly.

When you define the Craft as a purely fraternal and social order it will go the way of all the other purely social and fraternal orders that at one time tried to model themselves after Masonry. They collectively lacked Masonic philosophy and they died.

When a man comes into your lodge and says, “How has Kabbalah and the Zohar influenced what you practice here?” You should not be hearing the word Zohar for the first time. It should not be expected that we are all Kabbalist, it should not be expected that we are all Hermetic adepts, it should not be expected that we all know astronomy, alchemy, and the seven liberal arts and sciences as experts, but we should all be Masons. We should know why we do the things we do and we should have answer in our hearts and minds as to the true power of Masonry.

Instead of worrying about whether the Lost Symbol will create members, we should hope that we could create Masons. If we are going to make Masons, we can’t have our senior members learning about their Craft from teasers in a Dan Brown novel. We need to be Masons, to make Masons.


David Wells said...

Well said my brother, well said. Masonic education is not just doing a Masonic Minute in lodge. We need to take topics, debate them in lodge, explore them, peal back the layers and we all will find a rich fraternal wisdom that binds us brother to brother.

Chris M said...

This is a very important and provocative piece of work that I intend to share with my Lodge.
I agree we need to ask ourselves what it is that we are.
I see factions of various viewpoints within my own lodge, but even more so, a long standing tradition of leaving such basic questions open and unresolved, which gets us nowhere.
It's time to call ourselves out.
Thanks for this.

Curtis said...

Well said and well argued. I wonder if the Craft will ever have a universal vision - a vision shared amongst the entire membership.

Obviously, to make this happen Masonic leaders first have to share the same vision, but we are so divided on what Freemasonry is: social, philanthropic, or philosophical. Obviously, in many ways Masonry is a blend of all three elements. However, most members prioritize one area over the other.

To me, the "right" definition involves more focus on the philosophy/teachings side. In turn, we are more dedicated to our Brother Masons and continually serving them and their families (philanthropy). Plus, I'm much more inclined to socialize with a guy who I know to be dedicated to the principles of the Craft and the teachings of the Order. It makes for better conversation over choice beverages and a nice smoke.

Eric said...

Curtis said:
...but we are so divided on what Freemasonry is: social, philanthropic, or philosophical. Obviously, in many ways Masonry is a blend of all three elements.

An exercise:

Take out the philanthropic parts. Is it still Masonry?

Take out the social parts. Is it still Masonry?

Take out the philosophical parts. Is it still Masonry?

I would propose that without the philanthropic parts, and without the social parts, it is still Masonry. But take away the philosophical parts, and what is left is nothing more than an organization similar to the Elks, the Lions, the Rotary Club, and other such ilk. In other words, it's no longer Masonry. It's yet another social club, with a different name. Therefore it is the philosophical parts that define what Masonry is from everything else.

I would even go so far as to say that if a Mason cannot support the definition of Masonry as a philosophical and initiatic society, then they should endeavor to leave Masonry and find a suitable organization elsewhere as they are just slowly destroying Masonry from the inside.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Masonry is a quest that takes every brother on their own path of definition, and enlightenment. Knock the gavel, sit, stand and repeat does none of these things, save for fill a void that ritual fills. Understanding why, and using the tools and directions afforded through Masonry is a good step. Too many times we lose good men trying to explain what we are, without saying too much, or worse yet trying to explain that the "G" dose not necessarily mean "Christian God"...or geometry for that matter...sigh

Louis Thorp said...

An excellent, and very thought provoking piece. You pegged Masonry in New Mexico right on, and at points left me very uncomfortable as you talked about me. You leave me with a great deal to think about.

A.Bauer said...

Well said Brother, and belive me this not only a US Brother Masons problem.
fraternal greetings from a german brother.