Friday, December 14, 2007

Conspiracy Theory--the product of paranoia and ignorance

I don’t know about you, but I’ve enjoyed about all the conspiracy theories I can stand. I’ve personally been accosted by them since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the early 60’s. I really feel for the poor chaps who have had to endure them all the way back to Pearl Harbor.

I have no idea how old these things are in our culture. Someone told me they started in the 1920’s. If that’s the case, we’ve now gone through 4 generations of Americans being duped by someone else’s ignorance. And that’s my point. With few exceptions, conspiracy theories are born out of ignorance. My favorite exception, of course, is the theory that Freemasons are out to establish a New World Order. Being a Mason, I rather like that one. I’ll clarify what we are up to a little later on.

For now, let’s say that a conspiracy theory is when we attribute the ultimate cause of an event or events to some underlying secret or deceptive ploy that is held from public knowledge by some powerful individual or alliance. Usually such individual or group is purported to have a sinister purpose which is why the whole thing is secret to begin with. We tend to lose sight of the fact that those who subscribe to these theories are usually convinced the world has always been dominated by conspirators who manipulate political, economic and future happenings behind the scenes. The events themselves eventually fall into the category of folklore or urban legends.

The perplexing thing is why so many of us believe them to be true! Unfortunately, there’s no good answer because these things are so often driven by paranoia and ignorance. They can be a form of scapegoating where people with diverse or politically questionable points of view identify other people or groups as being the blame for their own political, social or economic shortcomings. It’s the old blame game. The idea is that, if only we remove those who are harming us from positions of popularity or power, things will be better. If we can get enough people to believe like us, then we, the scapegoater, will be seen as the hero for sounding the alarm.

Conspiracies are also a way for people to respond to events or circumstances which have an emotional impact on them. The events or topics most often talked about fall under the areas of religions, disasters, morality, politics and science.

Now, I don’t have a problem with people trying to make sense of things which cannot be easily explained. What I do have a problem with is assigning blame to other people when these unexplainable events occur. It didn’t used to be this way. A couple of centuries ago, it was popular when a disaster occurred to say it was “an act of God.” It seemed reasonable enough to blame God for something so large that a mere mortal could not possibly have created it. But that brought on a new challenge. It gave God a kind of undeserved and seedy reputation. To neutralize this potential spiritual blunder and ease our sense of unworldly guilt, it became easier to suggest that such events were really a manifestation of God’s anger toward the sins of the world. Alas! This didn’t work either because most people were not willing to place a part of the blame on themselves. Disasters then quickly became acts of nature. This worked out fine until technology finally reached a point where almost anything seemed possible for man. Ah! Even better, since it then became easier for us to blame almost anything on human action or irresponsibility. Now when almost anything painful happens, the first question is, “who is there to blame?”

The sad fact is we now live in a world where we no longer accept that accidents, disasters, circumstances, or misfortunes just occasionally happen to people. Obviously, no one’s to blame for acts of nature. Neither can we, in honesty, blame anyone else for our own negligence, superstition and ignorance. Yet, more than ever, we keep applying our own distorted perspectives to the cause and meaning of catastrophes and circumstances without regard for individual accountability. Of course, the media exacerbates the problem by its own rushed and short-sided receptivity to personalized, dramatic accounts of social and natural phenomena.

All this creates a multiplier effect. If we can’t accept that things happen occasionally which are not the fault of anyone, then we are bound to live in a world full of bitterness, fear, suspicion, isolation, and confusion. Now that is a catastrophe.

My suggestion is that we start using some common sense in assessing the likelihood of truth in these matters. Does the theory meet the test of rational thinking? Are the events upheld by structured and institutional accounts, or only by individuals or special interest groups? Are the media keeping it alive for its sensational appeal? Does the basis for the theory appear, at best, to be unfounded or speculative? Are the proofs offered for the theory well constructed, using sound methodology? Are any clear academic standards prevalent as evidence of proof or disproof? Who and what kind of people appear to be the loyal conspirators?

The bottom line is that conspiracy theories are not really worth our time if they can’t meet these basic tests of verification. You are free to believe that the federal government is in league with space aliens to enslave humanity if you want. Just don’t make a public nuisance of your nonsense.

And, as for the Masons being out to bring about a New World Order, I can attest to the truth in this. That was indeed our task during much of the 17th and 18th centuries when the world desperately needed to organize a model for civil society based on liberty and equality. Once we accomplished that, we have spent the last couple of centuries trying to keep it that way. You can call it a new world order if you like; we prefer to think of it as order in the world.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In Defense of Fraternity

I am a Freemason. I am also a Baby Boomer. In my generation that would make me a bit of an anomaly because most men in America born after WW II have not been joiners until very recently.

But my father was a Freemason; as was his brother. They owned and operated adjoining farms on the great wheat and cattle producing plains of Oklahoma. For as long as I can remember, my dad would come in from his work every Wednesday afternoon, take a shower, and put on his Sunday suit My uncle would come by and pick him up and they would go to the Mason’s Hall together. They did this for 50 years. I can’t remember a time when I was not going to be a Freemason.

I also knew the men in my community. It was a small place of only about 2,500 people. It was where we celebrated the festivals of our lives, went to church, and participated in social conversations outside our home. I knew the most respected men in my town. I can’t remember when I did not know them.

I entered the fraternity of Freemasonry during the summer of my 21st year. When I arrived at the lodge for my first degree, or stage of joining, all these men I had known and respected in my childhood were there. They were my father’s friends. I can remember to this day standing in the ante-room of the lodge, duly prepared in a garment provided me for the occasion, waiting for someone to return my knocks on the door, and thinking to myself: Tonight, I am going to be initiated into Manhood.

Although at the time I didn’t realize it, through my initiation into the world’s oldest secret society for men, I was participating in one of the most ancient traditions of manhood. In every culture the world has ever known, men have yearned to be initiated into manhood. It is fundamental to man’s understanding of his own process of growth. And we have always known it even if we have not defined it for ourselves.

There are many examples of such initiation. The first kill in the hunt is as old as humankind. It is an initiation. Men have always taken their sons hunting. And the stakes are high. It is important for the boy to have a kill. It is a mark of success.

Other examples include basic training in the military; the Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition; and our own high school graduation. The commencement exercise is classic initiation in every detail, right down to the change in clothing. Moving away from the home of our childhood is another example.

It’s important to understand that these examples are never meant to teach anything. They are done to convey one most powerful idea to the young person; that he has left one life and is entering another. He is putting away an old life and taking on a new one.

Now, in the case of males, it is inherent to the nature of manhood that males be assimilated into it by other males. Men have to be initiated into manhood by other men. This is true across every culture.

And this is why I firmly believe Freemasonry to be an essential institution for men. The truth is that women do not have to be initiated into womanhood, as men have to be initiated into manhood. Unlike women, there is no defining moment that proves for a boy that he has become a man, or that he is entering manhood. His mind does not mature at the same rate with his body, nor does his body take on immediate physical changes that are observable to the outside world.

Even in societies where there have always been initiatory rites for women, such ceremonies have related to menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Thus, girls’ initiations are determined by a mystery natural to the female sex itself. Such rites have never been based on an “origin myth.”

Conversely, in the case of men, initiation ceremonies are always focused on “invisible” realities. We learn a sacred history that is not evident; i.e., it is not known to have existed in the physical experience. In the ritual ceremonies of Freemasonry, for instance, we observe that everything happens because certain events took place in some historical or mythical time which changed the human condition. For us, initiation represents an introduction into a world that is not immediate. It is a world of spirit and culture. Ours is not a rite of puberty, but a rite that incorporates us into society as responsible adults; a collective consciousness—a society of men.

Being initiated into manhood means that the initiate is consciously aware he has entered onto a path toward mature masculinity. And the journey to manhood begins with this awareness. A man’s awareness begins with understanding who he is, how he feels, what makes him feel, and how his feelings have been effected by outside attitudes and influences in his life. He has to know what “doing the right thing” means. His perceptions and enforcement of responsibility must come from within. There is not supposed to be an internal competition between reasoning and impulses, where the outcome of this balance determines his status as a man.

Rather, the path to mature masculinity starts with his becoming consciously aware that he is accountable for his own actions—that he alone bring responsibility to his work, his relationships, his behavior, and the choices he makes in life. Mature masculinity also implies that he is consciously aware of how he represents himself to others.

A man’s integrity is clearly within himself, to himself, and for himself what it is to others. To claim our manhood, we have to take charge of our life.

And for young men, this process is always best facilitated by other responsible and mature men. One of the key ingredients of a man’s growth and development is making friends and maintaining friendships with other men. It is as vital to our health and happiness as believing in ourselves. We need older men as mentors in our life. We not only need the stamp of approval from our fathers; but from other men in our life.

Manhood does not come from our mothers. We can be nurtured, comforted, educated, sang to, and nursed by our mothers. But mothers cannot teach us how to be men. That is the role only men can play for each other.

And here is where Freemasonry has been so critically worthy to the culture of men for so many generations. To be sure, there are certain rites of manhood which connect young males with the collective masculine soul, to the spirit of being a man, and to the community of men—sports, college, military, sex, bars, occupation, to name a few. But there are few that teach what a good society expects of men. There are even fewer which give him the lasting standards of male responsibility. There are still fewer that teach the magic of manhood. There are fewer yet which can affirm a sense of belonging to a traditional male brotherhood. There are few institutions which eliminate the generation gap by the very act of belonging. There are few that facilitate an understanding of true fellow feeling—that feeling which is at the heart of Masonic ritual, symbolism and lodge space.

Freemasonry exists first and foremost to transform men. And that transformation takes place because one is initiated into a fellowship of men. It is within that fellowship that he is introduced to his own path to self improvement—the journey which enables him to harmonize his individual need for fulfillment with a collective well-being. This pathway is nothing less than the road to mature masculinity.

The corporate task of freemasonry is to not only erect this path, but to make sure that its members are on it themselves; and those who come after them will also be on it.

The inherent role of any morally based male-only organization is to take on the virtues of manliness, to enhance and extend the male tradition; and to embrace that tradition irrespective of how formidable the demands any present society may place upon it.

Freemasonry’s strength lies in the fact that it offers the right model by which men can grow and achieve balance in their human and spiritual lives. It tenders a medium for collective dialogue in the ways of virtue and ethics. It offers the role of patriarchy to men—male role modeling, if you will—which guides younger men from a sort of boyish impetuosity to mature and manly judgment. It does this by leading them back to timeless, ethical, and spiritual traditions which facilitate their own transformation and rebirth into manhood.

And it has done this for every generation of men for more than 400 years.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Dilemma of the War on Terrorism

As long as humankind is inspired by the notion that there is a Deity, that some form of metaphysical reality exists beyond our finite world; and this unearthly principle also has the ultimate power to penalize or reward our actions and can decide the kind of future we may have beyond our mortal days--then we can be sure we will also always have religion.

I suspect this same innate ambition which drives us to believe we are all immortal will also insure that we will always have wars which begin over religion. In fact, history is replete with examples of such conflicts—conflicts over one man's "vision" that his religion was right and all others were wrong. It’s the age-old fallacy of humankind—there’s always some guy or some group out there who believes he/they have dominion over the "truth" about Deity.

The reality is that errors will be built into ALL faith systems for no other reason than the interpretations of faith are always man-made. So what’s all the fuss about over who’s right anyway? If we can accept and understand that we have "errors" in our own faith (we just don't know where they are), and equally accept the same of other faiths, why would we want to "fight" over a mistake? If you're going to fight over something, fight over something that you can prove - something that has certainty. In the meantime, be satisfied that "you" have discovered what is "true" to you and don’t demand that others agree with you.

The Golden Rule is a common thread of most all religions and boils down to a really simple principle. We are to live our own lives without dictating our understanding of Deity to others. Live the example others will want to emulate; always taking concern for the one stone in the quarry that we actually control and shape--our own rough ashlar.

One would certainly think that hastily applying dynamite to all the rough ashlars at once is more counterproductive than allowing each to shape his own ashlar at his own pace. Yet, as simple as this may seem, there appear to be some fundamental problems with it as a solution in an era of religious terrorism.

First, I would suggest that, while we have heard the Golden Rule stated in every religion in the world; the rule is, in reality, an insipid truism that has no force of law and certainly no force of meaning to a terrorist. The terrorist always calls on the religious authority of his faith as his rule of law. God becomes his sanction to kill or maim. In fact, most terrorists would never kill except in the name of God.

Further, since most monotheistic religions of the world were born before the New Testament era (an era which at least suggested that God was a God of Love), the more prevalent historic ideal of sacred authority is based on the premise of God’s role as a warrior. As an example, the Thirty Years War (a war fueled by religious hatred between protestants and Catholics--1618-1648), left more killing and devastation behind it than any event since the Black Death. It created the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which was the first legal instrument calling for the separation of church and state. It didn’t matter that much that the wrecking of Germany, for instance, was brought on by cynical leaders. In their hearts, most of the combatants believed they were carrying out acts of piety. When the war ended, many cities had less than half the population they had before; many towns had only one-fifth.

The conflict left a mark on the West that cemented our attitude for church-state separation. In fact, the fundamental reason the West has worked so hard to keep religion out of dealings between states and nations is precisely to banish religion from the repertoire of acceptable reasons to wage war.

But as the world turns more religious, more adherents of the great faith systems, particularly the newer cults, seem to be placing violence back in at the heart of their beliefs. As the economic and political state of countries get poorer and more unstable, a platform exists to spread sectarianism. This is the kind of seed that often brings extremists to the forefront of those who will kill in the name of God. And it is important to understand that we are not dealing here with the traditional ethical rules of war. When a war is waged by a perceived sacred mandate, we can be sure there will be little compromise from the true believer about the sacred. There is one God; one Truth.

Tolerance is not an intrinsic part of any monotheistic religion because the outcome of a conflict cannot be ambiguous. When the issues are sacred demands, there can be no bargaining. The believer cannot compromise on the will of God. Killing becomes an end in itself. The extreme believer wants a lot of people dead and may not care whether a lot of people are watching, as long as God sees that what has been done is in His name.

The Bible’s division between those who belong and those who don’t belong makes it natural to see life as war. We all know the imagery of battle occurs throughout the Old Testament. This same violent imagery is also a part of the earliest Islamic writings. Raiding is common, people are killed, and blood feuds are pursued. God’s angels intervene on behalf of the Muslim combatants.

The point is that scriptural emphasis on warfare in the world’s great religious traditions has armed successive generations with powerful mental images of an embattled world. The community of the faithful is perpetually in crisis, or at least on the edge of one.

There is even a growing sect of American Christians who also embrace the notion of a cosmic war. More Christians are becoming fascinated with apocalyptic speculation and with signs that the events depicted in Revelation are at hand. Books based on prophecies in Revelation are being sold to millions upon millions of folk. A recent Time/CNN poll suggested that fifty-nine percent of Americans believe the future will unfold in accordance with Revelation. The fact is that whether we see it in our church pews or not, we are a more religious country today than we were when we were founded. The new approach to Christian fundamentalism is that the coming war is a war to create God’s government on earth.

We can be sure the attack against America on 9/11, 2001 was an act of consummate religious devotion. Those who committed it were deeply pious. They expressed their motives in indisputably religious terms. And they saw themselves as carrying out the will of God. To them, the hijackings were the performance of a sacrament, one intended to restore to the universe a moral order that had been corrupted by the enemies of Islam and their Muslim collaborators.

The reality of 9/11 was that the motivation for the attack was not political calculation, strategic advantage, nor wanton bloodlust. It was to humiliate and slaughter those who defied the leadership of God. It was to please Him by reasserting His primacy. It was an act of cosmic war. What appears to most of us to have been senseless violence which violated all our known treaties about war, actually made a great deal of sense to the terrorists and all those who sympathize with them. For them, the act of killing was an act of redemption. Our modern notion of separate realms of the religious and the secular is simply inconceivable to a religious zealot.

How then can a simple and dignified ideal that we follow the Golden Rule find application in an eastern religious system, or even a Western fundamentalist system that almost universally agrees to some form of struggle for the sake of God? Can any moral and ethical system of thought improve mankind if it cannot find a venue where the duality between Toleration and Liberality against Fanaticism and Persecution cannot be reconciled?

As challenging as it seems, it really does come down to the Golden Rule. No one knows with certainty what Deity has in mind and therefore can have no divine sanction to condemn the faith of others, marking them as heretical. Likewise, there is no moral or ethical basis to approve of any actions that endanger the peace and quiet of great nations, or their people, by indulging in a fancifully imaginary philanthropy, imagining one's self to be "different" enough to be separated and self-proclaiming in one's holiness.

Such activity can be more harmful than the ambition of kings. Such intolerance and bigotry have been more repeatedly harmful to mankind than ignorance and error. Surely it is better that we know that our "truths" are not perfect and accept these errors than to live under persecution. How absurd it is to think that when we cannot even understand our fellow man, we can begin to expect to understand Deity in any uniform manner. Torturing and killing other people simply because they do not think and believe the way we do is indeed an absurd thought~ and should be to all men.

The gist of all this is that it is perhaps a much better aim to simply offer moral progress rather than dogma to the world. Just as we each individually grow by unlearning what we learn before we "see the light," mankind is also growing. It, too, can outgrow its own childhood and never go back. It is, after all, only human laziness that gets in the way of such advancement.

The object is to be a good man. The good man does the good when he gets the chance, often because he has the chance. He does it because he wants to - he loves the duty- and not merely because some law (by God or by man) commands him to do it. He is true to his own mind, his conscience, heart, and soul, and feels very little temptation to do unto others in a way he would not like to be done unto. He really does keep coming back to the Golden Rule.

And such men are found in all religions over the world. This is how a society becomes free and does the work it is meant to do.

Old theologies and philosophies of religion of ancient times may no longer suffice. We must advance. The duties of life are to be done. There are errors that we must replace with new truths. There are great wrongs and evils that must be righted and outgrown.

Why is it that mankind can't seem to learn from history- from our past atrocities? Why do we continue to ignore these powerful warnings of the unspeakable evils which follow from these past mistakes and errors in the matters of religion? What religion can actually invest the God of Love with such cruel and vindictive passions, of such man-made ideas?

Man has never had, nor will he ever have, the right to usurp the unexercised prerogative of God and condemn and punish another for a different belief. No man is entitled to positively assert that he is right where other men who are equally well-informed hold a directly opposite opinion. Each thinks it impossible for the other to be sincere, and each, as to that, is equally in error.

"What is Truth?" was a profound question, the most suggestive one ever put to man. But never forget that what once was believed, we now find incomprehensible. These startling insights give us a fresh glimpse of the human soul. If we cannot understand our own soul, much less the souls of all mankind, how can we expect to be able to have a full and error free understanding of the even more complex Deity which encompasses all souls? How can any one man possess such knowledge? None do.

This is why Toleration is so important. It is our chief duty, without which we stand for little. We can be tolerant of each other's creed because each faith holds excellent moral precepts. One does not have to look far in any teaching to find "good" teachings. The common thread, again, seems to be the Golden Rule, and the goal is goodness and getting along with our fellow man.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that intolerance of religious beliefs has afflicted the world worse than any other evil. All the treasure and human labor we've lost throughout time in such silliness would be enough to have now made the earth and all its inhabitants a Garden of Eden.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Old Glory Flies For All Of Us

I remember how easy it was to grow up in America. My father's generation had already survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many from that same era then crossed the ocean their forefathers had once sailed, but the other way. They sailed to Europe to fight World War II and defeat a global challenge to America's idealism.

And when all the military strength and national rhetoric had run its course, the world was once again at peace. We had fought the great fight. We had rallied around "Old Glory." We had won the "Big One" once again.

I came along as a product of that celebration. There were more of us born in the 10 years following WWII than in any other decade in history. We were the "Baby Boomers," and over the past half-century, we have been the beneficiaries of sustained economic innovation.

We have moved to the suburbs and traded radios for televisions, typewriters for computers, telephones for digital message centers, letters for E-mails. Over the Internet, we transact important business deals with people we never meet. We own every device imaginable, from remote control camera blimps to digital TVs posing as framed pictures. We dance apart, endure music which cannot possibly be harmonic, and consume microwave meals with our diet pills. We drink flavored coffee and imported beer, and we can count on one hand the times each year our entire family sits down together for a real meal, served at the same table, at the same time.
Now, this may not be exactly the America our fathers envisioned when they came home from the Great War. And it most certainly is not the America our forefathers founded. But it is the way we define ourselves today—with things rather than ideals, with self-interest rather than national pride or social unity.

And, to make matters more complicated, we live in a multicultural world, with many different personal sentiments and ethnic interests. It is much harder to have a sense of national unity. It is not easy to know what being patriotic means. Our children have no understanding of military conquests. We no longer rally around the same icons, such as the flag. We no longer have a single public spirit in America. There is no one event which makes us feel a sense of togetherness. We have made being an American a very complicated thing. Indeed, it is alarming to ponder if we still have a national heart.

And yet, amid the rapid movement of technology, the burgeoning influx of people, and our materialistic path to self-reliance, our flag still waves above much of the public architecture across our great land. But, today, rather than being the symbol of national unity, "Old Glory" has increasingly become the icon of public diversity.

To those who are the veterans of long-forgotten military campaigns, it represents the principles we cherish as Americans. To Baby Boomers, it signifies unlimited opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. To many others, it represents freedom to be, to love, to believe. To still others, it symbolizes the right to live in this country and hold to cultural values of another homeland far from our shores.

The challenge today is how we make all this diversity work together in harmony for the good of the whole. To be free means that we are each free to express our cultural differences, attitudes, feelings, and opinions. And to be an American means that we all have the same duty to tolerate the differences in our fellow Americans, and to be careful not to impose, by regulation or any other means, our beliefs on others. The first act of tyranny is to legislate that everyone should feel and think the same way. Such actions of law hinder free will and violate our constitutional rights as citizens of a free country.

And yet, to remain free also requires some personal sacrifice. Every generation has an equal duty to understand that the collective intelligence and wisdom of its people determine the greatness of our nation. National unity is more important than individual, ethnic, religious, or any other pride.

A collective consciousness is the only thing that can hold us together as both a people and nation. Social responsibility is more essential than cultural isolation. Patriotism is the steady dedication of a lifetime of people who realize they are one nation together.

It is true that we cannot legislate or force patriotism any more than we can force another person to attend the same church. Matters of faith and public spirit are matters of individual choice in America. And it must stay that way, or it may no longer be the America we inherited.

The question is how we teach each new generation of Americans that our national consciousness must still be connected to our past. The past must be known to every generation of Americans. The past must meet the present through education and national understanding. The spirit of those who labored to establish the foundation for free government must be felt in the spirit of those who benefit from the opportunity it has given. Every generation is a vital link in keeping America strong and great.

Yes, we have made being an American a very complicated thing! But, above all the rhetoric and progress of our times—regardless of our faith, creed, color, lifestyle, or national origin—each of us still has that same timeless duty to first have a national heart.

When we do, then we can still rally around our national symbol, "Old Glory"—because it flies for the sake of our ancestors, our children, our institutions, our country—and it flies for each of us!

To Be The Heroes We Are Supposed To Be

Like the archetypal hero, we each can transcend to a new level of awareness and attain a veritable rebirth.

One of the powerful icons of antiquity is displayed in a section of a votive relief at the Louvre in Paris. From the Hellenistic period, 1st century, B.C., the sculpture is titled "Offering to the Dioscuri." It represents Castor and Pollux, the most famous twins, dioscuri, of Greek mythology, riding magnificent steeds across the heavens. According to the myth, one of the twins is mortal, the other immortal. One represents the divine principle within us; the other signifies the energy in life which we must eternally encounter and transform. As the story goes, the twins spend alternative nights in the heavens and in the netherworld seeking, through their experiences, the light of tomorrow.

We commonly think of them as the zodiac sign Gemini. In astronomy, they are the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini.

Contemplating the imagery of this myth, we can see the twins as heaven and earth, day and night, past and future. Also, they represent the tension of opposites within ourselves at the very point of our transition from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge. Thus, this relief carving offers a pictorial description of the classic journey of the hero—the journey each of us is to make in life. It is an uncertain, often dreadful, and always dangerous night journey into the deepest reaches of ourselves. But through this journey, this confrontation with ourselves and our experience, we each can transcend to a new level of awareness and attain a veritable rebirth.

Only a hero, which we all can be, can wage such a battle. For it is only when we have an unrelenting resolve to overcome our deepest fears that we are enabled to know ourselves and fulfill our true potential. We labor and strive and learn in this world so that we may hope to live perfect in the dawn of eternity. That is the quest of the hero.

Of course, the symbolic meaning of the "Offering to the Dioscuri" is the same as depicted in Masonic ritual by the young Fellowcraft as he passes between the pillars of the Middle Chamber. At that moment in his life, he begins his journey into the greater mysteries which will enable him to become transformed into his better, truer self.

In contemporary Masonic symbolism, the Fellowcraft is the exemplar of the Gemini twins. His spirit is integrated by the dual nature of the pillars. Everything which represents the opposites in his life—passion and reason, aggression and cooperation, weakness and strength, anger and compassion, selfishness and charity—he takes with him on his subsequent quest toward self-improvement. Every emotion, experience, and lesson he learns on his own life journey, represented by the winding stairs, he integrates into his being.

He has only to make this hero's journey—this path of initiation, separation, and return—to see the Light of Lights and understand why Masonry is itself a timeless Truth, like the myth frozen in a piece of stone from two millennia past.

In the Scottish Rite (the college course in Freemasonry), our hero's journey is reinforced time and again. In the 13°, the candidate makes the descent into the cavern of his own life to discover the Lost Word. In the 18°, he finds, from his own journey through darkness, the light of the world. And in the 30°, he becomes the Dioscuri yet again, this time in the symbol and form of the black and white double-headed eagle.

Thus, when he becomes a Master of the Royal Secret, if he has taken seriously the path of the Rite, he is enabled to look back to the pillars of symbolic Masonry with new eyes—the eyes of a hero—and marvel at what Joseph Campbell has called the "song of the soul's high adventure," the path of his own self-meaning.

Perhaps it is really not so hard to be a hero. Maybe we need only to dream of a magnificent steed that will carry us aloft to a castle that knows no East nor West, but reveals the treasure of our soul's deepest longing.

Or, as Scottish Rite men, maybe we need only to know in what we are engaged--to be the heroes we are all supposed to be.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Intolerance is a Catalyst for Social Decline

Many oppressed members of our society believe they cannot have friends in mainstream America; even if we could all agree on who mainstream America represents. Gays and lesbians, AIDS victims; immigrant rights groups, sufferers of racial profiling, child custody casualties; terminally ill patients who want a medically aided end of life; privacy protection advocates, tobacco users, feminists and anti-feminists; Intellectuals, Pagans, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Masons—these and hundreds of other such groups have tended historically to be the victims of cultural stereotyping. And even when the victimized groups get fed up and become motivated enough to push for a political/religious agenda to right such biased labeling, their mission more often than not becomes only a defensive act. However well intended, they will seldom win over their peers by playing defense. They just can’t score enough points against those who oppose them.

The problem is that almost all so-called mainline groups who oppose what they term the societal fringe--the outsiders—also, in fact, make these same groups out to be victims. But it is a different kind of victimizing. The moral do-gooders are experts at creating us vs. them strategies.

To me, the perplexing thing about this is that while these self-appointed moral legislators seem increasingly to gain public attention as our nation becomes more culturally diverse, many of us still aren’t sure how we personally come down on many of the above named groups. We may share similar biases toward one or more of them, but when it gets down to forcing all of us to agree with some of us in regard to turning attitudes into more restrictive laws, the real majority of mainstream Americans don’t care much about being on board with our do-gooder friends. When the issue gets down to our own personal level, no one of us wants to be told by others how to live our life. We can feel empathy toward those oppressed in our society. We are fundamentally opposed to overt discrimination because it represents a restriction to our own basic freedoms.

Further, a lot of us weary quickly of frontal attacks which attempt to turn one societal group against another. We have enough problems of our own to be paying much attention to who’s bashing who in our greater society. And in America, when things seem to get too rigidly defined, we tend to ultimately draw the line by referring back to our founding roots; that we are a country erected on principles of equality and toleration.

The greater question may be why we put up with so much intolerance in the first place.

It’s not so much that we don’t comprehend the fallacy of intolerance. It is just that many of us appear not to care. Perhaps we see all this name calling and political correctness stuff as a mere inconvenience because it hasn’t yet taken away all our rights. The problem with being tolerant is that we end up tolerating too much intolerance. Through our own longing for privacy and seclusion, we, as the real silent majority, often end up allowing other extremist groups calling themselves the majority to manipulate the field of battle. By the time our own civil and personal rights become eroded to the point that we ourselves say; ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!, we’re already playing a game of media and political catch-up with those whose opinions have taken on the collective voice of a movement.

I can rally around a great cause as well as the next guy so long as I can clearly see that society will be improved and no one will be hurt because of it. But I am also painfully aware the more common characteristic of movements is that they generally tend to restrict, rather than expand human choice. And when movements catch the attention of the media, lawmakers and public authorities, the result can too easily be the overturning of individual and societal protections—those same protections guaranteed us by a constitution that permits us to be truly free.

Perhaps the issue would not be so important if we didn’t know so much about the characteristics of intolerance. Fortunately, we have the benefit of having observed it throughout much of the world’s history. We know that it is almost always driven by hatred or fear. And it often thrives on apathy. There is an inherently stubborn tendency in humans not to openly admit to ignorance and lack of understanding which is the seed from which intolerance grows.

To a mindset that wraps how it thinks around platitudes which feel politically correct, it becomes far too easy to simply turn an opinion into truth, and then abolish or censor all other points of view. The saner option of working on the transformative nature of learning and growing through education, knowledge and experience; of balancing faith with reason, of independent thought and analysis; just seems too rigorous a process.

So the impassioned voices of a few grab the public spotlight and influence the morally upright and ethically unwary that they represent the mainstream. All we have to do is endorse or follow the ideas of the gifted few and everything will be kept morally good and equal with the status quo (conveniently forgetting there is no such thing as the status quo).

When Americans buy into such babbling, it is the same as taking the next step toward social tyranny. We can be sure the masterminds responsible for influencing public opinion around a cause know that using political or religious strategy in creating follower-ship, if popularized, will have the effect of restricting or eliminating another’s equal right of opinion on the same social, political or religious issue. Their goal is to ultimately make the opposing position disappear. And it is easy for us casual observers to forget that such techniques violate the foundational criteria for a free society—that we must keep diversity of opinions in full view if we wish to enjoy our own freedom of conscience and expression.

The fact is we live in a politically and socially diverse world. It is much too late in our own cultural evolution to hope to find much ground for common expression. There is so much diversity in America in our time that we really can seldom be in total agreement with each other; let alone among groups and divisions within groups. We must surely know by now that one characteristic of sustained growth in any population born of diversity is that factionalism and a sense of otherness will exist. As cultural diversity in each generation expands, each generation’s sense of history tends to focus more on ethnicity than nationalism. The result will always be a loss in commonality of perception and purpose. This is why public discourse is so important to social stability.

This is why it is equally important that we also embrace equality. It may seem much easier to oppose diversity. It is easy to see and fear it as a disintegration of society. But we must not forget that a single point of view will seldom aid in re-creating a united purpose. We don’t help America by stifling other opinions, lifestyles, groups, and behaviors which we perceive (or at least can effectively argue) to fall outside the mainstream opinion; i.e., our own opinion.

All of this is really just “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” We must remember that the highest price to be paid for freedom is to allow others to be free. This means they can practice their religion even if we find their practices wrong and repugnant. This means that we allow the free and full exploration of an idea, even if we think it wrong and dangerous. It means that we permit people to live their own lifestyles, even if they shock ours. The point is that principles should always prevail over sentiment.

Any time one group of people declares war on another, morality is lost. A free society is not about always winning. Rather, it is about understanding the real enemies of human freedom and dignity. And tyranny would seem to me to be an obvious enemy. An oppressor riding over the oppressed is a powerful image, and one can see the wrongness of it at once.

It would behoove us to recognize that tyranny is not always historical. It occurs in the here and now. It takes place whenever any person or group says: “What I want is more important than what you want. My desires are more important than yours. I matter more than you matter. My views are more right than yours. Do things my way, or else.” And when such attitude is backed with force or power, oppression is added to tyranny.

A minority can tyrannize a majority; a majority can tyrannize a minority; a single man can tyrannize a nation; a man or woman can tyrannize a family; a teacher can tyrannize a classroom; an employer can tyrannize an employee; a religious faction can tyrannize a sect; a sect can tyrannize a religion; a political or social movement can tyrannize a society; a nation can tyrannize a state.

The point of this rambling is that no man, no interest group, no state, no religion, no nation, has the right to insist that it knows the Truth and that all others are wrong. Yes, we all have the personal right to pick our interests, our religion, our lifestyle, our passions, our advocacies. But we do not have the right to assert: “I have the truth, the only truth, and if you dare to disagree with me, I have the right to condemn, oppress or harm you until you come around to my way of thinking.”

Every religion and philosophy known to man has its equivalent of “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Yet, we sit in judgment of our fellow humans every day; and resent it when others judge us. It is not easy to be a just man, to constantly review our own actions and carefully make the better choice. But it is the path we should take. A wrong done to another is an injury done to our own nature, an offence against our own soul, a disfiguring of the image of God--the Beautiful and the Good.

We must learn to have a respect for religion. It exists, and has a place in society. Many of our own people are devoutly religious. But religious groups should not be permitted to actively promote a political message as they do now; at least not without also being classified as Political Action Committees or lobbying organizations, and their current activities proscribed by tax and other organizational regulations.

We must grow beyond our political correctness, fundamental beliefs, and old leftist ideologies because, in the end, all are doctrinaire and become dysfunctional in a diverse culture.

Intolerance may ultimately burn itself out because a human’s capacity to love is too great for any form of fascism. But it does so only at great cost to society. We must always view it a social illness that cannot sustain a civil society. Our contemporary challenge is in finding a cure.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Democracy May Not Work in a Digitally Connected World

Democracy has not been an easy idea in history, even in its beginnings with the Greek city-states. Plato didn’t like it for fear that it would give power to those who are the least intellectually capable of governing. He needed only to remind us of the judgment against Socrates, the wisest man of Athens, condemned to death by a so-called peer democracy.

Aristotle did not believe in equality any more than Plato, and thought no better of democracy, considering it equal only to tyranny and oligarchy. The only consolation he offered was that when the worst democracy was corrupt, it is better than the best democracy when it is corrupt. The Romans didn’t much like democracy either, fearing direct participation by the people in the affairs of state would produce a society devoid of excellence. In fact, democracy was not sanctioned as a western ideal until the 17th century enlightenment period. And even the enlightenment philosophers weren’t too keen on it.

Thomas Hobbes was convinced democracy could only lead to anarchy. He believed power in governance should be absolute. Even John Locke, who championed the voice of the people in societal improvement, argued vehemently that society could only advance through some kind of social contract. The great enlightenment encyclopeodist, Diderot, favored a constitutional monarchy. Voltaire thought an enlightened monarchy would be best.

The issue of the rightness of democracy was wholly unsettled even with the founding of America. The word is not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Jefferson and Hamilton saw America as a republic. John Adams considered democracy “ignoble and an unjust form of government.”

The point of all this rambling is that it would seem the concept of democracy is fraught with ethical, political, economic and social questions which are difficult to answer. And in considering just such questions, we may be faced with an even larger issue in our own time.

To be sure, our present definition of democracy is different than that of our Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Enlightenment thinkers. The founders of America were men of vast learning and refined intellect. They lived in a somewhat elitist culture and mindset. A widespread public reverence for greatness facilitated a process of governance in which it was expected the very best of our nation’s citizens would rule in our behalf. We must remember that in America’s beginnings, citizens did not directly vote for the president, vice-president, or members of the Senate.

Back then, it was generally acknowledged that the two forms of government most favorable for falsehood and deceit were despotism and democracy. The great 19th century Mason and philosopher, Albert Pike, wrote of despotism; “the concern was that men would be made treacherous through fear.” Pike added, “under democracy, the fear was men would become treacherous as a means of attaining popularity and office, or from their greed for wealth.” Our founding fathers were firm in their conviction that when office and wealth become the gods of the people; when the most unworthy and unfit most aspire to the former; when fraud becomes the highway to the latter, the result will be nothing less than chaos.

Unfortunately, our American experience seems too often to show that when our public offices are open to all, merit, integrity, dignity and honor are rarely attained.

Of course, it must be recognized our concept of democracy today has an entirely different meaning than the historical context I have just reviewed. We just assume our fellow citizens will abide by the laws and policies of those agencies of government whose activities control our community life. We feel sure in our protection that our consent to be governed will be protected by our constitution and by our freedom of thought and speech. The philosophy of our current democracy is that people are to be respected as an absolute end in themselves, and must not be used as a means to some political purpose or external end.

Hello! We may have a problem! There is something missing in this relatively new model of the will of the governed. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t for a long time. And the reason it doesn’t work is that we have changed the ways in which we communicate with each other. The key to how well our government works is based on how we communicate. Good government in the context of democracy can only be assured when people actively participate in its success. Democracy can never work when the majority of the people who are supposed to make it successful by their participation choose to be apathetic toward it. John Stuart Mill perhaps said it best: “Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it.” He argued that active participation of the governed in the process of being governed is an essential component of a democratic system.

Myself, along with a lot of my fellow Americans, are not caring enough these days. Even Tocqueville understood that indifference is the death of democracy. There is a direct relationship between objective involvement and the degree of public good rendered to all. There is a relationship between the kind of government that works best and the means of communication available in it.

The problem is that we don’t all have the same education, we do not live in the same homes with our parents and grandparents, we do not stay in the same place, we do not have the same feelings and attitudes. We do not share the same traditions, or enjoy the same fortune. Indeed, we hardly know each other.

There is no longer a movement of ideas. There is only information.

In the past centuries, we could depend on the printed word to supply us with ideas and knowledge. Since we only had one means of inter-community communication, what we read in newspapers, magazines, and journals created for us a national conversation. Our world was filled with essays on almost every subject of interest, and the same printed word was available everywhere. The influence of the printed word was powerful because it was the only means of communication. For the first hundred fifty years of our democracy, there was no television, no radio, no internet, no movies, no ipods, no CD’s. The public business was channeled into and expressed through print. It was the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.

The result was that Americans didn’t converse. They discussed. And their conversations were more like dissertations. Whenever people went to hear a political speech, a sermon, or a lecture, they expected an oration no different from what they were reading every week in print. People thought and conversed as if they were writing, rather than talking, to each other.

The bottom line is that those who framed our democracy knew nothing about instantaneous information, interactive media, info-commercials, television political campaigns, and all the dressings of our post-modern culture.

Instead, they invented our democracy on the assumption that there would always be wide public discourse. And a majority of the people would pay attention. Community debates would be based more on critical thinking skills, historical perspective, and a knowledge that meaning demands to be understood; rather than on immediate information, irrelevant feedback, and quick fix attitudes. To engage language means to follow a line of thought, which, in turn, requires considerable powers of classifying, inference making and reason. It means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions and to connect one generalization to another.

A democratic process is never enriched without language with content, individuality with intellect, and narrative with balanced meaning. If we wish to revive the essence and rewards inherent to a democracy, we cannot be satisfied with a world limited to quick and easy access to information. Rather, we will need to engage ourselves in the slower, linear, reflective forms characteristic of the good old printed word. This was the recipe for good democracy.

If we can’t get back to this level of communication, then we may as well take another look at a constitutional monarchy.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Is The Pledge Dividing A "Nation Indivisible?"

When California physician/lawyer Michael Newdow won a lawsuit on behalf of his nine-year-old daughter challenging school-sponsored recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance because of its inclusion of the religious phrase “under God,” many people were taken by surprise. After all, we are dealing with a national icon here. Few Americans can remember when the phrase “under God” was not included in our Pledge. Generations of homegrown Americans have recited the Pledge in schools for decades and never thought a thing about it. Indeed, one of the shortcomings of learning anything by rote is that the words are seldom symbolized. When we recite something over and over again, it becomes as automatic as tying our shoes. We don’t think about it; we just do it.

Too, when it comes to the Pledge, we are buoyed up by the inviolability of the icon itself. It is as permanent as a landmark. In fact, previous efforts to have “under God” in the Pledge declared unconstitutional have failed. But now we have the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Mr. Newdow’s petition. There’s no doubt when this lawsuit makes it to the Supreme Court, it will be one of the epic battles of all time in the age-old separation of church and state controversy.

But let’s look at the issue purely from the standpoint of law and individual protection. The original court declared that public school sponsorship of a pledge containing “under God” runs afoul of the religious neutrality required by the Constitution. In rendering the decision, the Court stated, “A profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

The Court went further by concluding that “The coercive effect of this policy is particularly pronounced in the school setting given the age and impressionability of school children, and their understanding that they are required to adhere to the norms set by their school, their teacher and their fellow students.” In other words, children who happen to come from a different faith system than the majority can be ridiculed and made to feel powerless simply for questioning why they have to conform to something that is not a part of their family or religious heritage. It doesn’t feel right to them. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t care. To most of us, our emotional reaction is “more right” even if it reeks of intolerance.

But setting aside the emotional reaction of most Americans (who feel rather strongly that our forefathers firmly intended “God” to have a central place in the purported spiritual ambiance of American virtue) and getting back to the ethics of law, the appeals court decision shows, at a minimum, a just respect for freedom of conscience. In the context of public schools, it is not realistic to expect children, regardless of their beliefs, to refuse to participate in activities their peers do.

As a matter of First Amendment law, this should be an easy case. The high court should affirm the 9th Circuit’s decision. The Constitution is a secular document. That the Founders made it clear they believed an American’s religious or philosophical beliefs should be irrelevant to the government. One can be a patriotic American regardless of his religious belief; or lack thereof. A government should never coerce school children, or anyone else, to make a profession of a religious belief. When the Rev. Francis Bellamy penned the Pledge in 1892, he spoke of “one nation, indivisible.” The last thing Bellamy wanted was a Pledge that would divide Americans along religious lines.

It’s also an easy case from a pragmatic policy perspective. Our country is becoming increasingly diverse. Public schools now serve children of many faiths; and many with no faith at all. It should certainly not require students to make a religious profession as the price of expressing patriotism.

But on the other side of the debate, one can well argue that such symbolic uses of religion as in the words “under God” and “in God we trust” have been stated and printed so often that the government’s use of such religious terminology has, in effect, long drained the words of any religious significance. The words themselves have become ceremonial, rather then religious. Such God-inclusive phrases can be found everywhere in both judicial and legislative undertakings.

Regardless of how well intentioned our sentiments are in this issue, the eventual Supreme Court consideration of the matter will be a media feeding frenzy because few national groups will likely see the constitutional correctness of it. Politicians have already widely blasted the decision of the lower court. President George W. Bush further announced that, although the federal government was not a party to the case, the United States government would intervene and pursue an appeal. Then, when the Circuit Court declined to re-examine the ruling, it left only the Supreme Court to settle the dispute. There is no doubt the implications of the judicial action on church-state issues will be far-reaching.

As a fervor will most certainly boil around this controversy, one thing remains hopeful. Even though overwhelming political pressure will undoubtedly be placed on the Supreme Court--through email campaigns directed by the Religious Right, in briefs filed by friends of the court, petition drives by citizens asking that the words be retained in the Pledge--all of these gestures should remain largely symbolic. While such moves have historically swayed elected legislators, judges are expected to base their rulings on the Constitution and the laws of the United States alone.

The high court ruling will likely come down to whether the justices believe the phrase “under God” is considered too benign, or incidental, to be a violation of the First Amendment. There is no question that, if any American is forced to make a religious affirmation as a condition of expressing his love of country, then that affirmation inherently breaches the wall of church-state separation. Prior to 1954, the United States had a pledge that did not divide Americans along religious lines. It is probably safer that we go back to that. Perhaps it was an error of shortsidedness in 1954 when we added the “under God” sentiment to the Pledge. Perhaps we even violated our own constitution then. Perhaps we should have let a sleeping dog die.

But we didn’t. So, if the Supreme Court upholds the 9th Circuit Court ruling, the present public sentiment favoring the religious pronouncement in the Pledge will likely launch a drive by the Religious Right for a constitutional amendment designed to force a union of church and state. It is doubtful that many political leaders will have the backbone to stand up and say why altering the First Amendment is a bad idea.

The larger question may well be: Is the risk of a constitutional amendment fueled by the Religious Right worth taking? I think not. As much as I personally like the symbolic unity and spiritual satisfaction I get from thinking I am living in one nation “under God,” I am also quite prepared to acknowledge that all humans live in places “under God.” In the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, it is the meaning of the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Question(s) of Ethics

This paper was presented at a statewide youth leadership conference to
young people, ages 13 to 18. During the workshop, the students divided
into groups and worked on a number of very challenging ethical questions
not included here. The response was very good; the topic always timely.
I have lived more than a half century. I still do not know all the answers to life. In fact, I'm still wrestling with many of the questions. But I do know this: You will never find contentment and fulfillment in your life until you figure out who you really are. What makes you distinctively you in your own eyes? What makes you different from other people you know? What makes you special? What is there about you which people like, or accept, or would want to imitate? What is there about you that you think people may not like? Are you changing how you think about things as you get older? Do you think you're different now than you were, say, ten years ago? Does who you are becoming matter to you at this point in your life? Are you going down the path that you know is right for you? Do you think one can take a different path anytime he wants to? Are you satisfied with the risks you are taking? Are you unhappy with yourself? Do you like the way you look? Would you like to be like someone else? Are you unhappy with your fears? Do any of these questions really matter to you right now?
You may not think so; but trust me--they do. Or they will. I have been asked to talk to you about ethics and why it is important to have ethics. And I can also assure you that everyone has ethics. We have no choice about that. The choice we do have is what our ethics are going to be. What they are going to be to ourselves and to those whom we come in contact with. We will all live some kind of ethical life. The question each of us has to decide is what ethic we will personally choose to live by.
So, if you can accept the idea that you cannot be truly happy without knowing yourself, then it stands to reason that the sooner you get on with this task of finding out about yourself, the earlier you will find happiness.
But it is also not so easy to know oneself. To know who we really are, we have to know what we stand for as a man and as a human being. This doesn't mean what religion we prescribe to, or what politics we favor, or whether we are part of the most popular crowd in school. Or even if we have not yet found what it is that makes us special, or in what area we might excel. What matters is what we do and how we think and how we respond to our life when the chips are down.
What do you do when faced with a dilemma in your life? How do you personally react to issues regarding your own freedom, or the freedom of others? What rights are important to you? Do you believe everyone should have the same rights as you? Whom do you admire the most? Whom would you like to be like? What inspires you about them? Have you ever hated anyone? If so, why? And for how long? What has been the greatest accomplishment in your life? Are there things you hope to do better? For what in your life do you feel the most grateful? Why? How much do feel you are in control of the course of your life? When did you last yell at someone? Why? Did you regret it later? Is it easy for you to accept help when you need it? From someone other than a parent, or family member? Will you ask for help when you need it? What are your most compulsive habits? Do you regularly struggle to break them? What is most important to you in life? What do you wish to strive for? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other peoples? What from your childhood has proved most beneficial? What has proved most difficult? Have you ever considered suicide? Or known someone who has? What is so important to you that without it, life would seem not worth living? If your friends could bluntly and honestly tell you what they really thought of you, would you want them to?
These are all serious questions. They are the questions about who we really are; questions about our values, our beliefs--questions about our life. And in our life, the big questions; the ethics-based questions, will relate to sex, integrity, generosity, pride, morals, honesty, justice, power, principles, trust, money, friendship, responsibility, accountability--and even death. These are the issues which will define us, and how we relate to other people. They are all important. They are all essential to our ultimate success and fulfillment.
As a young person just beginning your journey into adulthood it is not too early to begin thinking about the issues of ethics you may have already encountered. Here are a few more questions that may have already surfaced in your life. Think about how you would answer them for yourself. If you decided to do something and your friends strongly advised you not to, would you do it anyway? Do you frequently find yourself--just to be cool--saying things you don't really mean? Why do you do this? Is it sometimes right to be a little bit dishonest? Would you be willing to commit perjury for a close friend? For instance, might you testify that he was driving carefully when he ran over a pedestrian even though he had been joking and not paying attention? If you were having difficulty on an important test and could safely cheat by looking at someone elses paper, would you do so? At a party, your friends start belittling someone you all know. If you felt their criticisms were unjustified, would you defend the person? Would you rather play a game with someone who is more or less talented than you? Would it matter who was watching?
You see, these are all questions about who we really are; about our values, and how we are seen by others. It may be that we can get by wearing a mask that we think others expect us to wear. It may be that we can be a little dishonest, have mostly conditional relationships, take advantage of some people some of the time, put ourselves above others who might be less fortunate, or handicapped, or from some other ethnic background. It may be that we can go through life just being average, and meeting everyone elses average expectations of us.
But never forget that you are building your own life. You are perfecting a stone that will one day be placed in the Temple of God. What you do, the actions you take, the choices you make, the paths you choose, the life you will live . . . is yours alone.
And it will effect others until the end of time.
Ethics is about deciding for yourself what kind of human being you will choose to become.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Significance of Example

I can well imagine that every man can look back over the journey of his life and quietly remember in the days of his youth those men who had a positive and/or profound influence on him. In my own case, I would not ever want to forget them. I can remember thinking that such men were the very best of men; that such men were the men we were to look up to; that they must indeed set the standard for what men are supposed to be. The men who had the most impact on me were of my father’s generation. These were the men Tom Brokaw claimed in a recent best selling book as the “greatest generation.” To know men in that generation seemed very special to me. I thought surely these men had to be the best of the best. As a boy, I wondered if I could be like them.

But, in looking at such things from the past, we also have to have the perspective of the past. In my case, I was just a young man from a small town in northwest Oklahoma. It would not have seemed possible at such a young age to think of oneself as ever becoming well known or respected. Most of us adolescent males just barely out of puberty knew that it was all we could do just to try and make amends for the sins of our own adolescence. And I was dead certain I had born my share of iniquity.

Oh, it wasn’t that I did anything different than any other healthy red-blooded American boy. It’s just that almost everything I did could be counted as a sin by someone else’s moral standard. Back in my time, you didn’t have to actually commit a sin to be guilty. If you just thought about committing one, you were a sinner. And most sins of which I had any knowledge I rather enjoyed thinking about.

Unfortunately, it was also the bane of boys in small town America of my era to be constantly judged by stern-faced righteous looking old women who wore a perpetual scorn of mistrust upon their countenance, which seemed amplified by a pronounced, raised eyebrow which they quickly maneuvered into place whenever we came into their presence! The matriarchs of any small community had a way of knowing that men will be boys for the longest time before they finally become men. Their role in life, I think, was to keep us feeling guilty enough about being guys to compel us to hurry along the process of our own growing up so we could grow out of all the fun of life, and simply become men whom they could then control.

This brings me to the point of this rambling. Regardless of how we have been programmed in our past to learn, obey, and follow the cultural rules in which we were raised, part of the process of taking on the responsibility of manhood is to become aware that we are the same kind of men our forefathers were. Perhaps the moral training of the women in our life molded us to become good men. But we have all of the same qualities the generation before us had. We have the same passions, the same faults, the same shortcomings, the same biases, the same prejudices as our predecessors. We are, after all, only men. As the poet said, there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.

In the overall scheme of things, what our past represents is really of little importance. If we feel that somehow we are not as worthy as the men who came before us, there is only one thing to do. We start making different choices about how we live and think and relate to others. Just as we are who we are today because of the choices we made yesterday; likewise, tomorrow will be the result of today’s choices. As the author Mary Crowley so rightly said; “We are free up to the point of choice, then the choice controls the chooser.” What she meant is that once we choose, our choices control us.

As we grow into responsible manhood, we have a higher duty to look after our own behavior in such a way that we will bring credit to ourselves and to our gender. We become the examples that younger men watch when they are deciding what choices they are going to make as they begin their life as men. We are supposed to be the right kind of men for them. Our hope should be that we will ourselves become the greatest generation—great by what we know; and great by how we practice what we know.

It is largely about commitment. What we commit ourselves to become will change what we are and will make us different men. It is not the past, after all, but the future that conditions us—what we do with what lies in front of us is far more important than anything that has already happened to us.

As men of integrity and honor and nobility, there is but one question to ask. What are our commitments going to be tomorrow? The day after? Where are we going? What are we going to do? Who are we going to be? What example will we set? What legacy will we leave?

These are our choices. Our choices will become our life.

And if we want to check ourselves as to the rightness of our own example, we need only to look back over our shoulders and commit to become the kind of men we thought we once knew. Perhaps unknowingly, those men have taught us that it is seldom who we are, but who others perceive us to be that defines our life. We behave in the manner that is congruent with the behavior of those we admire the most so that we can serve the role of modeling the behavior of those who will come after us.

This makes today a remarkable day in each of our lives. It is such a moment that, if we commit ourselves to the meaning of honor and integrity as men, then providence will move with us. And everything will change. As the poet so eloquently said:

"Be such a man, and live such a life,
that if every man were such as you,
and every life a life like yours,
this earth would be God’s Paradise."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Path Less Traveled Makes All the Difference

I have invested a good portion of my life as an active Freemason. It is the oldest fraternal society in the world. In fact, it predates all fraternal orders created in the past 300 years. That’s a long tenure of service to humankind and the ideals of manhood. Freemasonry has impacted more than 30 continuous generations of men.

It is not easy for people outside the Craft to understand anything about our fraternal teachings. We have always been a very private society. Indeed, we are a part of the ancient mysteries tradition. We are a secret organization for men, and we have always been so. Our information is closely held; for it can only be transmitted to those who have conscientiously prepared themselves to receive it.

For this reason, we never concern ourselves with exposures of our rituals and ceremonies. Without the proper tools one can no more interpret that which is allegorical than a craftsman can build a house of strength and beauty. Freemasonry, like personal growth and spiritual enlightenment, is a uniquely personal path.

Freemasonry is known as a quiet organization because it was never intended that it have a public face. This simply means that, as fraternal men, while we are to be out in the world actively working to solve the problems of our communities, state, and nation, we are to be doing these things as individuals, and not in the name of Masonry. Yet, Freemasonry itself is not apathetic, but inclined toward individual action. It provides the catalyst for individual inspiration. Freemasonry teaches men to lead a positive and productive life. It admonishes us to live an active social life. Thus, it is a guide for self and societal improvement. It needs no other reward.

We improve ourselves in the name of Masonry so we can improve society in the name of our thoughts and actions. It is this balance, or harmony, that comes from self and social improvement that makes us good examples for others to follow.

Yet, as Freemasons, we also realize one of the challenges the fraternal movement encounters in today’s fast-paced world is how to overcome the perception that our teachings are no longer relevant. The current model for success in life has little to do with what one knows or can do for himself; but it has everything to do with what others see him doing for the larger good. People pay attention to the organizations men belong to when, in their mind, those organizations make a difference in the world. This has always been the central dilemma of our private group.

It is hard for today’s men to invest in the meanings of things, or in the interpretative process required to assign meaning to their life. This is precisely what the degrees or lessons of Masonry are intended to do. And these offer no easily interpretable contemporary context or associations which will enable a man to immediately apply Masonry’s lessons to life. Instead, it adheres to a more reliable and enduring paradigm—one that has met the test of time. In so doing, it addresses a remarkably significant current societal dilemma.

In the contemporary experience of manhood, one is seldom made aware that the achievements of today are the sum of the thoughts of yesterday; that tomorrow’s accomplishments will be based on today’s ideas; that knowledge has an enduring validity. We live in an information-based society which offers little hope for making decisions based on the accumulation of knowledge. Yet, wisdom can only be derived as the product of information and knowledge working together.

Today, it seems almost natural for a man to think forward to the future. It is much harder for him to understand how the past influences it. In the larger picture, it is seldom where we are today that counts. It is where we have been and how where we have been influences where we are going that has the larger impact on our lives.

The teachings of Masonry lay very important groundwork for erecting a path of life that connects the past and present to the future. Here is how it works.

Each of us is taking as well as making a path. There is an important difference. It is easy to simply be on a path. If we do nothing more than live and breathe, we will take a path which will become our life. The problem is that this path alone may not lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

This path may be the path of job and work, going through steps and grades of a pay plan for 45 years, only to retire and wonder if we have personally made any real difference with our life.

It may be the path of home and family, going through the rituals of husbanding and fathering, and wondering in our old age if we really did set a good example.

It may be the path of faith, attending religious services for a lifetime and wondering all along how we know that our chosen faith speaks the truth.

It may be the path of isolation, failing to be involved in service to others or failing to make real friends who can bring meaning and fulfillment to our life.

If we are fortunate, these paths may well bring us financial reward or the security of a home, family, and a spiritual life. But they can also lead to disillusionment. That is why it is so important we also make a path for ourselves while we are taking the usual path of others. For it is the path we make for ourselves that teaches, rather than carries, us.

The degrees (stages of growth and insight) in Masonry enable men to create such a path. Our degrees have been around a long time. They were written for the moral, ethical, social and spiritual interests of men.

The teachings of Masonry give us the tools to become better informed, to be more conscious of what is really important, to be aware of what the past gives to us, and to realize how we can use this information in positive and successful ways, thus facilitating our path to understanding, wisdom, and personal fulfillment.

In the overall scheme of things, Freemasonry teaches that the answers to the great issues in life are within us. We can accomplish remarkable things through deep understanding and the sharing of our wisdom with others. When we pass along these many valuable lessons in ways that resonate with the contemporary men in our society, then the past meets the present, and the new path——or, rather, the old path of truth and right and understanding——is laid for the future.

The new man of today’s fraternity can benefit immeasurably by taking and making such a path. Just as the senior Brother is reminded of and intuitively understands what has illuminated his own life, his own path.

Freemasonry is about path-making. It is indeed relevant work for our time—and all time.

The Disharmony of Spiritual Change

I want to think there is a global movement afoot that is bringing spiritual principles to bear on the disharmony of our times. There are certainly hopeful signs that we are beginning to see a period of correction in the collective consciousness that is moving the world to a God-centered kind of unity. But, the same signs give me fear.

It is true that people from many cultures are trying to get together in spirit. There are certainly more spirit-based programs than ever before. There are more universal centers of worship than at any other time in our history. And the "old information" is back and more available than ever. It would seem this data and effort together might move our world to a more loving status.

But, the problem is there are also some bad signs--more violence, more wars, more gangs, more drugs, more hate--less values, less integrity, less tolerance, less compassion, less love. It deeply concerns me.

Everything is moving about the edges of the circle of progress. There is no center from which the real light of Grace is emanating. I fear the result may be the wrong kind of awakening. When I look at history, every awakening we have had has been a move toward more fundementalism or orthodoxy--which has created a more intolerant world. And that has always led to revolution.

In my view, some organization(s) will have to surface which can direct our culture to a different kind of equilibrium. And the guidance will have to be given to our next generation of adults--today's youth. The central problem I see is that we are rapidly becoming a cross-cultural society. Our country is receiving immigrants in record numbers. Many of these people come to us with deep ethnic divisions, age-old religious conflicts, and long hostilities to the point of fragmentation, even within single nations. They have no perspective of, or interest in, cross-cultural understanding. Yet such understanding is crucial to our survival. And that kind of understanding won't just happen on its own. It must be learned. Reconciliation between and among those who have migrated to America won't just occur. It must be learned. And both of these things will require that toleration be learned and practiced. If it's not, then I fear we cannot keep our national identity.

I have seen it in some of the foreign students I have met. They don't understand my personal values, or the culture in which I have been raised as an American. In some cases, I have even seen attitudes which represent a kind of personal intolerance. For instance, I have found male attitudes especially demoralizing to women. It's very much like the red-neck mindset we have in our own country (the old "find her, feed her, fuck her, and forget her" thing--which debases the integrity of womanhood).

So, there may be cultural and personal intolerance in the making.

And, even worse, is religious intolerance. And it is beginning to sweep the country. I'm not sure it can be stopped! The religious right is attempting to legislate how we can think on things, and what our children can read. Haven't we been here, before?!!

The problem with any form of religious zeal is that it shifts people from reason to emotion. Televangelists and right wing preachers are successful not because they have any real credentials; but because they understand the passion they can create from heated devotion and radical enthusiasm. They become convinced they have saved themselves and, having done so, think they have every right to then judge everyone else on the state of their souls. History has clearly proven that any time a charismatic leader decides he has the single answer to salvation, and then declares that the world must come to his same conclusion; will lose all sense of ethics to achieve his mission. He will eventually become an accuser who resents tolerance, abhors intellectual activity, and will literally lead his following to more darkness by preferring schism, hate, and separation; to understanding, reason, and love.

This is a sad litany, but I fear that those of us who "feel there is something in the air" are far more likely to find the above kind of change than the more beautiful and sacred spiritual awakening that our souls are crying for us to experience.

In the midst of all this, one of the truly wonderful things I feel about myself is that I don't confuse the path with the destination. I am on that mystical journey which drives me into myself--to that sacred flame at my center.

My goal is to find the path which allows me to see the flame (have the insight), and live the mystery.

When I do, I will be warmed and ignited beyond the physical. I will have found my connection to the Source...

...and then I will have learned how to live!

Some Thoughts on Faith

Some Thoughts on Faith. . .

[Note--the following musing is not the result of a single setting in front of a computer monitor. I wrote this over a period of time as a continuing dialogue with myself as I was contemplating the validity of my own faith system. I had just completed a rather exhaustive reading of the world's religions, and the pagan beginnings to religious thought; and I was discouraged by the church's seemingly impotent understanding of its role in aiding people to know the basis of their faith, and what the overall religious experience is meant to do for humanity. I cannot say I have completed this work; but it represents my present perspective on my own confession of faith as regards the sacred in my life. I remind the reader that the words are mine; and, while I love'em, they may not represent truth, or wisdom, to you. So, take what seems to have meaning to you, and accept the balance as the musings of one who perhaps thinks too much about these things --Robert G. Davis]

The French author, Voltaire (a freemason), once said, "If there were no God it would be necessary to invent him." It is the view of many intellectuals in our modern society that that is precisely what man has done.

It can hardly be debated that organized religion has created its own versions of God many times over. I think perhaps the reason it is so difficult to personally decide if one is a Christian is because the church has, through the past 2,000 years, invented Jesus. And. regardless of which religion we may belong, since most of us simply follow the faith of our fathers--without ever really studying the relevancy or reliability of that faith--it is remarkable that we can proclaim on the subject at all.

The great question posed by Pilate, "What is Truth?", has always burned at my psyche, and I have spent a considerable part of my adult life wondering about the answer. While I now know that it is not in the provision of man to know, I still feel fairly certain about some things. One of them is that everyone has a religious experience. We are all connected to history; to the history of ideas, to the experience and ways of our ancestors. And, while we have largely desacralized our modern world, we have never totally succeeded in doing away with religious behavior in our lives. Many of our daily or yearly rituals were born in religion. I profess to be a Christian, and Christianity has validity in my mind and heart. But my declaration of faith is built upon Christ as metaphor; and is not tied to the dogma and doctrines of that faith. I am also a Buddhist because Buddhism provides me the understanding to live a life in harmony with all things.

I freely admit that my own faith has little or nothing to do with the function of church. I see little hope for the future of the established church. I'm not angry at the church, although I could make a strong argument it has many faults--not the least of which is its own failure or refusal to understand its mission. But for all its pettiness, its corruption, its emotional conflicts, and its own negligence in establishing an adequate understanding of the message of Christianity--still, it provides an important societal function which enables people to discover that their own life can be improved; can be transcended.

Perhaps the best way to look at the church is to see it as a space different from the ground on which it stands. It symbolically represents a place where passage from one world to another becomes possible. When one opens the door to the interior of the church, he crosses a threshold between the two worlds in which he lives. This threshold then becomes the boundary between his profane and his religious life. It represents an initiatory passage from one form of life to another. Every human being needs such a sacred retreat, or precinct, which enables him to transcend his own profane world. It is in such places that communication with the gods is made possible. It is in such centers that man becomes centered on the moral duties of his life. And if such a retreat space did not exist, the world in which we live would ultimately have little meaning. To the extent the church fulfills its mission as a sacred space, or retreat, for man, we should strive to help it improve. But, like in so many other things, what needs improvement is the model in which its message is delivered so that it can work in our lives.

We already know that, if that model is not improved, our modern society will create its own replacement for it. We have already seen the beginning of this in the proliferation of many little sects and movements; all seeking to offer a more meaningful path to a feeling of sacredness in the life experience. The reason for all this experimentation is that we each need to create this sacred space for ourselves. By whatever ritualistic way we construct it, it reproduces for us the work of the gods. It is important to understand that a fulfilled life is not really possible without an opening to the transcendent. We simply cannot live happily in chaos. So, I think in evaluating our own concept or understanding of faith, it is important that we look at religion and the church as two different ideas; two separate things. The church is a consecrated authority, but it too often fails its religious mission by allowing itself to become more of a human institution than a godly one. One should be careful not judge whether it is valid for him to be a believer based on his feelings about the church alone.

In my own reflection on these things, I took a closer look at the church itself because my biggest disappointment with religion has always been in the apparent failing of this most significant symbol for it. Assuming for the moment that we can agree that the message of Jesus has validity, then the central problem is that "organized" religion is too indecisive, and is therefore ultimately a rejection of the real and pure message of Christ. There is no divine rationale for a divided church. Yet, churches and denominations divide themselves almost daily. And every time they do, they reject the message. It is a sad thing to have to admit that there is much in the history of the church that represents rejection. I can give some examples of a few such major church ideas which represent the rejection of the message.

Triumphalism, which puts confidence in the power and the splendor of the church rather than in the power and love of God; is a rejection. Parochialism, which is too willing to prevent the Spirit from inspiring those who aren't, say, Baptist, or Catholic; is a rejection. Dishonesty, which tries to obscure the human failings of the church organization; is a rejection. Authoritarianism, the worst of all evils, which attempts to compel people to be virtuous by coercion; is a rejection. Stereotyping and scapegoating, which blame other people for what is wrong in the world in the name of God; is a disgusting perversion. Right wing Christian fundamentalism today is centered around just such a mindset.

Pietism is a failure because it confuses the meaning of commitment. Zealotry is a failure because it makes us think we can demonstrate our commitment by forcing a commitment on others. Rationalism is a failure because it ultimately refuses to admit the possibility of the intervention of God in the person of Jesus. The New Age movement is a failure because it confuses being spiritual with penetrating the root questions which all men must ask.

So, is there no wonder there is a crisis of faith in our times?

All of the above are an evasion of faith. We use so many masks and props in the formal ceremonies of Christianity that many folks are no longer sure there is a "wedding feast"--and certainly are not sure they want to go to it! It's a real shame.

Now, given all this discouragement, why and how can I claim to be a Christian?

To me, the Truth lies in the symbolism of Jesus and the gospel story. I will try to communicate to you my understanding about the Myth of Jesus. But, it's not an easy concept to interpret, so bear with me.

It's important to think about Jesus in mythic terms. As you know, to say Jesus is a myth is not to say he is a legend. As Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, has so aptly taught us, the mythic image enables us to realize that the life and message of Jesus was an attempt to demonstrate the inner meaning of the universe and of human life. Religion, in the context of myth, becomes a set of symbols which provide us a "meaning system" that can answer our fundamental questions about how to interpret the universe. It's critical that we affirm religion in this sense, because to not do so would mean we could not interpret the meaning of problems like death. To not do so would immerse the world in chaos because there would be no motivation for the erudition of the sacred in our life.

How we create our world becomes the archetype for every creative thing we do, by whatever plane of reference we choose. Every construction of our own cosmology becomes a paradigmatic model for society. When our archetypes are defined only by our contemporary human activities, we fail to include the essential basis for truth-the archetypal image has to also meet the test of past generations.

I do not choose to limit my universe to the contemporary human experience alone. History has given me ample warning to know that, whenever we create our own world, then our own paradigm become its cosmology. Any attack from without, then, becomes a threat to the personal model we have built. Our response is to defend our model, even in its impurity. This constant variance in human interpretation of such things will most assuredly result in chaos.

I must therefore believe that the universe was created by a higher force than man; that man did not construct it, that there is hope that, in living a transcendent life, we can, in fact, resanctify the world as the sacred space it was created by the gods to be. For, to not do so will mean there is no hope for happiness. We would be thrown into the reality that time is our only existential dimension. It is linked to our life; hence, it has a beginning and end, which is death. In such a world view, we move only toward our own annihilation. I need to feel that what I do does not always represent a human experience alone, without any possibility of a divine presence. I need to believe that time is more than recorded history; that it can be created over and over again. I need to hope that there is a therapeutic purpose of which is to begin life again. Since life cannot be repaired, it surely can be repeated. This is my paradigmatic model of cosmology, and one in which I believe to be the model for all creation.

The point of any faith is not that man believes in God, or that every man requires the sacred in his life, or even that every man agonizes over these kinds of problems. The point is rather that most of us need some sort of answers to the questions of whether life has meaning; of how good people live; of whether good triumphs over evil; of whether we are capable of establishing relationships with God, or if an unwordly connection is necessary to staying the moral path. Our religious and/or spiritual symbol system is the only thing which enables us to interpret these questions for ourselves.

So, in the model of Christianity, since Jesus is the central symbol, his story becomes a symbol system designed to answer our questions about meaning in our life.

We must accept or reject the story (or message) of Jesus on the basis of whether or not it answers these most fundamental questions. To me, this is the real test of validity of faith. If we reject the message, then we must also ask if there is a different symbol system that will enable us to find the answers. If we accept it, then it must also lead us to believe that everything will be all right in the end. It is on this ground that we accept or reject Jesus--not on matter of papal infallibility, or the virgin birth, or the existence of angels, or whether or not the church has anything relevant to say about social reform, etc.

The reason I accept Jesus and believe in him is because I believe in God, and I believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and thus is, himself, every man and woman. It is suggested even in the beginning. Human nature did not begin with Adam, but existed forever in Jesus. the Archetypal Man, the eternal Christ. The incarnation was God's commentary in Genesis, "Let us make humankind in our own image, and according to our likeness..."

You see, from the beginning there had been a second person in the Trinity--a Christ whose nature included the man-type. The plural form is used to represent the male-female principle of the creative form. Also the Trinity--God, the father; God, the son; and God, the Holy spirit.

The likeness does not imply a physical similarity to God, but that we are a reflection of God's glory. This concept is explained in the sephirah of the Kabbalah (which, although Jewish, is the best description of the nature of God I have ever found). Man refers not to the physical, but to the intellect. The origin of the word "man" means "mind." God created "mind" in its own image. So, the Divine archetype formed our intelligent nature--our ability to reason, understand, imagine, and think--all attributes of the Divine Intelligence, God--the Three in One. To me, the power and truth in this idea is extraordinary to contemplate. I have found it in all religious symbol systems the world has ever known.

And this idea that Christ is an agent in creation is confirmed in several scriptural passages (Colossians 1:16, Ephesians 1:10, Philippians 2:6, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28). But it becomes clear in the Gospel of John--the last of the early biographies of Jesus. The prologue begins with the words, "In the beginning was the Word" (Greek, meaning Logos, the creative and controlling principle of the universe)--that which turned the void (chaos) into order (cosmos). It is called the En-Sof in the Kabbalah. The significance for Christians of John's prologue is his suggestion that Jesus and Logos are somehow one, that what took human form as Jesus had always been ultimate reality. The creation myth then, incorporates this new sense of Jesus' divinity.

Christ is the ideal, representative man (incidentally, Adam is the concrete, imperfect type of the archetype). In Christ, the pure archetype is imparted in man. As Christ is the image of the Invisible, so we are all transformed into the same image. It's not too much of a stretch for me to visualize that God (an ineffable idea) used the human form to communicate the essence of Its message to us--which is Love. And, without providing the way in which this message could be transformed into human terms, there is no way we could have ever understood it.

Since God is undefinable, it seems necessary to me that It should most appropriately have used a vehicle which would have been knowable and capable of being understood by our kind. To believe that Jesus was the first-born of all creation, that creation is affirmed through him, that he himself was in the beginning, and through him the vehicle for the meaning of God was expressed as we are capable of understanding it, is to accept the message of Christianity.

Because of Jesus' journey on earth, we all carry within us the "plan of the Perfect," as Plato said. Thus, to believe that God would manifest Its essence in man through Jesus, means that that same spark of the Divine is also within all of us. As Jesus was God, so we are all God, and capable of the same glory. Of course, this is also the Royal Secret in Freemasonry. And I believe this with all my heart. If you can accept this, then all that is left to understand is the message of Jesus. Because everything else in the New Testament is borrowed from other, older traditions.

I think there is yet another failure of the church. It has always feared (and refused) to teach us from whence it came. Yet, Biblical scholars and historians of religion know that the story of Christianity is a synthesis of beliefs and doctrines which had their origins in other lands and among various peoples. They were all combined to make the gospel of Jesus. I think this is what it means when they say Christianity is a world-affirming religion--not that it is prevalent in all world societies.

I can give you some examples:

a) The use of water for baptism, the savior born of a true virgin mother, the vivid concept of heaven and hell, the belief in demons, the universal judgment--all derived from Persia as a contribution of Zoroastrianism.

b) To the Catholic faith, the trial by ordeal, use of excommunication, prohibition against conversations with heretics, pilgrimages to shrines, severe sanctions against remarried women, degrees of legality in marriage, scripture revealed to official hierarchy alone--all derived from Brahmanism.

c) We must practice brotherhood, charity; before God all humanity is equal, we must love our enemies, rid our minds of anger, turn the other cheek; there must be a conversion to see salvation; religion should be separate from civil government--all of these tenets came from Buddhism.

d) The last judgment; the immortality of the soul; communion with bread and wine; that only through a mediator between God and man can salvation be possible; that Sunday is the Sabbath day; that December 25 is Christ's birthday--all of these came from the Rite of Mythra.

Egypt gave the world the God-man savior. Persia filled us with fears of hell, the hope of heaven, and the last judgment. The Jews gave us the priest-state. The Buddhists gave us renunciation, which made sex, family, wealth, labor, and comfort into crimes. The Greeks gave us democracy. The Essenes were Pythagoreans who provided the religious synthesis which Jesus absorbed--the God-man sacrifice and resurrection.

Therefore, since so much of the Bible is not original, and its words not literal, then the important question to ask is: What is the common element in all these traditions that brings validity to us? The answer is that religion is the study of myth. Man has two ways of expressing meaning. He can do it by using concepts and ideas which he develops himself, or he can use symbols and images through stories which convey meaning to him. In fact, one becomes wise by using both rational thinking and symbolic thinking. The stories of the Bible are not all meant to be literal; many of them convey a hidden meaning which direct us to investigate the darkest and brightest sides of our own nature. The synthesizing emphasis of all the mythic images outlined above is that all saviors, past, present, and future, were incarnate gods. This is the central reason I can accept the Jesus myth as an affirming testament of faith. Through the mythic interpretation of the stories represented by Jesus’ life, I can discover myself. I need only study their meanings. And if the traditions and belief systems of Christianity also offer me ways that I can associate them with all the other mythic systems in history, then all that's left is the message. And, in a human sense, the message is equally important.

And the message of Jesus is Love. The point is as relevant today, as it ever was. Unless we believe in the Supreme Being, the Heavenly Father, the Really Real, who has created in us, in our genetic map, the Divine ability to love to a point of unworldly generosity, we human beings would simply otherwise be incapable of being generous in our love of others. What Jesus is saying is that unless men are prepared to commit themselves to the vision of a divine love that he came to preach, they will not be able to love one another.

Selective compassion, which is so common to all of us, has nothing to do with the message. We must strive to see the world from other's perspectives. The white racist must strive to understand the black's militancy--the black must try to understand the racist's fear. The old can't write off the most repulsive of the youth culture--and youth must understand that the generation gap is not a virtue, but a barrier. Scapegoating, no matter how popular a human activity, is not permitted in the message of Jesus. We are only villains to ourselves. There is no such thing as a "little bit of hatred." Any cause which allows just a little bit of wrong to infiltrate it will ultimately be destroyed by it. This message is taught so often in the degrees of the Scottish Rite, which is a ritual and mythological system which attempts to discover the synthesis in religious forms, and, thus, the universality of religion..

Jesus was saying that we must be stubborn about the point of unconditional love. His message is absolutely meaningless unless it produces men and women who respect and reverence their fellow citizens.

If we accept the gospel of Jesus, we reject nothing that is good in the world. We are to go about our lives with no fear. What we do is much less likely to distinguish us from others than the way we do it. The way we do what we do is the way of the man who has found the meaning of existence. This is the message. Accept it, and you accept Jesus. The details, the opinions and authority of the church, and the community of Christians; none of these really matter.

If we do not see many Christians whose relationship with their fellows is a reflection of the message of love as told in the sermon on the mount, or as reflected in the good Samaritan story, the reason is not that Christianity has failed. The reason is simply that there haven't been very many Christians.

The church doesn't matter. Those who persist in judging the message by membership and leadership of the church, have set up criteria which Jesus explicitly rejected. The best the church can do is to facilitate the message. Again, it offers a symbolic sacred space that enables man to understand that he lives in two separate worlds and he has an inherent duty to connect his being to both. Everything else about the church is historical development. The Christian faith hangs upon a historical revelation. That revelation is an incarnate god in historical time that guarantees the validity of all older religious symbol systems. The history of religion only adds new meanings to the symbol, but it cannot destroy its symbolic structure.

The resurrection doesn't matter--it's from an older tradition, validating the myth. It can't be confirmed by historical fact. Even biblical scholars agree it is too much a leap of faith that a human being can be risen from the dead. The meaning of the resurrection, and not the fact, is what is important. And the meaning of the resurrection is a transcended life.

Again, it is all symbol. It represents a greater event. It is the vindication of the kingdom, a symbol that nothing can stop immortality. It is God's love that is the event, the cause; and the new, or transformed life, is the effect. We need only to believe in love to accept the gift of a new life. The resurrection is merely the event that vindicates the message of love.

And our focus must be on the whole message.

To follow Jesus is to think of ourselves as freely and generously offering our lives in the service of others. To live respected, so that we may die regretted. Our life should be seen as an exercise in gift-giving. The question Jesus would have us ask ourselves is, are we giving hope and love to the many people around us? We are called to give life--to give life to others by giving our own lives to them. The idea is to teach others how to love by the power of our love. It's a pilgrimage of the conscious acceptance of the Divine will.

I think it is valid to be on the hero quest with Jesus. His is the journey of all heroes. It is the same journey we all seek. It is the journey we also teach and strive to understand in the world's great myths; and in our own symbol systems. Don't worry about the theological details, organizational structures, or historical verifications. The issue is the same today as always. Do we want to go on the pilgrimage? Do we wish to trust the Absolute? Do we believe the claim of Jesus to be one of the guides for the pilgrimage?

In the end, religion is a quest for self knowledge. It is a hope for immortality in which every new birth, every life lived, is closer to the Source in understanding. It is an insight that human life is not felt as a brief appearance in time between one nothingness and another. Life is preceded by a pre-existence and continues in a post-existence. And, while little is known about these two transcendent stages of human life, the history of religion has shown us they are known to exist. Hence, for religious man, death does not put a final end to life. It is but another modality of human existence.

Even more, science has confirmed that all of this is, in fact, ciphered in the cosmic rhythm of things. We need only to decipher what the cosmos says in its many modes of being, and we will understand the mystery of life. This is why both the study of religion and science are important. The two together provide clarity beyond doubt that the cosmos is a living organism, which renews itself over and over. As our brains continue to develop into a collective consciousness with all other beings, we will come to understand that consciousness and intelligence derive from a mathematical root which has always been known in the cosmos. The mystery of our own inexhaustible appearance of life is bound up with the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos.

Since I plan on participating in the unraveling of this mystery, and being part of the rhythm of my own immortal transcendence, it seems to me that to strive to live with love, balance, and harmony in my life is to work at being a microcosm of the infinite macrocosm. When I place myself into the perspective of being a religious man, believing that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself "means" something, "wants to say" something, that the world is neither mute, nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or intelligence--then, for me, the cosmos "lives" and "speaks" to me. I form a part of the divine creation, and I find in myself the same sanctity that I recognize in the universe. My life is homologized to it. Then, as a divine work myself; the cosmos becomes my paradigmatic image of human existence. And that is the only paradigm that will ultimately free me and my world from chaos.

So, as long as I believe in a god-created universe (and I must because I cannot see the almost infinite number of complex life forms organizing themselves from random chaos), that order in the cosmos was pre-arranged by a supernatural power and intellect, that such power is manifested in me so that I can ultimately have cosmic awareness and existence myself. It is my mind which is eternal, and since none of these things can yet be known in my present reality because my brain is still evolving, then it is not irrational that I have faith--faith that I am a part of the cosmos, that it is not bigger than me, but is connected to me and includes the equation which will eternally guide me to improvement. Of all the faith systems in the world, the model offered by the Jesus myth offers for me the necessary metaphysical connection to lead me to cosmic happiness, order, and harmony. Jesus works for me because he is both historical and divine. Through him, I am able to access that sacred space; he is the threshold, or door, which links me to my spiritual side.

To follow Jesus as a model for an incarnate God, and as a reflection of us, is to recognize our true selves in what Joseph Campbell called "the wonderful song of the soul's high adventure"--a journey into our own unknown to discover our relationship with the overall significance of things.

To me, it is a pilgrimage worth making. And that has made all the difference.