Thursday, December 11, 2008

When the Buzzards Go To Roost

It’s only an opinion, of course, but buzzards seem to me to be an especially nasty species of bird. I don’t even like to give them the dignity of thinking they are birds. They never really fly, they’re only half-dressed, and they have no apparent means of employment. They just sit around with their necks hanging down between their pointed shoulders, knees bent, buttocks tucked in—in kind of a semi-fetal, perpetual slump.

And there they sulk. They don’t appear particularly to like anything, not even their own kind. They sleep most of the time, and you never really see much of them. At least not until something begins to die.

Then, it’s as if they had a calling. They stretch and yell and jump and pick at themselves. They sort of collectively launch after their wounded game in a feathered frenzy. It becomes a contest to see which of them will be the first to get their talons and their beaks in the warm flesh of their poor victim. Tearing and ripping at their prey and at each other, to see who will devour the most and the best of what is offered up to them.

It’s a pitiful sight. Almost a ritual, repeated time and again until there is nothing left but bones.

It reminds me of another species I have observed. This one’s also a rather strange bird. It’s called a Past Master.

I’ve seen this fowl do pretty much the same things. It generally sits around minding its own business, cleaning its talons, and rubbing its bald head. Until something happens; almost anything at all. And then, watch out! It doesn’t take much to provoke this bird. In fact, he has been a little disagreeable ever since he was relegated from the head of the flock to his roost as Past Master—usually by some “up-start” who, in his way of thinking, can’t know half as much about what is going on. As far as the gaggle of Past Masters is concerned, the judgment is almost always in on the “sitting” Master before it ever went out. It is assumed that, if not watched like a hawk, the new guy will most assuredly tear everything down that they tried to erect while they were the head of the flock.

Now, the not so interesting thing about this is that, in the kind of lodges I am describing, these old birds were no different when they served their year in the “chair.” In fact, it is unlikely they tried anything earth shaking in their own time to move their lodge forward. Rather than actually take a chance on saving their lodge, they made the same choice every Master had made before them. They opted to contribute to the lodge’s death for yet one more year—by doing nothing.

And now, having passed to the ranks of “Past,” they sit in their roost, usually along the north side of the lodge, and sharpen their talons--in case something happens--so they can turn it back into nothing.

Of course, this visual image of Masonry does not apply to active, vibrant, dynamic lodges; of which we have many. And there are many wonderful Past Masters in the world of Masonry. But nonetheless, the image too often does exist across the landscape of American Masonry. I can well imagine it exists in any organization that has a progressive line.

It brings up a point. When a Worshipful Master chooses to “do nothing” during his year, and the Past Masters heartily endorse his lack of effort; they are, in effect, contributing to more than just the death of their lodge. They are contributing to their own demise. They are eating the meat from their own bones. And, over time, there will be no reason to be a Past Master. There will be no place for them to roost.

They will have no lodge in their area. And it will no longer mean anything to be a Past Master. They will spend their last days just being “old buzzards.” Then, when they die, there will be no younger birds to watch over their remains.

If there is a moral to this rambling, perhaps it is that our fraternal institution was never supposed to die because we had only buzzards for leaders. The ideal was never that a presiding officer be only an average leader; neither should he be expected to imitate a poor example. Nor should anyone who has already led feel envy because a successor outdoes him. Rather, all of us should act together in care of what brings our lodge success. And success is always fed by right example.

Leadership in Freemasonry has never been about titles, jewels, caps, fezzes, honors, or tradition. It is about making good choices in how we act, think, behave, and bring credit to our teachings. It is not the past, after all, but the future which conditions us—what we do with what lies in front of us is far more important than anything that has already happened to us.

Here is a key: Vision, integrity, and a focus on excellence happens one man and one lodge at a time. Once an environment is created that is conducive to self-motivation, the group dynamic changes. And when enough of the right things change in lodge after lodge after lodge, Freemasonry will grow again.

When the buzzards go to roost for good.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Undivided Heart

The man walked confidently as he held close the hands of the Brothers selected to guide his way in darkness about the lodge. The ceremony was his first as a candidate for the mysteries of Masonry. It was a solemn rite, with words well spoken; a warm feeling, being at the center of such earnest attention.

It was a feeling which was not new to him. He had been in such a place before—not knowing the outcome; yet holding to a faith that all would end well.

He was a Senior DeMolay. It had been a couple of decades now, but he remembered a ceremony from his past which seemed familiar to the one this night. He was revisiting time. At 13, his best friend had invited him to join DeMolay. He had heard some of the other boys in school mention the name. He had no idea what it meant. But he wanted to belong; be a joiner, to be in organizations with his friends. So, on the selected evening, he donned a coat and tie, his friend’s father picked them up, and they journeyed to the lodge hall. It was situated above the grocery store. Strange. He had not noticed it before.

It would become a place which would change his life.

It turned out, DeMolay was unlike any other organization or club he had joined in school. It was special. There was something in the words, even then, that seemed deeper, more lofty, even intimate. He was told it was an initiation. That made it seem all the more eccentric--and important. DeMolay was more than just a club. He had joined an Order! He remembered being told it was international. He suddenly belonged to something larger than his school; his town; he belonged to the world.

Now older, kneeling at the same altar where he had once knelt, his heart was in his throat. He was profoundly moved by the deja vu of the moment. He was once again being initiated.

His experience as a DeMolay had prepared him for this. The familiarity was more than incidental. He felt a connection to something he had once loved; something that had given him stability, and provided a place for centering during some not-so-easy adolescent years. In fact, DeMolay had had a remarkable impact on his life. His early successes had given him confidence, taught him how to be a team player; how to speak, how to lead. In many ways, it helped mold him for manhood. More than anything else, DeMolay had taught him how to be responsible. He remembered feeling a strong bond to the brotherhood then. He sensed this old feeling rising in him again.

And it would be the third time he had experienced it.

In college, he joined a social fraternity. Again, there was a ceremony. Once more, he had been initiated. It, too, had been a solemn thing. Listening to the words now, and flashing back to his college initiation, there was an old familiarity. Had he been here before? Or, perhaps this fraternity called Freemasonry had been with him all along! Could it be that Freemasonry was the source of all the initiations in his life? Is it possible that his feeling of belonging, his identity with a group, his love of fellow association might all be connected with initiation? Does one become enrolled into a group because of its ceremonies? Does a man better define himself by the rituals of his life?

Suddenly, the spoken words became more reverent, more sacred—more personal. He slowly repeated his obligations to his brothers; remembering from his own past the responsibility and accountability required of brotherhood. It would now be up to him to make his shared experience with his fellow Masons a special thing; just as his past fraternal attachments had proven so special.

He was brought to light, as they say—a light which illuminated more than just the room. It radiated across the past initiations of his life. He could see clearly now, could feel the bonding of brotherhood; that kindred friendship with certain others in his community and the world made special by well spoken words in secret association together. Such light penetrates a man’s heart as if it were an ancient sephiroth; filling the bowl of mankind with love and affection.

It is a singular thing for a man to drink in the meaning of fraternity; be invested with the badge of innocence and taught the duties of brotherhood. These were lessons he already knew—lessons started long ago--of which he was now certain had made him a better man.

For him, to be a Freemason was not a new beginning. It was an affirmation; the continuation of a fellow feeling which had always been there—an undivided heart which yearned only for friendship, brotherly affection, and a higher understanding of what is important in being a man.

Such an understanding which comes only to just and upright men.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Masonic Ritual Is An Innovation

When the Worshipful Master is asked at his installation if he agrees that it is not in the power of man, or any body of men, to make innovations in the Body of Masonry, it is important to understand that this charge is intended for the preservation of the organizational structure of Freemasonry, and not its ritual ceremonies. More than one Grand Master or Custodian of the Work has attempted to apply this admonition to Masonic ritual itself. Yet a brief review of ritual development and its many forms across the landscape of Masonic jurisdictions will quickly show this question taken from the “Old Charges” has nothing to do with the ritualistic aspects of our fraternity. Our founders never intended that ritual ceremonies remain static. Prohibition to innovation does not apply to Masonic ritual as this is the single basis upon which all Light in Masonry is transmitted and revealed.

Even the insistence by the United Grand Lodge of England that “pure, ancient Freemasonry consists of three degrees only, including the Holy Royal Arch” is historically inaccurate. Grand Lodges have always been entitled to decide for themselves exactly of what their ritual consists.

The only “pure, ancient” Masonic ritual in the world is the ritual that existed in 1717 when the first Grand Lodge was formed. We know what that ritual was because it was widely published in three early Masonic manuscripts in the form of catechisms still extant from the period of 1696 to 1715, all of which came from Scotland. The amazing thing about these exposures is that they found their way to use and adoption by English Lodges. More significantly, we also find in them much of the foundation upon which all later Masonic ritual was erected--the method of placing the feet, mention of the “prentice” and “fellow-craft,” the five points of fellowship; the mention of the square, compasses and Bible in the same context; the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, the basic penal sign; the penalty—there is much to recognize here. It is beyond coincidence that we find these characteristics in common in all of these old catechisms.

And one other point is extraordinary in all these workings: Degrees are not mentioned. When the first Grand Lodge in the world was created, there was only the ceremony of making a Mason—an “Acceptance and the Master’s part.” In fact, we have no evidence of a three degree system, or a third degree, prior to Samuel Pritchard’s famous exposure entitled “Masonry Dissected,” published in 1730.

This makes the Master Mason degree in Masonry an innovation!

Serious historians agree that the third degree was introduced into Masonry around 1725. It became popular over the next two decades primarily because Masons adopted Pritchard’s exposure as an aide to the memory work. His unauthorized work essentially became the first Masonic Monitor; and would be the unofficial ritual book of Freemasons for decades. It is also the first mention we have of the Hiramic Legend.

No one knows where this story came from, but it is surmised that Desaguiliers may have been the author, being Grand Master in 1719 and Deputy Grand Master in 1722 and 1726. This was the period when the third degree was introduced into the ceremonies of the premier Grand Lodge. Logic suggests that Desaguliers and his Masonic friends in the Royal Society could have been responsible. Certainly, nothing could have been introduced without their approval. In fact, the Craft changed dramatically while Desaguliers was on the scene. The Grand Lodge went from an annual feast to an administrative body, complete with minutes and policy direction for lodges, including the structure of its degrees.

Desaguiliers, if he and his friends were indeed the authors of the third degree, turned Freemasonry into a new path. By 1730, the ceremony we know as the Royal Arch had been developed, which was the revival of an ancient Greek story dating to c. 400 AD. By 1735, the Rite of Perfection, consisting of 14 degrees, was introduced, setting a biblical chronology to the structure of Masonic ritual. Both the Royal Arch and Rite of Perfection, innovative as they were, were declared by members as “revivals” of ancient Masonry because they automatically imparted an artificial fa├žade of age on the degree or order. After a few years, even Grand Lodge historians were writing that these added degrees were revivals of an older system. It became fashionable to believe there was nothing innovative to them at all!

Of course, all of the new degrees/orders were adopted on a single premise—what had been lost in the third degree had to be found. For this reason, all of them show an amazing similarity in structure—all show signs of emanating from the same source, with the same regularity of form. Even as additional degrees developed, they retained a “traditional” structure.

This similarity in structure is further evidence that our Masonic degrees, were, in fact, created in a wave of fashion. They all intimate there are great secrets to be found by the dedicated follower. And indeed, there are.

At the same time that degrees and orders were growing by leaps and bounds in both the York Rite and Scottish Rite traditions, Masonic ritualists in the craft lodges continued to add to the language of the first three degrees, adding substance to their form. During the second half of the 18th Century, an extraordinary growth in intellectual meat was added to the bones of the old “pure and ancient” concept of the few simple catechisms of 1717. In fact, ritual development and expansion continued to be fashionable as a means of educating the craft until well into the 1820’s.

We had, in effect, created a school of education which thrived for nearly a century until Grand Lodges, primarily in America, determined there should be only one ritual; one set of words—that which was adopted by them—and everything else didn’t count. The American Grand Lodges established yet another innovation in Masonry—that ritual was fixed in time—their time. They had decided for themselves that pure and ancient Masonry was their Masonry alone. Masonic ritual became a fixed and stagnant thing.

This 19th century innovation may have marked the beginning of the decline in Masonry. It was during this era that Grand Lodges collectively decided there was nothing more to be learned in Masonic ritual. Our words were frozen in time.

I’m now wondering if it is time to create yet another innovation in Masonry; that of educating Masons that ritual use should be a dynamic process, just as learning is dynamic. Of course, we don’t need to adopt more words. But consider how instructive it would be if ritual diversity could be introduced as an added tool for instruction; if alternative ritual systems already adopted in other Jurisdictions across the world could be exemplified at the will of the lodge and sanctioned by Grand Lodge. Imagine how exciting and invigorating it would be if we had ten or twelve different ritual workings available to us in every Grand Jurisdiction!

Perhaps it is time to make Masonry fashionable again, both through the variety of its ritual form and the development of its intellectual form; where lectures, essays, and dialogue are shared regularly in lodge—all focused on enlightening the mind. Maybe the most instructive and informative papers could become a part of the printed monitors of Masonry; not to be memorized, but to be sanctioned and published for the benefit of those who want access to more knowledge in the ways of Masonry--those who know that More Light in Masonry is not the propriety of Grand Lodge, but rather, the individual and his brothers on their collective quest of a lifetime—a seeking for that which has been lost in the words; and their meanings.

In exercises such as these, would we not once again be practicing “pure and ancient” Masonry? It might just be another innovation worthy of our ancient craft.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Getting to the Big Picture

I attend a lot of Masonic meetings throughout the country; have personally got to know hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men. For decades, I have watched men go about the daily activities of being Masons, whether in their conduct of lodge business, performing degrees, participating in statewide and national conferences, giving community service, or just hanging out together as men. I pay particular attention to how Masons do things together and relate to each other in their conversations. I observe these things because we claim, as Masons, that we are supposed somehow to be different than the rest of the world of men.

The theory is that, through our unique experiences of joining, we have a different insight about the inner nature of things. We have been transformed as human beings.

It’s hard to explain to someone on the outside what it actually means when we say we have been transformed—that Masonry is a transformative art. In what ways are we actually changed by our experience of becoming, or being, Masons? Sometimes it is easier to answer these kinds of questions with other questions.

What would it be like to live your life as a work of art? To think of your life as a masterpiece in progress. To build your own temple which is your life. That is what our building image is all about in Masonry. How would you shade it, mold it, shape it into whatever it is that you think would be an absolute ideal for your contribution while you are here on this planet? What should be the unfolding of your humanity? What is it you would really like to have said about yourself? Whose life would you look at and say; “that is what I would like to have said about me. That is the right example for me.”

I suppose these are just other ways of asking the age-old questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? But these are the central questions in Masonry.

Most people, at some point in their life, wonder what constitutes real success in life. Is it the creation of wealth, property, or assets? Is it to be popular, or to serve others, or to have abundant amounts of free time? Is it to be blessed with a loving family, close friends, and lasting relationships? I imagine all of these things have to do with our perceptions of success. Certainly, they all “feel” like success to me. But Masonry suggests we take a slightly different approach to how we think about success. It’s all very personal. If it could be described with words in a "first-person" context, it might read something like this:

As a Mason, I wish to consciously create a sense of what I am here for. How I’m going to live my life that I have, doing it in service to others, affirming a sense of spirituality about myself; and maintaining a sense of compassion and caring and love and decency for others that I meet. Treating conflicts and difficulties that come my way not as something I have to conquer or overcome, but as opportunities to see how I, as a human being, may transcend these things. And, in the practice of living, not to use hatred or anger and bitterness in beating someone down in order to get where I want to be.

That's a pretty good start toward living a respected life. If we focus our thoughts and actions in a direction that enables us to feel at peace with ourselves and the world, it would be difficult to argue we have not been successful. Freemasonry facilitates how we look at and respond to life to achieve such success. For example, it teaches us how we go about making our life unfold as the universe unfolds, with a real sense of perfection, harmony, and peace without abdicating our usual role in life. We learn that such balance is indeed possible and attainable. I should think such an ideal would have wide appeal. I know it appeals to thoughtful Masons because it is a recipe for success.

In fact, I think it is a lesson that’s been told for centuries. It’s an attitude of knowing that we truly are spiritual beings, even while having a human experience. And we make the quality of that experience available through our thoughts—our mind—through our divine connection.

Freemasonry does not concern itself much with the labels of society, politics, or religion; rather we talk about kindness, and love, and forgiveness, and gentleness of spirit. Our teachings admonish us to understand that we are all connected in a divine way, so the real goal is to determine what it takes for us to get to the big picture—what does it take for us to change so we can always feel harmony and balance in our life?

The answer, of course, is different for everybody. But that’s not the point. The path to the big picture may be different for everyone, but the understanding has to be that the big picture is there and its availability is there for everyone.

We call this big picture Masonic Light, which simply means the awakened life.

Freemasonry transforms men through the process of its initiatory experience, by the repeated liturgy of its ritual, and by its many associations with the ideals of manhood. It enables us to get in touch with that part of our psyche which allows us to become transformed--to get in touch with our mind, to experience the metaphysical--to truly practice the big picture and know in our heart and soul there is more to life than what our body experiences. There is something underneath life that gives it purpose; that works, and has a lesson for each of us. It reveals to us that every experience is a teacher. Everyone we meet is a teacher. We are all students of life. And even when our life is in turmoil, there is an underlying law that will bring us harmony. There is order, even in chaos.

My observations of Masons everywhere lead me to suggest we all tend to have the same sense of reverence with everyone else in the fraternity. Maybe this happens because our ritual experience enables us to become more acceptable to love. We understand we are one and the same as brothers. We begin to treat our fellows with the same respect that we want for ourselves. We recognize they are, in the overall scheme of things, a mirror of us.

We come to realize that what people think about expands. And we always have a choice. We can concentrate on the negative, let our passions rule, be judgmental of others, feel hate. And we can be assured these negative feelings will expand in our own minds, and to our circles of friends. Or, we can be brothers, feel brotherhood, take our duties and obligations seriously, and convert what we feel to others. It is a great truth that the collective consciousness begins with each one of us.

As Masons, then, what we believe and think about as Masons expands. If we want to make men better, we must believe that that will really happen when men become Masons. If we want to bring brotherhood to the world, we have to believe that brotherly love will be experienced and understood by everyone who enters the fraternity. If we want to make the world a better place, we have to believe that we can make a difference in it with our own life. If we want people to know that Freemasonry has great value today, we have to believe that it is relevant in our own hearts, and can be as real in theirs.

The Sufis said; “If you don’t have a temple in your heart, you will never have your heart in a temple.”

Freemasonry is about having a temple in your heart.

So our message to the world is really very simple. If we but keep our character, our morals, our ethics, and our reputation as fraternal men as pure as our Masonic teachings would have them, then we can’t help but be successful. It is nothing less than our journey into the unknown to discover our relationship to the big picture—our own awakened life.

That is a pilgrimage worth making. Because it is right—and right expands.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Masters & Past Masters: The Real Role of These Worshipful Men

We often encounter problems when words describing ancient concepts are translated by language of today. The choice and definition of words which were popular a few centuries ago in interpreting ideas or rendering meaning to everyday subjects often seem archaic and/or misleading when used in a contemporary sense. A typical example of this problem in the language of Freemasonry applies to the titles of our principal lodge officers.

For instance, a Master Mason is a brother who has been regularly initiated, passed and raised in a legally constituted lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. But, in the 15th century, a Master Mason was a workman who was qualified by training and experience to teach his trade to a younger, inexperienced worker. He was a man of approved learning; a scholar of authority.

The title of Worshipful Master is the term given today to mean the presiding officer of a Masonic lodge. But in the 1500’s such a title meant honorable and reputable; applying to a person who was distinguished in regard to character or rank; entitled to honor and respect. By the 1700’s, to call a man worshipful was an honorific and often temporary designation; applying to persons or bodies of distinguished rank or importance. When the title worshipful became attached to the word master, the two together denoted a man of great honor, integrity and learning who also had control or authority over something or someone. Justices of the peace, aldermen and mayors, governors and rulers; all carried the title of his worship, or worshipful master.

A Passed (or Past) Master is a Master Mason who is no longer the installed Master of a lodge of Freemasons. He has “passed the chair” as the presiding officer of his lodge. But in the 16th century, a Passed Master was one who had been examined and passed as a Master; and was thereafter considered a highly qualified or accomplished Master of a trade, guild, society or corporation.

Today, the Past Masters, Worshipful Masters and Wardens (the traditional gatekeepers or sentinels of the realm, and later the regents who ruled in the King’s absence—now vice presidents of the lodge), in addition to their hierarchical status within the structure of a lodge, also make up the body of the Grand Lodge, or state assembly of Masons, and are given the authority, on behalf of all members of their lodge, to collectively adopt the rules and regulations which govern all lodges in the state. These titled men represent the voice of the Grand Lodge when the Grand Lodge is not in session. This is the reason lodges can operate independently from Grand Lodges. Each lodge is a microcosm of the whole.

This is the hierarchical nature of the fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, and its authority in regard to the function and leadership of each lodge.

However, titles alone do not address the more important function of these offices in regard to the fraternity’s ceremonies of initiation, passing, and raising. There must also be a transmission of knowledge, wisdom and insight in order for the new Mason to be transformed by his experience. The officers of the lodge are the metaphysical agents for this transmission. Thus, the meanings of the ancient titles are carried forth by the honored men who presently carry these titles to those who are undertaking the process of becoming Masons.

The Entered Apprentice (Initiate) must be bathed in the pure and moral motive of the light; the Fellow of the Craft must be passed into an intellectual understanding of light; and the Master Mason must be raised by that light to an insight of truth which transcends rational intellectualism. This spiritual transmission can only occur through an agent who is capable of knowing and honoring the spiritual sanction and sacred lineage of his office.

Herein is a serious caveat of which we, as Masons, must be always vigilant.

The man who ascends to the East in his lodge, professing to know Masonry; yet knowing only the words of the ritual without any understanding of his role as the Initiator for the lodge, is not capable of transmitting the esoteric and metaphysical attributes of the inner work to the psyche of the Initiate. He has neither qualified himself as a Master, a man of scholarly authority in the mysteries; nor as worshipful, a man distinguished by the singularity of his spiritual understanding.

Having offered the above as only a caution, in the traditional sense, I believe the titles of Worshipful Master and Past Master carry much weight when properly understood. They are, and remain, honorable and not temporal in that those who have the titles are styled “Worshipful;” and are therefore invested with the responsibility of being the teachers of Masonry, and carrying the spiritual lineage of the lodge with them for all time.

Therefore, I think these titles were never intended to be given frivolously, but should be earned by work, study, contemplation, and lasting commitment to the ideal of awakening the consciousness of humankind; the unveiling of the mysteries. This is the reason that only the most qualified and capable of the Master Masons should ever hold these offices.

Likewise, only those who are “duly and truly prepared” should strive to become a part of the elect group. To be initiated, passed and raised, one must first be receptive to receive the transmission offered by a Master or Past Master.
For, without transmitting and receiving this sacred gift of spiritual light; nothing much changes for any of us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oklahoma Masons Create $2 million Faculty Chair in Gender Studies

Oklahoma State University announced this week that, through a $500,000 gift from the Masonic Charity Foundation of Oklahoma, an endowed faculty chair of $2 million for men’s studies has been established. The gift will create the Masonic Fraternity of Oklahoma Gender Studies Chair, which will be housed within the College of Arts and Sciences.

The total impact of the $2 million chair was created when the Masonic Foundation took advantage of a $100 million match commitment made to the university by OSU alumni and Texas oilman, T. Boone Pickens. Mr. Pickens made a dollar for dollar match available to any organization that endowed a faculty chair at OSU before June 30, 2008. To sweeten the incentive, the Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education, through a commitment made by the Oklahoma legislature, then matched both the Foundation and Mr. Pickens gift dollar for dollar, creating the endowed chair in the name of the Masonic fraternity. You could say we were in the right place with the right vision at the right time.

As a Board member of our Masonic Foundation, I am personally very excited that we have taken on this partnership with academia. We live in a time when fraternal associations are often not understood, where gender differences in communication and behavior are not well known, where the qualities of manhood are discounted in areas as important as fatherhood, male role modeling, social responsibility, family and community leadership. The world little understands the role Freemasonry has played in enhancing and teaching the ideals of manhood; nor its significance in the creation of civil society, or its focus on the self improvement of the individual and the larger society.

Academia has just recently “discovered” the historical importance of Freemasonry through studies by Bullock, Stevenson, and Jacob. Much more can be done in analyzing the role gender-specific organizations have played in enhancing the physical, social and psychological health of men. Much can be learned from studies in inter-generational communication and social interaction among males; and the impact a positive group identity has on the esteem and social honor of being a man. There are presently few studies focused on what Freemasonry teaches, or the importance of ritual and ritualistic models to self and group instruction; the significance of ceremony to social stability; or the nature and purpose of object-centered sociality.

Freemasonry is first and foremost the study of men and manhood. Through its rituals, its inter-generational fraternal associations, and its connectedness across all communities, states, provinces and nations, it raises a global awareness of the importance of men in society.

I’m especially pleased that the Center for Gender Studies exists at OSU. It is a multi-disciplinary center that enables and facilitates academic research in gender across the fields of sociology, psychology, philosophy and history. It is a perfect match for the work of which Freemasonry is engaged.

The Masonic Fraternity of Oklahoma Chair in Gender Studies can connect the purpose, heritage, teachings and history of our organization with research aims of professionals and students across every academic discipline in which Freemasonry has a founding.

Perhaps most importantly, it will introduce masculine psychology, fraternal purpose, men’s interests, and social networking to a new generation of young college men and women interested in researching the importance of men and the role men play in enhancing the stability of family and social life, as well as the economic and social progress of society.

I can’t think of a more strategic route for addressing the ideals of manhood and a higher awareness of the importance of men in society. Today, I am really proud to be a Mason—and feel hope for men in our society.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What Come You Here To Do?

My Brothers, this is one of the great questions in all of Freemasonry!

As those of us in the fraternity know, it is actually one of the first questions we ask an Entered Apprentice Mason in his first catechism lecture.

The earliest ritual reference of which we have record is Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, published in 1730. I have read all the early ritual exposures and I can assure you this question and the subsequent answer given to it is not commonly found in the pre-Grand Lodge or early Premier Grand Lodge era ritual workings. In fact the answer appears in no other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769. In the single ritual text in which it does appear, the answer is given thus:

Not to do my own proper Will,
But to subdue my passion still;
The Rules of Masonry in hand to take,
And daily Progress therein make.

It is possible this particular catechism was used in early Operative Masonry because it is a didactic memory technique for learning. And this method of learning (using rhyme) dates centuries earlier than even the Regius Poem, (c. 1390),—purported to be the oldest didactic in Masonry. It may have also originated in 18th century continental Masonry, but again, there is no other reference to the question and its follow up answer in any other English ritual exposure from 1696 to 1769.

In a 1738 French translation of Prichard’s exposure, we find it once again. This time the question is worded What do you wish to do here?; and the answer given is; I do not inspire to follow my will, but rather to subdue my passions, while following the precepts of the Masons and making daily advancement in this Profession.

And then there is a 1745 French exposure entitled “The Broken Seal” where we find the question What do you come to do here? With the answer; To conquer my passions, subdue my desires, and to make new progress in Masonry.

It appears the consistent theme in each of these exposures is that the primary task of an Entered Apprentice is to subdue his passions and then, using the lessons of Masonry, to make progress in his life.

Now, the first thing almost every Mason will notice is that the answer given in the old catechisms is not the answer taught today in the ritual workings of our contemporary lodges. In fact, I would suggest that today’s answer has a much deeper meaning. It was developed during the early 19th century; when Masonry was a far more philosophical than moral undertaking. It commonly goes something like this: What come you here to do?

To learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry.

The interesting question is this: Are there any commas in this sentence? I think that there are. I think if the answer was actually written in most Masonic monitors, it would look like this:

To learn, to subdue my passions, and improve myself; in Masonry.

If I am right, then there was a new admonition added to the task of an Entered Apprentrice as the philosophical integrity of our Craft ritual expanded; namely—that he first learns.

And I think this changes everything!

To learn is to acquire knowledge; to acquire knowledge of a subject or skill as a result of study, of experience, or teaching; to receive instruction; to find out about, or discover; to be informed of, or learn about; to teach or inform a person of something.

We have to learn there is a moral imperative, for instance, before we can subdue our passions; we have to study Masonry before we can understand it. We have to discover there is an allegory before we can interpret it. We have to be informed of its history before we can comprehend its societal relevance. We have to detect its symbolic associations before we can grasp its spiritual nature. We have to contemplate its meanings before we can experience its insights. We have to be informed of its rules and laws before we can act within the due bounds of fraternity. We have to understand the meaning of manhood before we can grasp the unique power of fraternal association.

We have to learn before we can improve ourselves. And we are taught as Entered Apprentices, we cannot improve ourselves without first subduing our passions--without releasing ourselves from our own ego so that we can feel the brotherhood of man. And we learn as Fellowcrafts that we have to overcome and go beyond the human senses, we have to transcend the logic of human education, we have to journey beyond the paradigms of human awareness, we have to surpass even inspiration and insight, go beyond all the powers and properties, the sciences and senses of man to erect our perfect ashlar; to get in touch with divine truth--which is metaphysical—it surpasses human understanding. Then, as Master Masons, we learn that we have to finally overcome ourselves before we can achieve peace and harmony within ourselves, and in our lives.

The bottom line of Masonic teaching is that, through the journey of our degrees, we learn that Divine truth can’t be understood by the human agencies of education, or dogma, or rationale thought, or by the evidence of the senses—it has to be perceived directly. And, my Brothers, it enters into us by the path of initiation.

All of this is pretty heady stuff. Men come into Masonry to learn to improve themselves. If they are coming here for any other reason, then we are failing to represent with honesty what our organizational purpose is. Men come to us to learn. The lodge is the receptacle, the personal space, the sacred environment that will either facilitate their learning, or prevent it.

To me, this brings up another question for all of us: Which kind of facilitator is our lodge?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Origin of Freemasonry--Does It Really Matter?

In my own Masonic experience, I have heard only a few speeches postulating the source of origin of our fraternity. Most Masons I have met seem comfortable with the rather simple but improbable possibility that we evolved from the operative guilds of the Middle Ages. There is a persistent and attractive attachment to the building trades since so much of our symbolism seems connected to the tools and mathematics of construction.

Yet, the city guild system of 16th century England and Scotland was very different from what survived into the 18th century. It was a system specifically designed to prevent travel and to exclude craftsmen from out of town to break into a closed shop. Our ritual emphasis on travel rights comes from a much earlier era, when craft guilds were tied to religious houses, a tie which gave men the right to travel because they were sponsored by the church. To look into origins, one may well need to look well before the English transition era.

Besides, there are a number of other possibilities which seem equally compelling and deserve our attention.

In addition to those who subscribe to the suggestion that we are a product of the operative guilds of Scotland, which can date us to the 1500’s, and from which our catechisms and obligations seem to derive; there are those who just as firmly believe we descend from the merchants guilds of London through the London Mason’s company—a sort of transitional group that rescued the operatives after the economic breakdown of the English guilds. Sadly, its records were lost in 1621 so we can’t really say for sure.

Then there is the chivalric 13th century Knights Templar theory, which contributed significantly to our hierarchical form and added knightly virtues to our heritage. But a three hundred year gap between the last templar records and early speculative Freemasonry makes a shared adventure seem romantic at best.

Perhaps we shouldn’t totally discount Prince Edwin’s famous Articles of Fraternity. He was the son of the tenth century Saxon king Athelstan, and assembled the first general meeting of Masons. If it is true that his constitutions were approved by the aristocracy as law for lodges from that time hence (and there is not a shred of evidence that it is), we can add another 300 years to our source of origin; making us a whopping 1,000 years old!

Then we have the German College of architects who claim an association with continental lodges as early as 1745. But the historic problem of kingly sanction between Germany and England wields an unlikely provable association. Of course, there is the much older Roman College of architects who supposedly were the original source of all guilds, and in which a lineage can hypothetically be traced up through the speculative Masonry period. The problem with this association is that the organization was forced out of business in the 5th century so it may be difficult to prove an unbroken chain.

Moving into an entirely different arena of origin, we also have the mystical and eccentric esoteric theories which center our beginnings among the alchemists, Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, and the hermeticists; and from which our allegorical forms were undoubtedly sired. But why would groups whose adherents swore to secrecy and who refused to claim any form of organizational structure suddenly align themselves with an organization which was clearly social and civic in nature?

Perhaps our mystical side grew out of the purported Masonic search of perfection; that the ensuing intellectual aspects of our fraternity date no earlier than the Scottish Masonic reformers of the 17th century. Those fellows rather liked the Rosicrucian form of universal education and could well have wanted to duplicate this Renaissance theme in the Mason lodges.

What about the confraternities, such as the Star and Garter, the Golden Buckle, the Hanseatic League of Eagle, all medieval fraternities which can be traced from the 12th to the 17th centuries, providing charitable benefits to their members? And while we’re on the topic of confraternities, it can rather convincingly be suggested we are the product of a monastic order of the Protestant Reformation, organized in secret defiance to established church authority. There is little doubt that many of our Masonic emblems can also be found in early medieval church iconography. All of these pertain to saints who lived prior to 1300. Most Masonic/Biblical historians can show the legend of the third degree itself represents a confluence of two Biblical stories which were well known during the Middle Ages.

However, setting these earlier traditions aside to collect archival dust, and moving forward in time, let us not discount the possibility that we are really not so ancient after all; that we may have derived from the gentlemen’s clubs of London—a group of good ole boys who wanted to secure economic connections through the legal obligations of fraternity. Such an ambition certainly sounds like a useful and practical fraternal idea.

Finally, who’s to say that we really have any origins at all which were not always Masonic? Why can’t we accept the possibility that the fraternal government invented by Drs’ Anderson and Desaguliers in 1723 had a purpose not attached to any prior group. That our connection to the guilds was all myth after all; as these two men just happened to have as their hobby the study of the medieval guilds? If one is authoring a constitution, he can pretty well choose whatever antiquarian interest he dreams up and attach it to his new form of government.

The bottom line is that we may never know from whence we came. And it may not be important.

It is enough to know that we have existed as a fraternity for at least 287 years. That’s long enough to say we have a legacy and a tradition which predates anything American. Our tenacious survivability attests to the truth of our endeavors. And, at least in my judgment, the fact that we have been around to serve more than 20 generations of men proves we have an appeal which transcends all generations.

Besides, every Mason knows that how we were established is not nearly as significant as why we came to be. Maybe this is the real reason there haven’t been many books penned about Masonic origins.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Me and the Grail

I spent last evening reading a small book about the Holy Grail. I've been fascinated by it ever since I saw a movie about King Arthur when I was a young lad. I was totally enamored by the Knights of the Round Table and the chivalry surrounding Arthur's court. Even as a youngster, I knew the story intended to teach me more than just the worshipped devotion of a group of warriers committed to a king. There were just too many supernatural ideas brought out in the story. The whole legend became one of my favorite reads; and when the adventures of knighthood found their way to my dreams, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

It wasn't until I became a Freemason that I made a rather profound connection between the sword, the stone, and the grail. The stone represents the foundation stone symbol we know so well in Masonry. The sword, representing the virile power that is drawn from the foundation stone also represents each of us. Freeing the sword from the stone may have to do with freeing ourselves from the material and mundane so that we can make the spiritual journey toward enlightenment. Of course, the grail represents that which has been lost and must be found again.

I envision the quest for the grail, then, to be my personal search for the God in me. I like to contemplate this profound idea of a God that shares Its Divine essence with, and in, humanity. It seems to be at the root of every esoteric school that I know.

And it's such a grand thing. The idea that there is a divine spark which dwells within me, and that flicker of light alone makes me the heir to immortality.

Thus, it could be that the quest itself is the whole meaning of human evolution--a quest to raise the human consciousness from the level of the mundane to the God-attuned inner self. In Masonry, our task, in the end, is to re-integrate our fallen personality with the Wisdom and Love of That Which is Above Comprehension. This is nothing less than the process of absorbing our duality into the center of pure being. King Arthur certainly represents this duality.

Of course, I must also admit the grail for which I have searched has represented different things at different times in my life. It has been my search for moral purity, for triumphant faith, for soldierly heroism, for unconditional love, even gracious charity; all of these things have been important, depending on my needs and understanding at certain points in my life.
But the quest is ultimately a search for Truth. It is the journey which gives me the conscious link to my spirit; or, on a cosmic scale, a trip that bridges the chasm between earth and heaven. It happens that this journey is articulated within the allegories presented in the thirty two degrees of Masonry; which may well correspond to the 32 paths of the Kabballa. So it is a profoundly spiritual and religious thing we do.

It also occurs to me, if organized religions would have revealed that there is indeed path working to be done in approaching the golden dawn of truth, and the way is not so narrow after all, the Scottish Rite may have never needed to be. But Alas! The problem with orthodoxy is that it almost always abrogates the nature of God to a vehicle for answering the wrong questions.

It is our fault, of course. We, who know nothing about Omnificence and Grace, invented a God to take credit for all the unknown causes of all effects which we either admire or dread, without understanding them. The result is that most all faith systems of our world still seem to insist on making their own God. We are taught to pray to an image man has created to obtain what he wants.

For instance, it seems remarkable that, in this age of information, there are still many who see God as some kind of a super-human person, usually masculine, who has power to bring us either fortune or misery. It would seem that our many philosophies and belief systems have together produced a myriad of complex concepts created to help us understand our relationship with an entity that is unknowable.

In reality, any concept we have of God is not real. It can be only a reflection of one of the many faces or disguises we have invented to make the divine seem compatible with our level of human understanding. I do not yet fully understand my God. But I know that It is not a he.

In the chaos of my own journey, any attempt I make to personalize God to fit into my world is simply a reflection of my own ego. I am therefore content not to understand what God is; but, rather, to contemplate what the Divine may be. In my own duality, it is enough for me to simply know that I myself am a Temple in the process of becoming Holy. If I build well, then perhaps I will at least feel at oneness with the unknowable.

To me, this would seem to be the essence of the esoteric journey.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Two Models of Success in Craft Masonry

A global review of lodge models clearly shows there are two foundational principles of success in sustaining a long term positive growth in membership.

First, we must be committed to the idea that all Masonry is local.

Lodges (individual governing units) may be ruled by a set of codes and laws which are enforced by Grand Lodges (state governing units); but these rules have been enacted by the lodges themselves, acting collectively for the good of the whole. Thus, it has always been the lodge which determines the rules. It is good to recall that lodges existed for more than a century before the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717. The foundation of Masonry has always been the lodge itself. It either thrives or dies based almost wholly on the vision and attitudes of its own members.

This is the way it has always been.

Second, we must understand that the sovereignty of Masonry is with the lodge. Grand Lodges may have dozens of rules prohibiting this and that in regard to member behavior, rights of entry, lodge procedures, and ritual ceremonies. But again, these rules, whatever they may be, have at one time in the past been authorized by the lodges themselves, acting on behalf of the collective good of the Order. Grand Lodges exist to preserve harmony over the global culture of Masonry; and to serve the constituent and sovereign lodges within the geographic boundaries of their state or province. It is important to note that everything otherwise legal, moral or ethical that is not prohibited in Masonry; is permitted.

These two foundational principles, then, ensure that all lodges have an equal opportunity to succeed. The outcome is left to the virtues of leadership, ability, vision, relationship, and action.

If we can agree the above two principles have validity in Masonry, then a worldwide review of lodge practices calls me to suggest there are also two exemplars of governmental success, at least in the American Masonic culture today.

There are thriving lodges in America who stay focused on delivering Masonry with a well-rounded agenda. These lodges characteristically provide accurate ritual work, measurable charitable activities, visible community services, regular family and social activities, and a meaningful fraternal experience for their members. Successful lodges do this consistently year after year. Such fraternal associations are often well known in the community largely because the lodge is an integral part of it. And in such lodges, many of the members are known in town not only as good community volunteers, but also as Masons. Lodges that are increasing in membership in the United States typically do the things mentioned above better than most. Successful lodges also do these things better than other community organizations which otherwise compete for a man’s time.

The second model of success is the lodge that is focused only on Masonry as a place where personal, fraternal and spiritual growth may occur; one in which meaningful tools for personal improvement and spiritual development are consistently delivered to members in a private sanctuary of brotherhood month after month.

Such lodges are centered on what we call the “inner work,” in which the appeal is wholly fraternal and carried out in privacy, with little public visibility. This is the model which has proven most successful in many foreign jurisdictions. In America, we think of these as “traditional practices” lodges in the sense that the traditions derive from lodges which predate the typical historical American timetable. Many of these lodges have sustained a 3% annual rate of growth over many decades.

We should be fully supporting and encouraging both models of success for the overall American culture. The one brings us public presence, image, and credibility; the other fulfills the expectations of many younger men (those born after 1975) who want to be on the journey of self-development and improvement.

Both models offer the right kind of patriarchy and role modeling which can guide men to mature and manly judgment. Both follow a time-tested path toward truth and authenticity. Both are nurturing and fulfilling to the male psyche.

In the academic studies I’ve read concerning the needs of men in today’s society, the lodge that is centered on education, spiritual development, role modeling and fraternal bonding may be the most powerfully compelling organization to join in America for men who fall with the 19 to 40 age range. When such a venue exists for men in every community, everyone benefits.

Those who seek these things in their own life will always be welcome in our classic “Men’s House”—the manly and sacred space of lodge; where together we lead each other to our own transformation and rebirth.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Degrees of Freemasonry: Their Purpose

Above the porch at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed the words; Know Thyself. This is perhaps the oldest and most succinct description known to man of the purpose of Freemasonry.

It is said the phrase refers to the personal ideal of understanding human behavior, morals and thought, because ultimately to understand oneself is to understand others. But it also means knowing one’s own habits, morals, temperament, ability to control anger, subdue passions, get along, and manage other aspects of our human nature that we, as men, wrestle with on a daily basis.

Masons believe the most significant personal task we will ever undertake as men is to overcome ourselves. This is the very cornerstone of self improvement and personal development. But it is also both an internal and an outward process. We have to learn how to be accountable for our own actions such as bringing responsibility to our work, our relationships, our behavior, and the choices we make in life. Living responsibly means that we must learn to think for ourselves.

But being a good man also implies that we are consciously aware of how we represent ourselves to others. Truthfulness, goodness, honesty, bravery, courage, purity, righteousness—by whatever name we give them, our values define us because they also define for the outside world who we are.

This process of self development and spiritual improvement is what the “degrees” or stages of membership in Freemasonry are all about. It is what distinguishes Masonry from all other organizations. Becoming a Freemason is not an event, but a process.

Freemasonry exists first and foremost to transform men. Our stated purpose is “to make men better” and that commission takes place because one is initiated into a fellowship of men. 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 safe and private medium for meaningful dialogue in the ways of virtue and ethics. It offers the role of patriarchy to younger men. It facilitates the timeless, ethical and spiritual traditions that have always improved the status of men. Just as it has done for every generation of men for 400 years.

Freemasonry is nothing less than a venerated and time-tested rebirth into manhood.

The Degrees of Freemasonry

Masonry conveys its lessons by degrees. There are three such degrees in the Craft Lodge system of fraternal association—the Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. These titles were originally derived from the different level of skills and experience earned by the craftsmen who worked within the builder’s guilds during the middle Ages. Masonry adopted the language of the building trade because, as men, we are engaged in building our own human and spiritual edifice. This is a process that requires a lot of tools.

Our degrees are often thought of as stages or levels of membership. But they also represent different stages of life; as well as different levels of understanding and awareness. The degrees are therefore progressive in nature; like our own life journey.

Taken together, the degrees of Masonry provide a path, or way of thinking about what is important; what can add stability and meaning to our life. They represent a map of consciousness which can literally result in our transformation as a more enlightened human and spiritual being. The lessons in Masonry are based on the notion that mankind is made in the image of God and that each of us reflects the structure of the universe. This correspondence between the universe and man; between God and man, is the basis of all Masonic instruction.

The lodge or physical space where the degrees are conferred, then, can be thought of as a receptacle for mental and spiritual health. The men working in such a place are doing inner work together—building their own temple of awareness and wisdom in a private setting where only peace and harmony is known. To its members, a Masonic Lodge is, in a very real sense, a temple erected to God. This makes Masonic work the most important and fulfilling work we ever do.

Entered Apprentice Degree

The admission of each man into the Masonic Order is a symbolic representation of the beginning of his journey toward mature and manly judgment; of vesting himself with those qualities essential for living a responsible and fulfilled life. The first Degree in Masonry is therefore Initiatic in nature, i.e., its intent is to facilitate something new in the individual. The instruction of the Degree focuses on leaving one place in life and arriving at another; leaving one condition, or state of mind, and arriving, through thought and study, at another. It symbolizes the journey we must all make, with all the obstacles and challenges we must overcome.

But it also introduces a path for overcoming our hurdles and problems—a path which can lead us from ignorance to knowledge; from confusion to understanding. We find that since we are all part of the same goodness and love, it is therefore possible to be helped by others, and to help others. This level of understanding and trust forms the basis for true fraternal association.

In the Entered Apprentice degree, the quest is for Masonic light. In Masonry, light symbolizes knowledge, self-development, and insight. The search for light is the search for understanding and growth, both of the personality and the spirit.

This first step on your journey to mature masculinity is centered on asking of yourself: Who and what are you? Whence do you come? Where are you going? What is your duty in the world? Above all else, as men, it is important to know these things.

Fellowcraft Degree

Contemplation and enlightenment are the special subjects of the Fellowcraft, or second Degree of Masonry. It is often called the Middle Chamber Degree.

Its instruction focuses on developing an awareness of the science of the human soul. The secrets of our mental and spiritual nature; and the many principles of our intellectual life and experience are brought into our conscious awareness. We learn that difficulties and obstacles placed in our way are a necessary means of developing the full potential good within us. The only way we can approach perfection is by honest and disciplined effort.

In one of the most profound lectures in all of Masonry, we learn that the quest for self and spiritual improvement is a journey of exploration, education, and discovery. Our goal is to become transformed as better men.

The arrival at the Middle Chamber is a symbol of transformation. One starts his journey in ignorance, and ends as a different person, strong, enlightened, in command of his passions and emotions, truly free for the first time, and ready to take command of his life.

When we are at this unique and sacred place in Masonry, we are prepared to know three kinds of truth: moral truth (to truly know what is right and wrong), intellectual truth (the knowledge of what is accurate and what is false) and, if we develop ourselves far enough, Divine truth, which is beyond human understanding. The Middle Chamber becomes a symbol of the soul, or spirit, for it is only there where we can receive Divine truth.

Master Mason Degree

The entire premise of the Master Mason or the third and last of the ancient Craft Degrees in Masonry, is that there is a great mystery to be solved in every man’s life. All men in this world are in search of something in their own nature which they have lost; but that with proper instruction and by their own patience and industry they may hope to find. The world that is our experience, the world we know is but a transient and temporary thing; full of shadows, images and merely substituted secrets.

This Degree is often called the sublime Degree because its instruction is centered on fitting us with genuine secrets of deep and weighty import—dramatic and intense religious and spiritual processes known by every religious system in the world--the supreme lesson of which is self-sacrifice, a mystical death to what has gone before, and a rebirth and illumination of the ultimate truth and reality of our real self.

Only those with reverent and understanding minds can penetrate into the hidden meaning of the Soul.

The deeper secrets in Masonry, like the deeper secrets of life, are always heavily veiled. They exist beneath a great pyramid of time; and he who knows anything of them knows also that they are many and valuable; disclosed only to those who act upon the clues given in our rituals and lectures:

“Ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

Monday, March 17, 2008

Freedom of Speech Was Not Granted as a License For Ignorance

Good grief! Another elected official in Oklahoma has embarrassed our state by making a bigoted and ignorant statement about something for which she has not a medical or academic clue. This time the subject is homosexuality.

State Representative Sally Kern, in a recently televised speech, stated that homosexuality is more dangerous than terrorism; that gays are destroying our society. She goes on to compare gay people to cancer, calling them “deadly, and destroying our children and this nation.” Hers is the kind of remark that leads people to think Oklahoma and ignorance are synonyms. It is particularly discouraging to those of us who believe what the world needs now more than ever are speeches with words expressing love, compassion, cooperation, and understanding rather than hatred, divisiveness and intolerance. Even more, when we have a sense that moral judgments should, at the minimum, start with a belief in the brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God, her comments are downright offensive. They are an insult to any thoughtful person’s sense of reason and intelligence. We must never forget that all homosexuals are born of heterosexual parents.

Sure, it has yet to be proven beyond debate that gay and lesbian behavior is genetically embedded in those who are; just as it has never been proven that sexual preference is a matter of individual choice. But herein lies a remarkably sobering question. What if gay and lesbian tendencies are indeed genetic? How would this modify the categorical imperatives? What impact would this have on society’s collective moral conscience? How would one feel if he could know with certainty whenever he encounters a gay that, except for biological fate, there he himself is!

Besides, regardless of how we may feel about this issue, it is getting increasingly more difficult to argue that genes play no role in homosexuality. In the last 15 years, more and more research results are leading scientists to an increasing likelihood that one or more genes are connected with gayness. This has already been proven in monkeys, cattle, fruit flies, in DNA tests with X chromosomes, in brain differences between gays and straights; and even in tendencies that twins are more likely to share the same sexual orientation than other siblings.

And this brings me to the real point of this musing. If gayness turns out to be genetic, then it can no longer be considered a 100% non-impeachable moral sin. Moral values will no more depend on sexual orientation than morality depends on religion. As hard as we have often tried over the centuries, no individual or group has ever been able to supplant or replace the innate human capacity for knowing the difference between right and wrong. The bottom line is that moral judgments are based as much on reason as on blind faith or blind feelings. There is a morality in reason just as there is a morality in dogma. It begins with the individual’s life as the primary value, and the recognition that that life contains the same spark of the Divine as yours and mine. We are all Sons or Daughters of God.

Of course, we still have to ultimately identify the further values that will enable us to sustain our life with some sense of fulfillment and contentment. But, in the overall scheme of things, our very nature demands that we not live by random urges or animal instincts. In fact, most of us don’t. Rather, we live by a moral principle which distinguishes us from animals and upon which our existence fundamentally depends. That principle is reason. Some prefer to call it good old common sense. It is the faculty which enables us to experience the world, understand it, and make judgments of fact about it.

Just because a particular religion holds its doctrines to be absolutely true is no evidence that they are. Sally Kern’s convictions which have convinced her that gays are as much a threat to the world as terrorism is no evidence that they are.

But then, educated, intelligent, reasonable, and compassionate people already know that. This is why Sally Kern’s recent remarks are so embarrassing to Oklahomans.

Monday, February 25, 2008

We Can Think. Therefore We Are...Aren't We?

One of the most common quotes taken from any philosopher is that of Descartes, who said; “I think; Therefore, I am.” He posited the statement around the philosophical themes of a 17th century view of reason and rationalism. It was a new idea at the time. But I’ve always thought it to be a bit of a stretch to conclude, without limitations, this declaration to be categorically true.

I think most people would agree that our ability to think does, in fact, prove we are not just mere matter. It proves, for instance, that we are different from, say, rocks or vegetables. Descartes would say that matter itself has to have an essential attribute of extension, meaning that it has to be capable of undergoing change. With the possible exception of humans, everything we could classify as matter has a fixed duration, i.e., it exists from one moment in time to another moment in time. In the case of rocks and minerals, or even atoms, this duration may be eons. In the case of plants and animals, it is but a season.

But in the case of humans, we hold a rather arrogant view that our ability to think yields for us the possibility that material substance may not be defined by time. Rather, we are the product of reason. And this takes us to an understanding of God.

To forge an idea of God in one’s mind requires the ability to think, analyze and reason. Of course, we know that thought alone does not distinguish man from animals because we know that animals have some reasoning ability. They can be cunning, sly, selfish, sharing, like my cats; they can solve elementary logic puzzles, they can learn the like/dislikes of their owners/caretakers, and they are even aware that some things will occur before they actually happen. The essential difference between animals and humans, however, is that humans alone seem to have the ability to use concepts acquired through the process of learning and direct these toward goals which exist beyond themselves. The mental processes of animals are confined to thinking only in rigid terms, without qualifications and without sensitivity to the subtleties of an issue. Only humans have the innate ability to infer that because something is true to the extreme, then something contrary to it must be false.

And this is the distinction Descartes made. “I think; therefore I am.” Man alone seems to have the ability to think cosmically; to reason that his mind is separate from his body; that he has a soul which can move beyond matter by the will of God; that a part of him can stay with him forever by the grace of God. Therefore he cannot merely be matter.

Of course, if this is indeed true, then we are all faced with another question. Does a belief in God rescue us from an existential predicament?

It might, but only if there is a God and a part of us is immortal; i.e., we have the ability to transcend the human condition. Existentialism is based on the tragedy of the human condition. This idea was advanced by Kierkegaard on the basis that the 19th century had created an age of mediocrity by exalting conformity of group behavior over the creative impulse and intelligence of the individual. The 19th century existentialist would argue the resulting melancholy and despair of individuals in the population who happen to be individualists or nonconformists is due to their feeling of aloneness in the world.

However, the modern view of existentialism is that the individual himself has no essential nature, no self-identity—he just exists. Existential philosophy concerns itself with human predicaments associated with such things as alienation, anxiety, depression, inauthenticity, death, etc. In this worldview, the world can provide no rational direction or scheme which can move man beyond his predicaments. Moral principles are simply human constructs which are tied to the level of responsibility humans take by their own actions.

This is the reason some kind of Savior, or God, is needed to raise a man out of his physical environment. Some form of metaphysical experience is required for man to overcome himself.

Everything will then work out fine if there indeed is a God; provided, of course, that such a God is benevolent enough to come to our rescue. The obvious problem is that there is no proof that such a God exists. And, if God does exist, there is no assurance that the human predicament will be reconciled by death alone. After all, an afterlife might well bind a person to another human condition—or worse. And some people believe that we must ask for forgiveness before God will listen and act on our frailties. If this is true, then the soul is no more immortal than the body. Without metaphysical grace, it could well die with the body.

Since we really have no way knowing the outcome of all this, the best assurance humans can have of reconciling an existential predicament is to work on overcoming themselves while they are mere mortals. Indeed, humanistic existentialism suggests this to be the path of reason. All things are contingent on something else; nothing is decreed to occur. All meaning, order, and harmony are given reality by consciousness alone. There is no reality apart from consciousness.

So the path of man is to raise himself to higher levels of consciousness.

Now, in spite of which path we choose for accomplishing this lofty task, our essential work in this life is to prepare our soul for rescue. The Kabbalist would say we should climb the Tree of Life. The Buddhist would claim we can purify our mind only through silence and detachment. The Hindu and Christian would argue we need a personal relationship with some intermediary, a part of which is divine, in order to know ultimate reality. The Mason would suggest we take on the mantels of virtue and morality together and make these the resounding focus of our life’s purpose.

The point of all this is that, regardless of how things will reveal themselves to us in the end, one thing is certain. We must prepare our soul by what we do in the here and now.
Self improvement may not get us to heaven, but it will certainly give us less for which to be embarrassed if there is a judgment day. Faith alone is not enough to insure a positive outcome for our soul’s future; or to take us out of the human predicament.