Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can Any Of Us Say What God Is Not?

No man should ever be proud of ignorance. Given the total knowledge available in the world, ignorance is inevitable. But it should never be a source of self-satisfaction.

And yet, a lot of men claim that “not knowing” is a virtue. This is especially true in the area of religion. Some act as if knowledge and faith were antagonistic; that the only way to bolster and secure one’s faith is to remain as ignorant as possible of the faiths of others. This even applies to the history of one’s belief. Indeed, much of the contemporary debate between Christianity and Islam is a contest fueled by ignorance.

For the Mason, this kind of attitude is problematic. One of the great lessons in Masonry is toleration for others, and especially of their beliefs. To say, “I am right,” is proper and acceptable. To say, “I am right and you are wrong,” is to give way to both bigotry and intolerance. Sadly, this kind of small-mindedness seems particularly prevalent in matters of faith.

Can any of us say what God is not?

Surely, this is the most unanswerable, daunting and enduring question of all time! There is simply no definition of what God is that is universally acceptable. There is only the conviction of the human heart; and we all know that the heart can be deceivingly expressive. Thus, we have many interpretations of the Great Architect. There is God, the builder; God, the destroyer, God, the preserver. There is the One God; and the many Gods. There is the God of nature of the Pagans, the God/Goddess of the Wiccans. There is the God of the Gentiles, the God of the Christian Trinity, and the God of Unity to Islam. Then there is the God of the Philosophers, the God of Mystics, the God of Reformers, the God of Enlightenment, and a whole new host of Gods being proclaimed by contemporary spirituality gurus with all manners of insight.

All this leads me to think there is really only one enduring characteristic of God; and that is that God cannot be defined. God is a symbol; a mystery, a hieroglyph, a metaphor. Of God, there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, imagination, name, and many other things. But God is not understood, nothing can be said of It, It cannot be named. It is not one of the things which is.

Regardless of one’s faith system, or from what culture one’s understanding of God has evolved, reading the scriptures of faith alone is not the process for deriving the truth about God. God must be discovered or tapped into by ascending to God Itself. It has to be a kind of metaphysical reality, since there is nothing of this world which can be compared to It. This is why God is a matter of belief or faith, and not reason. We cannot know; we can only believe, not believe, or doubt.

The bottom line is that a God who is not the same for everybody; a God that cannot be proved by scientific solution, a God that cannot be universally known by rationalization is the ultimate enigma of humanity. The only truth for which we can be certain is that God does not correspond to any human way of speaking. It can be analyzed and broken down into so many adjectives or attributes; but It has no cause, no qualities, no temporal dimension. There is absolutely nothing we can say about It.

Of course, if we acknowledge that God is the source of all things, then we can suggest certain things about this Source. We can also believe that because goodness exists, God must be essential or necessary. We can say that because we know life, power, and knowledge exist, then God must be alive, powerful and intelligent in the most essential and complete way.

The outcome of all this is that we can gain an intuitive, imaginative knowledge of God which might well transcend reason; but, in the mortal scope of things, we can only know God by interpretation.

This is why it makes sense to see God as a symbol—because a symbol can mean what the symbol user interprets it to mean. The good thing is that, since every one of us is confined to know only what we can see and feel about God’s nature, this gives us the right to believe what we believe, and to hold firmly to that belief as the Truth. But it also admonishes us not to deny others the same right, even when we fundamentally disagree with their belief.

When issues of religion are raised to a level of national debate, it would be nice for once to have a dialogue which is focused, not on differences of faith, but on the great balance of faith and reason.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Can a Flag Weep?

When I was a boy it was still close to the war. There was a proud reverence for the men in my town who had been to Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, Midway, Normandy, Bataan, and the scores of other places we had never heard of; and didn't know existed--at least not until we heard the fellows talk about them at the drug store or ball park, domino hall, or family reunions. These men were my heroes, of course. They held a sacred place of respect in my heart.

I thought they had been to the most exotic places in the world; seen things that no one else in my county could have even imagined, and brought back stories that a boy like me could listen to for a lifetime. I grinned when they laughed, and I felt bad when they cried. And yes, they showed me that it was okay for men to cry. And that men could cry for the gentlest of reasons, or weep over some secret memory held close to their heart. Some of them knew pain--great pain. Some of them remembered too much, and it was hard for them. I felt a sadness for them.

But I admired them deeply. I wanted to be like them. They were my ideal of how one should be an American. They were almost a fraternity in themselves. I heard them joke to each other about which branch of the service was best; and I'm not sure some of their stories were always the whole truth. In fact, I suspicioned that they could be a little "windy" at times. Maybe their memories relaxed with years. It seemed their stories got a little bigger each time they told them. But I loved to hear them tell them. They had experienced things which went far beyond what we learned about our country in books, or in school.

These wonderful men taught me that being an American was more than just feeling safe and watching parades, and eating hot dogs and skinny-dipping in farm ponds; or going to the baseball game on Saturday nights, or showing livestock at the county fair. These fellows understood. Above everything else, they were deeply patriotic men. And I knew how important that ideal was to them.

You see, I was a trumpet player--and even by the time I got to junior high, I was a good one. These fellows invited me to travel with them throughout the county whenever they needed help in burying a fallen comrade. I played taps. They shot their guns in ritual salute. And they solemnly folded the flag which had been draped over their brother's coffin and handed it to his family. And I knew that his spirit had not died with him. They would keep it alive every time they marched with that flag, every time they displayed it at their own homes, every time they folded it in tribute to another brother. Every time they felt their faith in our demorcracy needed to be exemplified, the flag was somehow there.

That was a long time ago. Then, not so long ago, I saw people burning that same flag at a demonstration in Washington DC to make a point about something. It was their right to do that, of course; a right ironically given them by the freedom that same flag had secured for them long before they were even born.

I wondered what my heroes (now gone themselves) would think. Can a flag weep? Do we still care enough?

And for a moment--just a fleeting moment--I remember back across the decades to a young lad who, a long time ago in the first grade, always ran the last few blocks to school in the morning. And when his teacher asked why de did so, he gave this simple answer: "Mrs. Huffer, when I pledge allegiance to the flag I can feel my heart."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Public Ceremonies of Fraternity: What These are Meant to Communicate!

We are taught in Masonry that a symbol is a word for something which arouses in us thoughts, feelings and connections that exist beyond the symbol itself. It is always a thing which makes us think of something else. We use symbols to compress a lot of meaning into a small space of time. Masonic symbols allow us to generalize subjects that are very complex. They provide access to information, and enable us to convey ideas which are otherwise difficult to express.

In fact, people regularly use symbols in their daily lives, even though they are often not conscious of the process. For example, any time we speak, we speak in symbols. Words themselves are symbols, and we use them easily in conversations and reading. Thus, symbols are central to our thinking, speculations and philosophy; and they pass by us so quickly we hardly notice. In Masonry, we discover that almost every aspect of life can be symbolized. If this were not so, archetypes would have little meaning to us; and our allegories would be worthless.

The reality is that symbols are pervasive in any culture. And visual symbols are particularly important. For example, people often relate their perception about corporations to a company logo. Businesses know their logos serve as memory triggers for their benefit. A logo not only directs our consciousness to a company name, it also connects our mind with the idea that the company itself is an icon of national or international stability. Who would not recognize the cursive font and red and white swirls of the Coca-Colo logo as representing the world's largest soft drink company? Who would not think of Mercedez Benz whenever he sees the distinctive metallic grey three sided star enclosed within an orbit?

This, then, begs the question: If the general public is so dependent on the use of symbols in interpreting the funtioning of life, then why doesn't Freemasonry, whose central theme is symbol interpretation, enjoy a more common place in the public's interest?

I'm not sure I have an answer, but I suspect it has to do with the fact the public is far more interested in assigning a brand to their cultural icons than in connecting moral symbols with objective meaning. Morals are an entirely different package than sodas and automobiles. All modern theories of value tend to share the premise that moral values are always subjective and therefore have no independent meaning and existence. Our contemporary values are often nothing more than projections of our desires and feelings.

But this was not the way values were seen in the 19th century. As difficult as it may be for the public today to equate the Square and Compasses with values, I believe that is precisely what our forefathers intended for it to do.

Our modern culture is a funny culture. On the one hand, we say we want freedom of thought, individuality and creativity; yet it is everywhere obvious that we really don't want to have to think about things very deeply. The problem with thinking is that it complicates our lives. It takes time. And it interferes with our desire to take action in the moment, even when that action is misdirected. It often leads to a confrontation between our own subjective values and the view of others whom we don't fully understand or appreciate.

Yet Freemasons know that moral, physical and spiritual transformations occur in people through symbol interaction. This is the reason why Masonry's greatest potential to effect both personal and social transformation is in the relationships we form with each other and with the profane world. Since we are not offering courses in symbols and symbol interpretation, we are constrained to communicate with the public in a more open sphere. Perhaps what we do and represent to our society is the key to becoming better integrated with its symbolic cravings.

If such a symbolic connection could be made, our identity and image could be vastly improved. We may well be able to move from being seen as "quaint" and out of touch to becoming respected as "traditional" in the public's eye. This is particularly important at a time when younger men in our culture are becoming increasingly fascinated with the "retro" look and image of manhood. One needs only to discover the popularity of Brett McKay's website, The Art of Manliness, to get a glimpse at how important "traditional" is becoming.

Even if most of our members do not understand Masonry's complex symbol system well enough to communicate it to the outer world, we can still convey how it works in a simple and traditional context. We need only to understand that is it the structure of our organization itself which brings order and status to society. Our public ceremonies are the means by which our values get branded onto the public's inherent need for symbolism in their lives.

A ceremonial role is always a group role. It is an expression of rank within the group just as any institutional ceremony is an expression of rank within the community. This was Masonry's foundational motivation for cornerstone laying and public dedications. These ceremonies are based on a profound sociological insight. In ceremonial drama people watch for indications of rak and honor. It doesn't matter if it is military, academic, political, religious or fraternal, we watch the dress, the staging, and the action of the players to discover what determines rank and honor in our lives.

Each traditional institution in our society may have its own brand of honor and dignity, but it derives these from social principles which are accepted by the community as a whole. Thus, the institution, thorugh the ceremonies it performs, becomes final and transcendent in the minds of the observers.

Here is how this works. and Carlyle said it very well: He who puts on a public gown must put off a private person. The formal dress of the Masons in their public ceremonies gives them a social role that has deep meaning. When we play our part in institutional and public ceremonies with dignity, we demonstrate the aura of social status and office. The public has no way of competently judging our competence as an institution. But in the majesty of our dress, our regalia, and our ceremonial forms, we put on the insignia of rank. And all who see us symbolically bow before us.

They are not bowing to us, but to the social status we fill as gentlemen and as guardians of tradition and order in society.

This is the reason we should always be conscious of the integrity we communicate when we are presenting ourselves in the public's eye. In our cornerstones and dedications, our memorial services and community partnerships, we appeal to how the public perceives status in its institutions. As a group, if we could just understand that our task as an institution is symbolically to communicate status; then we would grasp the importance of the formality of our ceremonies.

When the public sees dignity and status in what Freemasonry does and how Freemasons dress, it also becomes possible for it to connect our fraternity with tradition and stability. We become of of the "retro" incons of importance now emerging into the public's consciousness of "favored-man" status. When the public sees us in this role, everything changes.

Because everyone desires an elevation in status.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Path of the Esotericists Among Us

The German Hermeticist, Franz Bardon, observed; "there is a fundamental problem with truth. It depends on the insight of the individual." Bardon was right. Each one of us sees truth from the standpoint of our particular environment, education, maturity, religious training, cultural lens, and family upbringing. Thus, to an extent, truth is always an illusion.

That's just the way life is. One of the challenges of the seeker is that, knowing there are different paths to truth, he wants to explore all of them simultaneously. While he must ultimately survey the field of options available to him to understand the ancient traditions, he has to guard himself against making only an intellectual pursuit.

The world is full of academic esotericists.

One of the first things we must come to understand about enlightenment is that each of us is on his own walk. Our personal path is the path to greatest harmony within ourselves and with the world in which we experience. The shortcoming of almost every proscribed system of thought is that it fails to recognize the importance of the awakened consciousness; or the limitations of its own notions.

Religion and science are two classic opposites. At the outset, religion generally demands the unshakable belief in a spiritual fact that its own truth lies in its religious tradition. Thus, it always poses a dogma. Beyond that, it requires the faithful to lead a good and pure life under the certain prescriptions it defines for its followers. Science, on the other hand, is independent of such demands. It merely asks that one investigate things without prejudice to gain knowledge and understanding. But, in so doing, it tends to conclude that what is not known can become known; else it cannot exist. Science rarely accepts the metaphysical. Therefore, science is often atheistic in principle.

To me, this gap between science and religion mirrors the conflict between rational thinking and inspiration. Reason becomes a control of inspiration when inspiration seems to fly away into the vague unknown. Yet inspiration is the impulse for rational investigation.

The esotericist accepts the value of both these opposites. He seeks to unite both paths using an entirely different approach. He engages in the "spirit of the old Initiates." He investigates the means of science as far as its facilities reach, but he is also not afraid of applying those traditions which are not (or not yet) in the grasp of orthodox points of view. To affect this kind of work, he often labors in small circles for the precious things which lead him to the genuine experience. The bottom line is that the work on one's self cannot be taken over by anyone else; nor can it be invested in any one organization. The seeker can only be guided, but not carried, by his spiritual friends.

This is the first rule of all esoteric study.

And this is the covenant Initiates make with each other. It can't be any other way because only what a man accomplishes by his own work becomes real to him. After all, we can only know certain aspects of absolute truth. There is life, there is free will; there is memory, intellect, and intuition. Beyond these obvious characteristics of truth, most everything else can be argued (and, indeed, have been debated throughout the history of recorded thought.)

This brings me to another important rule of esotericism. It is useless to argue with those who are not adepts of the higher leanings of truth. No sincere adept would impose his truth on someone who is not otherwise ready to contemplate it. There is a Biblical reference for this idea from the Master of the New law himself: "Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under your feet."

There is also a Masonic parallel to this dilemma. We all know Masons who believe with all their heart there is nothing spiritual about the rituals of Masonry. There are those who claim there is nothing to learn beyond the ritual words. There are even more who are appalled when it is suggested that Kabalistic, Alchemical, or Hermetic associations might be made from a study of the Degrees of Masonry. Never mind that every aspirant is told before he receives the very first Degree that Masonry is a course of hieroglyphic instruction taught by allegories. Oh well. As obvious as this may seem to the esoteric minded among us, there is little to be gained by arguing with those who aren't listening.

Thus, for the Initiate, it is wisest for him to do the Great Work quietly. He will likely never be in the popular current of societal thought anyway. And that's okay. The true seeker has no reason to affect the natural balance of things by becoming disruptive.

It is enough for him to come to know the truth for himself.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Supreme Court Won't Hear Bible Marker Case

I was relieved when I read the headline this week in the Oklahoman, our state’s largest newspaper. The U.S. Supreme Court has once again upheld the Constitution by announcing it will not review an August decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ten Commandments monument must be removed from the Haskell County Courthouse lawn. The 10th Circuit Court in Denver had earlier ruled the 8-foot-tall stone monument’s placement on the courthouse lawn in 2004 is unconstitutional because it amounts to a government’s endorsement of religion.

The Supreme Court wisely affirmed a right decision of two lower courts. It did what it is charged to do; it upheld the guarantee of our Constitution that there must always be a formal distance between government and religion. The First Amendment is a command to the government to keep its hands off religion; neither aiding it nor hindering it. Jefferson and Madison knew what they were doing when they insisted on a separation clause in our government’s founding document. If the history of the world has done nothing else, it has clearly taught us that nearly as long as humans have been participating in religion, governments have either assumed the power to regulate, suppress, or foster it; or the authorities of religion have assumed the power to regulate their governments. Kings have sought to place curbs on the church’s influence in the hope of gaining more power for themselves. And popes have insisted that kings should be regarded as simply servants of the church. This back and forth struggle between church and state has been the bane of human progress for centuries.

Many folk like to think the Protestant Reformation reconciled the church-state issues of the Middle Ages. But make no mistake about this—Martin Luther did not believe in religious liberty. He may have sought the freedom to interpret the Bible differently than taught by the Catholic Church. But he also assumed that his own interpretation was the only correct one and persecuted those who disagreed. In England, Henry VIII may have disestablished Catholicism in England by setting up the Anglican Church, or Church of England; but everyone knows he did it not to promote religious freedom, but to allow him to divorce his wife and marry another in search of a male heir to England.

John Calvin may be best known for founding the puritan movement that first brought Protestantism to the American colonies; but he also forced the town council to swear an oath pledging to uphold his form of Christianity. He banned the celebration of Christmas and Easter, raided homes, banned books, and interrogated private citizens in order to stamp out his form of heresy.

We often think the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America for religious freedom. But we quickly forget that their form of religious freedom was meant only for themselves. They had absolutely no interest in promoting freedom of religion for anyone else. Once in the new world, they immediately set up harsh theocracies where every aspect of religious life was regulated and a state-imposed orthodoxy was strictly enforced.

Finally, a preacher named Roger Williams, who had been run out of Massachusetts almost immediately after he had arrived in Boston, came up with a sensible idea. He insisted that the state should have no business in enforcing orthodoxy of any kind. An individual’s understanding of religion and truth must come from within. He believed in total freedom of conscience. It was Williams who actually coined the phrase concerning the “wall of separation between church and state.” His treatise was in response to having been found guilty by a general court made up of Puritan leaders for “disseminating new and dangerous opinions”, and banishing him from the colony.

The point of this historical rambling is to show that religious liberty had existed nowhere in Europe, or even in Colonial America outside of Rhode Island prior to the establishment of our own Constitution. Citizens were regularly taxed to support religion. Laws required men to believe certain tenets of Christianity before they could hold public office. Blasphemy was a capital offense. It was this form of harshness and repression of civil rights that led Madison and Jefferson to advocate the saner principle of keeping religion and government from each other.

Today, the Religious Right, unable to find any support for their views in the historical record, simply invent a new “history” whenever they wish by selectively culling material from the writings, speeches, and the actions of the framers of our Constitution. As Scottish Rite Masons, we are well aware of this kind of tactic. Anti-Masons, made up mostly of the Religious Right, do the same thing when quoting Albert Pike.

But it’s a ploy easily uncovered by astute men.

Just because our constitutional delegates, all religious men, often made speeches outlining the importance of religion to good government in their discussions as framers of the constitution, this did not mean they were promoting a union of the two. Yes, they were devoutly religious men. Comments concerning their personal religious sentiments did exist, but these tell us only that they believed religion was necessary to the function of good government. That did not preclude them in any way from being advocates of church-state separation. Jefferson was firmly convinced that allowing religious leaders to entangle themselves with government would prove an obstacle to human progress and liberty. For our framers, the fundamental concern was in prohibiting “the clergy from getting themselves established by law and engrafted into the machinery of government as being the formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” (Jefferson).

As Scottish Rite Masons, if we are champions of anything, we are champions of religious freedom. We must agree with Jefferson that the best interest of human liberty and progress is served whenever a court decides against a church or any other religious entity or cause from having any legal authority or privilege whatsoever that might interfere with one person’s freedom of conscience in interpreting for himself the essential mandates of God. In a free country, this must always be the first rule of law.

This brings me back to the Haskell County courthouse lawn. The courts have wisely developed a three prong test for determining if the separation doctrine guaranteed us by the First Amendment is being infringed upon. In the case of the Ten Commandments, the three tests seem rather easy to decipher. Is it a religious monument? Is its effect primarily religious? Does placing it on government owned property constitute an entanglement of government in religious matters?

The answer to all three is obviously in the affirmative. Even if no one showed up when the monument was placed, two of the three tests were violated. When the public officials took formal action permitting the monument, the third test was met. Then, to add legal insult to injury, when the monument was dedicated, there were ministers present who spoke in behalf of its message. The message was religious, and the celebration created a religious effect. The fact the county commissioners allowed the monument to be erected on public grounds entangled them in the web of disregard for the public’s constitutional protection.

The bottom line is that the separation of church and state will not survive if not defended. It will not survive if people come to believe that the principle is not in the best interests of our nation, or that it is hostile to religion.

For those who understand the true history behind church-state separation and how the principle defends religious liberty, it is a ‘no-brainer’. We need only to look back over our shoulder to feel the persecution of the past. It is the awareness of such a history that made church-state separation an integral part of the Scottish Rite creed for two hundred years.

It could be our gift to the world if we brought it back into our Masonic consciousness, and became public spokesmen for its cause. When the public is educated, the separation clause can be defended and preserved in America’s courtrooms, schools, statehouses, and in Congress. But to not continue to do so, and even worse, by allowing the Religious Right to prevail in duping our public officials with their revisionist history, could prove disastrous for our country.

Nothing less than the future of religious freedom is at stake.