Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

Dogma, Change, and Freemasonry

When the Norse arrived in Greenland, in the mid 10th Century, they found a land that was experiencing a global warming trend with green fields, retreating ice floes, and oceans teaming with fish and mammals. They built settlements, farms, and began hunting walrus for the ivory trade and beach-dwelling seals for food. They imported most of their day to day goods: iron, grains, wool, and livestock.

By the end of the 13th Century, the Norse had begun struggling with soil erosion and trade shortfalls.  At this time, the Inuit had arrived, migrating from Canada through Nova Scotia to Greenland, as their drifting whale population and food supply moved through the melting ice. The Inuit enjoyed a thriving culture in Greenland yet had little positive contact with the Norse. The Norse viewed the Inuit as “skaelings” or “wretches.” The Inuit did perform some raids on the Norse and vice versa; however, for the most part they kept apart from each other.

Within a few decades, in the 14th Century, a minor ice age began again, the globe cooled once more due to a volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Grass began to be harder to grow and the continued erosion of the land was impossible to abate. It was more difficult to raise livestock or farm the land and using soil for sod buildings became tougher to gather. The Black Plague had ravaged mainland Europe and while it didn’t hit Greenland, it decimated the population with whom the Greenland Norse traded, particularly Norway. Ivory prices also plummeted due to the more elephant ivory being imported from sub-Saharan Africa. With sources of income drying up, the Norse had no real way to continue to import the goods they felt they needed to survive, primarily iron and livestock.

By the end of the 14th Century, the Greenland Norse had disappeared. The Inuit continued to thrive on the island and thrive there to this day.

What happened?

Dogma happened.

We typically hear dogma in relation to religion and religious teaching, but it is anything which limits our scope of possibilities. Dogma is some principle or set of principles which some authority has set as being unquestionably true. That is the key word: unquestioning. People who are enslaved by dogma rarely realize that they should question what they are doing. Dogma may, or as typical, may not depend on facts. Dogma is that which enslaves us to a belief, not a fact. It also crystallizes our world view and leaves us shut off from possibility.

The Norse could have adapted wholly to their new surroundings. They were not traditional hunters but the climate forced them to learn adapt or die. Yet, they could not bring themselves to become whalers and learn how to navigate the waters in kayaks, which were for the heathen Inuit. They found it impossible to move toward a very different society, one which could have helped them survive and thrive in the changing world conditions. Rather than learn from the Inuit, they chose to remain separate, slaves to their “old ways.”

hvalsey_church_greenland_-_creative_comonsAs we know, “growth and comfort cannot coexist (Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM).” Adaptation is dynamic and evolutionary. It involves shedding skin, ideas, thoughts, language, and sometime rules, mores, and laws. Adaptation and change require a flexible personal philosophy, agile thinking, and the ability to not take change personally. Had the Norse embraced the ways they felt as wretched, they might have created a new culture which encompassed the ideals of both the Inuit and Norse, thereby creating something greater than each was individually. The Roman Empire adapted and changed to the pulse of Christianity, thereby creating one of the most potent theological forces in history; by adaptation, the essence of both survived.

Our current times are rife with chaos and while the banners of Freemasonry proclaim, “Ordo ab Chao,” the final piece of this saying is “Chao ab Ordo.” Change and strife and chaos are necessary to be able to form new order and new ways of thought. A forest fire destroys the substantial, old trees but also brings life to new growth.  Freemasonry as an institution requires both order and chaos to survive. There are those, especially in malecraft Freemasonry, who state that Freemasonry is a dying institution, membership is down, it’s difficult to get interest, or the education of Freemasonry is antiquated. Freemasonry as an entity isn’t and won’t be dying. What is dying is the Freemasonry as they knew of it. And this is good.

I was recently asked, “why do we need all this change? Why do we need a new ritual? Why should we think about how we change our world?” Someone commented recently on another article regarding Freemasonry in Africa, “why would we be in a place where there is so much corruption and hatred?” I say, who better to lead the way in change than those of us who should, could, or would be most able to do it? Isn’t it Freemasons, warriors of Truth, Freedom, and Knowledge, who should set the example?

This isn’t the first time Freemasonry, regardless of the Order or Obedience, has faced change.

During the Morgan Affair, membership in Freemasonry in America dwindled and nearly went extinct in the fires of the Anti-Masonic Political Party. In 1994, Le Droit Humain’s American Federation changed dramatically, with a new name, new structure, and new purpose. Even now, there are conspiracy theories about Freemasons taking over the world or specific governments.

“Over the centuries, masons have gathered in conclaves, meetings, lodges, and congresses–all to debate the changes they faced and the direction they should move. In an earlier period, a rough conglomeration of stand-alone lodges in England organized themselves in a tavern to become the United Grand Lodge of England and the progenitor of American Freemasonry,” states a 2018 malecraft Freemason’s article.

Change comes generally in an era of upheaval, of chaos, on the waves of a stormy ocean. This kind of change requires a different way of thinking than current paradigms. It requires the death of dogma.

Humanity in the 21st Century is at this same cusp of dynamic evolution. In a technologically-vibrant era of #metoo, LGBTQ rights, globalization, world resource constraints, and materialism, humanity hungers for something more than holding fast to outdated and antiquated modes of thinking. Freemasonry must stand at the precipice of that change and be willing to jump. We cannot hold onto rigid words, thoughts, and actions without tolerance and service to the ever-changing needs of humanity. Freemasons are the Chaos and the Order. Freemasons understand that without one there is not the other. They need to understand what chaos and destruction are before they can form new paradigms and thought patterns, thus changing society.

Freemasons represent the totality of possibilities, not simply what we deem “the best” by our own personal standards. Freemasons embody adaptability as well as honor and tradition; they follow a framework of ideals that are the unchanging Truth of Nature as well as variation that is Nature. Changing for change’s sake is ridiculous; change to adapt to the needs of humanity is true evolution. Thoughtful and conscious change moves us all toward the goal of perfecting humanity.

Ordo Ab ChaoWhat happens when you adapt? The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry recently changed its name to The Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry, adding United Federation of Lodges. Inboxes and voicemails have overflowed with contacts from around the world, interested in Freemasonry – India, China, Hong Kong, Serbia, Sweden, Greece, Romania and the Congo to name but a few. Groups in England and Lebanon have sought out the Order. There is explosive activity in Costa Rica and interest is peaking all over Latin America. Study centers of the Masonic Philosophical Society, especially online, are full of seekers of knowledge and Truth. Change in technology and format made this happen. Changing the name opened up the possibilities to those who are seeking global comraderies and led them to the Order’s porch. Yet, many were not ready to face this change and raise themselves the possibilities Universal Freemasonry would find. The interaction of these new voices forces Freemasonry’s membership to adapt – to learn new languages, to travel to many places, to challenge their own beliefs about racism, globalism, gender issues, education, family, and morality. Meeting this challenge and change requires tolerance and introspection as well as brotherly love toward all of humanity. Freemasons learn that they are no different from others and that all are sprung from “the same stock.” The Freemason begins to see what the core of his ritual is and learns to exercise his own philosophy applied to that framework. That is growth. That is the shedding of dogma.

So too, ritual adaptations and reinstatements, not innovations, reinvigorate the ideals that Freemasonry preserves and puts them in tune with a modern mind. If Freemason’s primary care is to keep the mysteries, they need to be able to do that with a mindset of being present and current, not reenacting the dogma of what we’ve done in the past.

People leave Freemasonry for one main reason: disappointment. Freemasonry either doesn’t seem relevant, inviting, or current. Perhaps their expectations were not met. Perhaps their expectations were not properly set. While Freemasonry should not adapt to individual preferences and needs, it can and should adapt to the changes in humanity whilst never forgetting its true purpose: keeping the mysteries for the generations to come. What does our world need? What does humanity need? Can we, in keeping with our ideals, assist in that Work?

Freemasonry, and Freemasons, need to focus on the perfecting of all we do – ritual work, service, brotherly relief and agape, as well as maintaining the material aspects of Freemasonry – clothing, regalia, our temples. This doesn’t mean, however, that these outward trappings – clothing, ritual, regalia – will always be the same. It is in how Freemasons go about employing the Craft that should stand the test of time, while adapting to the change without. This adaptation keeps us all flexible and malleable, able to weather the strong tides of hatred, fanaticism, bigotry, and falsehood. It enables us to withstand the fear of chaos and the boredom of order.

darwinartistinresidence“Organisms that possess heritable traits that enable them to better adapt to their environment compared with other members of their species will be more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass more of their genes on to the next generation,” said Darwin.  It should the the focus of Freemasons to be able to pass on that “genetic material” of Freemasonry to the next generation and the one after that by learning to adapt, to think differently and celebrate the change that undoubtedly will come to us all, willingly or not.

Freemasons in The Trenches

Freemasons in The Trenches

I recently attended an M.P.S. Meetup where the topic was “Has War Ever Led to Good?” The presenter had a distinctive bent: absolutely not. The viewpoint was of a passionate pacifist and could only see the negative in war time situations. I felt I should be looking at the bigger picture – how war affects humanity – and the smaller picture – how it affects the individual. While many see the horror of war, there must be something good to also be found, right?

After this M.P.S., I attended a bluegrass festival, John McCutcheon played “Christmas In the Trenches,” based on a letter written by a WWI English private named Edgar Aplin, this song depicts a moment in a bitter and bloody war where two sides came together for a beautiful moment of humanity. John’s song brings about that moment of clarity that everyone thinks about: we’re killing other humans that are just like us. In a tragic war that left millions affected, there is a humanity that we can remember. The lyrics to the song are found here.

Prior to the recent M.P.S. meeting above, and then again after hearing this song again, I looked for incidents of this occurring amongst Freemasons; after all, who else thinks about humanity and the perfecting of it more than Freemasons? Not many. There are many ways in which Freemasons make it known that they are brothers, and perhaps there are moments of “truce” that exist, even if they are not as famous as the U.K. Sainsbury Ad that idealizes the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Some of the most deeply moving stories of Masonic fraternity are from the American Civil War. Author Greg Stewart has written a wonderful article on the American Civil War and Freemasons, found on the Sojourners website. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in history or Freemasonry to read it. He does cite his sources, which is helpful.

In short, the American Civil War tested our country’s ability to fight for what we believed in and at the same time show compassion to our fellow human beings. While it brought out some of the worst fighting, it also inspired the greatest passion to ease the suffering of individuals. Masons strive to erase that which divides us as people. For the fighting Brothers of this war, the inner turmoil must have been great.

The annals of WWI do not have much to say about Freemasonry’s involvement. In an interesting article on skirret.com, we have one author’s exploration into the world and Masonic view of the War. In the article we are given much about how the Lodges felt about the war, but we see little in the way of anecdotal evidence that the war was anything but divisive within the Fraternity. From the loss of recognition to the outright revoking of charters and hostility, even within Lodges in America, we see the seeds of bureaucratic response to the war rather than a human response.

During WWII, Freemasons were one of the persecuted groups under the Nazi regime. A truly wonderful article on this is noted here. Not only does it talk of the secret meetings of Freemasons, after the disbanding of traditional Freemasonry in Germany, but it also describes one of the Lodges that existed within the wire fences of a concentration camp. Another paper, titled “Masons At War: Freemasonry During World War Two,” by Mark Stanford, also documents the Masonic Service Centers that came into being during the war, to care for Service Members at home and overseas. Freemasonry has solidly moved to the larger good works of caring for the members of the armed services, but we rarely hear about the individual’s experience. While acts of heroism show up in small ways by European Freemasons, some documented in various places noted above, the North American experience seems small in comparison.

In looking toward Vietnam, the only real evidence of Freemason’s involvement has to do with, again, the care of wounded soldiers and care packages to military overseas. Military Lodges having long been either frowned upon or banned altogether, there seems to have been very few during WWI and none during the Vietnam era.

From Vietnam forward to today, there seems to be no further evidence of widespread Masonic response to war time situations, either in the form of relief for troops or support of overseas military. While they undoubtedly exist, there is little to record their greater-than-local involvement in war efforts.

A first thought was that the Morgan Affair changed how Americans view Freemasons. It certainly changed how Freemasons viewed themselves and their fraternity. However, we find evidence of individual Masonic charity examples all over the American Civil War, which took place after the Morgan Affair. While anti-Masonic sentiment was still high at this time, it did not seem to affect the person relationships that each man had with Freemasonry and how it affected his actions during the war. Freemasonry overcame bitter rivalry and hatred, and still burned an ideal in the hearts of these men.

Co-Masonry has been in existence in one form or another since the end of the 19th Century, beginning in France and spreading throughout the world. While the numbers were high in its first few decades, Co-Masonry began to decline by the start of WW2; in fact, the decline might have been there for all of Freemasonry. During the war, when Freemasonry was persecuted in Europe, many different Orders originating in Europe found themselves under scrutiny. Those Orders established in France had gone into hiding and Le Droit Humain, a co-Masonic order, was one of these Orders. After the war, Co-Masonry had found itself taken deeper root in countries outside of France and there was an interest in its alternative thought: women could be Freemasons along with Men.

The world was and is decidedly different since WWII. Women in American culture and perhaps in all cultures around the world are more often included rather than excluded. A balanced mindset, toward gender and equality, was perhaps creating a different view of what was needed in the perfection of humanity. In the cultural and societal churn that might be called the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” the world may be looking for new types of leaders who are finally inclusive of all humanity.

Warfare itself has changed. Gone are bayonets and buckshot, hand-to-hand fighting where the soldier met the face of their attacker. Warfare has become impersonal drones sending air strikes on faceless dots on a pixelated screen. While Freemasonry is perhaps becoming more inclusive while war is becoming more impersonal: a struggle perhaps looking for balance?

It seems we find ourselves at an interesting point in history: where the facelessness of war impacts our ability to counter it with “good.” Freemasons may need to look beyond the conventional methods of the Craft employed in the past to not only support humanity but find those things which unite rather than divide human beings. Freemasons perhaps need to look beyond the “care package” or “pancake breakfast” for the troops and train for “civil disobedience.” I do not disparage the good works for the service men and women that many fraternal groups supply. They are necessary and selfless, and inspire hope when there is none. However, perhaps Freemasons can do more. As seekers of Truth and proponents of education, they are uniquely suited to combat ignorance, fanaticism, and hatred which is the heart of war.

There will be another war. We are humans, after all. It seems to be as yet in our nature. Deciding to be a pacifist will not stop it. Deciding to hide from it or ignore our leaders will not stop it. The question is how can we prepare for it and will Freemasonry be there to shed Light? Learning to speak Truth is a far greater skill that may be necessary to counter modern military thinking. Perhaps learning to be wise philosophers is more important to stopping war before it starts.