A Stupid Atheist?

A Stupid Atheist?

THE first of the Old Charges, “Concerning God and Religion” begins:

“A Mason is obliged, by his tenure, to obey the moral law; and, if he rightly understands the art, will never be a stupid atheist….”

That all petitioners for the degrees express a belief in Deity is a fundamental requirement. That all elected candidates who receive the entered Apprentice degree publicly express a belief in deity is a fundamental requirement. No lodge would accept the petition of any man unwilling to profess his faith in Deity.

We are taught that no atheist can be made a Mason, and the reason usually assigned is that, lacking a belief in Deity, no obligation can be considered binding. The real reasons for the non-acceptance of atheists into the Fraternity goes much deeper. We are not entirely accurate when we say that no obligation can be binding without taking an oath. Our courts of law permit a Quaker to “affirm” instead of taking an oath to tell the truth, inasmuch as a Quaker’s religious belief does not permit him to swear.

Yet, a Quaker who tells an untruth after his affirmation is as subject to the penalty for perjury as the devout believer in God who first swears to tell the truth, and then fails to do so. The law holds a man truthful who affirms, as well as one who swears to tell the truth.

No atheist can be made a Mason, far less from lack of binding power of the obligation taken by such a disbeliever, than from Freemasonry’s knowledge that an atheist can never be a Mason “in his heart.” Our whole symbolism is founded on the erection of a Temple to the Most High. Our teachings are of the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man founded on that fatherhood, and the immortality of the soul in a life to come. A disbeliever in all these could by no possible chance be happy or contented in our organization.

WHAT IS AN ATHEIST?

IT is possible to spin long-winded theories about the word, draw fine distinctions, quote learned encyclopedias and produce a fog of uncertainty as to the meaning of “atheist” as hopeless as it is stupid, From Freemasonry’s standpoint an atheist is a man who does not believe in Deity. Which immediately brings out the far more perplexing question:

THE question has plagued many a Masonic scholar and thousands of men less wise. It is still a matter of perplexity to many a man who fears that the friend who has asked him to sign his petition is an atheist.

“What is this Deity in which a man must believe?”

Such an anthropomorphic God, derived from descriptive passages in the Bible, added to by the drawings of artists and crystallized in an age of simple faith, have given such a conception to many who find it adequate.

Here is where all the trouble and the worry comes on the scene. Man’s idea of God differs with the man, his education, his early religious training. To some, the mental picture of God is that of a commanding, venerable figure with flowing white hair and beard – the great artist Dore so pictured God in his marvelous illustrated Bible. Such a conception fits naturally in a heaven of golden streets, flowing with milk and honey. White clothed angels make heavenly music on golden harps, the while Deity judges between the good and the evil.

Others conceive of Deity as a Bright Spirit, who moves through the universe with the speed of light, who is “without form” because without body, yet who is all love, intelligence, mercy and understanding. The man who believes in the anthropomorphic God describes his conception, then asks the brother who believes in a Bright Spirit:

“Do you believe in my God?”

If the answer is in the negative, the questioner may honestly believe him who answers to be an atheist. The Deity of a scientist, a mathematician, a student of the cosmos via the telescope and the testimony of geology, may be neither anthropomorphic nor Bright Spirit, but a universally pervading power which some call Nature; others Great First Cause; still others Cosmic Urge.

Such a man believes not in the anthropomorphic God, not in God as a Bright Spirit. Shall he call his brethren who do so believe, atheists? Have they the right so to denominate him?

CAN GOD BE DEFINED?

TO the Geologist, the very handwriting of God is in the rocks and earth. To the fundamentalist, the only handwriting of God is in the Bible. Inasmuch as the geologist does not believe in the chronology of the life of the earth as set forth in the Bible, the fundamentalist may call the geologist an atheist. Per contra, the geologist, certain that God has written the story of the earth in the rocks, not in the Book, may call the fundamentalist an atheist because he denies the plain testimony of science.

One is a right, and each is as wrong, as the other! Neither is an atheist, “because each believes in the God which satisfies him!”

You shall search Freemasonry from Regius Poem, our oldest document, to the most recent pronouncement of the youngest Grand Lodge; you shall read every decision, every law, every edict of every Grand Master who ever occupied the Exalted East, and nowhere find an ukase that any brother must believe in the God of some other man. Nowhere in Freemasonry in England, its Provinces, or the United States and its dependent Jurisdictions, will you find any God described, cataloged, limited in which a petitioner must express a belief before his petition may be accepted.

For Masonry is very wise, she is old, old and wisdom comes with age! She knows, as few religions and no other Fraternity has ever known, of the power of the bond which lies in the conception of an unlimited God.

A witty Frenchman was asked once: “Do you believe in God?” He answered:

“What do you mean by God? Nay, do not answer. For if you answer, you define God. A God defined is a God limited, and a limited God is no God!”

From Freemasonry’s gentle standpoint, a God defined and limited is not the Great Architect of the Universe. Only God unlimited by definition; God without meets and bounds; God under any name, by any conception, is the fundamental concept of the Fraternity, and to believe in Whom is the fundamental requirement for membership.

LOGIC AND UNDERSTANDING

IN her Fellowcraft Degree, Freemasonry teaches of the importance of Logic. It is perfectly logical to say that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite; a truism as exact as to say that light and darkness cannot exist in the same place at the same time, or that sound and silence cannot be experienced at the same moment. A mind which can comprehend infinity is not finite. That which can be comprehended by a finite mind is not infinite. Therefore, it is logical to say that no man can comprehend God, since the only mind he has is finite.

But, if a man cannot comprehend the God in Whom he must express a belief in order to be a Freemason, it is obviously the very height of folly to judge his belief by any finite comprehension of Deity. Which is the best of reasons why Freemasonry makes no attempt at definition. She does not say: “Thus and such and this and that is my conception of God, do you believe in HIM?” She says nothing, allowing each petitioner to think of Him as finitely or as infinitely as he will.

The agnostic frankly says:

“I do not know in what God I believe, or how he may be formed or exist. I only know that I believe in something.”

Freemasonry does not ask him to describe his “something.” If it is to him that which may be named God, no matter how utterly different from the God of the man who hands him the petition, Freemasonry asks nothing more. He must “believe.” How he names his God, how he defines or limits Him, what powers he gives Him – Freemasonry cares not.

It is probable that the majority of those who profess atheism are mistaken in their reading of their own thoughts. An atheist may be an honest man, a good husband and father, a law abiding, charitable, upstanding citizen. If so, his whole life contradicts what his lips say. In the words of the poet:

“He lives by the faith his lips deny, God knoweth why!”

Many a man has reasoned about faith, heaven, infinity, and God until his brain reeled at the impossibility of comprehending the infinite with the finite, and ended by saying in despair: “I cannot believe in God!” Then he has taken his wife or his child in his arms and there found happiness, completely oblivious to the most profound, as the most simple fact of all faiths and all religions; where love is, there is also God!

DECLARATION OF BELIEF

BUT, Freemasonry does not go behind the spoken or written word. With a full understanding that many a man who defiantly denies the existence of God is actually not an atheist “in his heart” our Order nevertheless insists upon a plain declaration of belief. There is no compromise in Freemasonry;1 her requirement are neither many nor difficult, but they are strict.

Having accepted the declaration, however, Freemasonry asks no qualifying phrases “Nor should any of us question a declaration.” It is not for us to let our hearts be troubled, because a petitioner’s conception of Deity is not ours. It is not for us to worry because he thinks of his God in a way which would not satisfy us. Freemasonry asks only for a belief in a Deity unqualified, unlimited, undefined. Her sons cannot, Fraternally, do less.

When the great schism in Freemasonry ended in 1813, and the two rival Grand Lodges, the Moderns (who were the older) and the Antients (who were the younger, Schismatic body) came together on St. John’s Day to form the United Grand Lodge, they laid down a firm foundation on this point for all time to come. It was later declared to all by this, the primary, Mother Grand Lodge of all the Masonic World:

“Let any man’s religion or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the Order, provided he believes in the glorious Architect of Heaven and Earth, and practices the sacred duties of morality.”

What a Mason thinks about the glorious Architect, by what name he calls Him. how he defines or conceives of Him, so far as Freemasonry is concerned may be a secret between Deity and brother, kept forever, “in his heart!”2


1 While traditionally this is the case, some Masonic Obediences do not require candidates to profess a belief in God.

2 Originally published, SHORT TALK BULLETIN – Vol. X   April, 1932 No.4

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

When I joined Freemasonry, I realized the ceremonies were full of symbols meant to allude to greater meanings. One of the items that caught my attention during my initiation was the tracing board or picture in the Lodge room which displays the symbols for the degree. Later I learned that artist John Harris (1791- 1873) was responsible for creating the design that I saw displayed. My curiosity was forever peaked to better understand John Harris and his symbolic art.  Although John Harris was well-respected during his life, I soon discovered that in recent times he has been labeled “a forgotten artist.” As an advocate for the arts, I immediately felt a resonance with this hard-working Freemason who seemingly never got his due.

What can we learn from his life story?  Is he really a forgotten artist?

Harris joined Freemasonry in 1818 during a time of exciting cultural developments. As part of the new organization of the United Grand Lodge of England (U.G.L.E.) in 1813, British Freemasons were moving away from tavern culture. The masons, now owners of beautiful massive buildings, were able to contemplate adorning them with permanent furnishings such as antique art or elaborate pipe organs.

Part of the standardization occurring in the furnishings of new buildings was that each of the Lodges were to own a set of tracing boards. Upon entering the Lodge, Harris very quickly became fascinated with the concept of the tracing boards and started drawing designs almost immediately. His talents, as a painter, facsimilist, and architectural draughtsman, fitted him perfectly for the task.

1809 Microcosm_of_London_Plate_038_-_Freemasons'_Hall

1809 London Freemason’s Hall

In 1823, Harris dedicated a set to Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.  The Grand Master immediately recognized Harris as a very talented young man. It is assumed that he commissioned Harris to make a standard official model for each degree.

These developments helped to standardize the designs. Until that point, there had been no consistency in the way the boards were painted.  It was not unusual for individual Lodges to have a variety of symbols and designs and employ their own artists.

 Why are symbols on the tracing boards important to the Freemason?

Albert Mackey, in his book on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, suggests that the symbols that are illustrated for each degree are a key to its mystery.

He writes:

To study the symbolism of Masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy.

In the masonic teaching, symbols are a way to investigate the deeper meanings because they speak to the whole human being, not only the limited waking intelligence. It is said that a symbol will communicate its “message” even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact. The power of the symbol does not depend on it being understood.

Harris spent his whole life painting and studying the symbols of the Craft. As he furthered his masonic career, his designs evolved accordingly.  His life was his art.

Studying the boards of Harris really made me think about the question:

Can you separate the artist from the art? 

1825_tb_harris_fc_500_860 (1)

1825 Second Degree

Some say art and an artist’s biography are not so easily separated.  What I found striking about the Harris boards is how much his art did reflect his life. The first designs he created in 1820, just two years after he joined, were very simple.  I imagine he was still unraveling all the deep teachings of Freemasonry.

The 1825 designs convey more depth of experience. His life at that time truly reflected a fruitful craftsman. He was forging his fraternal ties with the Grand Master, a relationship which seemed to blossom and mature over time. The Grand Master loved the “Harris Boards,” and every Lodge wanted a set of the “approved” designs. Harris could hardly keep up with the orders from the Lodges and also kept very busy as a facsimilist at the British Museum.  His client list consisted of some of the major collectors in rare books in England, many often royalty.

A 1846 advertisement praises the skill of Harris:

The Craft Tracing Boards have been of essential service in promoting instruction among the Society at large; they are eagerly sought after every place where Freemasonry is cherished.

Relentless demands and grueling labor ensued for the next couple of decades.

John_Harris_3rd_1850

1850  “Open Grave” Third Degree

In those days, there were no photocopy machines so each one of the boards for each of the lodges had to be hand painted.  It was not unusual for a lodge to wait longer than a year once they ordered a set from Harris.

The last board he designed was in 1850 for the third degree, referred to as the “open grave” design.  This was a period in his life he found himself reduced to the lowest state of poverty and distress due to partial blindness. In 1856, he went completely blind and was paralyzed from a stroke the same year. The darkness of the 1850 painting gives a feeling of emotional starkness not experienced in any of his earlier designs.  Although seemingly dismal, the sheer intensity of the painting does suggest something exceptional.

One of his friends comments:

At the age of sixty-six, he is deprived of the only means he possessed of supporting himself and an invalid wife.

In 1860, Harris moved with his wife to a masonic home in East Croyton for aged Freemasons and their widows. In earlier times it was named “The Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons” but known today as “The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (R.M.B.I.).” Harris found an outlet for his art in the East Croyton home and used his remaining years there to write poetry to raise money for the R.M.B.I. He answered his summons to the Grand Lodge Eternal on December 28, 1873.

From my research, I believe that Harris in the truest sense embodied the teachings of Freemasonry. His strength sustained him to endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances of unforeseen misfortune. He persevered until the end, laboring ceaselessly in the tasks that the Master had confided to his care. In my opinion, he is far from being a “forgotten artist.” His light continues to shine in one of the most treasured of all lodge furnishings.

In the words of Beethoven:

Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.


Note: Images for Harris Tracing Boards were retrieved on the website of Harmonie Lodge No. 66.

Who Owns Freemasonry?

Who Owns Freemasonry?

A peculiar and apparently ongoing protest at an online Masonic “University,” of which a sort-of Craft-based activist group reportedly has taken over and is making demands, has raised an unexpected question: Who Owns Freemasonry?

The question came up in The Past Bastard and it’s report this week about a self-described group calling itself the SRJWs or “Scottish Rite Justice Warriors” who have somehow taken over the online “Freemason University.” The SRJWs have issued a list of oddly amusing demands that must be met before “Freemason University” – which, to my knowledge, did nothing to the SRJWs – will be allowed to continue on its way.

If you’ve never heard of Freemason University, go have a look here. It’s an online resource affiliated with the Grand Lodge of Ohio to provide “essential tools for the leaders of our craft.” Modules include leadership and management, ritual and an interesting section called “Further Light.” Much of the material is available free online, free being a very good thing for that daily progress in Masonry.

The fact that I can access the online university suggests the SRJWs need a better hacker.

“They asked us to stop serving green beans and potatoes with baked chicken, and to add some classes on such odd things as the history of the ritual,” University Chairman Doug Darjeeling (who doesn’t Google at all) was quoted by The Past Bastard. “I mean, who thinks of crazy things like that? It’s like they are asking us to teach that the UGLE doesn’t own Freemasonry.”

I can almost hear the crickets.

The Past Bastard reported that it, quite sensibly, pointed out to Darjeeling that the United Grand Lodge of England does not own Freemasonry. Darjeeling reportedly ended the interview, saying that The Past Bastard “needed to educate ourselves before we could even think about reporting on such a story.”

Uh-huh.

If you can’t tell by now, I’m not buying this story. After all, The Past Bastard – “Your Best Source for Masonic News Satire” – is like that.

However, I suppose I can understand Bro. Darjeeling’s confusion – real or otherwise – about the UGLE and it’s supposed ownership of Freemasonry. I’ve encountered quite a few wildly uninformed Brothers who think the UGLE was the first lodge of Freemasons (Edinburgh Lodge No. 1 and Mother Kilwinning respectfully object) and then act on that belief by thinking first implies ownership (proved no barrier to Christopher Columbus).

However, even if we dispense with that, it naturally follows that the true owner of Freemasonry should be named.

To get at that, Masonic scholars have for generations referred to the John F. Tolle decision, an appeal decided by the U.S. Patent Office in 1872 on those occasions when the ownership of Freemasonry has come up. Tolle was a businessman who wanted to use the square and compasses on flour in barrels.

To be clear, both the square and the compasses predate Freemasonry and are tools not exclusive to operative masonry. Thus, Tolle did not see a problem with using the tools to sell his flour. The U.S. Patent Office opined otherwise:

“If this emblem were something other than precisely what it is, either less known, less significant, or fully and universally understood, all this might readily be admitted. But, considering its peculiar character and relation to the public, an anomalous question is presented. There can be no doubt that this device, so commonly worn and employed by Masons, has an established mystic significance, universally recognized as existing; whether comprehended by all or not is not material to this issue. In view of the magnitude and extent of the Masonic organization, it is impossible to divest its symbols, or at least this particular symbol, perhaps the best known of all, of its ordinary significance wherever displayed. It will be universally understood, or misunderstood, as having Masonic significance, and therefore as a trademark must certainly work deception.”

While it does not speak to ownership of Freemasonry, the opinion does speak to who can – so far as the U.S. Patent Office is concerned – use the square and compasses as an emblem that cannot be trademarked for other purposes. Only Freemasons are entitled to it, according to the opinion.

You have to follow it a bit further to recognize who owns Freemasonry. In my opinion, the owners of Freemasonry are Freemasons, each and every one – and none of them. Freemasons, often absentee owners at best, cannot agree to what purpose we all work, but we are really darn sure we are doing it. No one really is at the wheel and all of that may, perhaps, point up the W*, S* & B* of Freemasonry. She is everywhere and nowhere, everyone’s and no one’s.

Good luck putting the chains on.

Universal Freemasonry

TO THE GLORY OF GOD

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