A Lutheran Approach to Ritual Part 2: Contextual Examination of the Ritual

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Scott S. Dueball

Previously, I introduced an approach that my church teaches when reading the Bible and suggested that applying each element of this approach to our ritual studies could provide value to our understanding of the philosophy. In this piece, I will expand on the first element, Contextual Reading. Contextual reading is giving regard to the historical and literary situation during the period of composition. This means we must first understand when the ritual was composed, what it was composed of, who composed it and how it was composed.

Of course, this is a large subject consisting of far more than 30 texts and documents. It would be impossible to give a just explanation here. I recently submitted a piece to the Philalethes where I addressed a question primarily rooted in the contextual examination of the ritual. I was interested in the word "condescending", as it is used in the 3rd Degree Charge of present-day Preston-Webb ritual in the United States. If we hear condescend only in our own, present-day, context then it sounds as if we are charged to be condescending toward our superiors. I understand that to mean that we are to sarcastically patronize our leaders based on my understanding of the modern use of the word. This seems like an odd thing to teach Masons. In first applying the literary contextual reading, I looked at dictionaries and etymological resources to determine if the definition of the word has evolved. Surprise: it has! Condescend did not always mean what it means today. Then the question is, “When did it change?” I applied the historical context to see how other sources used the word during the same period (late 18th early 19th century). Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is a notorious example of this use of condescend. This gave me a clue to which definition of condescend was employed during the period of interest. This allowed me to better understand that what was meant was for a man of superior station to lower himself and speak on the level with any other as an equal.

You can perform a very similar review because almost all of the documents I used for that project are available online via archive.org or other sources. It will be necessary to begin with the litany of questions I ask above. You need to know about the world the authors grew up and lived in to understand what they were writing about. You need to understand how the fraternity viewed the various documents and what stage the fraternity was in as it was being formed. These things offer clues to help us understand the language that sometimes sounds archaic to our modern ears.

What are we possibly missing from the ritual if we don’t dig into the elements that are unclear to us? Our modern minds forget that the sciences displayed in the Fellowcraft’s lectures composed the sum total of agreed upon science at the time. A recently article in the Rocky Mountain Mason explained that some of these ideas were the very things that Giordano Bruno was executed for. Those facts (globes, senses, architecture, geometry) no longer represent all that we know but at the time were revolutionary. One example of our continued learning in my field is that we now understand that we have at least 6 senses (adding proprioception). That doesn’t invalidate the lecture but one could deduce that there is an additional lesson that we must be interested in understanding the world around us to our fullest ability by constantly remaining open to new scientific theory and research.

These are just a few examples of how contextual examination of the ritual can deepen your understanding of our ritual and philosophy. I will address the use of analogy in ritual in the next edition in the series.


WB Scott S. Dueball is the Worshipful Master of D.C. Cregier Lodge No. 81 in Wheeling, IL and holds a dual membership in Denver Lodge No. 5 in Denver, CO. He currently serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois as the State Education Officer. Scott is also a member of the Palatine York Rite bodies and the Valley of Chicago A.A.S.R.-N.M.J. He is passionate about the development of young masons, strategy and visioning for Lodges. He can be reached at SEO@ilmason.org

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