Recently our good friend and Brother, Alex Powers, posted something interesting on the Kansas Masonry Facebook Page. For some background, Alex posts a question for contemplation almost daily. Sometimes they're deep philosophical questions, and other times they're more straightforward. If I'm scrolling through Facebook and I see the question, I stop to read it. Sometime's I answer them, and sometimes I stop and think about it--maybe I reply, perhaps I don't.
I almost always answer straightforward questions about my Lodge experience or procedures and customs that we might use in Lodge. The reason being, it's hoped others might also read the replies and see where their own experiences and traditions are similar or different from the others that they are reading about. This is a great way to see the universality of the Craft and create more informed and confident Master Masons.
The philosophical questions are a bit different. In fact, earlier this week, Alex posted a question that began with a little admonition:
"Let's start off with this week's theme being one typically avoided in Masonic circles: Religion. Obviously, we will approach this in due bounds and remind all to do the same. And, of course, our team of moderators will keep an eye on as well.
In your personal experience, do you utilize Freemasonry as a supplementary factor (to add to or enhance) to your religious practice? Or do you view and treat Freemasonry entirely separate?"
In case you skipped the quote, I bolded it. This is what I am going to address here in this short article. And let me go one step further. I want to say that this blog's description is:
"A group of Master Masons talk about topics of Masonic interest--each from their own unique perspective. You'll find a wide range of subjects including history, trivia, travel, book reviews, great quotes, and hopefully a little humor as well on topics of interest for Freemasons and those interested in the subject of Freemasonry."
My own perspective is precisely what I want to lay out. I began to answer Alex's prompt, and while doing so, I thought I would keep it simple, but that I would also lay this out for the blog because this is a question that is always out there, looming like some kind of storm cloud. I wish it was easier to talk about things like this without having tons of disclaimers, but alas--it's a hotly debated topic; in fact, what's more hotly debated about, is that the question itself shouldn't even be asked! But it was-- and here is my answer.
I grew up Roman Catholic. I attended Church in Naples, Italy, with my mom and dad weekly. My dad was in the service (Navy) and had been stationed there. It was a wonderful experience. Later, when we came home to the United States, we settled in Illinois after my dad had passed away. I was young, and I attended a Lutheran grammar school for a year. My mom wasn't a fan and pulled me out. I went to public school after that. My religious beliefs until my early twenties could best be represented by the poster that hung in Fox Mulder's basement office in The X-Files. And in reality, that poster is laminated and hangs on my own office wall right now.
"I Want To Believe" was my motto with religion and just about anything else. And let's be honest, there would be a certain comfort or contentment in knowing or believing for those out there who don't believe. To be sure, some atheists will say that they are already content and comfortable--I believe you. This speaks for the rest of us. I wasn't an atheist--I was agnostic in those formative years. I found it audacious in a sense to declare it one way or the other. Who am I to say whether something like God exists or doesn't?
After reading much literature on philosophy with varied authors and really focussing on my collegiate studies, which were themselves centered on philosophy in religion, I had arrived. I did not have faith that there was more. I KNEW there was more. I did believe--because the evidence was surrounding me. The readings and authors that did the most to sway my mind were Giordano Bruno, Cayetano Ripoll, Thomas Paine, Spinoza, and even Albert Einstein. They convinced me that intelligent design was written as we say in this Fraternity, "...in the book of Nature."
I cannot be classified wholly as a Deist, although it sometimes fits. To answer the question placed above, where does someone like myself stand? In an age where fewer people are going to church each year, finding an organized religion as fulfilling or are willing to have faith--we ask why? And I think the answer is because they want to KNOW. And while I had the confidence to say that I knew absolutely that there was something else--that there was intelligent design, I also understand that having this mindset could be considered a gift. To others, it may be too rigid. For me, it's right. Whatever your path is, whatever lens you see the world through, or your particular religion, as long as it hurts no one--follow it.
So, where do I stand on Alex's question? I suppose I see Freemasonry as the living practice of Deism, maybe even Stoicism. While we have the Abrahamic faiths as a foundation for the allegory, or rather, it's the mode of transmission we've chosen to use--the tenets of our institution are universal in application. Not one part of it is specifically applicable to only one religion. Hence Freemasonry's secular stance--at least in words. Often times many members belong to Lodges that do have a specific religious "flavor." I don't mean to be derogatory. I just don't have a better way to describe it. Other Lodges stay as objective and "vanilla" as possible--multiple VoSLs on the altar, specially written prayers that remove themes of one kind or another, and more.
It really does span the gamut. At this time, Regular Freemasonry requires a belief in a Supreme Being or God. It does so for some precise reasons, which I'm not going to get into here. Deism is a philosophy that has changed over the years very dramatically. So much so that in some jurisdictions, Deists aren't allowed to join Freemasonry. Would this have barred members like Benjamin Franklin? Perhaps. But that is not the question asked above. Deism has no church or divinely inspired text or VoSL. It would be nice to have something, I suppose, but what would it be? A VoSL for a Deist is probably considered--"The Book of Nature." This isn't an actual book, of course, it's analogous to saying--"Look around you. This is my book. This is my divinely inspired text."
Deism also has no church. There again, the Deist might say, "The world is my church." I'm wondering, though-- if Deism DID have a church, perhaps a Craft Lodge is it. Again, I'm not so sure I'm a Deist, and I don't go to religious services often. My opinion here might mean nothing to you based on that alone. I've said it in a room full of people to whom I was lecturing, "Freemasonry is my religion." Yikes! I just said that.
You might say to yourself, "Freemasonry isn't a religion. It has no God." You're right. There is no God in Freemasonry--its members believe that whatever their individual God is, we can call it, "The Great Architect of the Universe" or hey, for me, "God"-- works. So I know there's something out there, something bigger, grander, incomprehensible. While I might not have a specific dogma, at times, I guess Deism is a good banner that fits me. The Craft offers me a place to meet others who can agree on a shared belief in an intelligent creator and interact with others who share the same universal beliefs regardless of their personal backgrounds. Maybe Lodge, for me, it's its own religion--even though folks might vehemently disagree.
Lodge definitely adds to my dogma--it might just be my church.
To quote an interview with Ernest Borgnine for "The Scotsman" in 2009:
"His religion now, he says, is Freemasonry. "I am very happy to say that I'm a 33rd degree Grand Cross Master Mason in the Scottish Rite. We believe in one thing, God. We believe in another thing: to help your fellow man. Be as kind as you can be to everybody."
~RHJRWB Johnson is a Co-Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 2nd N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He is the current V:. Sovereign Grand Inspector for AMD in IL. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focuses on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry", “The Master’s Word: A Short Treatise on the Word, the Light, and the Self – Annotated Edition” and author of "How to Charter a Lodge: A No-Nonsense, Unsanctioned Guide. More books are on the way.