In the present days we like to brag that Freemasonry is universal, that our candidates can be of any religion or faith, as long as they believe in the existence of a (the?) Supreme Being. He can worship that Being calling Him/Her (since no gender is mentioned!) in any way and manner prescribed by his religion… because we are not into replacing it with another, “Masonic” faith.
Wait a minute, did you say theology? Aren’t we always assuring everybody that we are not a religion? Then we should not have a theology – which is the “knowledge of god”, in other words, the system of divine science, which, let’s not forget, was the only ‘science’ taught in the medieval European universities. Those institutions were more like the religious seminaries of today. Even philosophy, the noble art of thinking about the world and ourselves, was a mere servant of that theology (ancilla theologiae – as they called it in Latin, which was the language of knowledge in Western Europe).
Everything else, related to the mundane and ephemeral phenomena of the surroundings, was of no interest. Some highly educated monks, which were blessed – or cursed – with exceptional intellect, tried to figure out the eternal laws of Nature, in order to better understand our place in it. For most of them, it didn’t end well: some got burned on the stake, and all were persecuted, sentenced, and excommunicated by the Church… but this topic should be for another presentation about the development of the natural sciences.
There are mainly two issues that are worth to be examined with the open mind, to get a better understanding of the theological aspects hidden in our Masonic texts. One is the historical aspect of the circumstances when the texts were written; the other concerns the implicit theological assumptions embedded in the texts.
Let me begin with this latter one, the theological assumptions – it will help when we are going to discuss the historical part. We all agree on that Basic Principle which requires belief in a Supreme Being (remember: also the first question asked from a candidate). We do quote it often as a proof of our well-thought and inclusive approach, and rightly so. Having the phrase “Supreme Being” instead of a ‘named’ deity creates the freedom for every Mason to have faith in and to worship the central divine entity of their own religion. But then we have some more specific questions (at least in the Canadian version of the Work used in Ontario), which – unfortunately – narrow that inclusiveness mentioned above. We should be aware that most masons who write this kind of texts are not (and were not) theologians, so they mess it up quite often. It is unfortunate because many church-based attacks, actually, take our own phrases and definitions to “prove” this or that accusation they come up with. There is that question we are instructed to ask the candidate: that the Supreme Being revealed himself. This one already implies a certain theological assumption, namely that only adherents of religions based on revelation can honestly answer “yes”. While all religions recognize some kind of “supreme” entity that created our world and governs our world, (otherwise it wouldn’t be a religion), not all religions have some kind of holy text (book) where the deity revealed himself and his will to men in general…
Traditionally, to borrow from the Islam’s terminology, only people of the book are considered having a text-based revelation for their guidance, which in their view are: the Torah of the Jews, the Judaic religion; the Bible of the Christians (the Torah + the New Testament) for all Christian denominations and the Qua-ran of the Muslims for all branches of the Islam. They are also called “Abrahamic” religions since they all revere the same ancestor Ibrahim/Abraham.
If you think I made up this issue about the mandatory revelation, you are wrong. Already in 1915, more than a hundred years ago a special committee has been formed to advise on Buddhists being made Masons – since they don’t have such a “Holy Book” as the aforementioned Abrahamic religions have. I am not going to reveal (pun intended) the conclusion of that Committee reporting to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Instead, I invite you for a quiet introspective search. I mean an internal search of our own soul. Are we ready to really accept a follower of any kind of religion or do we require a more strict interpretation of that “liberty” of having a GTAOU of our own persuasion? How would we deal with a good man, who is religious and spiritual, having all the attributes that would make him a good brother… except that his religion doesn’t have a text considered by all the ultimate revelation of the deity he reveres as the Supreme Being of his faith? Or maybe not having a monotheistic religion?
Forget for a moment how you, personally, interpret for yourself the phrase “Supreme Being”. My intention is not to argue or to question the validity of that personal belief. However, it is my intention to ask you to be honest with yourself: how far are you able and willing to push the limits of accepting a different interpretation of the deity behind the name? Exactly at the point where you stop, is the limit of your own tolerance. Or mine… since we are together in this.
P.S. I am aware there are a few Scandinavian Grand Lodges as well as several USA Grand Lodges that expressly require adherence to the trinitarian Christian faith, as a condition to be admitted to their lodges. This article is not about such practices, on the contrary; it tries to clarify the inherent traps in formulating faith-related requirements in our guiding documents.
P.P.S. UGLE published formally their Basic Principles for Grand Lodge recognition in 1929. In that text, under #2 & #3 the words “revealed” (belief in the G.A.O.T.U. and His revealed will) and “revelation” (Volume of the Sacred Law, by which is meant the revelation from above) is explicitly mentioned. In the later, 1989 version those words are not present anymore!
[next time we will take a look at the history of having Christianity related theology in Masonic texts]