Is It True What They Say About Freemasonry?
Addendum: "Please Look A Little Closer" by Jim Tresner
Here, it seems, we go again. A leaflet focused on Freemasonry has recently been published by the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is titled, "A Closer Look at A Bridge to Light: An Examination of the Religious teachings of the Scottish Rite." The leaflet, written by William E. Gordon, Jr., purports to be an examination of the book by Rex. R. Hutchens, 33º, Grand Cross.
Since 1988, a copy of A Bridge to Light has been given to candidates for the Degrees of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. A second edition of A Bridge to Light was prepared in 1995 and is used as the basis of this critique by the Southern Baptist Convention. I'd encourage both Dr. Gordon and the Home Mission Board to look a little closer.
Among the leadership of the Scottish Rite there was some debate as to whether or not there should be a response to the leaflet. Finally, it was decided to do so because there are statements in the leaflet which are confusing and should not go uncorrected. Before I discuss some of the specifics of the leaflet, however, there are a few general points to be made.
Within our Fraternity no one person can speak for Masonry. A Grand Master can speak on organizational matters within his Jurisdiction, just as the Grand Commander can speak on organizational matters within the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. But no one -- not a Grand Master, not a Grand Commander, not Albert Pike himself -- can speak for Masonry when it comes to the meanings of its teachings. That is something each Mason must seek and find for himself.
No one can speak for Freemasonry.
Perhaps the reason some people find that hard to understand is that they themselves are so willing to speak for all of Christianity. They write such things are "All Christians believe...," "Christians would agree...," "You can't be a Christian and believe...." In the case of "A Closer Look" for example, the author, Dr. Gordon, writes not as an individual, a Southern Baptist, or a representative of the SBC Home Mission Board. Rather, he appears to write for ALL Christians. In doing so, he has asserted as universal Christian belief or universal interpretations of Biblical passages doctrines which are in contradiction to the teachings of several Christian denominations.
Perhaps the author of "A Closer Look at A Bridge to Light doesn't consider members of these denominations to be Christians.
A second fact which our critics seem to find hard to understand is that Morals and Dogma (and Bridge to Light), which is, in some senses, an explication of Morals and Dogma) is not a book of "teachings" nor a statement of what a Mason believes or should believe about religion. Morals and Dogma is, essentially, a textbook for a course in philosophy and comparative religion.
The key there is "comparative." The writers of so many anti-Masonic tracts -- "A Closer Look" among them -- seem astonished and horrified to find pre-Christian religions included. The appear to think Morals and Dogma and A Bridge to Light should be limited to Christianity. But that, be definition, is impossible. A textbook on comparative forms of government, for example, which only discussed democracy would not be a textbook on comparative government; it would have to include monarchy, oligarchy, and the mat other forms of government people have developed over the centuries.
Thus it is with Morals and Dogma and, consequently, with A Bridge to Light. Pike believed that you cannot understand an idea unless you understand the history of the idea. And so, in Morals and Dogma, when he introduces a concept, he also tells you what other philosophers and religious leaders who belonged to the great cultures and religions of the past taught on that same concept.
But never does he say that you, the Scottish Rite Mason of today, have to believe what they taught.
If you want to understand the history of the science of geography, you have to know that people once believed that the earth was flat and square, but no one says you have to believe that today.
And certainly no one says you aren't smart enough to know the difference.
With those general comments, let us take a look at some of the specifics in "A Closer Look at A Bridge to Light, and see why we would ask the author to look closer still.
At the bottom of the first page of Dr. Gordon's leaflet, he writes, "Scottish Rite Masonry claims to teach religious truth [pp. vii, 3]." But that's not what the book says. The actual passage on page vii says, "The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is above all else and educational institution. Throughout its history it has stood as a beacon on the shores of ignorance. Instruction about the great ideas of morality, philosophy, religion and philanthropy permeates our ritual and our writings, unencumbered by sectarian doctrine. We have sought, not to teach men the truth, but rather a way to the truth. Each must find it for himself."
I added the boldface to make the point of this passage clearer.
We do not claim to teach religious truth, but to teach about the great ideas of religion, along with morality and the other areas mentioned. The passage specifically says we have tried to teach men how to find truth, but we do not claim to teach religious truth itself.
It's the same on page three, also cited by the writer of "A Closer Look." Nowhere on that page, or elsewhere, do we claim to teach religious truth. The line on page three reads, "To become a Scottish Rite Mason is to begin the search for philosophical truth in three areas: political, moral and religious." Again, Dr. Rex R. Hutchens, author of A Bridge to Light, is simply saying that a Mason searches for truth, not that Freemasonry tells him what the truth should be. I wish the writer of "A Closer Look" had read a little more carefully.
Why do we believe that the growth and development of one's faith is so important? For a thousand years, Christian theologians have emphasized the difference between a "child-like" faith (much to be desired) and a "childish" faith. Only the child-like faith quality can truly be strong.
The great theologian Walter Rauschenbush puts it very well.
"The religion of childhood will not satisfy adolescent youth, and the religion of youth ought not to satisfy a mature man or woman. Our soul must built statelier mansions for itself. Religion must continue to answer all our present needs and inspire all our present functions. A person who has failed to adjust his religion to his growing powers and his intellectual horizon, has failed in one of the most important functions of growth, just as if his cranium failed to expand and to give room to his brain. Being microcephalous [having an abnormally tiny head] is a misfortune, and nothing to boast of." (1)
There is a subtle twist in Dr. Gordon's next charge, which is possibly the result of an accidental misreading. He says that "A Bridge to Light Denies Certainty in Religious Truth Claims." He suggests the Scottish Rite teaches that religious truth is "uncertain and relative." He says that A Bridge to Light makes that claim on pages 9, 69, 103 and 107. Again, he should have looked a little closer. A Bridge to Light does not say there is no certain religious truth. It says human understanding of religious truth is imperfect. And it says that, since human understanding of religious truth is imperfect, no one should hate someone else just because one person's imperfect understanding is different from another person's imperfect understanding.
This interpretation should not come as a surprise to the writer of "A Closer Look." The Bible relates the same idea in these words:
"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
"A Closer Look" then makes a strange charge: "A Bridge to Light teaches that God is a God of love who should not be feared. 'I put my trust in God, is the protest of Masonry against the belief in a cruel, angry, and revengeful God, to be feared and not reverenced by His creatures.'" [The inner quotation is taken from Morals and Dogma by Do. Gordon.] It is rather unusual to be accused of teaching that one should love God. But the writer of "A Closer Look" then lists Biblical quotations to prove that God should be feared.
He is missing the point. Pike and Hutchens were simply trying to corect an error which has crept into thinking because our language has changed. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, at the time the King James Translation of the Bible was made, a primary meaning of the word "fear" was "to hold in awe and respect." Over time, "fear" has developed the primary meaning it has now -- "be terrified of." Pike was simply saying that God is a God of love, you need not be terrified of Him. Hold him in awe and respect certainly, but do not assume that He is a malignant being who is looking for a chance to do you harm.
The next point gets a little abstract, and I apologize for dragging the reader through it, but it is important. According to the writer of "A Closer Look," A Bridge to Light claims that Christianity accepts the principle of dualism as taught by Zoroaster (page 311). But, that's not what A Bridge to Light says.
Dualism is a doctrine which says that both a good and an evil force exist in the universe. Dualism, as taught by Zoroaster, involved two essentially equal gods, one good and one evil, who contested for control of the universe. Dualism, as it appears in many Christian denominations, teaches that there are two forces, but that they are not equal. The good force is God, who is omnipotent. The evil force is Satan, who is not omnipotent. Dr. Hutchens is referencing Pike, who observed (as have many Christian theologians) that Zoroaster seems to have originated the idea of dualism, and the idea has found echoes in many Western religions, including Christianity.(1a) Dr. Hutchens was not suggesting, as "A Closer Look" implies, that Christianity believes in a good God and an evil God.
Again, I wish the writer had taken a closer look at page 218 of A Bridge to Light. He says the Scottish Rite teaches that man cannot have a knowledge of God. Had he read more carefully, he would have realized that the book says the Koran teaches that man's limited intellect cannot form a true conception of what God is like. That's hardly a surprising statement. The book also says that when we start describing God, we limit our idea of Him because words are limited. So we should remember that when we try to describe God, there is a danger that we will overlook part of His greatness. Again, that's obviously true. It's just another version of "For now we see through a glass, darkly."
The writer then distorts the references to the Trinity so badly that it is truly offensive. What A Bridge to Light actually says is that many religions have conceived of God as triune (three-part) in nature. That is clearly true, as the example given in A Bridge to Light make obvious. But the writer of "A Closer Look" then suggests that masonry teaches that these trinities believed in by ancient religions are the same as the Holy Trinity of Christianity.
Nowwhere in Morals and Dogma, A Bridge to Light, or any other Masonic writing of which I am aware is such a claim made! Dr. Gordon's reasoning is the same as saying that because a watch has a face and hands and a human being has a face and hands, a watch and a human being are the same thing!
I would also ask the writer to take a closer look at the concept of a Messiah. He claims that the Scottish Rite teaches that Jesus was not unique. The passage he cites doesn't say that. It says that many religions in the ancient world taught that a Messiah would come. Again, that is provably true. But to say that the Greeks taught that Dionysius was a messiah-figure, or that the Hindus taught that Krishna was a messiah-figure is to make a statement about the teachings of those religions -- not to make a statement about Jesus of Nazareth.
The same sort of misunderstanding is responsible for the assertion in "A Closer Look" that the Scottish Rite confuses pagan deities with the one True God. It does not. It describes ancient religions as part of an intellectual study. It tells us what people have believed in the past. It does nothing more.
I really wish that the writer of "A Closer Look" had given more depth to his reading before he wrote "Scottish Rite Uses the Occult as a Source of Religious Truth." He cites some instances, including the suggestion that we teach astrology, and then devotes quite a bit of space to showing Biblical quotations that Christianity disapproves of divination by astrology.
The point he missed is that the Scottish Rite disapproves of it, too. As any Scottish Rite Mason knows, nowhere in the Rite are you taught how to be an astrologer. The Scottish Rite does teach about astrology by divination, however. And what does Pike say about astrology? He refers to it as "pretended science."(2)
Pike states the study of the heavens was originally a useful means of telling the seasons so that men knew when to plant and when to harvest. This use then expanded to the heavens as a source of inspiration as men and women marveled at the Creator of such perfect order. Finally, astrology deteriorated in the hands of unscrupulous men to nothing more than spurious fortune-telling.(3) There is more. It really is not worth the space to answer each of the charges. They result from either a misreading or a misunderstanding of the material in A Bridge to Light -- and, of course, from a starting position that all Christianity must conform to the writer's own denominational doctrines.
It is worthwhile, however, to look at the comments of "A Closer Look" on the 31º, because it is clearly a case of misunderstanding the purposes of the Masonic Degrees, and it is possible that a better understanding may help the writer of the leaflet comprehend that here is nothing to cause concern.
He points out that the Degree is set in the Egyptian afterlife and that the candidate is required to swear things in the name of the Egyptian gods. He finds this offensive.
But there are a few things to be remembered and understood.
First of all, the 31º, like all Degrees, is a play. It has a plot and characters like any other play. The candidate is playing the part of a character, like everyone in the cast. In his case, he is playing the rôle of an ancient Egyptian who has died and entered into the after life as conceived by his people. It is a play just as Macbeth is a play, and the actor playing the dead Egyptian is no more engaging in an act of worship of the ancient gods than the actor playing Macbeth is really plotting political assassination.
The 31º is the next-to-last Degree in the basic Degrees of the Scottish Rite. Pike wanted to make the point that the Mason should constantly examine his actions and motives, holding himself to the highest standards of honor and ethics. He wanted a story line which represented the ultimate judgement, when nothing is hidden. He was far too devout a Christian to use a play based on the Last Judgement as seen by Christianity -- he would have considered that sacrilege.
But there is another religion, now dead, which contain such a scene, and that is the religion of ancient Egypt. There are not practitioners of that religion left, and so Pike could draw on an old Degree, without fear of giving offense to a member of that faith. He did. But he did something more wonderful and subtle, and it a good example of the way the Rite teaches.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains a sequence usually called the "negative confession." The soul of the departed asserts that he has never moved the landmarks, he has never cheated in trade, he has never broken the law, etc. Pike uses that, but then tells the character played by the candidate that that is not enough. It is not enough to have avoided evil, one must have done good. It is not enough to have not wronged people, one must have helped them.
Pike is saying that productive living involves being active, helping, making a difference in the world. That's the message. One should no more get upset over the fact that the drama of the 31º is set in ancient Egypt than that the opera Aida is. In both cases, it's just a setting which helps to tell a dramatic and important story.
And there is one more assertion which should be given attention, if only because it is so wrong and so often made. The writer of "A Closer Look" says "A Bridge to Light Teaches a Works Salvation." To prove this claim, he says that page 142 "claims that immortality is won by suffering and sorrow." It doesn't . The quotation says that the rose on the cross is a symbol of immortality won by suffering and sorrow. It is, for the Christian, clearly a reference to Christ who won redemption for His followers by His suffering and sorrow -- hardly a strange concept.
He says that page 165 "informs the reader that 'a man's actions are a bridge to his own immortality and to the future of mankind.'" But the passage begins, "Will you obey God's law, trust in His goodness and be patient though the appointed time may seem to draw no nearer during your life, nor your labors and exertions produce any fruit?...each man must act as abridge builder to the future, being a good example to his children, peers and brethren. A man's actions are a bridge to his own immortality and to the future of mankind."
Certainly, in most Christian doctrine, a man's actions are a bridge to his own immortality, since it is action to accept Christ. And many Christian denominations teach that one can, by one's actions, destroy one's hope of salvation even after the person has made a profession of faith.
There are other examples, but the point remains the same. Masonry does not teach a "works salvation." It teaches, over and over again, that it is important to do good in the world because we have a duty to make the lives of others better, not because it is some way of "earning" salvation.
The writer of "A Closer Look" says, in his conclusion, that many of the religious teachings of the Scottish Rite are incompatible with Biblical Christianity. But he has confused "religious teachings" with "teaching about religions." We do not offer religious teachings; we do offer information about religions. The difference between "religious teachings" and "teachings about religions" is like the difference between teaching medicine and teaching about medicine.
Any college survey on social history or economics may well contain a section which teaches about medicine as it relates to the subject matter of the course, but that would hardly make one into a doctor. Again we would ask Dr. Gordon to please look a little closer, look without preconceptions and prejudices. He will see there is nothing to criticize, and even less to fear.
1. Walter Rauschenbush, "The Social principles of Jesus" in The World Treasure of Modern Religious Thought, Little, Brown & Co., 1990, pp. 588-589.
1a. See for example Jack Finegan, "Zoroastrian Religion" in Jack Finegan, Myth & Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1989), pp. 65-118. [note by Art deHoyos]
2. Morals and Dogma, p. 463.
3. Morals and Dogma, pp. 444-463, passim.
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