The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pike gets me thinking

I'm reading Albert Pike's Magnum Opus, or the Great Work for The College of the Consistory. I'm enrolled in the School of Perfection (4° to 14°) for the next two years, but since I've mailed off my initial assignment for the School of Perfection, and am waiting for my next assignment, I thought I would read ahead.

It is important to note that I am in the Valley of Boston, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (NMJ) of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR), and Albert Pike was Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction (SJ). We respect Illustrious Brother Pike in the NMJ, but he was never our leader, and our ritual and degree titles are different from his vision of what they should be. The Southern Jurisdiction is the mother jurisdiction of all Scottish Rite jurisdictions in the world, but this was established before Pike was born, and it is not at all clear that SJ exerts any authority over other jurisdictions. The book he is best known for, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, or Morals and Dogma for short, is a difficult read and compares a lot of different faiths without singling any one out for special praise. That makes fundamentalists very uncomfortable, and anti-Masons love to misquote Morals and Dogma to make their point about Freemasonry in general, falsely claiming that Pike was the world leader of all of Freemasonry, an office that does not exist. In the NMJ, we can side-step the controversy by pointing out that Pike did not write our degrees, and that he has never had any authority over the NMJ. I'm not sure our bitterest enemies, especially the proponents of the Taxil forgery and the Three World Wars crowd, care very much about facts.

In any case, Morals and Dogma gives the reader the following warning:

In preparing this work, the Grand Commander has been about equally Author and Compiler; since he has extracted quite half its contents from the works of the best writers and most philosophic or eloquent thinkers. Perhaps it would have been better and more acceptable if he had extracted more and written less.

Still, perhaps half of it is his own; and, in incorporating here the thoughts and words of others, he has continually changed and added to the language, often intermingling, in the same sentences, his own words with theirs. It not being intended for the world at large, he has felt at liberty to make, from all accessible sources, a Compendium of the Morals and Dogma of the Rite, to re-mould sentences, change and add to words and phrases, combine them with his own, and use them as if they were his own, to be dealt with at his pleasure and so availed of as to make the whole most valuable for the purposes intended. He claims, therefore, little of the merit of authorship, and has not cared to distinguish his own from that which he has taken from other sources, being quite willing that every portion of the book, in turn, may be regarded as borrowed from some old and better writer.

The teachings of these Readings are not sacramental, so far as they go beyond the realm of Morality into those of other domains of Thought and Truth. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite uses the word "Dogma" in its true sense, of doctrine, or teaching; and is not dogmatic in the odious sense of that term. Every one is entirely free to reject and dissent from whatsoever herein may seem to him to be untrue or unsound. It is only required of him that he shall weigh what is taught, and give it fair hearing and unprejudiced judgment.

I have to be very careful here. My brothers at the Guthrie Scottish Rite Temple have been very generous in letting me study their courses, and I am very grateful to them for their gift of masonic light. I am also loyal to my mother valley and mother jurisdiction. SJ has its Master Craftsman program, and the College of the Consistory is a SJ program, but I'm not aware the NMJ has anything similar. If I were aware of a NMJ program that invited a brother to study their degrees in depth, I would take that program in preference to a SJ program, because I'd be studying my own degrees instead of an extra-regional variant. A visit to both jursidictions' websites reveals nearly 50 books for sale at the SJ website, and only one at the NMJ website, and that book is not about Scottish Rite Freemasonry. I'm still very new to the Scottish Rite, so I assume that we at the NMJ are a bit more guarded about masonic education, and I will be invited to study and learn when I prove myself worthy. Until then, I am glad that other opportunities have been afforded to me, and it is my sincere hope that the light I gain from these SJ programs will go some way towards making me worthy of whatever educational program the NMJ offers its brothers. It is most sincerely not my intention to offend my NMJ brothers by studying SJ ritual, and it should not be interpreted as a preference for SJ practices over NMJ practices.

In Sovereign Grand Commander George Newbury's history of the NMJ, he notes that the NMJ at one time made the Rose Croix (18°) degree Christian-only, a restriction that Ill. Bro. Newbury rejected and dropped. He also notes that Pike was deeply unhappy about this restriction. Pike writes in Magnum Opus: "If, anywhere, brethren of a particular religious belief have been excluded from this degree, it merely shows how gravely the purposes and plan of Masonry may be misunderstood. For whenever the door of any degree is closed against him who believes in one God and the soul's immortality, on account of the other tenets of his faith, that degree is Masonry no longer. No Mason has the right to interpret the symbols of this degree for another, or to refuse him its mysteries, if he will not take them with the explanation and commentary superadded."

It is fascinating how Pike expounds on Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, with one Council of Kadosh degree in the explicit idiom of each, and insists that Knights Kadosh have to learn about each of the major Abrahamic faiths and go through a degree in the mode of each faith in order to achieve the title. He also speaks about Masonry's compatibility with Buddhism and Hinduism, even calling the Buddha a mason. His liberties with masonic history rankle the more historically-minded Freemasons I know, but he is careful to explain that he is being allegorical, and he is expounding on archetypal truths, not historical truths.

(UPDATE: I found this explanation in the Master of the Symbolic Lodge lecture (20°):

We teach the truth of none of the legends we recite. They are to us but parables and allegories, involving and enveloping Masonic instruction; and vehicles of useful and interesting information. They represent the different phases of the human mind, its efforts and struggles to comprehend nature, God, the government of the Universe, the permitted existence of sorrow and evil. To teach us wisdom, and the folly of endeavouring to explain to ourselves that which we are not capable of understanding, we reproduce the speculations of the Philosophers, the Kabbalists, the Mystagogues and the Gnostics. Every one being at liberty to apply our symbols and emblems as he thinks most consistent with truth and reason and with his own faith, we give them such an interpretation only as my be accepted by all.)

This little nugget from the Secret Master (4°) lecture I'm sure would rankle other masons:

If you have been disappointed in the first three degrees; if it has seemed to you that the performance has not come up to the promise, and that the common-places which are uttered in them with such an air, the lessons in science and the arts, merely rudimentary, and known to every school-boy, the trite maxims of morality, and the trivial ceremonies are unworthy the serious attention of a grave and sensible man, occupied with the weighty cares of life, and to whom his time is valuable, remember that those ceremonies and lessons come to us from an age when the commonest learning was confined to a select few, when the most ordinary and fundamental principles of morality were new discoveries; and that the first three degrees stand in these latter days, like the columns of the old, roofless, Druidic Temple, in their rude and primeval simplicity, mutilated also and corrupted by the action of time, and the additions and interpolations of illiterate ignorance. They are but the entrance to the great Masonic Temple, the mere pillars of the portico.

As someone for whom the Middle Chamber lecture, as I received it, stole my heart, this does not sit well with me. How many of my brothers actually study the seven liberal arts? How many masons do you know still put an apostrophe before every final s? Brother Esquire insists that Pike loved the first three degrees, but was deeply critical of the Preston-Webb versions of them. I'm also aware that the Morals and Dogma version of this lecture is less harsh than this. But even still, I don't reject this paragraph out of hand. While any contemporary mason will tell you that there is enough in the three Craft degrees to satisfy a lifetime of curiosity, I understand the yearning to explore further degrees and bodies, and the Scottish Rite has a marvelous opportunity to satisfy this yearning in its brothers.


  1. My impression of the Northern Jurisdiction is not so much that they are more guarded in Masonic education, but that Masonic education is for the most part non-existent. I think your own experience bears that out.

    Since the late 1800 the NMJ has been very free and loose with modifying and adapting the degree rituals to modern culture, so much so that some of your degrees are now set in relatively modern times (18th century America, for example.) The SMJ continues to be much more faithful to the esoteric ethos of the Rite that Pike nurtured throughout his tenure as SGC. I think the NMJ has almost completely eschewed the mystical foundations of the Rite and in some ways I fear the SMJ may be heading down the same pathway. Compare this excerpt from a SMJ promotional video of 25 years ago with the newly released NMJ video and the contrast between the two philosophies of Masonry becomes clear.

  2. Morals and Dogma sounds like a very deep but very interesting book. The Scottish Rite also sounds interesting. Of course, I'm far from that point, but I'm seeing that Freemasonry is a very interesting and wide world.

  3. freddo:

    Take your time. You haven't even taken your Entered Apprentice degree yet. As I said above, there is enough in the three Craft degrees to satisfy a lifetime of curiosity, and your blue lodge needs you more than the appendant bodies do. Of course, I'm a bit of a hypocrite because I took my Scottish Rite degrees three months after I was raised. But being a Scottish Rite mason was part of why I became a mason. A word of caution about reading Pike: you don't have to agree with him, ever. There is no single authority on Freemasonry that a mason has to follow, with the possible exception of his Grand Lodge's constitution.