Freemasonry, which is in many respects the founding religion of North American civil society, is largely a forgotten phenomenon of our history. Every now and then someone rediscovers and interesting aspect of it, as in this CBC story on the architectural symbolism of the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Have a look at the video, linked above, and consider also this photographic tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building, and then you may wonder what you have just seen. As I say, you have just had a glimpse at some of the founding symbolism of our civil society. But what does Freemasonry teach us about our culture? Is this an example of the kind of Gnosticism we frequently deride at this blog? Well, in some sense yes, some sense no. Freemasonry includes Gnostic symbolism within it, but it need not lead its members to end up with a Gnostic outlook (though I think that possibility is always strong in the culture).
I just came across this video, and haven't been thinking up a serious post on the subject. At the moment, I don't have any way to quickly sum up the problem of understanding this important foundation of our North American (from Mexico to Canada) civil society. But the greatest modern scholar of Freemasonry, in my opinion, Alexander Piatigorsky, argued in his book against seeing Freemasonry simply as a Gnostic movement. While it may be confusing to pick up a dense book and quote from a few places, a few quotes from Piatigorsky may point the way to some understanding the origins of cultural tendencies we still see in play today when we talk about our cultural relativism and the like:
...one other feature, deeply ingrained in Craft Masonry: its religious relativism. Religious relativism in a phenomenology of religion can be approximately described as what happens when a religion, by means of self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-description, establishes its own place with respect to some other religion as well as to religion in general. This has the inevitable consequence that the religion in question loses its absolute status, and, furthermore, that any other religion which happens to be related to the first also becomes relative. (129)Confused? Enlightened? I'd be interested to know...
As a non-Christian observer of religion, I would prefer to characterize Freemasonry as a syncretic religion which cannot be natural by definition, for it knows itself as syncretic, while a natural religion does not know itself as natural. It is obvious that the last term serves as a term of theological language not as a term of religion itself. Thus Freemasonry combines, syncretically, Christianity and some elements of Judaism and Gnosticism, with Masonic Religion. (279-80)
"Leon D., an Aberdonian Mason and lawyer, told me that, "...the [ritual] secrecy of raising [a candidate] is a convention, a sheer convention which we stick to as a part of the ritual itself." And only when I insisted that he should explain himself more succinctly, he added, rather condescendingly: "What I meant is that what is done is done irrespective of what you may think or feel about it. This is the meaning of secrecy." I, for my part, think that his explanation is an impeccable example of a genuine and spontaneous phenomenology: secrecy here is not related to any hidden truth lying outside or beyond the ritual. And initiation itself here is not an initiation into a kind of Highest or Higher Knowledge, but into the knowledge of the Ritual. That is why the analogy with Gnosticism seems to me to be rather partial." (289-90)
"Not only does the Word issue from the Stranger in the Hiramic legend [truepeers note: Hiram was the original Master Mason, at Solomon's temple, whose murder by precocious fellow crafts in search of his secrets is the mythical basis of the Freemasonic (eucharistic) ritual of initiation of the Master Mason, a ritual which concludes with the new Master Mason proclaiming that he has become Hiram] it is the Stranger as the Word of Master Mason is the Master Mason. Therefore, gnostically speaking, the Stranger is to be sacrificed so that the pre-creational state many never again be reached and what has been created may not be returned to the pristine state of "pure name" and unmixed Divine Light. And that is, in fact, what the Masonic legend is about and what is enacted in the Masonic Ritual of initiation. For Hiram is murdered and the Word remains un-retrieved and lives in its barbaric substitute as a bare reminder of the loss." (329)
"It is this threefold composition of Masonic legend - the subjectivity of the ritual of initiation, the objectivity of the ritual of the Foundation Sacrifice and the Knowledge of the Word that knows the subjective in the objective - that determines the gnostic character of Masonic philosophy and the central element of it, the conception of double truth, a conception from the point of view of which not only the myth or the Ritual of Freemasonry but Freemasonry in its entirety should be understood as a phenomenon which is one thing for itself and quite another to those who know its objective meaning." (330-31)