Universality: Not So Universal After All
By W. Bro. Eric Schmitz
What is meant by the Masonic principle of universality?
According to the Preston-Webb ritual used in Masonic jurisdictions such as Indiana, the principle of universality is mentioned by name only twice during the course of the Work and the Lectures. For such a fundamental principle, it receives little coverage beyond this, and seems to be absent, as often by intent as by mere accident, in many Masonic Lodges and gatherings. In other words, the principle of universality is, sadly, not universal in practice among Masons and Lodges.
Universality, in Masonic practice, means that Freemasonry is open not only to those of any religion, but also of any race, political affiliation, or social status. It should not be confused with the theology known as "universalism," which holds that all human beings are "saved" regardless of their religious convictions. Universalists are as welcome in Freemasonry as anyone else, but Freemasonry does not take any position for or against that theology or any other.
Symbols of Universality
Why is a Lodge said to be of such vast dimensions?
"The form of a Lodge is an oblong. It is as long as from East to West, as braod as from North to South, as high as from the Earth to the heavens, and as deep as from its surface to its center. It is of such vast dimensions to show the universality of masonry, and that Masonic charity should be equally extensive."
In this passage from the Symbolic Lecture of the Entered Apprentice degree, the principle of universality is mentioned, but it is bundled with the admonition to charity. In modern Masonic practice, a great deal of emphasis is given to the concept of charity, even to the extent of institutionalizing that great tenet (which is a matter for another essay). There are, however, no programs to promote universality, no campaigns to help Masons and others in understanding each others differences of opinion, or, as we say, "to conciliate true friendship among those who may otherwise remain at a perpetual distance." In fact, to the contrary, there have even been efforts made to exclude men of some faiths from membership in the fraternity.
A Lodge is a kind of container. The larger the container, the more it can hold. A Masonic Lodge is meant to be of sufficient dimension as to comfortably include as many who are worthy of wearing the apron as is needed, regardless of race, religion, politics, class, education, wealth, etc.How do the Globes atop the twin pillars denote the principal of universality?
In the Middle Chamber Lecture of the Fellow Craft degree, the terrestrial and celestial globes are described, and their practical and symbolic uses explained. This explanation concludes with a sentence of seven words: "They also denote the universality of Masonry." And with this afterthought, the subject is left. This would, in fact, be an excellent time and place to explain further this important Masonic principle.
The terrestrial globe displays the entire surface of the earth. All nations are represented, and none is given any unnatural emphasis due to any distortions of projection. In this way, it can be said that the entire population of the earth is included, all on the same level. Combine this symbol with that of the Plumb, one of the working tools of the Fellow Craft degree. No matter where one stands upon the surface of the earth, if a plumbline is held at that point, it will naturally point to the center of the earth. Two plumblines while held at different points on the surface will always point, however slightly, in two different directions, yet both point to the center.
The celestial globe displays the stars in the heavens, and they are numerous. Every person possesses a unique combination of religious, social, political and racial characteristics, and such individuals are as numerous as the stars that we can see.Why does Freemasonry discuss Orders in Architecture? Are there other orders not mentioned?
The Middle Chamber Lecture goes on to describe five orders of architecture, naming the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. These five can be numerically associated with the so-called five major world religions, often named as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Freemasonry includes among its ranks many men of all these great religions, as well as many others. Each order of architecture is appropriate to its setting, just as each man's religion is appropriate to his own culture and personal understanding of the divine.
Just as there are more than these five orders, however, there are many more religions than the five listed. Egyptian architecture, for example, is very ancient, and there are in fact people in the world who still revere the ancient Egyptian gods. Another very well-known order that is not mentioned in the lecture is the Gothic, which is used particularly in a great number of Masonic buildings. Even the more modern styles of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Saarinens, etc., could be called "orders of architecture." In the same way, there exist religions of relatively modern origin, such as Wicca and Baha'i. Often, these orders and religions are based on older styles and traditions.
In fact, just as every building tends to be unique in at least some way, every person's religious belief is in some way unique as compared to all others.
Conventions of Universality
Why does Freemasonry limit its religious requirement only to a "belief in a supreme being"?
Freemasonry is, theoretically, as religiously universal as anything can be within the bounds of theism, and does not, or should not, apply any religious "litmus test" to any prospective candidate for the degrees. Masonic philosophy holds that "freedom of religion" means any religion. For this reason, Masonic orders in most parts of the world require only a belief in a supreme spiritual entity, without requiring this entity to be named or worshipped according to the dictates of any particular faith. For this reason also, references to deity in Masonic ritual, including prayers within and during Lodge meetings, are addressed using the title of "Great Architect of the Universe," rather than using a name such as "Jehovah" or "Jesus."
However, as previously mentioned, theory and practice are not always in agreement. This writer has himself been subjected to an attempt at religious exclusion, and by a member of his own Lodge, no less. According to this other member, the United States was founded not on the principle of allowing every citizen to worship as he sees fit, but only "to worship God as he sees fit" (the last phrase uttered with a pontificating finger raised in the air). The implication, of course, was that people are free only to worship the God recognized by this member's faith, and no other. This, of course, is entirely incorrect, both within the realm of American citizenship and that of Masonic membership.What is the reason for referring to a "Volume of Sacred Law" instead of a "Holy Bible"?
This question is not entirely accurate in its assumption. While the phrase "volume of sacred law" is indeed included in much Masonic discourse, the Preston-Webb ritual as used in Indiana does explicitly refer to the "Holy Bible." Some courageous Masters and other officers have, during ritual, been willing to substitute "volume of sacred law" for "Holy Bible" during the delivery of ritual, but such is a rare occurrence.
Simply put, the use of the phrase "volume of sacred law" allows reference to the sacred text of any religion that includes such a thing. In most cases, this volume is a book that contains scripture or other religious writings, presented in human language, and examples include the Christian Bible, the Jewish Tanakh, the Islamic Koran, the Hindu Vedas or Baghavadgita, and the Buddhist writings of Confucius (Kung-fu tzu). Masonic Lodges in most parts of the world require that a volume of sacred law be open upon the altar whenever the Lodge is open and at work. Some Lodges which do give prominent recognition to the principle of universality even include several different volumes on their altars, so as to include the writings sacred to every Mason present, and most any Mason who may visit.
As previously mentioned, no litmus test is, or should be, applied to any petitioner for the degrees of Masonry, for the purpose of determining his fitness for membership in the Craft. This means that he should not be asked about the particulars of his faith before his ballot is taken. This situation changes somewhat, though, after a candidate has been admitted to membership - or at least it should change. In most cases, however, an assumption is made that the Christian Bible is appropriate for the candidate, unless someone happens to know that he is of a different religion. This should be explicitly ascertained by the Lodge. Asking a candidate, after his election to membership but before his Entered Apprentice degree, which volume of sacred law is sacred to him, does not constitute a "litmus test," as he has already been elected. It is simply a courtesy that every candidate should rightfully be able to expect. The appropriate volume to use for purposes of his obligation is the volume that is sacred to his own religious conviction, and the Lodge members cannot possibly know for sure which volume that is without asking the candidate himself.So, is there any common religious factor at all within Freemasonry?
Masonry teaches and encourages each member to have an active spiritual life, to be involved in the religion of his preference, to look inside himself with clarity and subdued passion to determine what is right and good, and to act according to that knowledge. Any man who lives his life under a policy of justice, mercy, rectitude of conduct, and humility before his God, may join in the work of spiritual building as a Mason, no matter what his religion. All that is required is a belief in a Supreme Being. Whatever name an individual uses to address his God, and whatever methods he employs in worship, are entirely up to him, and are immaterial to Masonry.
Masonry is neither a religion nor a substitute for one, but rather accepts all good men regardless of their professed faith, striving to make them better by emphasizing a belief in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Immortality of the Soul. Masonry encourages its members to be active in their church or synagogue and to regularly attend worship services. Although some Masonic authors have chosen to use such phrases as "the Masonic religion" or "the religious faith of Freemasonry," it must be clearly understood by every Mason that this refers only to those common elements of faith "in which all good men agree." These are limited to a belief in God and the immortality of the soul, and a commandment to get right with God, love and respect one's neighbor, and do what one knows in one's heart to be right. Masonry does not itself define these beliefs, but rather recognizes their universal acceptance by all the world's religions. Beyond these few very basic tenets, shared by good men of all faiths, there is no such thing as Masonic theology, dogma, or religion.
Applications of Universality
How does Masonic philosophy support the idea of the separation of church and state?
It has been said that many Freemasons were involved in the establishment of the government of the United States. The First Amendment to the US Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ." Some controversy exists over whether this language is meant to exclude religious observance entirely from public life. However, what is clear is that religious faith may not be legislated or enforced by any branch of US government, nor may anyone's religious faith be suppressed or prohibited. Indeed, the right of the people to worship (or not worship) as each sees fit shall not be abridged.
This is entirely consistent with Masonic philosophy, with the single exception that Freemasonry does require religious faith of some kind on the part of its members. Beyond this, however, Freemasonry treats every member, like the Constitution treats every citizen, as being equal, without regard to religious affiliation. In theory, that is.
Interestingly, until somewhat recently, the petition for the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction included the following phrase: "I am a firm supporter of the separation of church and state."What is the difference between morality and moralism, which does Freemasonry teach, and how is it taught?
It is neither the policy nor the intent of Masonry to dictate theological dogma or to prescribe details of morality. It is important to note the difference between "morality" and "moralism." Morality is a freely-made personal decision to do, without coercion, what one clearly and honestly perceives to be good and right. Moralism is the illusion that one has absolute knowledge of what "is good and right" and is thereby authorized to enforce, by any means, general conformity and obedience to that standard. Masons should strive to be moral, while avoiding moralism.
Recall the symbology of the plumbline. Morality can be illustrated by the act of holding a plumbline steady and allowing the bob to naturally find the vertical. Moralism would involve holding the bob in some particular position or direction, rather than allowing it to naturally point to the center.How do Masonic principles support the idea of universally available, non-sectarian public education?
Masonic philosophy has always held education in very high regard. This is reflected in Masonic ritual as a vital part of the "educational" degree of Fellow Craft, where the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences are described and explained. These seven - grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy - are considered to be "liberal" because of the power their mastery affords the student to become liberated through education. These arts and sciences know no sectarian bounds, and are equally accessible to adherents of all religions. In fact, only one of these sciences, that of astronomy, is associated by the ritual with the study of religion, and then only through the study of nature. The study of geometry is held to illustrate "the more important truths of morality," but again, such morality is not presented in sectarian terms.
This brief essay has only touched on most aspects of this important Masonic principle, and focused mostly on one of the two most problematic applications - that of religious inclusion. The other, that of racism and racial inclusion, is treated admirably by Brother Fred Milliken in his various essays on that subject. Less of a problem is that of political intolerance. While Masonic membership tends toward the conservative in the United States, this is not the case in all parts of the world. Further, there are many examples of Freemasons of very different political affiliations coming together and finding their commonalities and points of agreement, sometimes through applications of Masonic symbolism and philosophy, but often due merely to the fact that the Lodge is a place where one can escape the hostile vicissitudes of civic political discourse by focusing on matters of a higher and more spiritual nature.
In this way, and by focusing only on "that religion in which all good men agree," Freemasonry does indeed "conciliate true friendship among those who would otherwise remain at a perpetual distance."
- Source: Knights of the North Masonic Dictionary