This started with a Christian I know who has considered joining the Freemasons. He was particularly struck by the way that Freemasonry might promote community in our disconnected society, as Tamie mentioned previously.
What I want to explore here is the crossover between Christianity and Freemasonry. I’ve heard it said that Christianity and Freemasonry are on about the same thing. What do they have in common? What differences are there? Can a Christian be a Freemason and vice versa?
Let me make a few things clear to begin with. Firstly, let’s take Freemasonry as the Masonic lodges present it. I’m not interested in labelling Freemasonry as a religion if Freemasons do not believe it is. I’m not going to speculate about occult rituals and I’m not going to suggest that Freemasonry is a dangerous, diabolical conspiracy. I also want to affirm that many Freemasons are genuine philanthropists and do-gooders.
Secondly, let’s recognise that Freemasonry is diverse. Different Masonic lodges and orders do things differently, and all of them insist upon the flexible interpretation of Masonic symbols and principles according to individual freedom. I don’t want to tar all Freemasons with the same brush.
Thirdly, let’s be upfront about Freemasonry’s long history of interaction with Christianity. A number of Protestant denominations have often accepted Freemasonry. For its part, Freemasonry is chock full of biblical references and Christian jargon. Christians can’t simply dismiss Freemasonry out of hand.
All this being said, I hope I can highlight some of the things that do unify Freemasonry — the things that make Freemasonry what it is. Here’s what seems to be a good definition:
Freemasonry is an esoteric society based on a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
While Freemasonry may not be a religion, it does involve claims of a religious or spiritual nature. Take Freemasonry’s Landmarks, most obviously the prescribed commitment to the Supreme Being (the Great Architect of the Universe). The requirement that each Mason interpret the Supreme Being as he sees fit, along with the requirement that Masons do not discuss religion within a Lodge, both have religious implications. Freemasonry also claims to offer what we might call spiritual supplements: lodges make claims about things like the status of the soul or the proper understanding of the Bible.
So what overlap is there regarding God? Of course both Freemasonry and Christianity are expressions of theism. But while Christianity is a form of theism in an abstract sense, Christian people only exist as Christians. The idea of solidarity between ‘theists’ may actually be quite meaningless.
Let’s explore this a bit further. It’s worth noting that the Masonic idea of the Supreme Being resembles early modern deism. We see this in Freemasonry’s insistence that the Supreme Being be individually interpreted, along with the requirement that religious matters stay outside the lodge. This sounds like deism: God is the great watchmaker who can be privately discovered through reason. God according to deism is a god that stands behind the Universe yet largely remains a distant Other — a god with expectations, perhaps, but a god that is not really present or personal.
For one thing, whether or not the Supreme Being does imply deism, it’s hard to see how the concept of the Supreme Being is a neutral, value-free container that can accommodate any religious belief.
For their part, Christians believe in a God with a name, a God who speaks and wants to be spoken of, a God who is deeply involved in the Universe, a God who even makes himself known in history as a human person. This is a God who is knowable because he personally reveals himself in Jesus.
So the Christian emphasis is overwhelmingly on God’s initiative over against human initiative. Christianity is about divine self-revelation rather than our own private speculation. In other words, Christian belief does not really have a place for our own personalised interpretations of God. God has subverted all our ideas because God turned up. “Jesus is the image of the invisible God.”
Now, perhaps there is some kind of legitimately Christian interpretation of the Supreme Being. Christian Freemasons have obviously thought so, and I’d certainly be interested to hear their reflections on this. But it seems to me that a Christian’s commitment to Jesus subverts the very idea of the Supreme Being.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.