Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

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Clubs falling, like autumn leaves, to enrich our mother Earth

So I mentioned in a comment to katanah yesterday that I was becoming a bit discontent with Freemasonry, and thinking of creating something new. Preparatory to writing up the latter as a To Do (a really, really big To Do), I figured I might as well describe the former, to help get straight where I'm coming from here. Warning: this is a fairly long, rambling discourse on the organization. It's stuff I've been saying for years, but haven't really written down before. This is not exactly deeply-researched: I'm sure a serious Masonic historian would pick nits all over the place. But the broad sweep is probably about right.

When I got into Freemasonry, I have to admit that it was out of sheer curiosity. I'd read vague cool and mysterious things about it in the books of Robert Anton Wilson and suchlike, and I knew that Baron Steffan was a Mason. So on the day that he invited me to become his Esquire, I turned around and asked him if I could join the Lodge as well. He sponsored me in, and I quickly got quite active. What I found was a club with a fascinating personality split, which largely reflected its history.

Tangent: The Rise and Decline of American Masonry

Freemasonry was originally a medieval guild -- a fairly large and powerful one, but a guild nonetheless. Like most guilds, it had three principal tasks (not necessarily all of them explicit): to provide for the welfare of the members of the guild; to assist in the spiritual well-being of the members (that is, to provide some spiritual context for the work); and to act as a social nexus for the members. It was originally made up of actual working craftsmen, but when the Renaissance came along, and their carefully-hoarded architectural secrets started to leak out, they needed other ways to stay influential. So they took two different tacks. First, they began to "accept" men who weren't actually workers in stone, but who were friends and associates (preferably rich and powerful ones). Second, they began to mess around with a bit of the cool mysticism that was popular in the day, and then mixed in a lot of Rationalist thinking when Newton and the like started to describe the principles of the universe.

Over the centuries, Masonry continued to evolve. In 1717, the United Grand Lodge of England constituted itself, and started the process of turning the relatively loose fraternity into an Organization. The number of working stonemasons slowly dropped, and eventually dwindled to effectively zero -- Lodges were now made up entirely of "accepted" Masons. And then, in the middle of this century, the most dramatic change occurred: it got popular.

Starting in the 1930's, the idea of fraternal organizations began to turn into a truly major fad. Lots of guys joined Masonry; lots of others formed other organizations that were strikingly similar to it. The membership of Masonry in the US grew enormously over the next few decades, as it became the respected thing to do. In the end, though, that popularity has proven a mixed blessing. When the 1960's came along, Masonry became very much Your Father's Club: far fewer young men were joining it. And worse -- since the Lodges were already so big, no one worried about it overly much. Recruiting doesn't seem so important when you're bursting at the seams.

By the time I joined (around 12 years ago now, IIRC), Masonry in these parts was declining terribly, due in large part to the generation gap. Most lodges still had hundreds and hundreds of members on their books, but those members were getting into their 60's and were mostly inactive. I joined and became an officer, and it quickly became clear that, at 25, I was by a mile the youngest member of the Lodge. The really scary part is that, at 37, I'm still the youngest.

Some years back, a Masonic research journal posted a few hard numbers, that demonstrated the demographic deathtrap that American Freemasonry is in. They gave lots of statistics, but one was really striking: the average age of the membership was rising at a rate of eight months per year. That is, the recruitment rate was so low, especially among young men, that the club as a whole was going grey very fast. It doesn't take deep insight to realize that this is a killer problem.

Masonry Today

So what does the fraternity look like today? It still rests on three principal pillars, the areas of focus:

  • Spiritual: This was why I got involved. Masonry has a very interesting view on spiritual matters -- it isn't a religion itself, so much as a spiritual and moral framework designed to work with religions. It has a few religious dogmae (it's definitely deist, and there's a strong dogma of some sort of continuance after death), but mostly tries to impart moral lessons through immersive ritual. It's quite cool, and effective when done well.
  • Charitable: There's still a conceptual focus on helping other members of the fraternity and their families, and a bit of structure to support that. Most of the charitable focus has moved outside the Lodge, though, into a zillion different Masonically-driven charitable organizations.
  • Social: Let's get real: most of the guys are in it for the dinners. Breaking bread is a crucial part of any club, and Masonry is no exception.

There's nothing wrong with any of this, except that the balance isn't actually the way the above makes it sound. The social side of Masonry hugely predominates. That's not really surprising -- it's probably the majority of what goes on in any organization -- but it dominates to the point where the other purposes sometimes seem lost in the noise. And when most guys try to describe what Masonry is about, they talk about the charitable work. To most of them, the ritual is this strange obligatory thing that they don't really understand or pay much attention to. Hence, the spiritual side has atrophied rather badly over the years.

Where is it going? Given the demographic deathtrap described above, it's not clear whether Masonry can survive in anything resembling its current form. At the very least, massive reorganization is going to be required. My suspicion is that the trend away from the spiritual side and towards the charitable one will continue, as Masonry tries to find a focus that it can publicize comfortably. The result is likely to be a club that continues to be a good one, doing important stuff, but not quite the one I thought I was joining.

Masonry and Me

So what are my specific beeves with the organization? There are several:

  • The Gender Thing: Three hundred years ago, having something like this set up as a literal fraternity, open only to men, probably made some sense. Men and women socialized relatively separately, so it wasn't surprising. But today it looks just a bit archaic; the whole "separate but equal" thing is a lot less compelling. And being fairly heterosocial myself, I find it a bit irksome.
  • The Weak Spiritual Side: Like I said, I got into this because I thought the spiritual thinking and the ritual were really cool. But in practice, not many guys know or even care much about that side of the fraternity. And perhaps consequently, the ritual is often done poorly, because you have to really care about that kind of thing to do it well.
  • Inflexibility: Masonry was designed by lawyers. Really, really good lawyers. The result is an organization that is very stable, but more than a little hidebound. It's difficult to do anything even remotely experimental -- both the legal and cultural climate of the club are strongly biased against that.
  • The Generation Gap: Okay, it's shallow, but the lack of a peer group is a real problem. A few years ago, I realized that, while these guys are definitely my friends, they mostly aren't my peers, and simply aren't going to be. The differences in age and culture are difficult to overcome. To put it more simply, we often don't have a lot to talk about.
  • A Weakening Metaphor: This one's a little subtle, but important. When Masonry was founded, Architecture (the underlying metaphor for all of the ritual) was really very powerful and compelling. The wonders of the world were architectural -- they inspired true awe, and folks really cared about that. Today, though, architecture doesn't resonate quite as deeply. A cathedral can still be awe-inspiring, but in a world that has done everything from conquer plagues to land on the moon, it simply doesn't grab quite as deeply. That, too, tends to lead to less-inspired ritual.

And, ultimately, I have to admit that there's a measure of ego involved. This particular chord was struck a number of years ago, when I was listening to the Grand Lodge Librarian give a very good talk on the history of Masonry. He was talking about the 18th and 19th centuries, times of remarkable intellectual ferment and growth in the fraternity, and referred to the people who were driving that, "men of great imagination and ambition". And it struck me, all at once: what is there in Masonry today for a man of imagination and ambition? Masonry is so settled today that there is little frontier left for those of us with intellectual wanderlust.

That's a shame, but it ultimately isn't surprising. Masonry's had a very good run, but there's a part of me that is suspecting that it's time to move on and grow something new. That's the point of the Subject line of this posting (way, way up there). It's an allusion to my favorite single line in Masonic ritual, talking about the nature of human life: "... and, when he thinks his greatness is still aspiring, he falls, like autumn leaves, to enrich our mother Earth." It emblematically talks about how each generation must necessarily give way to the next, as part of the natural cycle. It's a lesson that applies just as well to clubs as to individuals, but that particular variation is resisted vigorously: we sometimes cling to our organizations more tightly than we do to our own identities.

And yes, I have lots of ideas about what the new seedling should look like. But that's a posting for another day...


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