However, I find my enthusiasm for the project has been gradually waxing as I talk with more folks about it, so it seems time to start collecting my thoughts. So here's the beginning of a two-part discussion of The Really Big Project, which I hope to undertake over the next five years if I can gather the right people to get it started.
For my first few years in Masonry, I was really enthusiastic about it. The underlying concepts are not merely cool, but downright useful to someone with a wandering philosophical and religious eye like mine. But after a few years, the weaknesses became apparent. I listed some of the major weaknesses in the previous post, so I won't recap them here; the short version is that the club is showing its age, and doesn't look likely to ever become again the one I really want to be in (if it ever was in the first place).
So quite a long time ago (probably some eight years ago), I started a long and rambling discussion with Steffan. It was conducted mainly over email, partly in person, and we called it "the New Craft project". The ground rules were basically a statement that, okay, maybe Masonry is nearing the end of its useful lifespan. If we were going to construct a new organization to replace it today, what should that organization look like?
We didn't come to many firm decisions, but we did manage to get a lot of opinions, questions and ideas out on the table. Some of the more interesting ones:
- Purpose: We were both largely in agreement here. For us, the interesting part of Masonry is the way it uses symbolic rituals to explore spiritual questions. More precisely, what we both found particularly interesting was the emphasis on the quest for Truth, rather than simply having it all handed to one on a platter of dogma. The objective was to come up with an organization that facilitates this sort of exploration, without all the old baggage that Masonry carries around.
- Gender: This isn't strictly obvious, but was another easy one for us. I'm willing to grant that fraternities (in the literal sense) may have their place; however, I don't personally find them all that much fun, and part of the point here is to create an organization that we would enjoy. So we decided early on to drop the male-only thing that Masonry has, as an idea whose time has mostly passed.
- Religion: A more interesting question was whether this New Craft should require any particular religious viewpoint. Masonry, for example, explicitly requires a belief in Deity of some sort, and the ritual is implicitly oriented towards a Judeo-Christian flavor of monotheism. It very explicitly does not permit atheists to join. We didn't come to a decision about how the New Craft should treat this matter (and indeed, I still consider it an interesting open issue, grounded in the question of what exactly the organization is for).
- Extensibility: One thing that most rankles me about modern Masonry is the fact that it is (so to speak) very set in stone -- by now, there is a deep cultural intolerance of adding new rituals and ideas. Personally, I think that just the opposite should be the case: truth is such a big subject that trying to fence it off is simply silly. So we wound up agreeing that however the New Craft works, it should have the flexibility to add new rituals fairly easily. Indeed, we talked quite seriously about having a degree which requires you to write a new ritual yourself, to emphasize the point.
- Structure: My own club politics come through very strongly in this point. Masonry has an interesting structure organizationally -- it has many theoretically independent jurisdictions (one per state in the US), with an intensely hierarchical structure within those jurisdictions. The result is a structure that is very good at keeping everything neat and orderly, but hampers attempts at experimentation. I find it one instance of a general tendency of clubs to over-centralize, to their own detriment. So I wound up spending a good deal of time talking about the overall structure of the organization (entirely regardless of what the organization does), to try to find a healthy balance.
- Schisming: Of course, there's always the option of continuing to call ourselves "Masonry", and just changing the bits we don't like. Neither of us cared for that option much, due to both philosophical and practical problems. Philosophically, it would require breaking oaths, since becoming a Mason requires swearing some very carefully-worded vows designed to prevent just this sort of thing. More practically, the fact is that schisms rarely prosper, because they can't break themselves free enough. If you define yourselves in terms of another group, you'll never really have your own identity. So we agreed that this idea didn't have much appeal: we wanted to create something new.
The question that really bogged us down was what to do about The Metaphor. It's all well and good to talk about the abstract goals we're trying to achieve, but an activity like this is really defined by its look and feel -- what do the rituals actually look like? What do you do? For example, Masonic ritual is all grounded in the metaphors of architecture and geometry -- pretty much all of the core concepts are expressed in those terms. The other organizations that sprang from Masonry often look much like it, save that they choose different metaphors. Indeed, a key part of the concept is that you are expressing spiritual ideas metaphorically in the rituals, so it's important to organize those ideas somehow.
We talked about a lot of ideas, but most of them just came across as flat and uninspiring, or hokey. We spent a couple of years going back and forth on this particular point, trying to come up with a metaphor we could respect. If you can't respect the metaphor, the whole thing's going to feel a little goofy, so we continued to explore.
The discussion wandered for a few years, then largely petered out. I still had a certain abstract enthusiasm for the concept, but didn't have a clear enough vision to be able to articulate it passionately, and I'm nothing without passion. I talked with various people about it, and many expressed interest, but it simply didn't gel. So it went onto a shelf, and sat for quite a while, percolating at the back of my mind.
And then, on Millennium Eve, I received a revelation. I'll talk about that more in the next message.