“Are ye not then partial to yourselves, and become judges of evil thoughts?”
Early in his Masonic career, a Freemason is instructed upon the exercise of brotherly love and told that he is to regard the whole human species as one family. That family includes the high and the low, the rich and the poor who, as created by one Almighty Parent and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support and protect one another. Throughout the remainder of his Masonic career, the Mason will receive countless additional instructions about the relationship of brotherly love to the concept of tolerance, especially the concept of religious tolerance.
Most people, including most Freemasons, generally regard themselves as tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs. If asked that question during a town meeting, or in any other public setting it is not likely that many would hesitate to raise their hands in proof of their tolerant nature, if for no other reason than to avoid appearing to their friends and neighbors as being socially unacceptable. Indeed, as opposed to merely feigning sincerity, it is likely that most people actually believe they deserve to be labeled as tolerant, especially if they happen to be citizens of the United States.
Our Nation’s Constitutional protection of the freedom of religion is taught to American school children at an early age. Churches of several different denominations dot the landscape, as do the synagogues and mosques. While our society can hope that such fundamental devotions to the concept of religious tolerance are accurately representative of how we act as citizens, the truth actually depends upon how one defines religious tolerance.
Wikipedia, an Internet dictionary, suggests that the word tolerance is a recent political term used as an antithesis to the word discrimination. That same source goes on to describe tolerance as a word most people would rather avoid using; a word that is evidently universally disliked, because it starkly challenges us to understand that it means much more than merely accepting differing opinions.
As an example of that distaste, one person with an excellent reputation for good character who had recently discovered the joys of a particular religion, replied with a resounding “no” when asked whether or not the new religion brought a deeper sense of tolerance. “To be truly tolerant, as I understand the meaning of that word,” that person said, “would require me to be dishonest to both my religion and the beliefs I hold to be true should I accept other religious points of view.”
Here, we have struck upon another definition of tolerance, one that has sadly enjoyed widespread acceptance throughout the world: a definition that clearly implies that being religiously tolerant means not having any firm beliefs in matters of morality and God. The basic misunderstanding behind that definition is based upon the misconception that one gives up anything other than ego and self-pride when other similarly held religious beliefs are tolerated. Such is not the case, at least not from the perspective of Freemasonry.
When you tolerate other religious beliefs you are not required to adopt those beliefs as your own. Neither is it required that you find any particular truth in those other beliefs. Although the failure to do so may expose you as a very unwise and narrow person, unwilling to discover the tremendous value in diversity, that alone does not necessarily render you intolerant. To be tolerant you simply need to be willing to extend religious freedom to people of all religious traditions even though you may disagree, in whole or in part, with the teachings of those other religions.
The ritual selected by Freemasonry to impart wise and serious truths has no single source. It is not Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Hindu. It does, however, find its source in each of those religions, as well as several others. Moreover, its beauty is richly augmented by wonderful philosophical schools from the past. Ancient Egypt contributed such symbolism as east-to-west, the divine nature of the Temple, the immortality of mankind and the resurrection. Our Hebrew brothers added the symbolism of the one God, which was later reinforced by Mohammed and other Islamic writers. The Hindus led us to adopt the symbolism of the beauty of the world around us, so rich and thoroughly satisfying as to be deserving of return visits after death in the manner of the reincarnation of souls. Pythagoras and Plato tendered to the Craft the concept of mankind’s unity with God and nature. Among its many valuable spiritual contributions, Christianity taught the Craft to educate its members about the inner soul, the mind of man and the freedom of everyone to choose good over evil, light instead of darkness. As a consequence, Freemasonry’s ritual is the result of the synthesizing of different beliefs and different points of view. Consequently, it is no surprise that the fraternity both promotes religious tolerance and literally breathes it into the hearts and souls of its members.
In the Fellowcraft Degree, the candidate is instructed upon the value of earnestly seeking knowledge from the various liberal arts and sciences – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. That instruction carries with it the implication that one should avoid doctrinal adherences to conclusions that are subject to change when that which was previously unknown shed new light on the matter. The tyranny of doctrine casts an ominous shadow over religious tolerance, because unchangeable doctrine has no room for new light.
When asked if new archeological discoveries might bring a change to existing church doctrine, one prelate recently answered “no.” It is not difficult to understand the reason for that answer. Change in the fundamental facts inherent in any given doctrine could undermine a church’s credibility. Accordingly, the best defense against such change was, and continues to be intolerance. The result of such a posture was illustrated most graphically during that period of history known simply as “The Inquisition” – a period when prelates and kings roamed the civilized world searching for heretics to burn and torture. The Inquisition led to mass killings of Jews, gypsies and supposed witches, as well as others who were deemed not to have sincerely embraced the specific doctrine then in power.
Sadly, events like the Inquisition have permeated man’s history. In Rome, those who adhered to the tenets of the fledgling Christian religion were hunted, tortured and killed by those now referred to as the “pagans.” Later, after the Emperor Constantine anointed Christianity as the approved state religion, the tables were turned. Pagans were hunted by Christians and the period of torture and death was relived. Catholics and Protestants continue to kill one another in certain parts of the world, even though each religion claims to be Christ-centered. Certain Islamic sects hate each other and send death squads to eliminate the “enemy.”
Freemasonry teaches that each religious doctrine contains truth and error, and will forever do so as long as doctrine remains unchangeable. Thus, Freemasonry bears a close affinity to Hermetic philosophy, the origination of which is attributed to Hermes Trimegistus. That philosophy is of an esoteric nature consisting of mysteries that are expressed in symbols. Certain disciplines drawn from that philosophy have attempted to become complete doctrines: Kabbalah, astrology and alchemy are but a few. When such intellectualization of Hermetic philosophy attempts to establish unequivocal concepts it commits an abuse that is neither adopted by the philosophy itself, nor Freemasonry.
In Freemasonry, there are no theories; there is only experience, including the experience of interpreting symbols. Mystical experience is the root; the experience of acquiring knowledge may be considered the sap; and putting into practice the lessons learned from the interpretation of symbols constitutes the wood. An important lesson in this regard may be derived from the rich symbolism found in the book of Revelations, also known as the Apocalypse of Saint John.
The key to understanding the Apocalypse is to practice it by making use of it as a series of spiritual exercises that awaken deeper levels of consciousness. The seven letters to the churches, the seven seals of the sealed book, the seven trumpets and the seven vials signify a course of spiritual study. To understand those studies, one must place himself in a state of consciousness suitable to receiving revelations: concentration, inner silence, consciousness connecting with sub-consciousness, followed by summarizing that which has been learned. Such effort at synthesizing, so well established in the Masonic interpretation of symbols, is incompatible with intolerance. Rather, it is highlighted by a sense of change; an awareness that no one man, one philosophy, or one religion embodies the entire truth. All that is, or ever was, is not and never will be known in its entirety.
To Freemasons everywhere in the world, the development of a tolerant state of consciousness is central to the promotion of brotherly love. One cannot love his brother, if he hates his brother’s religious doctrine. One cannot aid and support his brother, if he concludes that his brother’s pitiful condition is God’s will visited upon he who practices false religious doctrine. And, one cannot rejoice in the welfare and successes of his brother when he arrogantly believes that he walks in truth while his brother follows the path of darkness.
Tolerance, then, is more than simply putting up with someone else’s differing religious belief: it requires embracing and loving the difference.