In his lecture on "The Catholic Church and Freemasonry," the Rev. Mr. John J. McManus quotes an article by Monsignor Ronny E. Jenkins, which in turn refers to a document generated by the German [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference in about 1980. In that document, the bishops state that membership in the Catholic Church is incompatible with membership in Freemasonry. The German Bishops' Conference apparently reached this conclusion on the basis of twelve areas of Masonic teaching that, they said, conflicted with Catholic teaching. The fourth and fifth of these areas are the following, as the bishops put it:
The Masonic Notion of God: The Masons hold a deistic notion of God which excludes any personal knowledge of the deity.
The deistic notion of God precludes the possibility of God's self-revelation to humankind.
The Masonic Notion of God and Revelation:
It is utterly false to say that "the Masons hold a deistic notion of God." In this installment, I shall describe what Deism is, why the German Bishops' Conference was concerned about Deism, and what the real position of Freemasonry is, regarding the nature of God and divine revelation. I conclude by considering why the German Bishops' Conference might have thought, however mistakenly, that Masons are deists.
Theism vs. Deism
There are many ways to conceive of God. One set of ways comes under the heading of Theism, a group of ideas about God that encompasses Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
A theistic notion of God takes the position that God created the universe and is vitally concerned with its affairs, including the affairs of humankind; God watches over us, individually and collectively (part of the meaning of the 'Eye of God' symbol, illustrated above). A theistic God communicates the Divine Will to people from time to time, for their benefit--the process of revelation, which may result in the accumulation of scriptures as records of revelation. A theistic God may work miracles to serve divine purposes. Those who believe in a theistic notion of God are called theists.
A different way to conceive of God is the position of Deism. In the deistic perspective, God created the universe, but does not particularly intervene in the affairs of the universe or humankind. To some extent, humankind may come to know a deistic God through the workings of human reason, but a deistic God does not communicate through revelation; thus, whatever people designate as 'scriptures' are merely human creations and interpretations. A deistic God does not interfere with the workings of natural law, and so does not work miracles. A deistic God gave reason and compassion to all of humankind, but otherwise does not actively intervene in the lives of individuals. Those who believe in a deistic notion of God are called deists.
Why the German Bishops' Conference Was Concerned About Deism
The German Bishops' Conference had a legitimate reason to be concerned about Deism. The Deist notion of God does indeed preclude the possibility that God would reveal anything to humankind, either through prophetic revelation (such as the prophecies recorded in the Bible), or through the revelation of God that Christians say occurs though the person of Jesus Christ. Deism is philosophically incompatible with mainstream Christianity, no doubt about it. (Indeed, some prominent 18th century deists felt it was their mission to dispute Christianity.) If Freemasonry were deistic, it would indeed be incompatible with Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular.
However, Freemasonry is not deistic. As I show below, if anything, Freemasonry is not even neutral on the issue, but rather has a distinctly theistic bent.
The Position of Freemasonry on the Nature of God and Divine Revelation
It is the nature of Freemasonry that it avoids making specifically detailed statements about the nature of God. Of course, within the Lodge, Masons often refer to God as the Grand Architect of the Universe--but that's about as specific a statement about the nature of God (God as the Creator) as Freemasonry makes. But is God involved in the affairs of mankind, as far as Freemasonry is concerned? Most importantly, does God engage in the process of revelation to humankind--the crucial point in differentiating between Theism and Deism?
As I mentioned in Part 4 of this series, no Masonic lodge may meet without having, open upon its altar, the Volume of the Sacred Law (usually represented, in American lodges, by a copy of the Holy Bible). Recently, I had the privilege of attending the installation of the incoming Master of St. John's Lodge #1, Ancient York Masons, a lodge chartered in 1757, making it the oldest operating Masonic lodge in New York State. On the altar that evening, as a special treat, I saw the famous and aged Bible upon which George Washington himself had taken his oath of office in 1789 as first President of the United States (a story told here). I was given to understand that every Master of this Lodge since 1770 had been installed as Master using this very Bible as a central part of the ritual.
As special as this experience was, I have seen a Bible open on the altar at every Masonic lodge meeting I have ever attended. The opening of the Bible at the beginning of a lodge meeting, and the closing of the Bible at the meeting's conclusion, is a matter of solemn ritual and high ceremony; I have had the privilege of performing that ritual, and it is powerful. In addition, the Volume of the Sacred Law is central to the rituals of Masonic initiation in the first three degrees of Masonry.
The practice of having an open Volume of the Sacred Law on the altar during a Masonic meeting is universally observed throughout the so-called 'high degrees' of Freemasonry, as well. Whether I am attending a meeting of the Consistory in the Scottish Rite, a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons or a Council of Royal and Select Masters in the York Rite, or a Commandery of the Knights Templar in the York Rite, there is always an open Bible upon the altar.
I have seen this same practice observed by Masonic organizations that are even more esoteric. At Masonic Week in Virginia in February 2008, in the spirit of Masonic fellowship, I helped to set up a meeting room for a special conference session that I myself could not attend, a session to be held for members of a Masonic organization so exclusive that no one is even permitted to apply for membership: the Masonic Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis, whose Latin name means "Masonic Rosicrucian Society of the United States." The altar they used in the conference hotel was a common folding table with a cloth over it--but there was a Bible there, to be used later, during the ceremony.
I have even had the privilege of being in the Executive Chamber in the House of the Temple in Washington, DC, where the 33 active members of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction meet. (These are the people whom some conspiracy theorists say rule the world. Inside scoop: they don't. But that is another story.) There, in the center of the Executive Chamber, is a large black marble altar, and on that altar are multiple Volumes of the Sacred Law: a Christian Bible, a Jewish Tanakh, a Muslim Koran, a Hindu Bhagavad Gita, and other sacred books as well. (I count a total of 8 such volumes in the photo of the altar.) It was an interesting experience to see this. (Go on the free guided tour sometime: it's well worth it.)
There's a message here, folks, and it is not a deistic one.
One of the most important and central symbols of Freemasonry is the Volume of the Sacred Law. It is always represented, in every mainstream Masonic lodge in the world, and throughout the high degrees of Freemasonry, by an open volume of revealed religion. In my opinion, this is the most powerful symbolic statement possible of a theistic view of God and divine revelation.
Those purportedly 'Masonic' lodges that tamper with this practice--for example, groups that have no Volume of the Sacred Law on the altar, or that have a blank book there instead--are considered "clandestine," that is, outlaws in the mainstream Masonic world.
Can deists be Masons? Of course they can. What Masonry requires of its candidates is that they believe in a Supreme Being; the specifics of what the candidate believes about that Supreme Being is his own business.
However, the gentle push in the Lodge for the theistic approach to God is unmistakable. Every American Lodge I know of presents a copy of the Holy Bible, the Tanakh, or the Koran to its newly initiated members; typically, the Lodge Chaplain gives a little speech at the presentation, encouraging the new Mason to study this new gift. During a Lodge business meeting, while the Volume of the Sacred Law is open upon the altar of the Lodge, no one is supposed to walk between the altar and the chair of the Master of the Lodge, so that his view of the Volume of the Sacred Law is uninterrupted as he directs the meeting. All of this is a clear endorsement by Freemasonry of the value and importance of Divine Revelation.
Overall, anyone familiar with the way that Masonic Lodges actually operate during their ritual and meetings would have a hard time making a case for Masonry as a deistic organization. Freemasonry is tolerant of different points of view, and it leaves to its members' consciences the choice of religion, but nonetheless it has a clear inclination in a theistic direction.
Why Did the German Bishops' Conference Think Masons Were Deistic?
Given the evidence I cite, why would the German Bishops' Conference think that "Masons hold a deistic notion of God"? I think there were a couple of reasons.
First, the Grand Lodge style of Freemasonry, founded in 1717 in London, is definitely a child of the European Age of Enlightenment. Incorporating many Enlightenment ideals, Freemasonry promotes tolerance of different points of view, education, and the use of logic and reason. As it happens, these ideals were also generally compatible with Deism, and it would appear that the German Bishops' Conference made the logical error of thinking that, because Freemasonry (as an Enlightenment institution) shared some points of view with Deism, therefore Freemasonry incorporated Deism. There is a logical hole here big enough to drive trucks through, of course. (As any of my former students in statistics classes would chant, right about here: 'Correlation does not establish causation!')
Another issue is that some prominent American founding fathers were both deists and Freemasons. Certainly this is the case for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe; the case for their being deists is made convincingly by David L. Holmes, in his brief, excellent, and accessible book,* The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). (Of course, the French philosopher Voltaire, a prominent critic of the Catholic Church, was a noted deist, and became a Mason late in life in the presence of Franklin himself.) It may well be that the German Bishops' Conference made the logical error of thinking that, because these prominent deists were Freemasons, Freemasonry is therefore especially hospitable to deists.
As it happens, Freemasonry is indeed hospitable to deists. It is also hospitable to Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, many varieties of Buddhists and Confucians and Taoists, Zoroastrians (Parsees), Shintoists, Wiccans, many 'New Age' religionists and adherents of aboriginal religions--you catch my drift.
In sum, Freemasonry welcomes deists, but is not itself a deist institution. If anything, there is a pronounced inclination within Masonry towards a theistic point of view.
Next time (Part 6): Masonic Toleration.
*My thanks to Sonya Koltko Grover and Miles Grover for presenting this book to me for my birthday last year.
[The image above was obtained from the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which notes that this is a detail from the painting "Supper at Emmaus," by Jacopo Carucci, painted in 1525, and that the Eye of God in this painting is probably an addition by Empoli.]