Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: ‘The Masonic Myth’

In the latest issue of The Journal of the Masonic Society is my review of Bro. Jay Kinney’s new book.


In terms of book publishing alone, the past five years have been amazing for Freemasons and their fraternity. The quality even of “introductory” books (Cooper’s Cracking the Freemasons Code, Hodapp’s Freemasons for Dummies, Morris’ The Complete Idiot’s Guide, et al.) truly is outstanding for their outpouring of sober-minded facts, and causes one to ponder what might have been had these titles been around twenty years ago. And joining their ranks is another splendid book by Masonic Society Member Jay Kinney titled The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth about the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry. Kinney’s approach has a subtle difference. Where previous authors rendered a dizzyingly confusing topic approachable even to those who are not Masons, Kinney announces from the beginning in his title that misconceptions that have misinformed Masons and others for generations need to be demolished. The Masonic Myth strips the varnish off the fraternity’s history, legends, rituals, and even treasured “famous Masons.”

These confusions include many simple points of history that are misunderstood even by Masons today considered well educated.

The rise of the second English grand lodge, nicknamed the Antients, often is described as being created in a schismatic departure from the Premiere Grand Lodge. Not so. While there was interaction and intervisitation, etc. on the part of individual brethren from both camps, the lodges of Antient Masons were not part of the London-based Grand Lodge of England, and when they elected to form their own grand lodge, they did so on their own. No schism, just a rival start-up group, Kinney rightly says.

In 1737, a Scotsman living in France named Andrew Ramsay prepared a speech to deliver before the Grand Lodge of France. Known as “Ramsay’s Oration,” this piece of literature is the basis for Freemasonry’s “high grades” of knighthoods, and the inexplicable belief held by so many even today that the medieval Knights Templar are the ancestors of Freemasonry. Kinney explains that not only is the content of this oration laden with factual inaccuracies, but it also isn’t even an oration because Ramsay never delivered it orally. You see, Ramsay was a Roman Catholic convert, and when Cardinal Fleury, the cardinal minister to King Louis XV, used the police to ban all meetings of Freemasons, our dauntless hero Ramsay went as far as to withdraw from the Craft. In Kinney’s telling, Ramsay’s stay in France coincided with the exile of the Stuarts, the royal family of Catholics succeeded on the English throne by the Hanovers from Protestant Germany, and so Ramsay had hoped to build a coalition of Freemasons, Jacobites, and the Catholic Church. “An attractive marketing angle,” writes Kinney. Fleury “was having none of it” and his ban on Masonic meetings predates even Pope Clement XII’s infamous bull that proscribed Masonic membership for Roman Catholics.

Of course these obstacles did not prevent the births of numerous rites and degrees in France. “Eccosais (Scottish) Masonry became synonymous with degrees and rites that purported to be the oldest or the highest. Whether such degrees actually originated in Scotland is something else again,” Kinney writes. Indeed he distills to two sentences the growth of Masonry from Britain to Europe:
“Espousing universal brotherhood is one thing, but practicing it is something else again, and it is difficult to imagine the bewigged brethren of the French aristocracy and intelligentsia sitting in lodge with anyone too far beneath them in social standing. Indeed, Masonry on the Continent rapidly expanded from merely honoring the symbolic meaning of stonecutters’ tools and customs into a whole new universe of armchair chivalry, “higher” degrees soaked in mystical and esoteric symbolism, and grandiose titles accompanied by ornate regalia and jewelry.”

I love the term “armchair chivalry.”

It is tempting to walk you all the way through Kinney’s plain-spoken Masonic history, but that may deprive you the pleasure of reading his book. And if you are unacquainted with Bro. Kinney, please do not think he is immune to the mystique of genuine symbolism and esoterica; in fact he is world renowned for his scholarship, and he is esteemed as having been the publisher of the sorely missed Gnosis magazine, the journal of Western inner traditions, published bi-annually, then quarterly, from 1985 to 1999. Most issues are available here. In 2005 he was made a Fellow in the Scottish Rite Research Society and was awarded that prestigious group’s Albert Gallatin Mackey Award for excellence in Masonic scholarship. He knows of what he speaks. And writes.

Kinney’s mission is not to denude Freemasonry of the respect it has earned; he wants to help all concerned to understand that the best way to honor Freemasonry is to learn the truth about it. Legendary histories and misunderstandings of rituals, no matter how time-tested they may be, still obscure truth. This book serves like the focus ring on a camera lens: It eliminates blur while allowing the viewer to choose depths of field. As one example of a close-up, the author explains autobiographically:
“It was my good fortune to join a lodge that prided itself on performing excellent ritual, and there was something very touching in realizing that these men, some of whom had been Masons for as long as fifty years, had gone to the trouble of practicing these rituals and delivering whole lectures from memory, all for the sake of giving candidates – including me – a memorable initiation. Further, the realization that generation after generation of Masons had been doing this for some three hundred years or more established a palpable link with the past, a sense of roots that is scarce in today’s attention-deficient culture.”

Bringing Masonry’s future into view, Kinney lauds the power and success of the internet. “The growth of the Web enabled both individual lodges and grand lodges to hang out their shingles, and thousands of Masonic Web sites rapidly appeared. This increased Masonic visibility tenfold. Meanwhile, the growing public interest in certain threads of ‘alternative spirituality,’ such as Gnosticism, the Divine Feminine, the mysteries of Egypt, secret societies, and the Knights Templar, has pulled Freemasonry into the mix, feeding romantic notions of Masonic significance. This, in turn, has caused a new generation of men to come knocking at Masonry’s door, curious to see whether it might be worth their time and interest.” How does one define what’s worthy? Kinney bluntly dismisses that potential for romantic fancy, instead advocating “the potential for ‘more light’ and initiatory growth,” adding “if the inertia in the older lodges is just too great to provide what younger men are looking for, the fraternity should constitute new lodges with space for new (or self-consciously ‘traditional’) approaches and let them flow forth as a parallel stream.”

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