A Suggestion about Interpretations of Masonic Symbols
Friends and brothers, here are some thoughts I’d like to share about interpreting/speculating about Masonic symbolism, especially as it relates to other initiatic traditions or esoteric systems.
There are many Masons and non-Masons who are under the impression that there must be authoritative final definitions or explanations on the “real” deeper or hidden meanings of Masonic symbols and teachings. Because it can be very tempting to seek, and to speak, from that starting point, I am convinced that every interpreter of Masonic symbolism has a duty to openly acknowledge that nobody speaks with final authority in the interpretation of our symbolism.
There are very good reasons for keeping this guideline at the forefront, and here is one I consider primary: We all know Masons, and many of us have been them (myself included), who are attracted to the idea of matching up Masonic symbolism with various esoteric systems like astrology, Kabbalah, alchemy, etc. But it’s been my experience that we run into problems anytime we try to get highly specific in explaining Masonic symbolism according to some other system. Over and over I have seen distortions happen in trying to make a perfect fit, and I’ve done so in my own efforts. Sometimes the distortions happen in cherry-picking, by which I mean overlooking those elements of Masonry or of the other system that would seem to contradict the preferred interpretations. Sometimes distortions happen in attributing details to our ritual and symbolism that aren’t actually there, filling in gaps with things that would make it seem as if there are stronger matches supporting the desired interpretations. Sometimes distortions happen in unknowingly misrepresenting the other system because one hasn’t thoroughly researched it.
Actually, I have little objection with cherry-picking or filling in gaps if one clearly acknowledges doing so, and especially if one states why it is being done. Even a certain degree of unknowing misrepresentation is understandable if one acknowledges the limitations of one’s knowledge and understanding. However, no matter how interesting and compelling I might find someone’s speculations, to me it’s like drinking soured milk to read or hear them without such acknowledgements. I admit that I have not always clearly made such acknowledgements.
As one who has spent over 3 decades comparing and contrasting Masonry with other systems, I am increasingly confident that we won’t find the “real” deeper or hidden meanings of Masonic symbols and teachings outside of Masonry. It is more and more apparent to me that the most significant insights into our symbols are those we experience when we deeply contemplate and speculate on them for ourselves. Of course, there is certainly value in learning more about other systems that are similar to or even intersect with Masonry. They can suggest many possibilities of meaning that are worthy of further contemplation. But I believe we’ve done an injustice the moment we begin thinking of Masonry as if it’s just a veil concealing another system where the “real” Light will finally be revealed. With such an attitude, we do injustice to ourselves by under-appreciating our potential to attain and make good use of our own insights right here and now. We do injustice to Masonry by ignoring its insistence that we use its symbols and teachings to work on our own souls, and by discounting its capacity for facilitating the greatest challenges and rewards in doing such work.
Those are just some of my thoughts on the matter.