Recently, for the education sessions for my Lodge, I took an in depth look at the obligation for the Master Mason degree. My intent was to look at how it was developed in relation to what was common for obligations in the 18th century and how that might have influenced the authors of our ritual work.
When I got to the part about the actual core of the obligation, I was suddenly hit with why some groups have considered Masonry so dangerous.
So, let’s turn our attention to the core of the obligation. The specific things that your obligation is binding you to do and are worth risking the penalties both secular and spiritual.
At this point, I had originally thought to take each of the “I further more promise and swear” statement and examine it’s meaning and how it would still apply over 300 years later to modern day Masons. But as I was reviewing these clauses and comparing them to other secular and religious obligations, I was struck by a difference that is so important it literally defines Masonry and why it has had such a powerful effect on man and society, and why our obligations have often been the source of much disapproval by outside groups.
My research into obligations that were being used during the formative years of the Masonry we now, there were several common obligations in use in England and Scotland. In fact, if you look up the original text of these obligations, you will notice that the founders of Masonry “borrowed” heavily from what was in common use.
As the various families battled for the crown and the Catholic and Protestant faiths became embroiled in a battle to be the state religion, it became common for someone living in England and Scotland to have to take various oaths of allegiance to the King and abjure the Catholic church in part or in whole. Obligations became a tool for the Crown to control the Church and it’s subjects simultaneously.
If you take the time to look up the original obligation to King and Church, they all have a common goal. They are constructed to subsume the individual to the needs of whomever or whatever group is demanding the obligation! There is no wiggle room, no shades of gray, no situational ethics. They all very clearly demand absolute obedience to the obligation and therefore the person requiring the obligation. It does not say you will always support the King unless his policies are not productive for the people he rules, then you reserve the right to effect changes. It says I will support the King and do nothing against him…period, full stop, black and white.
This is typical of all of the obligations I could find from this time and nearly all of them since. The key is always for the obligant of the obligation to give up their right to think for themselves and have independent actions.
Now let’s look at the Master Mason’s obligation. The 10 “I further mores” (in Nebraska work) plus the preamble, state a desired condition or state of some interaction with the world or your own conscience and also end with instructions that require that you think about the situation, gather data and make the best decision based on YOUR knowledge, abilities, experience and situation; to be active in and a part of the decision. In other words, free will, free thought and no blind obedience!
I used to think of these instructions as “escape clauses” for doing anything but now see that that was a very immature way of looking at them. They are, in my opinion, valuable lessons and the unique thing that set us apart from religions, cults, oppressive regimes or political systems.
This is why the Masonic obligations were so radical for their time and still are to a great extent. The obligations forced upon the masses by Church and State all reduce man to an unthinking, blindly obeying cog in a greater machine. You are not to think for yourself, just do what the “Authority” tell you without question.
Living in a society of such unparalleled freedom of thought, expression and self-awareness, it is nearly impossible for us to imagine how mind boggling the Masonic obligation was and how threatened the established power structures would have been…and still are. For example, while we take for granted that the government governs by the consent of the people, it was certainly not the case for most of history. This need to control thought and action so minutely has been the downfall of religions and political systems throughout history and because of this, change has only come about through very violent and disruptive means.
Yet the designers of Masonry realized that true power, true knowledge can only be gained through each person making their own decisions within a framework of accepted standards. So they gave us a framework that shows us the perfect example but at the same time allows us to be human (self directed and make mistakes) and takes into account that we have to work hard to learn how to master this great power. And once learned, these lessons can be applied to all of your interactions with the world, leading eventually to a more ordered and peaceful society.
Having the kind of power to make the kinds of decisions that we are obligated to make is a difficult task and a tremendous responsibility. That may be why we say that Masonry is a progressive science and that it takes a lifetime to understand. It may be why the obligations go from the very simple to the quite complex and were meant to be learned over a long period of time, and that the study of the 7 liberal arts figures so prominently in our ritual. The obligant needed the time and experience to build up their abilities and knowledge to be able to fulfill the obligations.
This feature of the obligation should also give us pause to consider more carefully the kind of men we bring into the Craft. Those candidates that we propose must have the ability, the temperament and spiritual and mental maturity to take on or learn to take on weighty responsibilities such as making life and death decisions.
Once again, we see how serious an undertaking it really is for a man to take the Masonic obligations. If he understands their true purpose and strives to uphold/complete the obligation, he will by natural consequence, have to live life carefully, thoughtfully but also with a freedom that is beyond the common man.