I recently discovered that the SRRS had put its Winter 2019 issue available online. The bulk of it is an article by Bro. Angel Millar on the Future of Freemasonry which has quickly gained a lot of attention and respect. The Freemasons for Dummies blog pointed this out, and Bro. Hodapp introduced the article this way:
it was important enough that every Masonic leader today needs to get hold of a copy and read it (…) it really is that important.Chris Hodapp
That got my attention. Let’s have a look.
Quick Summary of the Article
It begins with a restatement of the membership decline, and the crisis of engagement in clubs and associations, and a discussion of the loneliness epidemic. There is a discussion of how mentorship and role models are a missing piece in society for men, and how personalities like Jordan Peterson have become popular by explaining myths in a way that relates to people’s lives.
A good part of the article covers survey data published by John Ruark in 2016 on Masonic Membership, with a couple of key take-aways:
- There is a general trend towards “spiritual, but not religious” brothers
- Brotherhood and camaraderie are very highly valued in Freemasonry
- Masonic education is increasingly important, but most lodges do it rarely or never
The conclusions of the article land in some familiar places: Masonry needs a ground-up transformation, and we can see clear signs that it’s happening. Bro. Millar ends with this:
From that survey, it is clear that we need to focus on three areas: One, understanding the mysteries, symbolism, and history of Freemasonry, and understanding ourselves. Two, fostering a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic spiritual environment, where good men of all faiths and different spiritual beliefs, convictions, and backgrounds are welcomed and can participate in and discuss the mysteries of Freemasonry. And, three: fostering camaraderie and the strong bonds of brotherhood. The essence of the Craft must again become the focus. To that end, each Mason can contribute his skills and talents, and can be an active part of the legacy that we leave for our descendants.Bro. Angel Millar
In general, I found this article excellent. In the remainder of this post, I’d like to share a range of reactions I had to it, to try to add something to the discussion on what I feel is an important topic.
There’s Value in Formulating the Problem Correctly
Whenever you have any kind of big complicated organizational issue to tackle, you find that there’s a strong need for agreement on what the problem is, first. The reason is simple: if we don’t agree on what the problem is, we’ll never agree on how to fix it. This is where I see this article contributing, is in attempting to focus Freemasons on the nature of the challenge, and re-focus them on what the strengths and assets of Freemasonry are.
Notice what the formulation of the problem isn’t: it isn’t that Millennials are lazy and unmotivated. It isn’t that we need more membership drives, easier ritual, and more mass-conferrals, or any other “marketing”. The problem also isn’t tied up with historically recent (last 20 years) technology like smartphones or YouTube – and the problem isn’t the raw headcount. Those problems get discussed, but may serve only as distractions from the core value Freemasonry provides. This is why Millar’s focus was adept: choose the right problem before you go to solution engineering.
In this respect, the article does not give many solutions other than to say we need to focus on three key areas. These three focus areas really landed to me and felt deeply, intuitively correct because Bro. Millar captured the truly timeless aspects. Were you to travel backwards in time 100 years (or forward) – and to tell the Craft of the day that they needed to focus on those same three aspects, you’d probably be whispering good counsel then, as well.
Finally – specific solutions can’t be appropriate in the context of an article to most of the craft, because Bro. Millar is calling for ground-up transformation, which I want to discuss next.
When I first became a Master Mason, I might have been a bit bitter about why the Grand Lodge or individual leaders may not have done more to facilitate this evolution, which appeared so clearly needed. As time has gone on though, I’ve realized that a ground-up transformation of Freemasonry is the only real option, for two reasons. First, from a philosophical perspective, our task in Freemasonry is to work on ourselves. Of course we must do it for ourselves, individually & locally, because it would be in some ways un-masonic to sit around waiting for someone else to solve our problems. Second, practically speaking, Freemasonry is so distributed in its actual organization structure that there is very little mechanism to change anything except bottom-up.
This was a point I learned in my own growth as a Mason. Oh, so you say you want more education in lodge? Well stop complaining about how you want it, and go write a talk and propose to give it in lodge. That’s bottom-up transformation.
A theme which runs through Millar’s article is a set of very real problems that exist in modern masculinity. These manifold problems include the lack of role models, divorce, emotional disengagement, alcohol, gambling, infidelity, and loneliness. Frankly, all added up, Bro. Millar paints a fairly bleak picture of the modern man. He doesn’t explicitly call out a crisis in masculinity, but that is how it reads to me.
What will our societal responses be? We can choose to respond positively or negatively. The discussion of Jordan Peterson as a person who steps in to fill this gap is telling; he uses modern technology platforms to reach a mass audience of men who have similar spiritual and emotional needs. I’m very familiar with Peterson’s comparative mythology work and in my view it’s broadly a positive contribution. The need for this messaging is substantial, ongoing, and under-recognized.
There is also the negative to content with though. So-called “Red Pill” men have taken real masculine concerns and have warped them with bitterness, negativity, and solipsism. There are plenty of other negative viewpoints such as the incels, MGTOW, pick-up artists, and other components of what is sometimes unfortunately called the Manosphere. Trivializing, attacking, or abusing femininity in any form is extremely negative, and is not masculine in any way, but rather a way to channel one’s own personal damage into a fragile ego that won’t hold up over time.
We must remember though that Freemasonry exists in a veritable “marketplace of ideas” for men, and there is some fairly nasty stuff out there vying to fill the same needs.
It’s because of this that, in my view, it’s important that Freemasonry act as a positive channel to promote growth, learning, and brotherhood to stand in stark contrast to these negatives. Nature abhors a vacuum – and this need in men will be filled, there is no doubt, if not by positive growth, then by negativity. As much as this is about the future of the Craft, it may also have something to do with the prospects for masculinity over the next few decades.
What better service to the community could Freemasonry possibly offer, than educating a generation of men on how to be useful to themselves, their communities, and their families?
Granted, Millar can’t cover everything in one article, but there was one item I felt was really missing: an acknowledgment that there is active resistance to evolution of the Craft. As anyone can see in lodge discussions, forums, and memes, there is a real “we’ve always done it this way” culture of Freemasonry, which Millar might call “worshipping the ashes instead of preserving the flame”. It is not sufficient for the Craft to take initiative to improve things, we are going to need tactics for addressing and overcoming the resistance. This is a difficult topic considering the resistance is from brothers with their own principled views, but inertia is real nonetheless.
There is an invisible tension between the demographic attrition that is happening due to age and generation, and the training of new Master Masons: on one hand, change is a given as demographics shift. On the other hand, even though this may be true, if we continue to actively train Master Masons in the ways of the last 30 years, those ways perpetuate themselves with different people, and it cannot be assumed that demographic changes overcome these tensions.
Another invisible dynamic I see is the idea of a tipping point. When does a lodge’s character really shift, from the “we’ve always done it this way” posture to something that offers what men of today need? If you have one young man join an older traditionalist lodge, the chances that he may become bored and disengage are high. If you have 10 younger Masons interested in education within a lodge, attracting new similar members happens almost automatically, organically.
Somewhere in the middle there is a tipping point; below the “activation energy” needed, lodges may stagnate no matter what their membership’s intentions. Above the activation energy, all you need to do is occasionally weed the garden, the sun, soil, and plants do the rest of the work for you. It takes visionary leadership from the older generation to “preserve the flame” and get this started, because the youngest members aren’t in leadership. It cannot be done without them, but they are also not enough. Building from a start, to the tipping point, is the challenge each and every lodge faces individually.
If you’d like to explore this idea further, I highly recommend the Parable of the Polygons, an online playable game and a story about “how harmless choices can make a harmful world”. That game focuses on how people like to group with others who are like them, and what that individual preference does to society as a whole. On the more micro level, the same dynamics play out within a lodge, and these dynamics are critical to understand if Freemasonry is going to adapt.
- The Future of Freemasonry: Who We Are and What We Have to Offer, by Bro. Angel Millar, MM
- The Revelation: A Critical Analysis of Masonic Demographics, presentation by John Ruark at Masonic Con 2018