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Lead Article — Winter 2016
The Winter 2015 issue of the Philalethes journal contains a short article on a very interesting method of looking at the symbolism and text that we have in Masonry based on an ancient process still in use today in the Jewish faith. (Philalethes Vol. 68, No.2 Eric Diamond, Pardes: Using an Ancient Method to Bring Masonic Symbols to Life.)
As is often the case, the article was short and covered the basics but it made me want to look into this concept more deeply to see if it really could work in Masonry and be an exercise for Lodges to assist learning.
Masonry, like our regular life is full of symbols that are intended to transmit a certain concept or lesson. There are over a hundred symbols in Masonry and not everyone agrees on what they are or what they mean. Much of the meaning and use of those symbols has been lost to history and our changing outlook on the world. Masonry also is left to each man’s interpretation and the founders never left us literal explanations so the study of the symbols of our Craft can be difficult.
The first thing we must do is define the difference between a sign and a symbol and then look at how symbols work.
A sign is an object, quality, event or entity that indicates the presence or occurrence of something else. No hidden meaning, it tells you up front and simply what the idea is that is represents. For example: a stop sign. We’ve all been taught that a red hexagon with the word STOP on it (or not) gives us a very simple non-negotiable message...STOP!
A symbol is much more complex. A symbol is like a sign in that it can represent some other object or action but a symbol can have layered meanings and can be interpreted both as the obvious and contain a hidden message. For example: a red rose. It can just be a flower or it can represent love and compassion.
The Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich defined a symbol in this fashion:
- 1. It points beyond itself to something else, some larger idea.
- 2, It participates in that to which it points. For example: The American flag can be treated with reverence or disrespect depending on how you feel about the U.S.
- 3. It opens up levels of reality that are otherwise closed. For example: A song or poem that evokes powerful feelings that cannot
be expressed in another manner.
- 4. It grows and changes as Society changes. For example: How do we view a “King” now vs. medieval times.
- 5. Symbols live and die. Meanings that were obvious to the creator or 1st user of the symbol may no longer apply or make sense to us. Context is important, for example: The Fasces: Symbol of Roman Judicial Power. On pennies, court rooms, the state capitol but how many understand what it originally meant?
So symbols are full of multiple meanings, they need to be understood in the context of the creator of the symbol and they can mean something different to different people and even ourselves as we grow. So how are Masons supposed to learn from these symbols?
Fortunately, there is a method that has been in use for centuries by religions that can be adapted directly to Masonry! As usual, Masonry can borrow from earlier traditions.
Religious texts are full of symbols and hidden meanings. They are seldom written for one simple explanation but to have meaning throughout your study of the texts. Because of this, each of the Abrahamic faiths developed a method of exegesis that allowed them to explore these other meanings in a structured way. Some of these processes were for everyone and some just for certain classes of people or only the “priests” of that religion. I prefer something that’s available to all.
Exegesis (/ˌɛksəˈdʒiːsəs/; from the Greek ἐξήγησις from ἐξηγεῖσθαι 'to lead out') is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, particularly a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for work with the Bible; however, in modern usage "biblical exegesis" is used for greater specificity to distinguish it from any other broader critical text explanation.
Exegesis includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other analysis includes classification of the type of literary genres present in the text, and an analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.
The terms exegesis and hermeneutics have been used interchangeably.
The Jewish Faith created a system called PARDES or sometimes PRDS. This is a four-step method:
- Peshat -- The literal or plain meaning. Take it for surface value.
- Remez–Allegoricalmeaning(astory,poem,orpicturethatcanbe interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.)
- Derash–The interpreted meaning (Midrashic)
- Sod – The hidden meaning. Esoteric/Mystical meaning through inspiration or revelation.
The early Christian Faith used what is called the Fourfold Allegorical scheme:
- Literal Meaning–just historical,no under lying meaning
- Typological -- Connects the events of the Old Testament with the New Testament in particular to draw allegorical connections with Christ’s life and the stories of the Old Testament.
- Moral(orTropological)--How you should act in the present i.e.“the moral of the story”.
- Anagogical--Future events such as heaven,hell,judgment and prophecies.
The Islamic Faith prior to the schism of Sunni and Shia used a system similar to the Jewish method:
- Literal Expression–for the common folk.
- Allusion–for the elite.
- Subtleties–for friends of God.
- Deepest realities–for the prophets
The method that applies most easily to Masonry and every day use is the Jewish system of Pardes. Why? It’s open to all, it contains an element of fellowship, results in something new every time and the process is considered as important as the outcome! A Pardes session generally started with a light meal to generate some fellowship, then taking passage of scripture (or in our case, symbol or ritual) and applying the concepts of PRDS. These sessions often last well into the night as everyone gets to contribute and have an opinion. There are no wrong answers!
Let’s look at an example the PRDS system used in Masonry (from Philalethes Vol. 68 Eric Diamond). A picture of an Noah’s Ark.
P’shat – literal or direct meaning. For example, understand the Masonic symbol of Noah’s Ark, one must understand what an ark is and how it differs from a ship or boat.
Remez -- meaning hints. Or the allegorical meaning. For example, in the Masonic symbol of Noah’s Ark, one must know the basics of the story of Noah to understand what the Ark symbolizes.
D’rash – Inquiry or interpretive meaning. What does Noah’s Ark mean to us today? Is it the preservation of good knowledge? Is it about fortitude and perseverance in the face of stormy floods? What is our practical takeaway?
Sod – (rhymes with road). Hidden or mystery. Sod refers to the mystical meaning of the text. For example, to the Kabbalist, the Ark is a representation of order emerging from Chaos and the survival of the soul after death. In Christian eschatology, it was a representation of the Christ as a Savior.
So, as you can see, this is a real workout for the brain! Plus you get to learn about many other points of view (again, supporting the universality of Masonry) and learn about yourself as well. Most importantly, you are thinking for yourself! Thus fulfilling your charge from the FC degree of constant learning.
The renowned New Testament author, scholar and university professor Marcus J. Borg expressed this idea of progressive learning as a three-stage process:
- Stage 1 – Pre-critical naiveté — In this stage, we hear and accept without question or effort that the information, in this case Masonic ritual, is true. Intellect and heart are not involved. This is a child-like acceptance and many people get stuck at this level.
- Stage 2 – Critical Thinking – At this stage we begin to evaluate what we learned against our life experiences and modern knowledge. This is the stage where doubt and skepticism often arises. Unfortunately, this can then lead to disengagement with Masonry and disillusionment with the Craft.
- Stage 3 – Post–critical naiveté – This difficult to achieve state is where one gains the ability to discern wisdom and insight in the metaphorically expressed “truth” of the myths and stories that make up Masonic ritual. The Brother begins to recognize that their truth does not depend upon their being literally or historically factual. Borg expresses this as an intuitive and trusting discernment of heart, mind and spirit.
So this sort of exercise is perfect for your Lodge to bring the members together and share some time working on your understanding. No memorizing, no wrong answers, can be used on any part of our ritual, symbols or any other writings really. Try before or after Lodge, have your coffee and snacks, pick a part of ritual and pick it apart with this method.
In order to make this a bit more universal and add a component of application (why do it if you don’t apply it?), I’ve made this Masonic Inquiry Method by tweaking the Pardes method. Note the addition of the 5th element, which seeks to put all that hard thought to work and help us to improve ourselves.
Masonic Inquiry Method
- 1. What is the literal or direct meaning of this text or symbol?
- 2. What is th eallegorical meaning of this text or symbol?
- 3. What is the interpretive meaning? What is the practical takeaway?
- 4. Is the real meaning hidden? Wha tunconventional idea might be hiding?
- 5. What is the application? Is it relevant today? Practical? How does this affect my life? How do I internalize this idea?
I think you’ll find it to be a great way to exercise your mind and increase your understanding.