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Terry O. Trowbridge, 32

For a Mason, there are necessary steps beyond tolerance.


Tolerance of others and of ideas and beliefs incompatible with our own is one of the principal tenets of Masonry. It is aptly taught in, among other areas of Masonic teachings, our Scottish Rite’s 10th, 18th, 20th and 26th Degrees. Clearly, such an important element of Freemasonry cannot be revisited too many times. But, is tolerance alone really sufficient?

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (4th edition), to tolerate is “to endure, to forebear to judge harshly.” Historically, tolerance was associated with religion. We speak of “religious tolerance,” that is enduring or not harshly judging religious beliefs different th an our own. But why was tolerance first associated with religion? Probably because religions and religious thought in some form or another have universally prevailed as our most basic means for understanding life.

Religion forces us to focus our minds. It was, and is, of interest to most people most of the time. At the same time, each religion has historically argued that it has the answer to the mystery of life and death. And since there is only one correct answer to any mystery (or so it is asserted), the fact that I have the right answer (i.e. my religion), then all other supposed answers, religions, must be false. Therefore, for the most part, people presume that all religions other than their own are false religions. But, since these “false religions” are a reality, they must put up with them. Thus tolerance.

This great and elementary conflict between religions has always been present, offering those desiring to emphasize the differences between their religion and others a facile argument. The historical result has all too often been an overemphasis of religious differences escalating into fanaticism bringing about religious conflict and even war.

Take, for example, the Christian Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. And, there are clearly many other examples of this continuing confrontation today. Consider the Protestant/Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, the Jewish/Moslem conflict in the Middle East, the Orthodox/Roman Catholic/Moslem conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and the Hindu/Buddhist conflict in Sri Lanka---to name a few.

Over the years, one of the methods employed to avoid such damaging religious conflict was via the idea of religious tolerance. That is, “we don’t like that religion, or we don’t agree with it, but live and let live.” Often this has worked. But, as we have seen above, often also it hasn’t.

Today, the word tolerance has become broadened from its original definition. It now includes tolerance not only of religions, but of almost any belief or endeavor with which we disagree. Take popular music, for instance.

Being of the generation which thought good music was best evidenced by Glenn Miller, Burl Ives, Benny Goodman, or Frank Sinatra, I, for instance, have great difficulty hearing my older son’s CDs containing music (I call it noise) which is not only too loud but often contains offensive (to me) words. But, to keep peace in the house and when I can’t convince him to listen to something a little less offensive, I “tolerate” his belief that it is really “music.” I don’t like it or accept it as really being “music,” but I put up with it, basically because I often have no other choice.

But, isn’t there something more than tolerance that I and we Freemasons should strive for? Shouldn’t we always be striving to do even better than just “put up with” something we don’t like? Though he stresses the fundamental need for toleration, Albert Pike avers to this next step in Morals and Dogma where, when referring to religious toleration, he states, “No man truly obeys the Masonic law who merely tolerates those whose religious opinions are opposed to our own.... Merely to tolerate, to bear with an opposing opinion, is to assume it to be heretical; and assert the right to persecute, if we would; and claim our toleration as a merit. The Mason’s creed goes further than that. No man, it holds, has any right in any way to interfere with the religious belief of another.” (p. 167)

Expanding Pike’s dissertation on religious toleration to the prevailing view today of toleration of any beliefs (religious or otherwise), why not, when attempting to be tolerant in any area of life, should we not take the logical next step after that? Why should we only “tolerate”? Why, even, should we only not interfere? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just forbearing your existence. Is it not a disrespect and irreverence to think that we are allowing others to live? Again, as Pike states “No man is entitled positively to assert that he is right, where other men, equally intelligent and equally well-informed, hold directly the opposite opinion. Each thinks it impossible for the other to be sincere, and each, as to that, is equally in error.” (Morals and Dogma, p. 165)

Our task, then, should be to work not only to tolerate or “put up with,” not only to avoid interfering, but to learn to accept and even welcome that which we do not like or cannot relate to---as long as it is legal, of course---by first accepting that all men were made by the Supreme Creator and have, I can only presume, more or less equal access to His intellectual and moral powers as they are available to us as human beings. That is, no one individual has a monopoly on what is right or wrong or what is the right or wrong way. Once we acknowledge this, we should then be able to go a bit further and accept the other’s belief as sincere and probably as reasoned and as significant a contribution to the development of our civilization (even if in ways which we may very well presently not understand) as our own. Ergo, if sincere, properly reasoned, and coming from a God-like being (like ourselves) the mere fact that it is not in our repertoire or doesn’t agree with our approach or view, should not alienate us from its presence. And, once it no longer alienates us, it can become acceptable. No small challenge---even for Masons. However, like the road to the Truth sought by all Masons, while perfection of this goal can never be fully satisfied, it is well worth the journey.