The Initiatory Supreme Being Question: Esoteric, Philosophical, and Religious Considerations
By Vincent St. Clare
The Grand Tangent
An important question is asked of candidates attempting to join I.O.O.F. lodges before they attend their Initiatory degree ritual, the ritual that will prospectively make them into members of the lodge which is providing the degree. This question regards their belief in a supreme being, and in this essay I’d like to examine this question and all of its terms and see if we can’t tease out some esoteric, philosophical, and religious speculations, considerations, and thoughts on the matter.
So, to begin at the beginning—or, rather, even before the beginning, as this occurs prior to the ritual itself—we have the candidate, who has been elected to join a lodge and take the Initiatory degree, being asked questions in the ante-room outside of the lodge room or hall in which most of the officers are present and organizing in order to perform the ritual of the degree. There are a number of questions asked of the candidate, but the most important and relevant may be one regarding what we commonly think of as “God”: “Do you believe in the existence of a Supreme, Intelligent Being, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe?”
VIEWS OF THE SUPREME BEING
Note that this inquiry does not go, “Do you believe in God?” or, “Do you believe in gods?” It asks if the candidate believes in some supremacy which is cognizant, as well as creative and sustaining in totality.
Many, if not most, would simply consider this supreme being God, and call it a day. It may be an easy enough answer for many Christians, who in my personal (note: not in any way official) estimation make up the bulk of the I.O.O.F. It would also be an easy answer for other theists, such as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and certain kinds of Hindus. (Hindu views on the divine vary considerably.) Wiccans, who make up a relatively small religious group and are hardly represented in the I.O.O.F., often, though not always (Wicca includes a highly diverse set of beliefs, with little standard doctrine) believe in a supreme duality, a God and a Goddess, although for certain Wiccans these dual beings are in fact one.
However, there are other possible views which, in answering affirmatively to the aforementioned question, could be accommodated. “Theism,” as defined by Oxford Languages, is the “belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures,” and it is arguable that this is the most likely belief of the candidate answering the supreme being question.
There are various types of theism, monotheism (belief in one deity, usually a supreme deity) being the most common. Others include duotheism (belief in two deities) and polytheism (belief in multiple deities). Yet if we question what it is we mean by “god,” “God,” or “deity,” further ideas arise, and with them the need for clarification.
Deism is worth considering. “Deism” is defined by Oxford Languages as the “belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.” It further notes, “The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.” While there are not many deists around today, there are some, and surely some have entered various fraternal orders such as those of Odd Fellowship or Freemasonry. Additionally, deism generally fulfills the rest of the terms of the question: deism usually regards the supreme being as intelligent (i.e. not merely a force), and also regards this being as the creator and preserver of the universe.
Two other types of theism—pantheism and panentheism—are worth mentioning here and, while it may have behooved me to mention them before, alongside the paragraph on theism, I feel they deserve their own paragraphs for discussion:
Pantheism is the belief that existence itself, reality and everything, is or is identical with divinity or deity; that, in other words, the universe is God. This is a belief more common to New Age or generally spiritual types, as well as esotericists and some types of pagans (including certain Wiccans), Hindus, tantrikas, and mystics more than others, at least by my experience. Is it compatible with the supreme being question? Well, generally pantheists consider this universe-god an immanent, all-encompassing being, and so supreme by the fact that it is everything. Some pantheists consider this universe-god intelligent, while others do not. Many consider it to be self-created, and so the creator of existence, and by virtue of being existence itself, the preserver of existence.
Panentheism is like pantheism, except that it adds the additional tenet of a god that, while being identical with existence, at once also transcends existence or is in some sense beyond space and time. This belief is likely to fulfill the supreme being question in the same way as a belief in pantheism would, with only one additional caveat that wouldn’t make much of an outstanding difference. Panentheism has been used to help explain the philosophy of 19th century German idealist G.W.F. Hegel.
There are other types of belief regarding divinity, such as, for example, transtheism, ietsism, ignosticism, monolatry, henotheism, kathenotheism, omnism, apatheism, atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism, pandeism, panendeism, and autotheism. (Still others abound.) Some of these could be held by the candidate and they could answer affirmatively to the supreme being question, while for others they could not, while for yet still others answering the question becomes more of a theoretical matter.
SUPREME, INTELLIGENT BEING, CREATOR AND PRESERVER OF THE UNIVERSE
Let’s now look at the terms featured in the supreme being question itself, and analyze them. What is it that the candidate is assenting to? I want to look at the terms of this question in detail and see what can be gleaned from them.
“Supreme”: Oxford Languages defines this term as “superior to all others.” A supreme being, therefore, is ontologically superior to all other beings and states of being. Being superior to all states of being, this supreme being must naturally be the most profound thing about which, and of which, anything can be expressed, if anything can be expressed about it—it may, in fact, be so superior to anything known that it is simply inexpressible by any terms, conventional or otherwise. (Say, mathematical.) It may ultimately be so superior to anything that it is incomprehensible, i.e. unable to be thought about or conceived of. This inconceivability is the argument of the Qabalah (as spelled in the Hermetic tradition; it is known as Kabbalah in its original Jewish form)—that God is so profoundly above and beyond anything that nothing can be said of it; in fact, only things that are not of it can be stated. (This is known as apophatic or negative theology.)
St. Anselm of Canterbury, a Catholic monk and philosopher of the 11th century, stated that it was possible to conceive of God, despite his supremacy, only that God was the highest thing that could be conceived of. (He even developed an argument for the existence of God based on his naturally-assumed supremacy.)
“Intelligent”: Merriam-Webster defines “intelligent” as “a: possessing intelligence” and “b: guided or directed by intellect: RATIONAL.” The same dictionary defines “rational” as “a: having reason or understanding” and “b: relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason: REASONABLE.”
Can we imagine a supreme being which is rational, reasonable, or intelligent? Is the way to do this to imagine the world itself designed rationally, reasonably, or intelligently? Odd Fellowship does not demand one believe in intelligent design as opposed to biological evolution, or even a generally intelligent design outside of evolution. (The deist would believe God would have simply allowed the universe to evolve on its own.) However, even if the universe took its own course outside of the creator’s development, that doesn’t imply the creator is not intelligent.
Another way of looking at this term, “intelligent”—since, though it has particular definitions, we know that colloquially it is fairly broad—is that it simply means “conscious,” in that there is some conscious aspect to the supreme being which makes it a being as opposed to a mere force. How this consciousness is conceived of is highly variable and, like the entire supreme being question, to at least a considerable degree a matter of the candidate’s own understanding.
What about a supreme being would be conscious, and why? One good argument is that, since the being in question is supreme, it in some sense is possessed of all qualities whatsoever, and one of these qualities must naturally include consciousness, so naturally it must, in some sense, be conscious. However, this is only speculation of course.
“Being”: in the sense in which the term is being used in the question, we can assume “being” here really means “a being.” In this sense, Oxford Languages defines “being” as “a real or imaginary living creature or entity, especially an intelligent one.” A being is set apart from a thing by the fact that it is living or conscious, and therefore a creature or entity. It is likely to be intelligent, as the definition states, although this isn’t necessary.
A being partakes of being, has being in and of the world. This is the case with humans and animals, stones and plants and stars. The Heideggerian term Dasein is used to signify the perception humans have of their existence in reality (there are also more intricate and profound interpretations of this term which I am not philosophically-literate enough to understand), but one must wonder what a god experiences of its godhood. A supreme being would not be subject to such human experiences or perceptions, and its experience of being could be whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. Its experience of being could literally be everything all the time, or nothing none of the time, or anything else.
The other important definition of “being,” an adjectival definition of “existence,” is a category, the most fundamental category or trait we can conceive of. A supreme being’s being or non-being is what, given that being’s responsibility for creating and preserving existence, determines whether we ever would have existed or not. Yet, according to Heidegger, who believed humans provide the ground for meaning in the world (Heidegger contributed extensively to existentialism), “Whether god lives or remains dead, is not decided by human religiosity, still less by the theological aspirations of philosophy and science. Whether God is God happens out of, and within, the situation of being.” Perhaps, then, being is God, or even precedes God—but that’s somewhat of a digression.
“Creator”: Oxford Languages defines “creator” as “a person or thing that brings something into existence.” Naturally this means that the supreme being in question is presumed to have the quality of being creative. The supreme being actively creates of course, or at the very least has created. That seems straightforward enough. However, what I personally find a much more tantalizing question is why the supreme being would wish to create anything besides itself in the first place. (Not that any of this is required belief, merely interesting speculation.)
I won’t go into this in too great of depth, as there are many volumes of books written on this exact topic that can be discussed. However, there is one author discussing this topic who I think is worth referencing. Aleister Crowley, in his sacred and supposedly divinely inspired text Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), wrote that “Every man and every woman is a star,” a star being a core point of existence and a divine manifestation of unique and ultimate Godhood in an Infinite universe which itself is also God.
He commented on the verse thusly:
“See… the demonstration that each ‘star’ is the Centre of the Universe to itself, and that a ‘star’ simple, original, absolute, can add to its omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence without ceasing to be itself; that its one way to do this is to gain experience, and that therefore it enters into combinations in which its true Nature is for awhile disguised, even from itself. Analogously, an atom of carbon may pass through myriad Proteus-phases, appearing in Chalk, Chloroform, Sugar, Sap, Brain and Blood, not recognizable as “itself” the black amorphous solid, but recoverable as such, unchanged by its adventures.
“This theory is the only one which explains “why” the Absolute limited itself, and why It does not recognize Itself during its cycle of incarnations. It disposes of “Evil” and the Origin of Evil; without denying Reality to “Evil”, or insulting our daily observation and our common sense.”
My understanding of that passage is this: by the term “the Absolute limited itself,” Crowley here means the “Absolute” (the supreme being or thing) created anything outside of itself, and here he’s saying the Absolute did this because it wished to experience something that was not itself, and that it purposefully does not recognize itself as the supreme being when it exists as, say, a man or woman, or a rock or planet, because it wishes to have the “adventure” of being not-supreme, while at the same time allowing this adventure to “add” to its supremacy. In fact, according to Crowley, this is the only way it can add to its supremacy.
This, of course, is only one answer to the question of why the supreme being created anything, why there is something (in a world assumed to have a supreme being) rather than nothing. It is also a rather esoteric view at that.
Certain Christian denominations teach that God created the universe in order to glorify himself, that he actively wishes for glory and perhaps worship, and desires a universe and creatures that will glorify his presence.
Others teach that God is so omnibenevolent, so actively loving, that he created the universe and particularly the creatures therein in order to express love to them. This may be the basis of the idea that God wishes to see human beings happy, and from this one may infer that we should act in a way that would make others happy. According to this line of thinking, the ethics of Odd Fellowship proceed naturally.
In certain schools of Indian and Hindu philosophy, the Divine induces lila or “play,” by which it conceals itself as the universe and all things within it as a form of creative play. Alan Watts described this as a kind of hide-and-seek game that God is playing with itself, “pretending” to be the universe and even human beings, who are themselves (normally) ignorant of their own nature as that very Divinity.
“Sustainer”: “sustainer” is defined by Dictionary.com as “a person or thing that sustains.” A synonym is “preserver,” according to Oxford Languages “a person who maintains something in its original or existing state or condition.”
Now, this definition of “preserver” doesn’t totally do justice to whatever we presume the supreme being is providing for the universe, since we know the universe and its components are in constant flux. The Buddha, Shakyamuni Siddhartha Gautama, preached that one of the marks of existence is impermanence, or continuous change, for all things, everywhere, and I have yet to see anyone refute that this is the case.
However, the very base state of the cosmos, the fact of its existence, has not changed, and it will not cease to exist, if ever, until some indeterminate point in time. Is this what we mean by the universe being sustained, and perhaps also having a sustainer?
What, also, is being sustained? Is it a mere universe? A multiverse? Some infinite multiverse in which there is no limit to the number of worlds that exist? And then one must ask why just such a kind of world would exist in the first place!
A little digression: one of the principal deities of Hinduism, Vishnu, is said to be the ultimate preserver of the universe according to those who adhere to the view of the Trimurti, or triple-deity configuration which contains Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer).
“Universe”: Oxford Languages defines “universe” as “all existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos. The universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light years in diameter and contains a vast number of galaxies; it has been expanding since its creation in the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago.” This tends to be our typical understanding of the cosmos.
However, as I mentioned above, there is the notion of the multiverse, and it has become more popular as a topic of discussion both among physicists and philosophers in recent years. To what extent this multiverse, if it exists, reaches in terms of the number of dimensions out there could be anything from one to infinite. There could simply be a parallel universe bordering our own.
All in all, it is highly likely that answering all of these questions correctly, and especially answering the supreme being question in the affirmative, is necessary in order to proceed on to the ritual proper and ultimately to be initiated into the lodge. (Whether the Initiatory ritual and some of its preliminary rules may have changed over time, I cannot say. However, according to the Digest of the Laws, Decisions and Enactments of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin I.O.O.F. … 1847–1883 (adopted June, 1883), “No Lodge should initiate a candidate who cannot honestly and fairly answer the constitutional questions as required by the rules of the Order.” Some lodges may, in certain instances, allow the candidate to retry an answer, but I can’t confirm that.)
CAVEATS?: A VIDEO ON THE SUPREME BEING AND PROPOSED LEGISLATION
In a video (uploaded to Vimeo in 2021) regarding the supreme being in I.O.O.F. ritual and produced by T.J. Walkup of Yerba Buena Lodge No. 15, several Odd Fellows were interviewed on their thoughts on the supreme being as it is part of the I.O.O.F. They were also interviewed regarding upcoming proposed legislation from the Sovereign Grand Lodge (Bill No. 22 (2019)) that would probably affect certain members’ ability to remain part of the order, in that it makes atheism and agnosticism a suspendable or bannable offense and states that, “Loss of belief in the existence of a Supreme Being is sufficient cause for suspension or expulsion of a member who may be tried for such according to the Code of General Laws.”
Peter V. Sellars, an author on the panel, noted that the idea of the supreme being can be more nebulous than what, for instance, I have stated above in examining the terms that are part of the supreme being question. He also noted that members can go through periods of outright atheism, agnosticism, deism, or even dystheism (viewing God as not wholly good and possibly bad) and still remain Odd Fellows.
“For me, today, one time in my life, my parents were my supreme being,” he said. “I don’t always believe in God. Terrible things have happened in my life where the way I justify believing in God—God isn’t a good God…”
He went on:
“You could classify me as a deist or agnostic over the last 30 years. So, being a member of this order, because I’ve lost that faith, somebody wants to remove me from the order?” (In reference to the proposed legislation.)
Jack Crispin Cain, another member on the panel stated, “I also think we should include a discussion about the nature of faith, because I think it’s really important to understand that the basic thing that many people who believe in God go through is doubt, and I think every human being has that, because the very practical things we see in our day-to-day lives don’t always include a vision of God. Our bodies are limited in their scope and what they can perceive in the entire world and the entire universe around us, and God is greater than us, God is bigger than us, and the mysteries that are encapsulated by the concept of God are beyond our comprehension.”
He went on:
“It’s [faith] a difficult step. Not every human being is capable of this… Odd Fellowship can be a part of building faith for people. It doesn’t have to be, but I can see how it could be. But I think it’s really important that we not abandon those people who are going through doubt[s], who describe themselves as agnostic or atheistic… it [the nature of one’s view on God] could change for anybody: up or down, good or bad…”
Walkup (the interviewer) and Sellars went on to discuss the fact that the I.O.O.F., as a recognized non-profit in the United States, is party to a non-discrimination clause, which in part makes it unable to discriminate on the basis of religion. If a lodge does discriminate on the basis of belief (such as, hypothetically speaking, barring atheists or agnostics from entry), they noted, it could be sued, and few if any lodges can afford to be sued.
Ultimately, how can a group, fraternal order or otherwise, dictate what occurs in the human heart? The conscience is dynamic: it changes over time, and I don’t believe that we should be telling people that they need to constantly remain believers in any particular being or lack thereof in order to elevate the character of humankind. In the end, universal fraternity, friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, and charity are what truly matter, are they not?
Perhaps I’m getting too opinionated…
Odd Fellowship, for some, and perhaps for many, is a straightforward process: you answer some questions, go through some rituals, and participate at some meetings and functions. For others it, and especially its rituals—even their minutest or preliminary parts—are opportunities to think deeply about fundamental and important questions regarding belief, the universe, God, religion, philosophy, and so much else. (There’s a lot I haven’t even touched on because I haven’t even examined the rest of the Initiatory ritual!) I think taking the time to really reflect on some profound ideas in regard to even the smallest aspects of the process of advancing through the I.O.O.F. is an opportunity for further growth as an individual.
I encourage everyone to view their journey in any fraternal order as a spiritual ordeal. In fact, I encourage everyone to view their journey through life as a spiritual ordeal, a lesson on the deepest aspects of what it means to be human.
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