Saturday, February 21, 2009

Anyone Got a VSL?!

As I am apt to do now that I have the Bar Exam staring me down dead to rights, I have drifted off into a moment of non-legal thinking. So I started looking up different Masonic terms in Google (what would a kid with short attention span do without you Goog.) and found on the Iowa Grand Lodge Masonic Library a paper on what a Volume of Sacred Law (or VSL) is and the proper way to present a VSL in Lodge during different rituals. I am fascinated with the subject of comparative religion and I think that being a member of this Fraternity, with our desire to meet on the level with all brothers who believe in a Supreme Being regardless how he (or she) is named, gives us great opportunities to learn about each other.

All Lodge meetings in the state of Minnesota must have an open Volume of Sacred Law. So what is a VSL? The Grand Lodge of Minnesota explains, through example, that "the Volume of the Sacred Law to a Christian is the Bible; to Freemasons of other faiths, it is the book held holy by them."(Minnesota Masonic Code S1.19) VSLs should be regarded as those holy writings that bind a man to his belief in the Supreme Being. But why do we swear on the VSL? It is to show our sincerity of purpose by acknowledging to our brothers that G-d is binding all of us together, no matter his name or how we worship him, to the same oath and belief in our Fraternity.

In my Lodge, we have both the Holy Bible and the Tanakh resting on the Altar. (pictured above) It is a beautiful sight to behold. In my mind, it represents the equality that both faiths, and indeed all faiths, have within the Lodge Room. No taking sides, no "mine is better than yours", the situation is just equality.

The paper that I found was written by Very Worshipful Brother Lin Boon Par of Singapore and explains what a Volume of Sacred Law is to each faith and how a brother of that faith may use it in a Masonic ceremony. As I am sure we are aware, the country of Singapore, and indeed much of Southeast Asia, has a wide range of religious belief and choice, from Buddhism and Taoism, to Christianity and Islam. All of these belief systems can meet within the confines of the Lodge because the brothers share a collective belief in the Supreme Being. Therefore, it seems fitting that a brother from such a diverse culture would set out such an impressive list for us, the practicing, speculative Mason, to use when accepting these brothers and candidates into the Lodge.

I will only point out a few interesting nuggets from the paper that have been burning questions in my mind. The first is how a Muslim candidate is initiated using The Qu'ran. There are in fact three methods for the candidate to swear on The Qu'ran in Lodge: 1) the candidate and another Muslim brother must undergo ceremonial washings so as to be able to touch The Qu'ran with bare hands and is held over the swearing brother's head; 2) The Qu'ran is wrapped up in cloth and is held in the hands in the usual method; or 3) those that must handle The Qu'ran wear gloves (in many other countries, it is common practice to wear white gloves; sadly, this is not the case in the states.) and the candidate washes himself in the manner of his faith.

The other situation surrounding VSLs is when a Buddhist swears on the Holy Bible or on whatever VSL is on the Altar. The method by which a Buddhist makes an obligation is by first going to his temple to pray after which time he takes the obligation. There is no equivalent oath taking between Christians and Buddhists. However, the obligation still becomes binding upon the brother because of his sincerity regardless of whether it was made on his VSL or a substitute VSL.

The reason I point out the way in which a Muslim or Buddhist brother is sworn is that I live in Minnesota which has a growing population of Muslims, primarily from East Africa, and I also live within a few miles of a Buddhist temple and it is quite possible that Lodges in this state may need to know the proper way to conduct candidates of many different faiths.

I love living in my state because I am able to see the beauty and diversity of multiculturalism. I mentioned on my guest article on Brother Ant's site, "The Rough Ashlar" that in the state of Minnesota, non-whites accounted for more than 62% of the total immigration to the state. In fact, when I go to work each morning, I can see the differences in faith. While riding the train to and from work, I am able to see women in flowing hijabs, men with yamalkas, nuns in habits, and even Buddhist monks in their golden robes and instead of feeling scorn, I have a sense of wonder and tolerance.

As Freemasons, we should also have that sense of tolerance. We are only asked one simple question when it comes to belief: "Do you believe in a Supreme Being?" We are asked this once and it never needs to be brought up again because the Freemason is not supposed to care what religious tradition you follow, only that you share that same belief in Deity. It will be interesting to see how the future of Freemasonry in the United States will be affected by these changing demographics.


Greg Stewart said...

Its with that wonder and mystery that I can say that a blank book is the BEST representation of the VSL, as in its emptiness, it represents everyone.

Chris said...

On Wednesday a good friend of mine, a Muslim, will be initiated in our Lodge (and I will be delivering the Charge to the Initiate). We asked him whether he wanted to bring a Qu'ran to use during the ceremony, and he said that he was taught that he could swear an oath on a Torah, a Bible, or a Qu'ran, whichever was available, as all three were holy books in Islam. So he decided to be sworn on our usual VSL, the Bible.

Millennial Freemason said...

I think that is a good point as that is really the first question to be asked is on what VSL the candidate wants to swear. Sadly, I remember the ire that Rep. Ellison (the first Muslim member of Congress) received when he chose to swear the oath of office on a Qu'ran from President Jefferson's collection. I heard crazy things like "America is interested in only one book, the Bible" from radio show host Dennis Prager. I mean, you can disagree with the guy about his politics, and I know quite a few Minneapolis residents who do, yet I was struck by this vehement hatred for Ellison's choice of a Holy Book. It was this disgusting connection that if you are Muslim, you are supporting terrorism, which drives me nuts as I have Muslim friends who are every bit like me, kids just living their lives in America. Some Jewish members to Congress have, since at least Ed Koch, been swearing on the Tanakh instead of the Bible and I am okay with that preposition. Even then, Prager said that it was illegitimate to swear on the Tanakh. I am a believer in the Constitution and the influence that Masonic values had on the Constitution and when there is no religious test allowed of government employees (Article VI, sec. 3), I believe it comes from our Nation's desire to be tolerant of believers of any faith.

For me, Freemasonry is about representing all paths to the Supreme Being and when a brother wants to swear an oath on his holy book, there is really no problem; if he would rather swear on the Lodge's standard VSL, he should also be allowed that choice. The swearing on the book with Holy significance is a way to show his sincerity of purpose to what he is swearing, not as an endorsement of one religion over another.


Jim said...

Nick, great article.

In South Carolina, a tyled lodge must have a Bible open on the alter, however other VSL's can be included along with the Bible as needed. Since South Carolina is historically very Christian, this requirement should not really be that surprising. And much of Freemasonry's history in the United States originated in South Carolina, so again, this requirement shouldn't be too surprising. Going through the Blue Lodge in South Carolina, it's very easy to see Freemasonry as something Christian in nature. Sure, there are many South Carolina Freemasons who are not Christian, but the majority are, and it just seems to be a given because Christianity is such a big part of many people's lives.

Let's also not forget that that much of Freemasonry's ritual and foundational philosophy (in the Blue Lodge, at least) is based on Biblical events, stories, and passages, from the Old Testament. And in the York Rite, both the Old and New Testaments are again foundational. So there is definitely some logic in requiring that a Bible be present for a tyled lodge. And as stated above, since the first five books of the Bible are the same books of the Torah, and that both the Torah and the Bible are considered sacred to Islam, again, the logic continues to follow.

As to taking the various obligations, my personal opinion (as well as the dictates of South Carolina) is that one should obligate himself using the VSL to which he holds sacred. The point of an obligation is not to swear allegiance to a religion, but to instill upon the candidate the importance of keeping his word and the severity of the consequences (real or metaphorical) of breaking his word.

Yes, Freemasonry is about many paths, but those paths start somewhere, and in Freemasonry, Biblical stories are fundamental to its core. Let's not forget that.