Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Scholar Who Makes Historical Facts Palatable: Tobias Churton

For some years, since the late 1980s when he released his book The Gnostics, I have repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to read the works of Tobias Churton. Being written for a popular audience, I have justified such self indulgence by asserting that it was to get a quick but relatively accurate overview of material that I wished to study at greater depth and at more leisure. Or else my excuse was that it was a less boring way to acquire a decent if generalized bibliography. Both excuses were true as far as they went, but they were excuses. Having studied at Oxford and being a lecturer at Exeter, his credentials more than pass the most critical academic muster. However, his writing style is eminently readable, which is a rarity among academics in this day and age, and that is what kept me coming back to his titles over the years. Put simply, the man is worth reading.

While not all of his books are specifically focused upon Freemasonry, half a dozen include Freemasonry in the title, and in a few more the subject of Freemasonry more than touched upon. One has to note that his books relating to Rosicrucianism are also by default related to the subject of the craft.

While none of the titles I will mention are new, and while I would hope that most who have read extensively on Freemasonry have at least read a few of his works, I've yet to see a Masonic blog deal with his works as a body. They are extensive enough that they deserve collective mention. They are also intelligent enough to deserve attention. In fact, that may well be why they haven't to date received the attention they deserve from Freemasons. Unlike writers who cater to members of the craft, Professor Churton does not mince words when it comes to the flaws of our institution. That's probably another reason I like his writing, and another reason why all Freemasons should read his works.

In The Mysteries of John the Baptist, he remarks that 'there are two principle groups of people for whom John the Baptist has significant spiritual meaning, though in the case of Freemasons, I should say a group for whom John ought to have spiritual meaning; Masons have mostly forgotten why they were once "St. John's men."' In Freemasonry: The Reality, he discusses what he views as the "real meanings in the now completely misinterpreted rituals and symbols of the craft."
But lest you decide that a scholarly critique should be ignored, keep in mind that as a Freemason and a scholar, he has license to offer that critique and the knowledge with which to back it up.

He also has the knowledge and vision to focus on the deeper truths and to describe them in remarkably clear ways, such as when in his work on Ashmole,  The Magus of Freemasonry: The Mysterious Life of Elias Ashmole--Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society,  he cuts through the acquired ignorance of a few hundred years, and notes that "the adjective speculative generally referred to an occult activity, or one that involved mathematics or imaginative projection: that is, conjuring.  We have all at some time or another "conjured up an image." The earliest English masonic catechism, in answer to the question "How high is your lodge?" gives the answer "It reaches to the heavens." The lodge was an imaginative projection, "conjured up" by its members to embody a center of the universe."

In The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians, Churton digs deep beneath the surface and uncovers so much that came before the 18th Degree Rose Croix, Before Pernety, even before the Fama Fraternitatis to look at and connect the works of Arab scholars such as Abu Ma'shar al-Balki to the winding thread of history which led to modern Rosicrucianism. In the process of examining the connection between Rabelais and the Fama, he provides a warning which some in the fraternity today should take seriously to heart.  "Let us look to the gates of Rabelais's "Abbey of Thélème." They bear the words "Here enter not vile bigots."... No narrow-minded, pompous churl, no puffed-up hypocrite — especially of the corrupt church and universities — will ever enter the abbey of "Do what thou wilt." To them, the abbey will always be closed, or nonexistent."

His other works of interest to Freemasons include The Golden Builders, an essay entitled Aleister Crowley and the Yezidis which is included in the volume entitled Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan, and the book which first drew him popular attention, The Gnostics.

If you are serious about Masonic education, take my advice. Give Albert Mackey a pass and read Churton first.


Unknown said...

I am Philippe Bodhuin, WM of Freedom Of Conscience Lodge under the Grand Orient Of France, and based in London.
I read Churton's Freemasonry: the reality. It's a excellent work that helped me discovering the bases of "regular" Freemasonry, and the differences between us (liberal FM), and them. It alson helped me to understand the reasons why the regular consider that being a non-believer should not be accepted in masonry. I do not agree with this position, but i can understand those who think that reason can not explain everything (which is symbolized by the veil in the initiation to Master degree).
Reading Churton can surely help regular Masons to be more tolerant with our kind of Masonry, which accepts all good people, men and women, believers or not, with all different political views, provided that they observe the moral law (More in Kant's conception than in the religious one).
Philippe BODHUIN

E C Ballard ஃ said...

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts with us here, Brother Phillippe. I believe your observations are quite on point, and I agree whole heartedly. I long for the day when the craft lives up to its claim of universality. I believe that Anderson's original remarks about the common religion was in fact quite acceptable, before it came to be amended to become a requirement of a belief in a creator. That of course, was not at all what the earliest texts stated.