Religion without Dogma

To lay claim to a family lineage is a challenging task to undertake when most of your genealogical forbearers have already left this life. Even harder when before their departure these forbearers left little in the way of good genealogical information for further chroniclers to construct a matrix of origin. Given my last name, Stewart, I like to entertain the fantasy of a lineage back to the Scottish line of Stewarts (Steward) Kings of Scotland who at a point of critical Scottish history, served as guardians of the storied kingdom. But, lineage is composed of two sets of genes, of both my father’s line of the Stewart name, and my mother’s maiden name and family line of the English Hill’s. The line was equally storied, so she remembers the telling, but in the opposite of regality as the “low cast of gamblers and bookies” of the English underworld. Truly, little is known about this vein of my bloodline, besides half remembered stories passed down to her from dysfunctional parents who abandoned her to a Methodist home for children at the very young and formative age of four. It was that action that has probably meant the most to my religious underpinnings and yet the most formative in my own quest of spiritual discovery. This is the short story of what and where I have come from and where I have found myself to exist today in the great melting pot of the American religious landscape.

tartan, stewart, cloth, kilt
Stewart clan tartan of Scotland.

According to most records of the Stewart line, the name can be traced back to a date somewhere in the 1000s where it came on the scene as a name associated with nobility in the courts of Scotland. The lineage is said to of come Flaald fitz Flaald, Seneschal de Dol en Bretagne, which gave rise to the House of Stewart following the Norman conquests and in time with the movement of King David I of Scotland. Through several children and successions, the role of Scottish Monarch was assumed through the title of High Steward, or caretaker, of Scotland. It was through the wars of Scottish Independence that Walter Stewart married Marjorie Bruce, Robert the Bruce’s daughter that the House of Stewart arrived on the scene.

Following the Bruce’s story is an entertaining one, especially if you are a fan of the film Braveheart, but the migrations of the Stewart line from Scotland wasn’t so glamorous, at least in such a cinematic way. Early in the founding of the American Colonies, several groups and families with the name Stewart arrived in pre Revolutionary colonial America, none of which I have any direct knowledge of leading up to my now deceased father. So, unfortunately my trail here is cold. One interesting fact of discovery that whom ever it was that came to the U.S. came at the right time, at least according to Stephen Millet, who noted in his book The Scottish Settlers of America, that prior to the War of Independence, America was the principal choice of Scottish Immigration. Following the war, the “chief target became Canada” as it would seem the then Scottish Stewarts preferred monarchy.[1] Still, the Stewart line has been a predominantly Christian lineage with feet in both Catholicism and Protestantism in the age of Empire. As interesting as all of this history is, as this is my fathers line of ancestry it far outshines his association or affiliation of my faith, even up and until the point of his passing in 2008. My best guess is that he was an atheist, but I don’t think it was ever anything he gave thought about, short of the frequent use of the term “Goddamn it,” and that was about as religious as I ever knew him to be.

On the other side of the genes are the Hills’, whom my mother has assured me are a family of “rascals, bookmakers, and distillers” by trade and “generally crooks from England.”[2] I can only imagine how impressed she was when she was young with the stories that she was told. Her recollections, sadly, are minimal at best and have only a modicum of weight in that she was cut off from her familial genealogy at the age of four when her over burdened and impoverished parents put my mother and three siblings into an orphanage in Richmond, Virginia, run by the Methodist church. What she remembers and has communicated to me was that she was born in Richmond in 1947 to parents from the South. Sam Hill, her father, was from Shreveport Louisiana, and he mother, Mary Elizabeth, from Richmond. There at the home of my mother spent the next 14 years being raised in the sterile institutional living of 1950s Virginia. Because of the nature of her upbringing she had very little contact with her birth family (whom she would find some 40 years later) and consequently no real biological composition of history or religion. Instead, she had the Methodist church. What they gave her were the weekly church services, holiday and summer visits with local church families, and the other girls and boys of the Home. I suppose I should qualify it being called Home by saying that was how my mother thought of it despite the hardships that lead her to live there. It was the Home, but it was also her home, the orphanage run by the Methodists.

Methodist church logo, flame and cross
Methodist Church

I mention the Methodist aspect of the orphanage no in so much that the teachings were instilled with such great value or in such a way that my mother became an ardent suporter of the later Episcopalian Methodist unification into the United Methodist Church. No, the influence of Methodism, the home, came up several years later in a time of her own personal crisis. Suffice to say that Methodism in an invisible way was every bit woven into my mother, right down to her very core.

Founded in England under John Wesley, the Methodist Church was an offshoot of the Church of England. Its first organized meeting in the United States took place n Baltimore Maryland in 1784. Given its place in time, it was very well suited to grow with the new country in both practice and purpose. At the practice comes the Book of Discipline, which sounds like nefarious codex of sadism, but rather is their book of Method – what they believe, what they do, and how they operate. Also, at its heart is their Social Creed which has allowed Methodism to retain its prominent position as a mainline protestant evangelical church. A 2010 Pew Research study found that 5.1% of church going adults attend a United Methodist Church.[3] Its creed is one of the few active positions taken by a church on social justice, taking on such issues as the rights of men, women, children, workers, dignity, and the general improvement of the quality of life. The Methodist Social Creed goes so far as to say “we dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice, and law among nations, and to individual freedoms for all people of the world.”[4] Often said about Methodism is that they are the most open of the protestant churches to how the participant comes to his own understanding of his faith.

On her 18th birthday my mother, Evelyn Hill, left the Methodist Home in Virginia to live with her sister in the quaint hills of Hollywood. In fact, she was behind scholastically and finished her last year of High School at Hollywood High. Without a doubt she was a fish out of water in a 1966 Southern California. Over the next few years she married, gave birth to her first and only son, and never once thought of going back to the church. Then, in 1974, every parents worst nightmare happened. After fighting a nagging flu and a few dull and listless adolescent days of being sick, I came down with a potentially fatal case of Spinal Meningitis which placed me in the hospital for several months and evoked an oath from my mother that, should I survive, she would live the pious life and go back to church with me in tow.

As you can probably imagine, I got better and we went to church. And, as you can probably imagine, we went to a Methodist church.

For a while at least which gave me my first taste of boring, bland vanilla church with an idea of Social Justice, which at the time I have very little functional understanding of. In that time I played the part of Moses in a church play, attended a harvest festival which masqueraded as a Halloween party, and between post service cookies, have memories of my mother and I skulking in to service late to empty pews in the back of the large church to listen to a guy in the front talk and then sing a few songs. Perhaps I forgot to mention, Methodists are “a singing people.” John Wesley’s directions for singing are found in the front of most Methodist hymnals saying in one of his seven directions “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.” Besides a few photographs and super 8 films, I have very little memory of the time. At some point I grew up, my mother and father got divorced, and we stopped going to church. The irony in this was that for the next nine years of my scholastic education, from kindergarten to ninth grade, I was sent to a Baptist elementary school which ensured the continuation of my religious education.

Christianity had come along way in the world up until the 20th Century, but with the advent of the Radical Moral Majority and the leadership of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Southern Baptist Christian Conservatism took on a new name. This is not to mean that my school was in any way a Southern California bastion of the Southern Baptist faith, but in the age when corporal punishment was not frowned upon, my school was sure to not spoil the child for the rod. For my formative years of education I was given a healthy dose of bible knowledge and Christian guilt that would shame event he Pope had he sat in any of my classes. I joke to a certain degree but regularly we, me and my cohorts, were made to memorize bible verses, taught the necessity to ask for salvation regularly, and the state of constant sin we lived in. All of this was drawn against a good dose of corporal punishment when the recipient fell out of the behavioral expectation, typically which meant swats for talking in class.

At the conclusion of this nine year experience, I exited Van Nuys First Baptist Day School in Van Nuys hating God. Sure, the punk rock music, public school, and teenage drug use fueled some of this, but I was in a place that took nearly 10 years to leave before I willingly darkened a church door, and only then in an effort to shore up a failing marriage with two very young sons to be the good example for. In those later years I was privileged to watch first hand an inner city prosperity minister preach from the pulpit on how he needed a new Rolls Royce (financed by the offering plates) and later to sit in an evangelicals preachers office and guilty told how it was my fault that my terrible marriage ended and that I needed to get back into Christ’s Grace. At the conclusion of this period of re-discovery of the church, I again was reminded of why I hated God, or at least the churches he set before me. Nagging at me the whole time was a need for something spiritually nourishing and a way to connect with deity and after 10 more years I found it in a most unexpected place.

At some point in 1995, I was introduced to a fraternal society that many mistakenly consider a “secret society.” In that year I became a Freemason which is a post collegiate male fraternity populated with seemingly like minded men whose mutual fraternal interest is in charity and social well being under the guiding principals brotherly love, relief, and truth. As I have come to discover the fraternity it is a much older society than it draws present day lineage from, believed to be 1717. At its furthest roots, Freemasonry traces its roots through several currents of Western Europe including Rosicrucian’s, Renaissance Neo-Platonism, Jewish Kabbalah, and Christian Mysticism. In my own study I have come to the conclusions that most likely its ceremonies and philosophical practices were founded on the ideas of Hermeticism and the texts attributed today to the philosophy of Hermes Trismegistus, itself a form of “Arab Hermeticism,” bound together, in part, in the works of the Hermetica.

Because most of this study has been lost or excised from mainstream occidental religious practice, much of its history or study has been lost to time. From what remains through, it is conceivable and possible to find links in places thought to be spiritual dead-ends or anomalies in time, especially over the course of the last 600 years. Some interesting places that these conclusions can be traced are in the works of Tobias Churton, Faculty Lecturer of Western Esotericism, at Exeter University, who suggests that the ideas of Masonry can be dated to much earlier times through the Islamic Sabine’s and Sufi’s.[6] More recent connections come through the pre-renaissance house of the Medici in the Hermetic translations of Mirandola which were absorbed into European study in time with the Kabbalah giving way to a form of Christian mysticism which was thought to be precursor prophecy to the Christ before the church re-dated the origins and removed all traces of the fork from its teachings in 1614.

Another vein of Freemasonry is Gnosticism as it evolved through the Roman era before the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. Without delving to deeply into the teachings, at the heart of Masonry is the idea of wisdom (Gnosis) as the symbol of enlightenment. Because Freemasonry has existed for such a long time as a fraternal society, much of these esoteric practices have been forgotten or edited down over time, and only when you piece origins and sources together can you discuss its possible beginning. One example in the practice is the inclusion of the three Masonic graces, Faith, Hope, and Charity. They have certain allegorical symbolism within the system, but it is when you delve into the origins of the three that you find greater symbolic significance through the graces mother Sophia, who in herself is an early Roman church Saint. It is when you begin to look at origins that the relationships of the four take on their Masonic illumination as the agents of wisdom. It was in this process of discovery that I began to evolve a theology that has, for me, become a means of spiritual practice. It is from this study that I have been able to reconnect and find for myself a renewed interest in spirituality.

At first this interest was hard to solidify and I found myself wandering through several faiths traditions and churches. I have spent time in Pentecostal, Catholic, and several protestant churches as well as some less mainstream Pagan and Unitarian Universalist temples of worship. Throughout I found that in about every instance they held some appeal, but were so calcified in their doctrines (dogma) that even in their liberalness of faith they were still dogmatic. In each and every instance I found myself back at the footing of Freemasonry and its hermetic principals and that throughout they resonated with me as my belief system.

ordo structor, Gregory Stewart, logo, mason mark
Ordo Structor

Out of this study I have participated in a number of ways in its practice. Personally, I have consumed hundreds of books and works on the subject and in turn written several of my own. I have published a website that has in a sense tried to broaden the understanding of the philosophy/religion and innovated on aspects that I have found lacking. At the furthest end of the spectrum, I have created works of art that have been embraced by many in the community as legitimate instruments of teaching the tradition. It has become, in effect, a personal religion to me and every part a practice in my life – even in the adornment of my body as a tattoo. Without a doubt this practice has allowed the spiritual cloud of my youth to be removed and given me a means to reconnect with the idea of deity. Through this I have self labeled myself as a transpolytheist for the reason that as Freemasonry is accepting of all religions then so too must all be of equal footing. One of the greatest subtexts of Masonic teaching comes from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, a mysterious text from antiquity. On it is the aphorism of the philosophy “As Above, So Below – As Below, So Above.” It is in that world special view that I find my deepest resonance and understanding and the link of Freemasonry to the religions of antiquity.

Perhaps my conclusions on faith are because of my lack of lineal pedigree. Because there was so little in the way of genealogical religious history was free to explore and find for myself an ancestral connection within my heritage in the Christian Mysticism that so distinctly came out of the occidental Europe. I can neither ascribe it to the Scottish blood nor English of my mother or father yet still in embracing my beliefs I can trace it into both heritages. Or, perhaps it was in the vacuum of my unguided religious upbringing first at my mother’s church or through my formative years at a Baptist school that shaped understanding that I found a belief but not the doctrine of dogma that needed to encode it properly into those systems. Somewhere in that a dogmatic milieu and ideology found in Freemasonry with its Hermetic under pinning, gave it structure to take shape succinctly in a occidental view of the Kabbalah and Christian heresy. I am what I am and see that in the above as it is below and that my truth is as unique and meaningful as any other. I know myself, which is probably the best possible knowledge one could hope for.


[1] Millett, Stephen M. The Scottish Settlers of America: the 17th and 18th Centuries. [S.l.]: Clearfield, 1998. Print. p. 207
[2] Evelyn Stewart. Personal interview. September 19, 2011
[3]”Church Statistics and Religious Affiliations – U.S. Religious Landscape Study – Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.” Religion in American Culture — Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Web. 22 Sept. 2011. <http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations>.
[4] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2008. Nashville, TN: United Methodist Pub. House, 2008. Print.
[5]Alfonso-Goldfarb, Ana Maria, and Safa Abou Chahla Jubran. “Listening to the Whispers of Matter Through Arabic Hermeticism: New Studies on the Book of the Treasure of Alexander.” Ambix 55.2 (2008): 99-121. Print.
[6] Churton, Tobias. The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons. Boston, MA: Weiser, 2005. Print.