Robert Lomas - Few Freemasons will know your name so I wonder if you could begin this interview by telling my Masonic Brethren what contact you have had with Freemasonry during your literary career?.
Jonathan Black - I wasn't very aware of Masonic influences as a child or adolescent. It was only later, after her death, that I discovered that a female cousin of my mother's had been a Mason in Cambridge. I think what first fired my interest was the script of Born in Blood by John J Robinson, sent to me by his literary agent when I was working in London in 1988. I'm sure this book will be familiar to many readers, but it's a great historical detective story, starting with certain odd occurrences in the Peasants' Revolt, led provocatively by a man called Tyler. I also had lunch with the author, a magnificent gentleman in the English style that Americans do so well, and that graciousness, that thoughtfulness has been characteristic of many Masons I have met since. But my great contact with Freemasons came in 1995 when your agent sent me the script for the first book you co-wrote with Christopher Knight, The Hiram Key. It seldom happens to me that I know with complete certainty that a script I have been sent by an unknown author will be a massive bestseller, but The Hiram Key opened up dizzying vistas of speculation on almost the whole of human history, led the reader on a helter-skelter journey through so many historical mysteries and took such extraordinary intellectual risks. I also had the great, informative pleasure of working with you on The Second Messiah, Uriel's Machine and The Book of Hiram, all of which opened up new areas of speculation but also progressively grounded your speculations in documentary evidence and latterly science. Then I also published other books with Freemasonic themes by other authors: The Secret Zodiacs of Washington DC by David Ovason and Why Mrs Blake Cried by Marsha Keith Suchard, which is very interesting on Swedenborg's Masonic connections.
Robert Lomas - Do you have a view on the value and importance of Masonic teaching?
Jonathan Black - Yes, as an interested and admiring outsider it seems to me to be valuable and important on many different levels. I'll mention just two that have been much on my mind recently. I think one of Freemasonry's great contributions to history - perhaps the characteristic British-American contribution - has been that it worked to create a space in which the great questions and mysteries of human existence can be discussed in a tolerant way. It's a paradox of human nature that when we come to the greatest questions - where do we come from? where are we going? what is the meaning of life and the cosmos? - we have only the very smallest specks of evidence to go on, but people tend to behave with complete, murderous certainty and intolerance of alternative views. If we have a tolerant, free-thinking society, in which we can discuss these things with any degree of intellectual honesty and without cutting each others' throats, Freemasonry deserves great credit for this - credit it doesn't usually get.
Second, I think Freemasonry has a historic mission, which ties in with the tolerance I have just mentioned. This mission, as I outline it in The Secret History of the World, has been and remains to help lead society through the period of the greatest materialism, keeping the flame of true spirituality alive in its esoteric traditions, and also by continuing to ask What can we reasonably say on spiritual matters and the great questions of life and death? Freemasonry takes the great lessons of science and materialism and applies them to religion and spirituality. This is a painful, sometimes even dangerous process - and has led to Freemasonry's being branded as atheistic from time to time - but the work needs to be done.
Robert Lomas - What is your personal concept of Supreme Being?
Jonathan Black - Any truly religious or spiritual person must, in my view be an idealist in the sense of believing that Mind came before Matter so that the cosmos can be understood as in some sense ordered and meant. My concept of the Supreme Being is of this pre-existing Cosmic Mind - of which it is very difficult to speak except in terms of His manifestations in the created world.
Robert Lomas - Do you think that the Masonic teachings of WL Wilmshurst, that there is a Divine Spark at the mysterious Centre of your being, is a view which is to be found in other traditions of Initiation which you are aware of?
Jonathan Black - Again, I think all true religious and spiritual traditions hold this to be true. It's the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son. The divine part of us gets lost in the material world, cut off from the Cosmic Mind, but this part will work its way back with qualities it wouldn't otherwise have earned. In my book I really enjoyed trying to point out parallels in different esoteric traditions. If, for example, some Freemasons and Anthroposophists were prompted to consider what they have in common, that would be a wonderful thing!
Robert Lomas - Do you think it is possible to reconcile the emotional appeal of religious belief with the rational logic of science and its interest in the 'hidden mysteries of nature'?
Jonathan Black - Yes, but I think religious belief has a rational logic and that science has an emotional appeal too - not all of it good! I've tried to suggest a perspective in my book in terms of which the traditional enmity between religion and science isn't really a valid tradition at all - but a very recent phenomenon. The emotional appeal of the Dawkins-style militant materialism seems to me to be rather immature - an adolescent glee at nursery certainties overturned.
Robert Lomas - Do you prefer to use the term spirit or soul to describe that essential part of us which calls itself "I". And why do you prefer the description you choose?
Jonathan Black - Actually I've used 'soul' for the life principle - what gives life to matter- 'spirit' for animal consciousness and called the I or Ego characteristic of humans 'the centre of consciousness'. But many writers use these terms in many different senses, and I don't think it matters as long as you're consistent!
Robert Lomas - Do you think that the questions posed by cosmology and quantum reality are completely new or have you found them to have been asked by earlier adepts?
Jonathan Black - It was very gratifying to me when you, a scientist, read my book and said that the esoteric account of the creation of the world given there chimes in with new developments in science. I think this is the most interesting area for research, and hope we will work together on this. I give examples in my book of initiates of earlier ages appearing to know great truths later 'discovered' by modern science. This happens, I think, because different states of consciousness bring with them different ways of knowing. Great truths may appear very different in different states of consciousness yet be the same truths.
Robert Lomas - Do you think Freemasonry is a tradition worth continuing and passing on to the next generation or should it be encouraged to die out?
Jonathan Black - Well, it might be impertinent for me to say, but as an outsider I think it could hardly be more valuable. The great adventure, the great experiment that is Western civilization continues to depend on it and I believe it is no exaggeration to say, would fall part without it.
Robert Lomas - Is there anything you would like to say to encourage young people to join and continue the workings of The Craft?
Jonathan Black - Again, at the risk of being impertinent, I'd say don't be bullied by your elders and betters, the academics who take it upon themselves to decide what it right for us to think and believe. Don't let them tell you that the great questions of life and death are not worth asking. Don't be persuaded to 'just get on with it'. And when the time comes for you to consider these questions... remember that the greatest, richest, most fascinating storehouse of ideas on these subjects lies hidden in esoteric traditions, perhaps nowhere more so than in Freemasonry.
Robert Lomas - What do you think are the most important elements of the Initiatory tradition?
Jonathan Black - The importance of initiation lies in achieving altered states of consciousness in which we can see how the cosmos works in ways denied to our normal, everyday waking consciousness. As well as being useful in the practical sense of answering questions about how things work, such altered states also help us to understand the great, mystical why questions and our role in the history of the cosmos.
Robert Lomas - Does the teaching and practice of Initiation have a future?
Jonathan Black - If it doesn't, neither does society! As I have tried to suggest in my book, initiates have led humanity every step of the way.
Robert Lomas - In a recent Radio Four interview you said there was great interest in the general public in the practice of spirituality and a need to speak out against the intolerant fundamentalist atheism supported by Richard Dawkins. Would you like to comment on why you think this and suggest how you would combine science and spiritually?
Jonathan Black - I'd like to see a genuine debate, in which both sides genuinely and sincerely and in a good-hearted way tried to arrive at the truth. I don't accept that reason is one side and faith is on the other - again, this is a relatively recent idea, and in my view a misunderstanding. Faith must ultimately be reasonable, and reason must be able to see itself as a little island in the great ocean of what we don't know. These issues are much too important for cheap points-scoring and intellectual dishonesty. There's no value in scientists pronouncing on these issues until they've paid their respects to theological tradition, and taken it seriously as an academic discipline. It's too easy to attack' men of straw', to attribute stupid beliefs to people and then knock them down, and it's too easy to mock spiritual practice. These atheists criticize the Church is earlier ages for intolerance, but are just as intolerant themselves. They want to eradicate religion and spirituality from the face of the Earth. This is an area in which we definitely need more of the tolerant spirit of Freemasonry!
Robert Lomas - Jonathan Black, thank you for answering so many questions which I have been honoured to put on behalf of my Brother Freemasons. But one final question. What are you planning to write next?
Jonathan Black - There are two areas I keep coming back to. One is the interface between spirituality and science. Unlike you, I'm not qualified to write about the science, except to say what it looks like through a spiritual lens. But our discussions outside this interview about the coincidence of ancient spirituality and modern science, when it comes to the 'anthropic principle', really did make my hair want to stand up on end. It's a concept I'm interested in studying more deeply. The other main area is to do with direct personal experience. The deep structure of The Secret History of the World is that I try to point out patterns in history which are deeper than economic or narrowly political patterns, and to suggest that they are supernatural in the sense that that they wouldn't be happening if science accounts for everything there is. Then towards the end I invite the reader to compare his or her own personal experience to see if the same patterns are to be found there.
I'd like to take my thoughts a stage further with a book called something like The Mysticism of Everyday Life.
Robert Lomas- Jonathan Black, author of The Secret History of the World. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Freemasonry and spirituality. I'm sure after reading them your name will become far better known among Freemasons and they will be the better for that knowledge.