Friday, May 9, 2014

Dancing with the Devil—UPDATED

Satanic Temple's proposed statue of Satan ... which is actually
based on a picture of Baphomet, which is probably a 12th-
century corruption of Mohammed. So much for research.
This post was rewritten for length and republished in Catholic Stand on May 15, 2014, at the request of my editor, Diane McKelva.

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The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist.
—Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

In today’s academic milieu, you should expect that a Black Mass performed by a group calling itself “The Satanic Temple” under the auspices of an Ivy League university to be a bold, daring exercise in transgressing boundaries, right? Especially if the celebrants use a Host consecrated at a legitimate Catholic Mass for ritual desecration.

Well, not so much. For one thing, a spokesperson for the Temple, Priya Dua, officially denied the use of a real Host (after initially confirming it) in a conversation with Elizabeth Scalia (The Anchoress). Ms. Scalia also quotes an anonymous spokesperson, who told her, “Please understand, there is in fact, respect for the beliefs of others, and our intention was not to be in anyone’s face. We did not mean to mislead.” And Boston Magazine says the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club released a statement that read in part, “Our purpose is not to denigrate any religion or faith, which would be repugnant to our educational purposes, but instead to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.”

But Doug Mesner, aka “Lucien Greaves”, supposedly the head of The Satanic Temple, doesn’t seem to be reading the same script. According to Kaitlyn Schallhorn of Campus Reform, Mesner asserted that the HECSC Black Mass “will mock rituals of other mainstream religious rituals [sic]”, so Catholics aren’t the only ones being dissed. On the question of the consecrated host, Mesner is suspiciously coy, telling The Anchoress that he doubted anyone would “waste time going to all that trouble” to get one (really? Only falling off a log would be less trouble), but telling Schallhorn “he couldn’t call it a ‘consecrated host’ as Catholics do” … which, The Anchoress points out, implies that Catholics could call their host consecrated.

In any event, to say that a Black Mass isn’t intended to denigrate any religion or faith is either dishonest or just plain silly. How could you get more disrespectful than a Black Mass, which is by its very nature a parody of the Catholic Mass? Mockery and respect are mutually exclusive; at best, satire, by acknowledging its target group consequential enough to “need” ridicule, pays it a backhanded compliment. For an institution whose motto is Veritas — “Truth” — to trot out this line is additional evidence that Harvard has lost its orientation.

Adding to the confusion is the nature of the Temple’s identity … or, rather, what Mesner says is the Temple’s identity. On the one hand, Mesner claims that “Satan is a literary construct inspired by authors such as Anatole France and Milton—a rebel angel defiant of autocratic structure and concerned with the material world.” On the other, Mesner’s Satanism is “a rejection of superstitious supernaturalism;” just as there is no difference to him between consecrated bread and unconsecrated, “the word Satan has no inherent value”. When Shane Bugbee of Vice, a friend of Mesner’s and a self-styled “proponent of alternative thought”, asked him whether the Temple was “a satanic, or a satirical group”, Mesner replied, “I say why can’t it be both?”

It is our goal to separate religion from superstition. Religion can and should be a metaphorical narrative construct by which we give meaning and direction to our lives and works. Our religions should not require of us that we submit ourselves to unreason and untenable supernatural beliefs based on literal interpretations of fanciful tales [bold type mine.—ASL]. Non-believers have just as much right to religion—and any exemptions and privileges being part of a religion brings—as anybody else.

For all his erudition and pleasantness, Mesner’s atheism is little more than garden-variety neo-positivism, which is to say his religious education is a mile wide and an inch deep. He’s grasped that religion does serve a positive purpose, but he doesn’t really get why or how it works.

Religion begins in symbols which communicate a view of the universe, encoded in stories which are shared by a community, and which form the basis for ritual and doctrine. Cosmos precedes mythos, in both time and causality. Put differently, belief in gods (or God) precedes the creation of stories about them (Him). Many religions don’t have “scriptures” in the Judeo-Christian sense; the importance of the tales they tell about the gods is not in their historicity (or lack thereof) but what they reveal about the believers’ perception of the universe and Man’s role in it. A mission statement and a set of somewhat ambiguous general tenets are no substitute for a cosmos and a mythos to articulate it.

Because symbols refer back to an overarching reality, they can’t be both meaningless and metaphors. By definition, a metaphor has at least one deeper meaning underneath the literal surface; symbols work by reaching past our conscious minds to plant that deeper meaning in our imaginations. The imagination is where models and hypotheses begin their formation; it’s where we design solutions to problems and answers to questions. A symbol can do none of this if it has no meaning.

Not believing in a symbol doesn’t mean you get to control what it means. Mesner wants Satan to be “a rebel angel defiant of autocratic structure and concerned with the material world”. Within the Judeo-Christian cosmos, however, Satan’s rebellion is doomed to defeat. Milton may have him cry, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven;” but in Dante’s Hell, his dominion consists of an icy, powerless isolation. Satan isn’t simply a symbol of evil but of the futility of evil, of self-assertion, and of rebellion against God. One could perhaps try to claim for Satan some kind of “moral victory”, but such an allegation would only highlight how barren and hollow such “moral victories” are.

This makes Satan an unfortunate choice for Mesner’s satirical purpose. To successfully mock believers, Satan must have a believer’s meaning; yet to Jews and Christians, Satan is a loser, the prime example of how pride leads to humiliation (cf. Proverbs 16:18). Even if you don’t believe he really exists, it’s folly to lionize him as some kind of anti-hero, or to ascribe to him some nobility of purpose. Worse, his human followers are little more than greedy, credulous tools whom Satan uses, misleads and eventually destroys.

That’s the great danger of parody: If you really don’t know what you’re sending up, the only foolishness you illustrate is your own. The line between smartass and dumbass is very thin and easily crossed.

Mesner et al. don’t strike me as modern-day Fausts so much as so many Sorcerer’s Apprentices, messing around with things they don’t understand in the arrogant presumption that they know all they need to. As Tom McDonald put it, “they may not believe in Satan, but Satan believes in them, and he knows Useful Idiots when he sees them.” Whatever else the students of Harvard Extension get out of the Black Mass, one thing they won’t get is veritas.

Satirist Peter De Vries said of the power of religion, “It is final proof of God’s omnipotence that He need not exist in order to save us.” Likewise, Satan doesn’t need to exist to corrupt one’s soul.

But I wouldn't want to bet that he doesn't.

Update: May 10, 2014, 12:13 AM CDT
Oh, this just gets better and better: the propaganda factory is in full swing. From the Catholic News Agency:

Satanic mass organizers: Catholic outcry paranoid, intolerant

.- A Harvard student group organizing a re-enactment of a satanic black mass on campus has dismissed Catholic critics, calling their views arrogant and their objections ignorant and intolerant.
“Satanists have a ritual that they perform for their own affirmative reasons,” the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club told CNA May 8, adding that these reasons “currently have absolutely nothing to do with Catholicism beyond the symbols themselves.”
“Offense is anachronistic and based on intolerance and ignorance about the practice (of) Satanism.” ...
The group said objections that have been raised to event are “closed-minded,” arguing that it is “paranoia” to think the satanic rituals and practices are designed to degrade the Catholic faith. ...
“The Black Mass began as a propagandistic literary device to justify brutal purges against alleged witches. This conspiracy of witches, or Satanists, has never actually existed,” the group asserted. “The idea originated with the Church itself and has become a staple of the mythology concerning Satanism. The Black Mass has been adopted as a symbolic revolt against arbitrary authority, not a focused assault upon Catholic faith.”
The group acknowledged that the black mass is “inspired by, or derivative of” the Catholic Mass, but insisted that it is not intended as a mocking or “hateful display.” Rather, it said, the satanic black mass is “an affirmation of a set beliefs whose intent is not to marginalize anyone, nor incite violence, nor intimidate others.” ...

There’s more, but this will do. To call HECSC’s version of the Black Mass' history “revisionist” is merely to avoid a more pungent barnyard reference; it’s based on little more than Satanists’ say-so. For a thumbnail sketch of the history of Satanism, I refer you back to Tom McDonald’s scathing post in God and the Machine; while Tom doesn’t spare a drip of acid, I assure you it’s as accurate as it is vitriolic. For the rest of the statement, it’s a blither of name-calling and self-contradiction such as could have been barfed up by any buzzword generator with a progressivist bent.

Score another one for the Father of Lies. Harvard might as well change its motto to Quid est veritas? For that is what Pilate bitterly asked Jesus before he handed him over to be crucified:

“What is truth?” (John 18:38)

Update: May 13, 2014 @ 12:21 PM CDT
According to CNA, the Black Mass has been “postponed indefinitely”. Which of course means they won’t try again this semester ... and probably not until they’re sure they can proceed with stronger backing and/or less opposition.

Originally, the black mass re-enactment was to take place on campus, at a pub in the basement of Memorial Hall. The Harvard Crimson reported late on the afternoon of May 12 that the event had voluntarily been moved to The Middle East nightclub, a short distance from campus. However, shortly afterward, the general manager of the nightclub told the publication that negotiations had fallen through and the event would not be hosted there.

In the midst of the outrage comes one more piece of ironic absurdity:

Harvard senior Aurora Griffin told CNA that she presented university president Drew Faust with petitions against the event that had garnered more than 60,000 signatures.
In her cover letter, Griffin explained that the event does not promote an appreciation for cultural understanding, but instead ”promotes contempt for the Catholic faith,” adding that “supporters of genuine tolerance and  civility are rightly offended and outraged that Harvard has permitted such an event.”
Dr. Faust [yes, you read that right — Dr. Drew Faust] had released a statement May 12 condemning the event as “flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory,” and the club’s decision to hold it as “abhorrent.” However, she stated that the ceremony would be allowed to continue due to the university’s “commitment to free expression.”
Faust had said that as a sign of respect, she would attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour being held by the Catholic community at Harvard in response to the black mass.

Doctor Faust, scholar, president of Harvard University. I'm dying here.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The free exchange of ideas is not an end in itself. Rather, the principle exists to serve the university’s orientation towards truth — veritas, remember? — by generating hypotheses, constructing explanatory models, and especially correcting error.

The problem isn’t simply that Harvard Extension was going to host an event both obscene and insulting to Catholics. Rather, the event was justified on a false historical narrative, and was to be performed precisely to offend Christian sensibilities, on the transparently disingenuous grounds that it would get Christians to “reevaluate what they think they know, redefine arbitrary labels, and judge people for their concrete actions”. Is there any evidence that mockery has reversed the thinking of a mind secure in its previous convictions? That it has taken away faith from anyone who hadn't already lost it or who never had it to begin with?

And so the controversy ends ... like the hollow men, not with a bang but a whimper.