“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 consecrated Host for the ritual desecration that was retrieved at a legitimate Catholic Mass.
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). Later, 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.” A still-later statement repeated the peaceful intent, albeit in the midst of a blither of revisionist history and boilerplate insults calling Catholic objections “closed-minded” and “based on intolerance and ignorance”. (See Thomas L. McDonald’s post in God and the Machine for an acerbic yet accurate outline of the relevant history.)
But Doug Mesner, aka “Lucien Greaves”, supposedly the head of The Satanic Temple, didn’t seem to be reading the same script. According to Kaitlyn Schallhorn of Campus Reform, Mesner asserted that the HECSC Black Mass “[would have] mock[ed] rituals of other mainstream religious rituals [sic]”, so Catholics wouldn’t be the only ones dissed. On the question of the consecrated host, Mesner was 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 pointed out, implied that Catholics could call their host consecrated.
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 faith away from anyone who hadn’t already lost it, or who never had it to begin with?
Harvard’s president, Dr. Drew Faust — yes, you read that right: Doctor Faust — was no help. Although she called the event “flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory,” and the club’s decision to hold it “abhorrent”, the ceremony would be permitted due to the university’s “commitment to free expression”. So much for the university’s motto, Veritas: free expression, no longer oriented to truth, is now an end in itself.
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 to worship a Satan “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 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, religions tell supernatural tales precisely because their participants believe in a cosmos that transcends and guides mere nature. 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 give you power over its meaning. 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. 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). Worse, his human followers are little more than greedy, credulous tools whom Satan uses, misleads and eventually destroys. 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.
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.” Religion, inter alia, is Man’s recognition that he isn’t in complete control of his life or destiny, that there are things beyond him to which he owes not just submission but honor. In this sense, Satan needs not exist in order to lead us into damnation.
But I wouldn’t bet that he doesn’t.
© 2014. Anthony S. Layne. All rights reserved.
Photography: See our Photographers page.