Among the Intellectualoids

Satan and Man at Harvard

Coming Monday: Devil worship as an educational experience.

By 5.11.14

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Plans for a Satanic black mass Monday evening in Memorial Hall at Harvard University recall conservative icon William Buckley's famous God and Man at Yale, which in 1951 chastised his Ivy League school for abandoning its Christian roots. His critique applied to nearly all of America's most prestigious, historically Protestant academies that shed their church affiliations in favor of a brash secularism. 

What would Buckley, a devout Catholic, say today about a black mass at Harvard, the nation's oldest university and founded by the Puritans to train Calvinist clergy?

The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston expressed its “deep sadness and strong opposition to the plan to stage a 'black mass' on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge.” Certainly Buckley would be sad too but not too surprised. He diagnosed the spiritual and intellectual trajectory over 60 years ago.

A statement from Harvard Extension School carefully explains that “an independent student organization,” the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, will host a “controversial student event involving a historical reenactment of a black mass ceremony that has a narrator providing historical context and background.” 

The school website offers a further statement from the black mass student host group, which will partner for the grim event with the Satanic Temple of New York, whose devotees will presumably provide the seasoned demonic expertise the Harvard students lack:

We are hosting a reenactment of a historical event known as a Black Mass. The performance is designed to be educational and is preceded by a lecture that provides the history, context, and origin of the Black Mass. While a piece of bread is used in the reenactment, the performance unequivocally does not include a consecrated host. 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. This performance is part of a larger effort to explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.

Naturally, the school website insists it does not “endorse the views or activities” of any independent student group but does support the rights of students and faculty to “speak and assemble freely.” It also adds that the black mass hosts additionally are inclusively scheduling a “Shinto tea ceremony, a Shaker exhibition, and a Buddhist presentation on meditation-as part of a student-led effort to explore different cultures.”

Inclusive indeed. Will the Cultural Studies Club re-create an Aztec ritualistic human sacrifice in its expansive exploration of different cultures? Or maybe some sati, burning alive a newly widowed woman in homage to a Hindu goddess? Why not sacrifice children to Moloch to understand ancient Canaanite folkways?

Maybe Harvard inclusivity is not yet ready for full throttle multiculturalism. Baby steps. Meanwhile, the visiting New York Satanists will provide “commentary and historical context.” But in the interest of clarity, Harvard should acknowledge that a black mass affirms nothing positive but is strictly a negation, mocking the Roman Catholic Eucharist. Will Harvard be open to organized, ritualistic mockery of other faiths, such as Islam?

The Boston Archdiocese noted the obvious, that the Church “provides clear teaching concerning Satanic worship,” which “separates people from God and the human community, it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.” It urged black mass participants to “appreciate the gravity of their actions” and urged Harvard to “disassociate itself” from the event. There will also be a special Eucharistic Holy Hour at Saint Paul's Catholic Church during the time of the black mass. Hopefully its prayers will be earnest and effectual.

Maybe and even likely the black mass “cultural” event is organized by young naïfs, perhaps thinking themselves cheeky, and anxious for publicity. Meanwhile ostensibly more mature school administrators are too morally and spiritually emasculated to make any judgments outside the parameters of ultra political correctness.

The New York Satanists coming to Harvard insist they are not supernatural and think the Devil is merely a “cultural symbol for the revolt against the general idea of arbitrary authority” and a “construct that can act as a narrative for our works and goals.” How very postmodern.

Buckley's 1951 polemic against Ivy League contempt for Christianity was in an era when secularizing schools deified their notions of science and reason. All truth claims are now passé, and places like Harvard lack moral or intellectual tools even for critique of Satanism. 

It's tempting to cite that Harvard's current president is named “Faust,” herself non-religious and no doubt unaware of any bargains with dark forces. Maybe Harvard will eventually rediscover that man is not just material but also spiritual and moral, that terms like God and Satan are more than just “narrative” and have crucial consequences.

The Harvard graduate and teacher James Russell Lowell wrote words to a hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” that may apply to Harvard's current Satanic moment: 

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

 UPDATE

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.