Bonfire of the Profanities

This week, dear reader, I am happy to welcome back Ben Dyer to our humble blog. Ben is a good friend and graduate of Talbot School of Theology. Ben has written a reply to my last post. Ben takes me to task, so to speak, for missing the import of the black mass and other blatant forms of blasphemy.  In last week’s Crux, I made some strong claims about how the Church as a prophetic minority should handle the climate of social tyranny. I also said that I thought the Catholics at Harvard handled the black mass thing wrong. Here’s what I said:

There are so many things the Christians at Harvard could have done rather than simply tolerate or turn a blind eye, and none of them would have been seen as majority religion using its influence to stomp on a gathering. But for many, that is a nuance too far. And that is a shame.

Turns out that the diocese did do something positive:

According to organizers, the Holy Hour was scheduled in direct response to the planned Satanic Black Mass, and was a success. “The procession which passed MIT and Central Square was a sight to behold. People were coming out of restaurants—some kneeling on the sidewalks, others blessing themselves, and some just staring in bewilderment,” said Fr. David Barnes, director of the Catholic Center at Boston University and the Catholic Campus Minister, who attended the event.

Not quite the engagement I was speaking of but a far cry better showing then this priest’s debate on MSNBC between a member of the Satanic Temple and a Harvard prof. So without further ado here’s Ben’s reply:

Liberalism classic and modern has been rather iconoclastic. I mean that literally. Iconoclasm is a term coined to describe the breaking of religious images—icons—in the 8th century Byzantine Empire, and what it has come to mean more generally is the concept of tearing down a venerated or sacred object. Students of history might think this a strange accusation against Liberalism. After all, liberalism’s modern origins in the 17th century enshrined the right to worship according to one’s conscience.

But from the beginning, liberalism’s critics have more often come from the right than the left because liberalism also enshrines the right not to worship, and the right to criticize those who do. Skeptics, radicals, and social critics have found the same shelter in liberalism as religious minorities. From that shelter, Voltaire published Candide, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, and Richard Dawkins published several works that have nothing to do with his training in biochemistry.

So, what then do we do with Harvard’s Black Mass? I’ll refer you to Jonathan Miles’s recent post for a  careful review of the issue. The short version is that the Church of Satan and a Harvard student club decided to reenact a “Black Mass” on Harvard’s grounds, but they voluntarily withdrew and ended up cancelling the event after pressure from local Catholic groups stirred up Harvard’s administration and the local community against it. Though Jonathan sees the church’s campaign against the event to be a lost opportunity to enter nuanced dialogue with the event’s organizers and participants, I think he’s missed something here.

What’s missing is the thing that happens when you tear down something venerated or sacred. Beyond merely expressing an opinion about it, you profane the sacred. Profanity typically brings to mind blue language, but that’s because its literal meaning is largely lost in a culture which finds little (if anything) actually sacred. To profane a sacred object is to treat it with a special kind of irreverence. A friend of mine once described it this way: if you eat pork around your Jewish friends, you haven’t profaned the Jewish religion. If you barbeque a pig on the altar of the Jewish Temple in ancient Israel, then you most certainly have.

Jonathan points out that the Harvard student club’s Black Mass wasn’t cancelled because rights anyone’s rights were violated, and that’s important. The question here is not about whether anyone should be banned from conducting such events on their own premises, advertising them in spaces they purchased, and so on. What matters here is the response, and Jonathan concludes that the local Catholics exercised a morally objectionable exercise of social tyranny because they were too thin-skinned to enter into a potentially valuable dialogue.

But is that the right response to people who intend to profane the elements of someone’s religion? Religious convictions of any kind are among the most deeply valued elements of someone’s identity, and I think this is why Jonathan confesses uneasiness with the Black Mass in spite of what some may view as liberal (more precisely, libertarian) tendencies. Although he attributes that uneasiness to his belief in a real arch-fiend, I wonder if it’s also the case that he feels the intuitive distinction between simple disrespect and clear-eyed, intentional sacrilege? The Satanists certainly do. That’s why the rite is called a “Black Mass” and involves the ritual repudiation and destruction of a consecrated host.

The right response is the one that’s consistent with the repugnance we feel in our souls, and it’s not tolerance. Tolerance is a political value that requires us to respect others’ rights, but it does not require us to withhold judgment about or abet an act of sacrilege. This was arguably the basis for Jesus’ turning the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:15), and even modern liberal observers understand profanity’s substantive cost to civic culture. Elizabeth Stoker recently wrote on Salon that:

It is advantageous for some institutions, such as the state, to retain a neutral attitude toward religions for particular purposes, such as constitutional treatment and so forth. But that attitude of neutrality hardly necessitates an overall social attitude of neutrality, and the fact remains that whether or not groups like the [student club] want to contend with it or not, religions are and will continue to be in conflict, and it is impossible to deal with those conflicts with nothing but procedural norms.

Is there some countervailing value that would have justified moral restraint on the part of Boston’s Catholic community? With Stoker, I am at a loss to see what it is. There are many ways to express the individualism and rejection of arbitrary authority that the Satanists said their event was intended to emphasize, but as Stoker puts it, “if a metric existed for selecting Satanism in particular, it was never provided.”

So here then is the most nuanced response I can provide my friend Jonathan. Our political culture recognizes a number of individual rights that protect our freedom to speak and to worship as we see fit. In addition to recognizing those rights, we also do right when we give people of good will a hearing in the public discourse that shapes our culture. However, when others intentionally profane what we hold most dear, we may not scourge them as Jesus did the money-changers, but we lack judgment (and possibly culpably as well) if we regard them as Jesus did the tax collectors and prostitutes. We should always be ready to engage and embrace the socially marginalized, but Jesus never asked us to reward blasphemy with warmth or to be complicit in the destruction of what he has called sacred.

 


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