Doing Interfaith Better: A Reflection on the Harvard “Black Mass” and Its Aftermath

Interfaith work means a great deal to me, as it does to many folks. Engaging in interfaith work, to me, means being inspired by my religious tradition to work with others of different belief/nonbelief systems in engaging with our shared values to reach a common goal.  It’s not easy to do, under the best of circumstances.  Learning to cultivate humility, openness, and tolerance–necessary qualities to do interfaith work well–are processes that I expect to be engaging with for my entire life.  However, that’s one of the reasons I love doing interfaith work so much–it keeps challenging and pushing me to do better, so we all can do and be better as a community.

This past spring, I was thrown into a bit of a different circumstance regarding interfaith work.  I received an email in the middle of finals week stating that a cultural club based through the Harvard Extension School was going to be hosting a Satanic Black Mass.  Further investigation during the day led to our finding out that this Black Mass was going to be preceded by a lecture on freedom of religion, and that the ceremony would not be using a consecrated host.

So, what’s the big deal about the Satanic Mass to begin with for Catholic folks like me?  The extremely short and broad version is that the Satanic Mass uses Christian (and particularly Catholic) imagery and symbolism through inverting it.  Some may go so far as to call it a form of parody.  One of the most controversial aspects of the Black Mass is the desecration of a consecrated host–a piece of Eucharistic bread that has been blessed by a priest and has been transubstantiated into the literal Body of Christ, according to Catholic Eucharistic theology.

When news started pouring in about the Black Mass and folks were debating what we, as Catholics, should do, I was extremely reluctant, if not downright opposed, to speaking about my views on the matter.  Frankly, I’m still not wild about it, because when all of this was hitting the fan, all I could think about was a friend of mine.

My friend identifies as a Spiritual Satanist, and, to my mind, she’s the only one at Harvard Divinity School who does so.  She is very open about her faith, and I’ve gotten into some of the most profound and wonderful conversations about theology, philosophy, justice, and ethics with her over tea and Twizzlers. Sometimes we talk about our respective faith traditions, and I have learned more about Satanism from her in five minutes than I have in my entire life.  Most of the time, though, we complain about writing papers for classes together, and keep each other motivated through 4-hour stretches of lectures.  We hang out on Friday nights, when our schedule allows.  In short, to drive this point home, she is my friend and I care about her.  No matter how conflicted I was about any Black Mass happenings, I knew that she was going to be going through so much worse.

Ultimately, the only thing I had in my head during that time was that Satanism is a belief system that people truly find to be fulfilling.  With all of the media hoopla and knee-jerk reactions on the part of some folks, she was literally being put in a position where people were actively, blatantly, and openly discriminating against her as a result of her faith.  This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t any micro-aggressions toward her faith when there isn’t a media spectacle happening, but that’s not the point.  Although the Black Mass put me in a tough spot regarding my faith, it put her into an incredibly worse one.  No one was giving me sidelong glances or insulting my choice of beliefs.

Keeping my mouth shut may have kept me from contributing to this problem, but it also kept me from contributing to any solution.  By doing nothing, I did…well, nothing.  I didn’t help my fellow Catholics or my friend.  The media coverage over the event grew until it made the national news, and Harvard ended up canceling the Black Mass.  It was moved to a local Chinese restaurant.  Finals continued.  The semester ended.  There was no real chance for engaged dialogue on any side.  In short, I did interfaith work badly–abominably, even–because I refused to engage either side.

This may well have been the very end of all this, were it not for two happenings: 1) the recent Oklahoma City Black Mass, which was canceled, that referenced Harvard’s handling of the situation, and 2) a discussion hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions, examining what exactly happened with this.  This discussion was moderated by a Catholic priest, who also runs the CSWR, and representatives from the cultural club who wanted to host the Black Mass, representatives from the Satanic Temple, and various other folks who were involved reportedly attended.

I was unable to attend myself due to a prior commitment, but I was able to talk to the director of the CSWR, who wanted to have the event in the first place, before the event happened.  By all accounts, it was an open space for all to process and express their understandings of what transpired, and work toward a better understanding of Satanism’s relationship with Christianity, which is how he imagined it in our brief conversation.  There was also some talk about doing research in the history of Satanism–where it came from, what it looks like today, and how to engage it.

It’s not my place to judge the validity or the morality of what happened last spring, and ultimately, my opinions on it are irrelevant, at best.  However, I do feel comfortable saying that, had this been an encounter with any other religious/nonreligious tradition, its engagement would have been radically different.  I can’t offer prescriptive advice here, but I am grateful for the opportunity to continue working on this, and learning to do interfaith work better, regardless of my lack of comfort.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “Doing Interfaith Better: A Reflection on the Harvard “Black Mass” and Its Aftermath

  1. Dorie, I think the Harvard Black Mass reveals the underlying politics of interfaith–something you alluded to in your article. What religions are included and excluded, welcomed or shunned, invited or dismissed from interfaith dialogue is embedded within politics of power, visible through acceptance. Tomoko Masuzawa’s book “The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was preserved in the language of Pluralism,” which shares its thesis in the second half of the title, addresses the underlying dynamics of rhetoric used when comparing religions of the world. As we all strive to do interfaith work, it will be important to dig deeper and examine the underlying interests that inform our interfaith dialogue. Who is validated by who? Who is left out?

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