Felicien Rops

The Cross His Resting Place: On the Coincidentia Oppositorum of Christ and Satan

Thomas J.J. Altizer (most well-known for his part in the Death of God theology controversy in the 1960s) has to be the only academic theologian I’ve ever read who has written about a personal “initiation” into Satan as a young theological student, and that his ultimate theological goal is a coincidentia oppositorum — a coincidence of opposites — between Christ and Satan. There’s a lot in Altizer’s theology that could be very fruitful for occultism of many types, from Luciferian traditional witchcraft all the way to Thelema (which to me has many Death of God theology elements, as I’ve written about here). The following is Altizer’s description of his Satanic initiatory experience, from his 2006 theological memoir:

During this period I had perhaps the most ultimate experience of my life, and one that I believe profoundly affected my vocation as a theologian, and even my theological work itself. This occurred late at night, while I was in my room. I suddenly awoke and became truly possessed, and experienced an epiphany of Satan which I have never been able fully to deny, an experience in which I could actually feel Satan consuming me, absorbing me into his very being, as though this was the deepest possible initiation and bonding, and the deepest and yet most horrible union. Few who read me know of this experience, but it is not accidental that I am perhaps the only theologian who now writes of Satan, and can jokingly refer to myself as the world’s leading Satanologist; indeed, Satan and Christ soon became my primary theological motifs, and my deepest theological goal eventually became one of discovering a coincidentia oppositorum between them.

(Altizer, Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir, 4-5)

In several of his works, Altizer compares his goal of discovering a coincidence between Christ and Satan to the Mahayana Buddhist insight that there is a coincidentia oppositorum between samsara and nirvana. In the preface to History as Apocalypse, Altizer writes:

Perhaps no principle offers a deeper way into our lost epic and theological tradition than does the Mahayana Buddhist dialectical identification of Nirvana and Samsara. Simply to translate this principle into Christian terms is to sense its possibilities, for then we apprehend the possibility of the dialectical identification or marriage of Christ and Satan, of sin and grace, of Heaven and Hell.

(Altizer, History as Apocalypse, 2)

Altizer thus sees a transformative potential for radical theology in translating the Buddhist insight that samsara and nirvana coincide into the terms of Christianity. In History as Apocalypse, he traces such a possibility through what he calls the “Christian epic tradition,” especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poetry of William Blake, and the novels of James Joyce.

Even in terms of orthodox Christian theology, I would argue that the cross of Jesus Christ is the site of a coincidentia oppositorum between Christ and Satan, and thereby, the ultimate coincidence of all opposites. There are precedents for this idea in Christian history. In the traditional Catholic notion of Mary’s Transfixion, for example (see María de Ágreda’s Mystical City of God, Vol. III), it is said that Mary participates in Christ’s suffering on the cross as Co-redemptrix with Christ through her compassion and union with her son. There is a coincidence of Mary and Christ in the event of the cross. Along similar lines, in the Catholic decadent poet Lionel Johnson’s Latin poem “Satanas,” there is a stanza that strikes me as a description of a Satanic Transfixion (the “he” in the quote is Satan):

Fructus profert; inest cinis:
Profer flores plenos spinis:
Vitae eius mors est finis:
  Crux est eisus requies.
Qualis illic apparebit
Cruciatus, et manebit!
Quantas ista quot habebit
  Mors amaritudines!

(He offers fruits; there are ashes in them:
He offers flowers full of thorns:
Death is the purpose of his life:
  The cross his resting place.
How tormented shall he appear there,
And thus shall he remain!
How many bitternesses
  Shall that death have!)

(Lionel Johnson, "Satanas," trans. Nina Antonia in Incurable: The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, 166-168)

By the end of the stanza, it’s hard to tell if the suffering subject is Christ or Satan. Both of them die in torment on the cross. At least in this, the poem is traditional: according to the ancient Christus Victor theory of atonement, Satan is destroyed on the cross, because he is defeated by Christ’s death. For example, in St. Augustine’s Muscipula diaboli, crux Domini analogy, the cross is a mousetrap for the Devil, with Christ’s death as the bait. Translated into the imagery of Johnson’s poem, Christ and Satan end up coinciding on the cross, because both suffer and die there. As in Altizer’s radical theology, the death of God and the death of Satan coincide, a coincidentia oppositorum of good and evil, presence and absence. If the Blessed Virgin Mary is Co-redemptrix with Christ because of her sharing in her son’s suffering, Johnson’s poem suggests that Satan shares in it, too — acting as a perverse co-redeemer himself through his death.

Le Calvaire by Felicien Rops.

Furthermore, as in Catholic theology the Eucharist re-presents, really makes present, the event of the cross — the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (1366-1367) — the Eucharist must also be the location of the coincident presence and absence of Christ and Satan. The Eucharistic Host is Johnson’s fruit with ashes in it, a flower full of thorns. That “pallid wafer” which so fascinated and horrified the decadents, which Dorian Gray mused that “at times, one would fain think, is indeed the ‘panis caelestis,’ the bread of angels,” is also the sacrifice wherein darkness and light coincide.

This Altizerian reading of Johnson’s “Satanas” and of the Eucharist seems to make sense of what is, to me, one of the most mysterious stories in Scripture, an incident which might be called the first Black Mass. The officiant at this Black Mass was none other than Jesus:

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples — the one whom Jesus loved — was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.

(John 13:21-27, NRSV)

In other words, according to the Gospel of John, Satan enters into Judas only when Jesus offers him the bread of the Last Supper. In this biblical moment, Jesus’ Eucharistic offering and the Satanic bread of the Black Mass coincide. A fruitful reflection, perhaps, for the Luciferian witch the next time they approach the sacrifice of the altar.

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