With a title like “The Satanic Dialectic,” one would think that I was talking about Communism or something like that. And that is not so, although it is certainly relevant or applicable to such a matter. As a student of philosophy and someone who is deeply interested in the question of how we come to understand and recognize truth about the universe, and questions of what authority we accept in that quest, I am interested in the ways in which a desire for truth goes wrong in the face of a world that is not well structured to seek truth but is full of constant pitfalls. Among those pitfalls is to attack or corrupt truth indirectly. Today, I would like to talk about how this process takes place from the eyes of a couple of related case studies. First, I would like to discuss a bit the nature of the dialectic, and then I would like to give a couple of examples that relate to my own personal experience. An understanding of the ways of Satan is not necessarily pleasant, but it is important nevertheless.
Just as with the dialectic of Satan’s view towards authority , Satan has a dialectic with truth that we can see very readily. Like the dialectic with authority, there are two sides to this picture, both of which can be used to turn people off of the truth down the center, considering they are used very skillfully by our adversary. The attack of truth from the right side is to seek to poison a view of the truth through making it a burden to the people and corrupting it from God’s original intent. This is done through turning what is originally meant as a behavior designed for freedom or honor into something that is corrupted to support wicked authorities and to make life more difficult on others. Then, from the left, comes attacks on that corrupted version of the truth as if it was the truth itself, in order to discredit the truth, even though it has never been given a fair hearing on its own apart from the corruptions of those who wished to use the truth as a way to exploit others rather than help set them free from the burdens of life in a fallen world.
This may be a lot to take in on the theoretical level, so let us get to brass tacks. I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God , and one of the distinctive beliefs of that church before it went off track and fell into oblivion was the Sabbath. Those who are frequent readers of this blog will know that the Sabbath is something which has long affected my life in powerful ways . Growing up in WCG, the Sabbath was often treated as a burden. The burden of preparing for the Sabbath was heavy on many women, for example. Practices and games for sports were set just after the Sabbath ended, making it difficult to prepare for them without violating the Sabbath. Human reasoning was used to seek to legitimize the behavior we took on the Sabbath without a sufficient look at the Bible, and all too often people reflected on the Sabbath in terms of what they were missing rather than what the Sabbath gave them. Additionally, many people have looked upon the Sabbath merely as a duty or an obligation because God commanded it, not as a joy and as a way in which God helps provide freedom and justice for a world that is far too starved of both. We may see all of this as a sign of how the Sabbath was corrupted from the right.
All of these ways in which the Sabbath was preached and practiced, with an absence of understanding the intents and purposes of God, can be seen as a setup for the attacks on the Sabbath from the left. Satan may be said to be a master boxer, who does not come at someone straight on, but rather sets them up with shots to the body to cause someone to drop their hands to defend against those attacks so that he can attack the head. And that is where the attacks from the left generally come from. In the case of the Sabbath, the attack came to the corrupted version, playing on the longings that people had to do activities that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and coming to the burdens that mistaken views of the Sabbath had placed on people. By attacking those corruptions, which are no more valid in the case of the Sabbath in the 20th and 21st century experience than it would have been to attack the Pharisaical view of the Sabbath as if it were the same as God’s, Satan sets up a straw man so that he can then demolish it, as if it were a definitive attack on God’s commandment itself. By playing a dialectic of left against right as opposed to an honest wrestling with the full and nuanced picture, conflict is created between two sides, in which neither of them reflect the full and balanced picture of God’s truth, but both of which contain parts of the truth viewed in isolation and opposition apart from the larger and godly picture that harmonizes both truths within the same beliefs and doctrines and institutions.
How then does God deal with this dialectic? We can see for ourselves with regards to the Sabbath that the Bible itself provides the true view of what the Sabbath means in opposition both to those who would use the Sabbath as a way of oppressing others (witness the many conflicts between Jesus Christ and the Pharisees, both of whom claimed biblical support, but one of whom had created the Sabbath and knew exactly what it was supposed to do–set people free from the effects of sin, as a sign of God’s desire to liberate humanity rather than oppress it), as well as those who would disregard it altogether. By showing the opposition of God (through Jesus Christ) to the way that the Sabbath was corrupted, and by providing the links between the Sabbath and freedom , the Bible itself shows that the popular view of the Sabbath that is attacked is not itself the biblical view, which remains true and can counteract against the attacks on the Sabbath so long as the Bible is seen as the authority against those who would wish to selectively use that authority to bolster themselves or those who would wish to disregard God altogether. Instead of having to choose between two corrupt and satanic alternatives, we can choose God’s truth against both.
We may see a similar dialectic with regards to people that is seen with regards to doctrines. Let us take the example of a man whom I never got to know personally (as he died when I was 4 and a half years old) but who has played a large influence in my life, even ending up as the character in one of my plays. The man of whom I speak is Herbert W. Armstrong. No history of the Church of God would be complete without showing how this man was used by God to preach about His truth all over the world, but no man is more emblematic of the dialectic about the truth that I have seen here in the Church of God as well. I would like to state at the outset that I view this man with some heavy disadvantages, including the fact that I tend to be deeply critical of what he left behind, and the fact that unlike many people I know I had no experience with him first-hand, but must rely on second-hand information that is so deeply contradictory that it is hard to piece together an accurate picture of what he was like, even though I recognize that as someone who has benefited from his preaching that I owe a considerable debt to him in gratitude for what God was able to do through him, even if I see him as a deeply flawed man (not unlike the rest of us).
It is easy to see how Herbert W. Armstrong (often referred to as HWA) is corrupted from the right. Those who wish to bolster their own authority often use his example (particularly in terms of the hierarchical structure for which Worldwide Church of God was known) and promote his writings as something beyond that which other people can do. Some people hang on his words almost as if they were the gospel truth themselves. All too often, in fact, this behavior provokes many to dismiss him altogether, and fall into the opposite extreme in seeking to avoid idolizing what was clearly a man with his flaws and weaknesses like everyone else. Such behavior can also lead us to insufficiently respect his role and his contribution to our own lives and belief systems, which is why he is often mentioned in the first place. I find it vexing and difficult to find a proper way to convey the respect I have for his preaching and proclamation of the truth with my critical views of his mistakes and the ways in which he copied too much the ways of the world and did not sufficiently convey key truths of God with regards to how we are to interact with other people in ways of mutual respect and honor. We all struggle with such matters, though, so I cannot be too harsh on someone without being harsh on myself for the same reasons.
One can easily see, though, how the satanic dialect of corrupting someone’s legacy by focusing only on those parts that are “good” or that are beneficial in supporting the authority of someone else may set someone up for attacks from the left. The second part of the satanic dialect as it relates to Mr. Armstrong is the way that his reputation has been hurt late in life and after his death by his errors and mistakes, as well as a lot of slanderous and libelous commentary about him through words and in print. People have sought to discredit him as a valid preacher of God’s ways through pointing to his troubled family life, to his clear weakness in properly judging people, and to numerous flip flops over such peripheral issues as makeup, often seeking not only to act as if he was a man like the rest of us, but seeking to claim that he was a man who was particularly evil and wicked, thus discrediting what he taught not by wrestling with biblical truth, but attacking a man through his reputation, something which more and more I see as a particularly dirty strategy given my own life.
How then, does the Bible show us how to combat this satanic dialectic, in which our respect for godly (if imperfect men) is not destroyed by our knowledge of their flaws and imperfections. Given the fact that any of us could be treated in the same way, this strategy also presents the biblical way for us to live our own lives to avoid being treated as an idol or attacked as a scoundrel and wicked man. Those who are fans of Mr. Amrstrong often point to the example of David in looking at a man of great faith but also deep flaws, and this is a wiser strategy than they may often recognize. The Bible paints David openly, warts and all, as a man of deep passion and godliness but also deep weaknesses (including his own sexual sin with Bathsheba, the fact that he was a pretty bad father, and other mistakes of policy). The same is true of Moses and Abraham and others whom the Bible looks at in depth. The Bible counters the satanic dialectic by presenting even heroes of faith as real people with great strengths and weaknesses, so that we may honor such men and follow their good examples even as we seek to avoid their bad example and recognize that even the godliest among us has our serious flaws (which ought to encourage us that no flaws are bad enough to keep us from serving God if we are devoted to His ways and also honest about our shortcomings). David is a model not only because he had flaws, but because he was transparent and open about his life, good and bad, leaving nothing to be used against him as a way of discrediting his complicated image. We do not read about David and idolize him, because his flaws are also apparent, but neither can we use his flaws to discredit him because they are an open part of his narrative of being a man after God’s own heart. A similar openness about Herbert W. Armstrong’s life, and to our own lives, likewise will allow us to live a more godly life that walks the fine line between idolization and merciless condemnation and criticism that is all too common in our world.
In the end, we must counter the satanic dialectic of partial truths preached with malicious and evil motives with the truth. We must act with justice and mercy, not only using the Bible as a treasure trove of examples to trot out in our arguments but also as a model of how we live our lives and how we deal with others with an eye towards honest reflection as well as mercy and graciousness to the errors and mistakes of others seeking mercy and graciousness with regards to our own. We must also be aware of the fact that anything that God uses and that is preached and practiced can be corrupted, and that we must not treat attacks of a corrupted person or doctrine as being legitimate actions taken towards what God has spoken and done. This is not easy, but those who seek truth are not called to an easy task, but rather one that constantly forces us to reflect upon ourselves and the ways in which we too could be attacked by Satan, as well as the fact that we do not live in a value-neutral world, but rather a world in which we are called to constantly make choices and weigh and balance what we hear and choose wisely those authorities to whom we listen and regard. We did not ask for this responsibility, but it is part of what we were created to learn how to do wisely.
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