By dialectic I mean the notion of viewing history as essentially a conflict between two opposing forces. This theory has been espoused by many different philosophers and in many different ways. Socrates and Aristotle both developed it in antiquity, St. Augustine used a form of it in City of God, and Karl Marx radicalized Hegel’s notion in his concept of class struggle. In each of these concepts a fairly static and straightforward notion of good versus evil exists. Whether it’s the enlightened versus the sophists, the saved versus the damned, or the proletariat versus the bourgeois in the dialectic there is always two polarized forces locked in an ongoing struggle.
In modern American politics you hear the dialectic often from leaders like Bernie Sanders, who almost constantly makes reference to a conflict between “the 1%” and the rest of us. Sanders characterizes politics as civic warfare between these two groups, and he frequently urges his followers to unite against the rich and fight for themselves.
Use of the dialectic, of course, isn’t limited to liberals or leftists. Many libertarian philosophers, most notably F.A. Hayek, have utilized some form of the dialectic to group their opponents (what Hayek called “statists”) and unite their followers (under the banner of freedom for libertarians). Conservatives have used it as well. Candidate Donald Trump himself often utilized the dialectic in making sharp distinctions between illegal immigrants and natural born citizens of the United States.
So what’s wrong with the dialectic? Christianity, some might think, is a natural fit for the this line of thinking. After all, don’t we as Christians believe in an epic and ongoing struggle between good and evil? Don’t we believe in angels taking on demons in Revelation? The church taking on a secular and unbelieving world through evangelism? Christ versus Satan?
If you’ve spent any time in church, you’ve probably heard at least one pastor talk this way. And these are all indeed conflicts present in Christianity and the Bible. However, when you look deeper into the Word of God you begin to see that there is far more than the dialectic at work.
For one thing, the Bible shows us that all human beings are complex creatures made up of both good and bad. Genesis shows us that we were constructed in the image of God and gifted with a reflection of his essence. The rest of the Bible shows us just how deeply He treasures and prizes us as his creation. Simultaneously, however, the Bible illustrates in graphic detail the truth that every person has a fallen nature. From the first human beings to those closest to Jesus, we see that every man and woman is fundamentally broken by the presence of sin and inequity in the world. Try as we might, we may subdue but we cannot exterminate the evil within us.
Secondly, readers of the Bible have long recognized that the origin of evil is a topic largely unanswered in Scripture. The serpent that tempts the first humans in Genesis spontaneously appears, and its motives for wanting to corrupt humanity go largely unexplained. Revelation, several other Biblical books, and traditional Christian theology give us more to the story as we recognize that Satan is as a fallen angel rebelling against God.
These elements of Christianity make for a very confused dialectic, if there is one at all. Instead of diametrically opposed heroes and villains, we understand human beings as at all times existing in different moral states and constantly undergoing a flux between good and evil. And instead of a hero and villain locked in epic and equal conflict, we have God – the source of not only good but existence itself – opposing a being that He Himself created, sustains, and permits to function in the universe.
As a result good and evil aren’t polar opposites in Christianity, nor are they matched in some sort of tit-for-tat or reciprocal struggle. Good stems from the creator in Christianity, while evil is an unexplained defect that only God Himself understands.
This is why it is often difficult for me to relate to many superhero films that come out these days. Occasionally you get more morally mixed protagonists and relatable ethics, but more often you get a fairly shallow concept. Rarely do I find many of these films doing more than scratching the surface of true ethical interplay. The narratives that truly drive the heart -- those key stories that film is capable of depicting in splendor -- require a better understanding of the way God fashioned existence.
In the end superhero films are a lot like candy. Corey Latta and Armond Boudreaux do much to had some needed beef and philosophical reflection in their excellent work Titans. But the genre itself remains only good for the occasional treat. When it comes to your true needs, you may still find yourself craving something more.