The following, which was composed in 1818, is a famous sonnet by Percy Shelley (1792-1822) entitled “Ozymandias.” It has, for me, a certain melancholy charm. Have a look at it and see what you think.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
This melancholy melody by Percy Shelley followed a pamphlet he wrote in 1811 entitled “The Necessity of Atheism.” Shelley belongs with Titus Lucretius Carus (99BC-55BC). One should think of the long didactic poem by Lucretius entitled De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which is among the greatest of efforts to set out a grim, grinding, blunt view of the utter misery of human beings born in a world of mere chance devoid of any hope and real meaning.
It is difficult, it seems, to insist that a world without an active and loving God is a shout of joy, though one sometimes hears those who feel liberated from illusion remonstrating and sometimes even shouting at divine things. Some even flatter themselves by proclaiming their morally superior liberation from illusions and/or delusions which they love to point out are often used by priests or preachers to keep the fame, money and devotion flowing in. This brand of social commentary has, unfortunately, an element of truth in it. However, from the perspective of messages found in special divine revelation, this is an evidence of the depravity of human beings who, without the genuine love of God, are busy struggling for gain and popularity, is it not?
Be that as it may, should we not, before our tiny little light goes out, ignore the illusions or delusions of the faithful, and just do our best to make the most of our lives? Why? For what purpose or end? Why not just eat, drink and pretend to be wise and happy, until the ultimate grim end? Or is this what constitutes making the best of our lives? Did not someone whose writing some of us have read like to quote a Roman Emperor who said something like the following: “I have everything and nothing is worth anything”?
Without the victory over death in all its forms–that is, both death of the soul through sin, and death of the body, both of which were won by Jesus of Nazareth, if he actually was the long awaited King who came to earth to vindicate Israel, though in a way that even astonished his closest disciples, we have only a few years to wear out our lives before death takes its toll. Even such a one may still feel their heart beat, as I do right now, and be conscious of subjects outside of themselves, like my keyboard and monitor, and have many possessions, including information and skills, and still sense that hearts all cease beating. All of us must sense that, if we stop to wonder, whatever our lot in this beautiful but also often ugly and dangerous and evil world, that without God we all eventually, with the world as we know it, face utter extinction. And Percy Shelley (and Lucretius) seemed to know it and understood how it all must end for everyone, unless God has won a victory over evil in all its forms.
Hence, “only God can save us.” From what? Both self-destructive sin, which on condition of faithfulness, he offers relief, and without conditions, rescure from the grave through his own resurrection from the tomb which opened the door to life and light and endless days for all of us.
So there is good news about something beyond death. Shelley and his friends find such a faith to be mere wishful thinking from which we must be liberated. However, for the faithful there is hope that should be linked with trust in the only one who can save us, followed by genuine and lasting covenant love. This is good news, which is a shout of joy for everyone, whatever their circumstances, who has been born in this world to undergo a probation somehow fitting and then testing all of us for something far better than mere chance, or grinding determinism and deadening fate.
But am I not merely offering mere wishful thinking? Must there not be reasons for the hope that is in us? Yes, of course, we must have reasons. But here below we do not need proofs and absolute certainty. Why? Even the divine special revelations that offer the hope of an ultimate relief from the miseries of this world make it clear that probation is a testing of our deepest desires, the longings of our hearts, and so forth. We have reasons for our faith, but they are not the kind that celebrate our cleverness in fashioning proofs that force others to submit to divine love, but they tend to flow from our faithfulness in obedience to the law upon which real blessings rest, which has often been summarized in handbooks on faith, hope and love. All of which is the mostly hidden work of the Holy Spirit. This is, however, a topic for another time.