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Belief, Like Power, Ultimately Bends to Time

At some point as one traverses Western liberal arts education, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias is inescapable. The poem’s ubiquity is well earned, likely because its subject, the evanescence of power, is timeless.  But more than this, it probably endures because of our perennial failure to learn what the poem teaches: ideas, like power, are transitory. 

Shelley envisions a vast desultory emptiness as possibly the only fitting companion for the once mighty Pharaoh Ramses II. He reduces this self-aggrandizing omnipotent sovereign to “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.”  And nearby, as the decapitated head half-buried in the desert sands looked on, the narrator drives home the poem’s crushing irony:  

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. 

Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!” 

But juxtaposed against the bravado this epitaph attempted to impose, was time’s true verdict:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay     

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In this sweeping indictment of the self-absorbed, it is not only the narcissist and tyrannical who fair badly. We could add to that list originalism, the idea that we should always allow the writer’s “original” intent to inform not only our understanding, but also interpretation of a text. This notion, which has attained a renaissance of sorts in contemporary right-wing circles, likely grew out of the many “conservative” law “projects” targeted at the framing of the American Constitution. It has now become a bedrock ideology of the larger conservative movement. In their conception, any original text, especially in law and religion, is now considered sacrosanct and deemed to have an immutable existence. 

This could explain why some in scriptural faith communities seem to worship statements in their sacred books more than the gods portrayed in them. It is also a plausible justification for why the first of the 28 Fundamental Seventh-day Adventist belief statements is about the Bible, and not the God described in it. In our attempts to construct provenances for our gods, we seem to have made the vehicles that tell us about them, gods in their own rights. And in the process have succeeded in creating the impression that our Torahs, Bibles, and Qurans are now inerrant. 

The result of this misguided approach is that those who subscribe to the originalist doctrine have to justify indefensible actions in scripture or, failing that, ignore or pretend that those unsavory parts don’t exist. But the discordant elements found within them do exist. It is only when we disengage from them that we, who have religious affinities, cede the higher moral ground to secular society. This is how it came about that the United Nations, and not religious institutions/organizations, became instrumental in setting up the International Court of Justice at The Hague to prosecute genocide and other crimes against humanity. And also why Child Protective Agencies were established out of necessity by governmental bodies to protect children from brutish parents and adults. Many of these bullies are Christians who “faithfully” stand by the Proverbs injunction about child beating: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” (23:13/14)

But time breeds new environments and perspectives. Later generations invariably negate long-held beliefs and assumptions, which they perceive to be incongruent with their mores. Insisting on preserving understandings of an earlier time, often with little heed to context, is to embark on a fool’s errand. No two generations are exactly alike and we should not artificially force the values of a past group on those who come after them. The best we could probably do is provide loose guidance about life as we understand it for ourselves and our era, because new environments produce their own forces that provide direction for appropriate new rules. 

For the recently emancipated desert dwellers pursuing a new nation, an exhaustive collection of rules was perhaps necessary to maintain some semblance of order in what could have potentially degenerated into an order-less community. Still, it’s jolting how a group, who knew the horrors of slavery firsthand, and were in the midst of fleeing from it, could have acceded in their law to the practice of child beating. Add to it the minutia regulating child prostitution, found in Exodus 21, and the dissonance becomes mind-boggling. 

Some insist that these laws and regulations describe momentary conditions of a people and were not meant for all time. But that is not the originalists’ position. Their understanding, whether in scripture or the American Constitution, seem to bind future generations to the intentions of the framers–whether Constitution or scripture. It is this thinking that Fundamentalist Christians seize on, weaponizing such statements as “All Scripture … is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy‬ 3‬:16‬ NIV) as universally normative, and not just expressions of people in a given time. If the originalist/fundamentalist understanding is correct, then even in the 21st century, Christians should honor the demands of these laws. That even Fundamentalists don’t do this is a testament to common sense. By ignoring the disagreeable parts they imply that some “scripture” might be time-conditioned and not necessarily meant for all time. Conceding this ground makes more sense than the conservative penchant of maintaining that scriptural statutes are binding, but glossing over unacceptable portions.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Consider an example of how this plays out in the Bible. The writer of 1 Timothy makes a startling pronouncement–by contemporary sensibilities–concerning what women are allowed to do in church: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (‬2‬:11‬-12‬ NIV‬‬). Whoever this writer is–the book’s content and structure argues against Pauline authorship–he seems to be unaware of Luke’s story detailing Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha in the sisters’ home. Or, if acquainted with the story, he might not have considered its implications. In the Judaism of Jesus’ period, it was forbidden for a woman to be instructed by a Rabbi. Martha’s appeal to Jesus that her sister should return to help in the kitchen was the appropriate request, considering Mary’s seeming disregard of tradition. Women belong in the kitchen and not the classroom, and Mary needed to be reminded of that ironclad rule. ‬‬‬‬‬‬But instead of agreeing with Martha’s assessment, Jesus did the opposite: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42 NIV) ‬‬‬

In this account, Jesus not only endorsed women learning at rabbis’ feet, but he also proclaimed it a “better” choice. In the late first century, however, Timothy’s author insisted that women should be invisible in church. Yet, some contemporary ecclesiastical leaders, seemingly oblivious that women now serve society in nearly all areas, view this “women must be quiet in church” pronouncement as a dictum to be enforced in perpetuity. Such church officials contend that women are not good enough to be role models in the church.

I used to believe that the written word freezes understanding, but no longer. It is true that, in oral societies, information is malleable, as it’s not easily preserved. With writing came the opportunity to look back to a text for reference. But that seems to be the extent of a text’s immutability because, even here, the words give in to time. When literate societies no longer subscribe to the tenets of a text, they get around it by resorting to “interpretation.” The horror of Samuel’s directive, that the most vulnerable in war should be exterminated, is explained away by resorting to hermeneutical gimmickry. 

The idea that there is something pristine about “original” thought, and it therefore should be protected, is an illusion. Which could explain why even the most ardent originalists, when pressed to defend genocide as described in scripture, resort to dissembling. It’s one thing to be in the throes, and quite another to be told one’s god orchestrated your predicament. But if we are willing to wait long enough, time has a way of rescuing us from such unreasonable proposals, even if those ideas are purported to have originated from the gods.

Title image:  Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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