Monuments of Dust
Because we are but dust, and some part of us knows this instinctively, we have a very human impulse to build up the one thing which will surely outlast our bodies: reputation. In itself, this is neither good nor evil. It’s just a feature of human existence after the Fall. It’s a close as most will ever get to returning to Eden when humans didn’t die. Scripture makes much of this impulse, showing how men both righteous and evil sought to build a legacy of their lives which lived on after them.
We don’t know how the pyramids of Egypt were built. There are no records we can recognize as describing the techniques, nor even whether it was slaves, contractors, or religious devotees. We aren’t even exactly sure we can pin down a complete and unquestionable reference to whom they celebrate. Egyptians used names differently than almost any modern culture, and we have the darnedest hard time reconciling their historiography with anything in use today. Context is everything, and those who recorded these things could not guess how those coming after would cogitate their world. The current timeline we use is acknowledged by better scholars as a house of cards. What we do know for sure is the monuments are crumbling, and the pace of decay accelerates with time.
Scripture indicates, sometimes quite subtly, you cannot justify seeking such a long-tailed legacy for its own sake. Rather, long memories of names and events are derived naturally from their meaning in their context. The sort of thing we most properly remember is not mere greatness, but greatness of moral striving. This has nothing to do with moral content, per se, but something more fundamental. It’s in the nature of the moral fabric itself. Not so much what it demands of us as how it works. This is a question of meta-morality. Bluntly put, if large masses of people don’t truly love you on some level, you will be forgotten.
Pick your own ancient hero. If their fame does not include an element of self-sacrifice for the welfare of others, their legacy is much more fragile, as time wears away mere size and power of influence. People who love you, for whatever reason silly or noble, will treasure your memory. They’ll strive to keep alive everything which brings you back to life in their minds and feelings. Love has a way of touching well beyond the fringes of our conscious awareness. Granted, hideous hateful men are also not forgotten in most cases because of the depth of passion in their hatred. We learn from our regrets. But those who simply weren’t morally large either way will be forgotten in some measure.
Greatness maintained as mere orthodoxy dies quickly. Greatness in love carries its own context.
I can tell you more of the personality of Abraham and Moses, for example, than you could tell me of almost any ruler from the same time frame. They were both quintessential shepherds, as were all the real heroes in Scripture. Some biblical heroes don’t have a shining personality, like Samson, because their mission didn’t require it. They are remembered for how God used them, almost despite their lack of constancy and heartfelt devotion. That has its own message to us.
When Christ returns and His divine Presence changes everything, redeeming Creation from the Fall, and we return to what God had first intended for us in Eden, the pyramids will once again be dust, and all the other monuments to men will be forgotten. Yet the souls of those who loved greatly will be not only remembered, but still stand in the company of those who live eternally.