A public discourse that recuses from any reference to a supreme and ultimate and ultimately binding moral order – that is, i.e., morally relativistic – forecloses any possibility of investing any public act with true and perfectly general meaning. When there is nothing that must in virtue of its factual meaning under the highest heaven certainly mean therefore at least one same thing to everyone beneath the orbit of the moon, nothing can mean the same thing to anyone except by happenstance, or by the constraints ever imposed upon all creatures by the logos of corporeal becoming (as, e.g., when the flood approaches and everyone feels it truly and existentially important and valuable to flee, regardless of their politics or sexual identification).
To put it bluntly: if you can’t talk of God and his will for us in a language that everyone understands and accepts (even if only pro forma), then nothing you say can be quite definite, in the final analysis, or therefore definitive, or then authoritative, or suasive. Every utterance then will be tentative, merely pro forma and nothing more; ergo, not really binding, or even interesting, but only conventionally. At most, you’ll muster only indignant insistence about this or that outrage, full of sound and fury but, as signifying really nothing, empty of any real conviction.
All that will then be left is vacuous Pharisaical signals of status, that indicate no real underlying state, but rather only an abstract bloodless and inconsequential agreement with the idea of such states. Other than for a tiny few fanatics, e.g., belief in anthropogenic global warming need not, indeed cannot, have any very material effect on the way one lives; but broadcasting belief in the phenomenon can. You gain no social credit by living an impoverished life for the sake of the planet, but a lot by advertising your intense conviction that poverty is ecologically correct.
But no one is ever quite fooled by these public displays, for they know full well how false are their own – no one allows worry over global warming to prevent his flight to vacation in the islands. So no one will quite buy whatever is said; nor then will anyone care much what happens, so long as their own oxen are not gored.
Yet we cannot bear to live as though it were true that nothing means anything. We want our public discourse and common life to matter in the great scheme of things. They do thus matter, of course; but in the absence of any public recourse to a great scheme of things, one can’t tell, or see, just how. Meaninglessness, anomie and despair then loom, for everyone. But that’s intolerable. No one can stand it for long.
Thus in order to obtain the significance and meaning that public acts must have if they are to be of any use as instruments of social coordination that can engage the emotions of millions along a common vector, they must resort to brute spectacle: noise, hurry, magnitude of crowds, extremity of risk or danger or virtuosity, intensity of manufactured emotion. If you want to catch anyone’s attention these days, you had better be sure to arrange for really big explosions or perversities or exploits. And if all you’ve got to offer is a series of meaningless tableaux, you have to keep amping things up in order to overcome the sensory acclimation of your audience and entrain their emotions. If no depth at all, then ever flashier intensities.
Such desperate measures may attract attention, for a time. But as meaningless, ergo stupid, they cannot hold it very long. Despite all the fireworks and scantily dressed girls, who cares about the stinking half time show, in the end? Apart from the titillation they tender, what use are the Kardashians? What difference will it make to anyone, other than the cooks, who wins the ginned up cooking contest on reality TV? Aside from the sheer madness or fun of the act, where is the significance of jumping off a mountain in a flying squirrel suit? It’s all vanity, gussied up as if it mattered.
If on the other hand we were to recur frankly to God Almighty as the source and author of all things, and our ultimate final arbiter and judge, then every tiny act would be vested with immense significance, far surpassing our poor powers to judge. The whole of life would then be sacred, more or less; and, therefore, important. We would not need to make a big show. Everyone would understand. The desperate pervasive anxiety would evaporate. Everyone could relax.
It could happen, again. All that is needed is another Great Awakening. Easy.