Like some other people my age, I have been trying to sift through my thoughts and writings to trace the threads that have become the enduring fabric of my way of thinking about things. One of the themes that keeps reappearing, especially in these disorienting and dangerous times, is the way people’s longing for “publicity” has become a vessel for earlier religious searches for “salvation.” I spent a good deal of time chewing this idea over in my reflections some thirty years ago in God’s Federal Republic, where I laid out how we might re-interpret the traditional Christian symbol of “kingdom of God,” in the light of our actual commitment to federal republics with democratic participation in pursuit of the common good.
Instead of the early Christian prioritization of humility, obedience, and self-denial (with their sins of pride and self-assertion), I proposed that we think about how our language for participation in a wider public of justice and divine creativity might better express the ancient Biblical longing for God’s order of righteousness and shalom. In ancient and medieval times this vision of “the Kingdom of God” supported the legitimacy of the Kingdoms of Europe as if they reflected this divine order. In our own times a vision of democratic, republican government within a constitutional order has become the touchstone of legitimate governance. How, then, might we better think of it from a religious and theological standpoint? The language of “publicity” offered one element in this rethinking.
“By “publicity” I meant the acts of making ourselves visible before others who also are engaged with us in trying to sustain and improve our common life and the world we share. Becoming “public” in this sense presumed a common world with others with whom we were in conversation and argument. This public life of argument was held together by covenants, constitutions, and compacts governing us through law.
The traditional language of humility, obedience and pride had been inextricably tied up with a model of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus to the will of God the Father. This image of hierarchy and obedience became the model for just governance by monarchs throughout the medieval world. It still shapes much of Christian thought and worship. However, I was seeking a language and set of symbols more in line with our commitment to the longing for a more perfect federal republic.
I was aware even then of the distorted forms of narcissistic “publicity” that were emerging in the fevers of media celebrity and fame, but I knew of only some visionaries like Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media) who were trying to describe what electronic global communication might produce. It is now clear that the longing for public recognition, unconnected to actual publics of mutual accountability, threatens to destroy the arduous two-centuries old republic in which I live. Now a “celebrity” detached from the actual publics in which politicians have acted within a constitutional framework has brought this distorted vision to a pinnacle of power. The anti-politics of “celebrity” threatens to undermine the very culture of constitutional civic republicanism that has guided us for two centuries.
When I originally proposed that we rethink salvation in the language of republics and “publicity,” I knew that it was an “eschatological” vision that pushes us beyond the known conditions of life in this world. Since there is no perfect publicity in this world, our longing always includes a thrust toward a radically new order. I also believed, and still do, that this “salvation” of publicity was only a saving power within a particular public of mutual accountability and care for a common creation. The Christian public, originally known as an “ecclesia” (assembly), was a little public that could and should contain, nurture, and manifest this deep anticipation of a life when we could fully entrust ourselves to each other and embrace the very source of our being, namely God.
Like the sin of pride that accompanied the earlier virtue of humility and obedience, the sin of “celebrity fame” accompanies the longing for true publicity. It is this sin, this evil, into which we have been led in a media world that threatens to eclipse the republics and constitutions that have been the vessels of our longing for a saving publicity.
Well, this is all a very short-handed effort to rehearse what I have been thinking for thirty years! Right now, with the very expression of pure celebrity narcissism seeking to displace the publicity of republic and democratic constitutionalism, we need to think about it theologically as well as politically. As Americans (and this goes in various ways for many others) we have never worked out a way to speak theologically in the language of our project of republican and democratic constitutionalism. If we can learn better to express how civic “publicity” is related to our longing for salvation we might begin to reclaim the ways local communities of mutual accountability and care can offer a way out of the unconstrained digital celebrity which threatens to devour our public life.
If you’ve read this far, I want to thank you. I’d appreciate any reflections that might guide us toward a greater light.