Every society has relationships of difference: husband-wife, parent-child, customer-merchant, employer-employee, teacher-student, magistrate-citizen, elders-youth, pastor-congregation. Within a given society, there is a kind of family resemblance in all of these different relationships. There is a quality, an atmosphere, a common thread, that integrates and ties all of these various relationships of difference together, and gives the society its unique flavor. It’s this quality that makes it so that we can distinguish American-ness from British-ness from French-ness from Turkish-ness from Chinese-ness. Shakespeare’s term for this quality or principle is Degree (with a capital D). It’s the underlying principle of order and stability that binds all of the various relationships in a given society together. It’s the bond or glue that keeps people separate but connected, distinct yet related. It’s the principle that regulates a culture’s rhythms and seasons, its offices and customs. It’s also the principle that separates right from wrong, justice from injustice in that particular society.
When this principle of cultural order is strong, it takes on a transcendental quality. To those in that society who embrace and believe in it, Degree feels like Nature. It’s just the way things are. But the reality is that this principle of cultural order is only as strong as the respect it inspires.
Degree is often embodied in a particular authority or authorities that come to represent it. In a tribal society, this might be the chief or the shaman. In a monarchy, it would be the king. In our society, it might be the president or perhaps all three branches of our government as an institution. Within the family sphere, it would be the husband or father.
Think of it like the Solar System. Degree—that quality or principle of cultural order—is the sun at the center of the system. The influence of Degree regulates the orbit of all of the planets so that they don’t collide with one another, so that their heavenly dance is flawless and harmonious. Planets orbit the sun, and moons orbit the planets. A planet and its moons represent the major spheres within a society (family, state, church, market), with the planet as the representative embodiment of Degree (father, king, priest, and so forth), and the planet’s moons as the other members of society that orbit around the planet so that they too participate in the Great Dance without collision. Degree, then, operates in the invisible and mysterious way that gravity or magnetism does in the natural order.
To use a different analogy, Degree is like the melody line in a symphony that guides and governs the harmony of the song. The different spheres of society are like the different categories of instruments: strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. Each of these categories has a representative leader—the first chair—which leads and guides the rest of the musicians in performing the musical piece.
Final illustration: We see Degree in God’s ordering of creation in Genesis 1. Remember that Degree separates things and then unites and binds them together. So God separates light from darkness, but together they form Day and Night. He separates earth and heavens, seas and land, fish from birds from beasts, and each of these according to their kinds. There are all kinds of separations and differences and distinctions that God makes, but they’re all a part of one majestic whole, one natural order, one Cosmos.
So every society has its own Degree that accounts for the order and stability within it. And when Degree is shaked, the whole enterprise is sick. When Gravity weakens, the planets wander and mutiny and collide with one another. “Take but degree away, untune that string, and, hark, what discord follows!” We see a return to chaos, like when a river overflows its banks, and moist air from above cools into fog so that there’s no difference between water and land and sky. All is one big soppy, cloudy mess. Or when the melody line of a song is lost, and the different instruments are at odds with one another, and harmony turns into a cacophony, beautiful music into noise and clamor.
I introduce this category, this notion of Degree, in order to say this: our society, in the present moment, is in the midst of a Crisis of Degree, a weakening of our societal Gravity, an untuning of our cultural string. More needs to be said and will be said. For now, this reminds us of our need to confess our sins.
Our Father and God, our society is in the midst of a Crisis of Degree. We are branches in rebellion against the Tree. The disorder and chaos around us is not a random occurrence but is owing to the fact that we have rebelled against all forms of order and authority. We crave power and rule, and therefore we don’t just reject particular authorities; we reject all Authority, including and especially yours. We are a people who hate to bow. This is a great evil.
What’s more, as your covenant people, we too have joined in this rebellion. We have failed to embody your rule and authority, and we have rebelled against you as our Creator and Redeemer. We have not played your music, but have sought to play our own, and it has been a disaster. Forgive us for untuning the string of your truth and goodness, for trying to rebel against gravity. Help us to walk in your ways and orbit around you as the center of our lives.
We know, Father, that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst or in our own hearts, our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now. . . .