Last week, I introduced the term “Degree,” which I defined as the single principle of cultural order. It’s the common thread or glue that binds a society together and gives each culture its peculiar quality. I likened Degree to the sun at the center of the solar system, which regulates the planets by its invisible gravitational influence. Or the melody line or theme of a symphony which provides structure and order to all of the instruments and harmonies. Degree provides stability in society; it makes the world “make sense.” It underlies our core relationships (parent-child, husband-wife, citizen-ruler, employer-employee, youth-elder, teacher-student), as well as our customs, observances, rhythms, laws and even our notions of what’s right and wrong. When a given society’s Degree is strong, everything works properly (more or less). But when Degree is weakened or collapses, “hark, what discord follows.” This collapse is called a Crisis of Degree, and I ended last week by saying that American society is in the midst of just such a Crisis. This morning I’d like to explain a little more of what I mean.
A Crisis of Degree refers to the undoing or unraveling of the cultural order. The result is waves of anxiety, alienation, and confusion. There’s something “in the air” that makes it highly combustible. And this highly reactive atmosphere filters down into all institutions of society: governments, businesses, churches, neighborhoods, and families. The reactivity means that we sometimes feel like everyone we meet is one trigger away from becoming an enemy. Have you ever gotten into a disagreement with a coworker or acquaintance, and felt a profound sense of relief when the discussion is actually civil? Like you’re surprised that people are able to disagree without being enemies? Why the relief and surprise? Because our expectation, in our current cultural environment, is that all disagreements must blow up. We’re sitting on a powder keg, and one small match will light the thing. We walk on eggshells, not always because we know what others think, but because we fear what they might do if we set off the trigger.
This suspicion and anxiety and fear is one of the marks of a Crisis of Degree. There’s a massive uncertainty that hangs in the air. We don’t know what the rules are. We don’t know what the expectations are, and thus many of us are paralyzed by indecision and inaction. Meanwhile, others are not so paralyzed. They view the Crisis as an opportunity to assert their vision of the world. Thus, they push and press and provoke. They make a power play. And, because the cultural order as a whole is weakened, our society can’t absorb such power plays, and so there’s a reaction, and then another reaction. And the reactions escalate. Protests and counter-protests. Mobs and counter-mobs. Outrage and counter-outrage. There’s an intensifying Balkanization, polarization, and tribalism, until it seems almost meaningless. Just anger for anger’s sake, violence for violence sake. We collide with one another, just because we want to collide. As one commentator put it, “We are disintegrating. Coming apart. Losing our hold on reality.” The ties that bind no longer bind. Again, to quote Shakespeare, “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father.”
Here’s one way to think about this. Healthy Degree is what makes a society feel like Home. There’s a familiarity to Home; at Home the world makes sense. At Home, the expectations are more or less clear, and so we’re able to live and move and have our being in relative peace and security. Degree is what makes us feel at Home in our society. We’ve listened to our societal music enough to know what notes to play next. Now in any society, there will be people who don’t feel at home: immigrants, societal outcasts, and so forth. But often these “out groups” are able to carve out space within the larger society, a home away from home, almost a permanent guest room in someone else’s house. So in a society, healthy Degree is what makes us feel at home. A Crisis of Degree is what happens in a society when no one feels at home. Everyone feels alienated. Everyone feels out of place, and some respond with fear and passivity, and others respond by trying to tear the house down and build a new one according to their liking. This type of homelessness is especially hard on people who used to feel at home here. The geography is still the same; many of the externals of culture are still present. But it’s no longer a place of peace and security. It’s like coming home from school one day and most of the things in your house are still the same, but something is off, and you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s your house, but it’s not your home.
Now I realize that drawing attention to the Crisis of Degree may actually increase anxiety. Some of you who weren’t feeling too worried may now feel a little nervous. So let me close this exhortation with a few hopeful exhortations. First, this kind of cultural turbulence reminds us of the biblical truth that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Feeling out of step in America, feeling that our society is not our true home, is to be expected. That’s what we signed up for when we answered the call to follow another king, namely Jesus. A Crisis of Degree keeps us from finding our place of stability in this world. “When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.” The first exhortation is: here you have no lasting city. Seek the city that is to come.
Second, we must also remember that we are seeking the city that is to come. This city is coming. And what’s more, we ought to pray that it would come. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not just a prayer for the return of Christ. We pray that God would establish outposts of his kingdom here on earth. We are not just pilgrims passing through. We are colonists from the heavenly Jerusalem. We are the expeditionary force of the heavenly host. We have a mission to disciple the nations and bring them to the obedience of faith, and we have the promise of the authority of the risen Jesus behind us and above us, and the presence of the risen Jesus with us always.
Finally, the way that we seek this city and the way that this city descends begins with our worship of the living God. We gather here to set our minds on things above, not on things below. We gather here to inoculate ourselves against the American noise, the loud clanging of the Crisis of Degree. We are listening to music from a far country, a heavenly country, where righteousness dwells. And this reminds us of our need to confess our sins.
Our Father and God, our society is in the midst of a great unraveling. We watch it unfold on the news every night. Angry protestors, angry political rallies, fear and uncertainty grip our nation. We easily view our neighbors as enemies, and we do so because we have made you our Enemy. Our love has cooled, our friendships have fallen off, brothers have divided. In our cities, we see conflict; in our country, discord; in our politics, anger and outrage. The ties that ought to bind are no longer binding. These are great evils.
What’s more, as your covenant people, we too contribute to the crisis. Instead of planting our feet on the rock, we are swept up in the fear and anxiety. We grow timid and passive, buying security and peace at the price of our silence. Or we grow angry and brash and reactively escalate the tension. Forgive us for setting our minds on things below, for orienting ourselves by what our culture loves and fears. Help us to seek first your kingdom and righteousness, knowing that you will meet all of our needs.
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. . . .