Pondering a Song of Human Dignity

At Saturday’s daily Mass (Saturday of the 7th Week of the Year) we read a beautiful reflection on the dignity and glory of the human person. It is deserving of deep meditation. This is especially true today, when some want to reduce humans to nothing more than “smart apes.”

Ponder with me this passage from the Book of Sirach. The full text can be found here: Sirach 17:1-15. Let’s consider the text in six parts. The Scripture text is shown in bold italics, while my commentary presented in plain text.

I Our Regal Place God from the earth created man, and in his own image he made him. He makes man return to earth again, and endows him with a strength of his own. Limited days of life he gives him, with power over all things else on earth. He puts the fear of him in all flesh, and gives him rule over beasts and birds.

Here we ponder several truths about ourselves. The first is that our dignity is to unite two orders of God’s creation, the physical and the spiritual. We are made “from the earth”; this refers to our bodies. Yet we are made in God’s image; this refers to our spiritual nature, because God is pure spirit. In this union of two orders of creation is a unique glory. For sentient, non-human creatures as well as inanimate things, there is only a share in the physical world. For angels and even the members of the Trinity as God, there is only pure spirit. In each human being, however, both the physical and the spiritual are united in one person.

A second truth about ourselves is that we are at the pinnacle of the physical world. Though lowlier than the angels, we are above the animals and “all things else” on the earth. As Gods says in the Book of Genesis, we are to be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Gen 1:28). The text from Sirach speaks of God putting a fear of us in all other living creatures. It is fascinating that no animal on earth actively hunts us. Occasionally, out of fear or when caged, an animal will lash out; in instances of extreme hunger, a large animal may even kill a human being; but no animal is above us on the food chain and we have no natural predator from among them. We are peerless among them and they would rather avoid us.

A third truth is that we are called to humility. Though we are exalted on the earth and of regal stature, we must not forget that God has made us from the earth and has limited the number of our days. We are stewards here, not owners. Physically, we will die; spiritually, we will give an account to God

II Our Reflective PowerHe created for them counsel, and a tongue and eyes and ears, and an inventive heart, and filled them with the discipline of understanding. He created in them knowledge of the spirit; With wisdom he fills their heart; … He has set before them knowledge, a law of life as their inheritance;

Here we see described many of the faculties of our rational soul that distinguish us from the animals. We can reflect, take counsel, and come to understanding and knowledge. We can comprehend meaning, intuit laws and order, and discern purposes. This reflective and rational power is a glory of the human person and is not shared by the animals.

Physically, humans have a lot in common with other mammals, but the similarities end there. Beyond the physical, the differences are immense; they are not merely differences in degree, but in kind. The human person in endowed with faculties that animals— even the highest primates—do not possess at all.

To those who say that humans are just “smart apes,” or that we are just a little ahead of them in evolution, I have some questions. They are rooted in the premise that effects point to causes, that you can know something by its fruits. If we are no different than the other mammals around us,

  • Where are their cities?
  • Where are their complex social interactions?
  • Where are their art museums, libraries, schools, and other repositories of accumulated learning?
  • Where are their legislatures, in which policy and matters of justice are debated?
  • Where is their moral code?
  • Where are their courts, in which they adjudicate their moral code, assess responsibility, and mete out punishment?
  • Where are their high-level languages, through which they can express both practical and abstract reasoning and can describe both physical and metaphysical concepts (e.g. justice, beauty, mercy)?
  • Where are their mathematical systems, in which they can enumerate, compare, express proportions and relationships, or predict outcomes?
  • Where is their progress, both technological and intellectual?
  • Why is it that after ten thousand years or more, chimpanzees still swing from the trees as they always have, while we humans have emerged from the forests and even been to the moon and back?

My questions could go on and on, but let these serve to demonstrate that the gulf between us and the animals is vast. We are separated from them by far more than degree. Indeed, animals are not even “in our league.” Humans possess faculties that animals do not. If they do possess them, then where is the evidence?

Our rational intellect and our capacity to engage the metaphysical both point to the gift of our soul. Scripture says of us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We are possessed of intellect and will. This is not said of the animals, nor is it said of them what is said of Adam (and us): that God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul. (Gen 2:7). Yes, the very breath of God entered the human person.

III Our Righteous Perception Good and evil he shows them. He put the fear of himself upon their hearts … He says to them, “Avoid all evil”; each of them he gives precepts about his fellow men.

God has written His name and His law upon our hearts. Thus says the Lord, I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jer 31:33). God’s voice also echoes in our conscience. But your eyes shall see your Teacher, and your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left (Is 30:20-21).

Every human person has the Law of God written in his heart and God’s voice echoing in his conscience. Sadly, many seek to suppress the fundamental truth found there, through rationalization and other forms of denial. Yet still the voice is there. As this text from Sirach teaches, God has put in all of us a sense of good and evil. He has put a reverent fear of Himself in us. We know His precepts innately. This is our glory. That is why it is so awful when any person (and all people were made to know the truth) runs from the truth to lies and darkness.

IV Our Rational Praise And [God] shows them his mighty works, That they might glory in the wonder of his deeds and praise his holy name. His majestic glory their eyes beheld, his glorious voice their ears heard.

Animals praise God implicitly through their very existence, by being what they were made to be. The human person, however, can offer to God conscious, chosen, and rational praise. St. Paul bids us, I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service (Rom 12:1). The Greek word translated here as “reasonable” is λογικὴν (logiken), from which we get the word logic.

We worship God not merely in emotional ways, but also in ways that are sensible, reasonable, fitting, and edifying. Here, too, is our glory: to give not merely implicit worship—as do the animals by their existence—but fitting and freely chosen worship.

V Our Relational Potential An everlasting covenant he has made with them, his justice and his judgments he has revealed to them.

Unlike the animals, man is summoned to a covenantal relationship, to a marriage with God. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and we, as members of the same, are espoused to God. Man has capax Dei, the capacity and potential to be in a free and conscious relationship with God.

The text further relates this relationship to God’s justice, for to be made righteous is to be in a right relationship with God the Father through the blood of His Son.

Here, too, is our dignity, because we must freely consent to this covenant. If we die saying yes, the covenant will be everlasting.

VI Our Responsible Position Their ways are ever known to him; they cannot be hidden from his eyes. Over every nation he places a ruler, but God’s own portion is Israel. All their actions are clear as the sun to him, his eyes are ever upon their ways.

The passage ends on a teaching that points both to our dignity and to the responsibility we carry due to that dignity. Because we are free and blessed with all these gifts, we will also one day have to account to God for our use of these gifts. Everyone to whom much has been given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom much has been entrusted, will be demanded the more (Luke 12:48).

We should be sober, trusting in God’s mercy but not failing to seek it, and make good use of what he has entrusted to us. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).

Fellow human beings, know your glory and dignity as God made you. Rejoice in the splendor and singular grace God has bestowed upon you.

O Lord, when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him but a little lower than angels
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!  
(Psalm 8)