The Dignity of Man

The truth is, rationality is the same in all intelligent beings. reason is the same thing in God, in Angels, and in Men. As men therefore bear the image of God, in point of Rationality; so they possess all the rational powers and faculties, which bear any analogy to the divine intelligence; or, which can be communicated to created beings. Accordingly Angels are superior to men in the same sense, and perhaps nearly in the same degree, that Newton was superior to most of his own species. As Newton had no rational power or faculty peculiar to himself; so Angels have no rational powers or faculties which are not common to all intelligent creatures. Every man therefore is capable of learning all that any man, or any intelligent creature has learned, or can learn. Hence the only natural and necessary distinction between Angels and men, and between one man and another is this; that Angels are capable of acquiring knowledge more easily, and more swiftly than men; and some men are capable of acquiring knowledge more easily and more swiftly than others. And this difference between Angels and men, and between man and man, to whatever cause it may be owing, will probably continue forever; and forever keep up a distinction in their knowledge and improvements for the time being.

— Nathanael Emmons “The Dignity of Man”, Franklin Massachuesetts, March 1, 1787 (from American Sermons; Library of America, 1999; page 501)

I’m not sure I agree with this.

Actually, I’m not sure why I’m commenting on this except for the fact that I read this while on the eliptical at the gym this morning and felt my eyebrows arch higher and my head tilt to the side. I’ll admit I haven’t finished reading Nathanael Emmons’ sermon and I think I get the point of his sermon. The preface describes that occasion for the preaching of this sermon to be because someone donated a large amount of books to the parish library. In that context, a sermon on Rationality and the Dignity of humanity makes sense. Nathanael, from my reading, liked knowledge. He saw God as its source and based on his theology, that lead him to the statement above that, if I’m reading right, is making knowledge a product of God and not a product of man. That, I can agree with. But it’s the bit about Angels that I don’t get.

Really? That’s the difference between men and Angels, that they can learn faster than we can? You think that a creature that could fly, could actually revolt in an armed conflict against God, and could help lead Armageddon, would be a tad different from humans than just being able to learn faster. If I was an angel, I’d want a little more than just being able to learn faster. I wouldn’t need a new car or cash or anything. I’d just want to be able to rock out on the harp. As a being who’s entire existence is the worship of God, you think that would be the minimum thing I’d get. And I bet I’d be pretty fantastic at it too.

It’s interesting how, throughout Christian history, angels matter. There’s even been tv shows about them. It’s not hard to look at the Old Testament, see what I consider to be a low amount of angelogy, and then pick up 1st century CE primary sources and discover that the NT was written in an era where angels were big business. The folks at Qurum had entire lists of angels, their names, and stuff that they do. Besides talking to Mary, they run errands. If the Dead Sea scrolls were written in the modern era, I bet all the angels would have fake facebook accounts.

I don’t think I currently hear many references to angels in my mainline Lutheran church. In our prayers, we mention them. There’s a part in our ceremony where we sing in praise as we believe angels do (and the fact that I forget the name of this part of the service is annoying me). But beyond that, we don’t say much about them. We believe they’re there but they’re not in vogue right now. When another pieist movement starts, they’ll come back and maybe then I’ll have a better context to look at Emmon’s sermon and get why talking about Angels in rationality matters. And then we’ll get more Touched by an Angel shows on tv, Archangel Michael iPhone covers, and then Kevin Smith can bring back his buddy Christ one more time.