Little Less than the Angels

Psalm 8

October 4, 2015

Union University Church

Reverend Laurie DeMott



            About 2000 years ago, in what is today western Illinois, a group of Native Americans buried a young bobcat wearing a necklace of bear teeth and shells.  Archaeologists speculate that the villagers may have begun taming the bobcat, one of the earliest instances of animal domestication in North America.  The tender burial, they say, illustrates the affection an ancient person developed for their pet.[1]

Our love for animals goes back a long ways.  Human beings have always seen animals not only a food source but as companions and helpmates.  In the story of the Garden of Eden, God gives Adam the chance to name the animals: the storyteller wants us to recognize the bond that exists between the creatures of the earth and the human beings living alongside of them.  We all come from the hand of God, the Bible says.

At the same time, however, our relationship with animals has been an ambiguous one.  We domesticate them but we also eat them.  We cuddle with them on the couch but benefit from the research done on them in our labs.  We love them but we abuse them.  We believe that we are related to these creatures with whom we share the earth but at the same time, maybe to assuage our guilt, we also want to believe that we are different from them, that somehow human beings are special and set apart.

In 1922, when fundamentalist churches rejected the theory of evolution, their champion William Jennings Bryant, wrote, “Only a small percentage of the American people believe that man is descendant of the ape, monkey, or of any other form of animal life below man; why should not those who worship brute ancestors build their own colleges, and employ their own teachers for the training of their own children for their brute doctrine?”  Bryant expressed the underlying fear that fuels this debate, the fear that if we accept our evolutionary lineage, we will have to admit that we too are animals, cousins to the monkeys, only a few steps away from the dogs on our laps.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” the psalmist asks, and then replies in wonder, “Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels.”  Those who reject the theory of evolution do so because they want to retain the unique status of human beings that we see in the Bible.

I accept the theory of evolution as I know many of you do, but this does raises the theological question:  if we are descended from animals, then what does the Bible mean when it says that we are at the same time little less than the angels?


For centuries, scientists have tried on different answers to that question: “What makes human beings unique?”  For a long time, scientists argued that human beings were unique in our ability to use tools, but then animal researchers watched otters breaking open oysters with rocks, and an octopus carrying a coconut shell with it as it swam around the ocean so that it could hide under the shell when threatened.  If you want to see an amazing example of tool use in animals, google “Tool Making Crows” (when you get home.) Researchers put a little food bucket into a glass tube and handed a wire to a crow to see what it would do.  The crow spends a minute poking the wire into the tube in a feeble attempt to hook the bucket’s handle, but when it realizes it isn’t getting anywhere, it takes the wire to a corner of a box and pushes the wire against the box’s side until the wire is bent into a hook shape.  The crow then hops back to the tube, inserts the bent wire, and neatly hooks the handle, pulling out the food.

So after watching some pretty amazing displays of tool use by animals, scientists discarded the idea that tool use is what makes us unique and decided that maybe it is our ability to use language that makes us human.  That theory began to unravel as well when Karl von Frisch studied honeybees in the 1970s.  He discovered that the worker bees do an intricate dance that can tell other bees the direction of the pollen source and exactly how far they will need to fly to find it.  The bee dance is so specific that researchers were able to decode the dance and follow the directions themselves.  Most of us can’t even give someone clear directions to Walmart.

“Well, you take that road — I’m not sure the route number — but you know, it’s the one that goes through Almond, and then you take that back road but it goes by that park — oh, what’s it called?— it starts with a C or a K or something — and you go for a while and you’ll get to an intersection — is it the first or the second intersection?  Maybe it’s the third, but it’s the big intersection with a traffic light …..”  Can you imagine us trying to tell someone where to find one flower in a meadow five miles away?

With honeybees doing dances and gorillas learning sign language and evidence that dolphins have individual names, language can no longer be claimed as a unique province of humans.

The last bastion of human exclusivity seemed to be our moral sense.  Philosophers argued that what makes us human is our ability show empathy and compassion for others, an idea that stood firm until a primate researcher named Frans de Waal began testing the moral capacity of our primate cousins.  As de Waal observed chimps and other primates, he discovered clear examples of empathy, peace-making, social restraint, and reconciliation.

My favorite story of de Waals is of the time he was watching a troop of chimps in his research center.  One of the older females named Krom noticed that there was some water in a tire hanging to one side on a rack.  Unfortunately, this particular tire was at the very end of the rack and had six more heavy tires hanging in front of it.  Krom spent ten minutes tugging and pulling, trying to get at the tire so that she could drink the water but finally gave up in frustration.  Immediately, Jakie, a seven year old male, who had been watching Krom, went to the tires, pushed them off of the rack one by one, carefully removed the tire with the water, rolled it slowly across the enclosure so that the water wouldn’t slosh out, and placed it upright in front of Krom. She scooped up the water and drank.

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…. Just as you did it to the least of these, so you did it to me.”

Who could watch Jakie’s empathy and care of Krom and claim that compassion is unique to humans?[2]
So what does makes us uniquely human?  The Psalmist says that we are little less than the angels; the storyteller in Genesis says that we are created out of mud but also breathed through with the breath of God.  As people of faith, we believe that we are more than just animals, but what does that mean?

I believe that scientists will never be able to find a biological quality that makes us uniquely human, because I don’t believe that our uniqueness lies in our biology.  We are animals and we will experience many of the same things that the animals around us experience.  We will be hungry and thirsty, and we will feel anxiety and fear, and we will worry about the safety of our children and the hair on our neck will stand up when someone threatens us or our loved ones.  We will want to growl at each other and tussle over who gets the bone, and we will want to protect our territory and stick with our tribe and bark at strangers.  We are animals with all of the instincts and impulses that motivate our dogs and cats and the birds at our feeder and the spiders in our closets and the whales breaching on the ocean foam.  We are beautiful and primitive; a mix of moral impulses and instinctual drives, and we cannot change that animal heritage.  We can’t deny it and pretend that we don’t feel it.  We can’t separate ourselves from the clay of the earth with which we are made.  We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we are not evolved from the same primordial soup that is the ancient ancestor of every other creature with whom we share this earth.

What makes us created in the image of God is not how we got here but what we do with this life we have been given.  The Bible tells us that we among all animals are able to recognize that we can choose whether to let our feelings and instincts be in the driver’s seat or whether our Christ-called self — the person that is made in the image of God — will take charge and act in life-giving ways regardless of our feelings.  We are animals but we can rise to be little less than the angels by choosing to act in ways that are not merely a response to our animal nature but there are a response to the call of Christ.

So maybe we will worry that we will lose our job if too many immigrants come into our country or maybe we will be jealous of the good work of a co-worker because we are afraid their success will make us look less, or we want to lash out in anger at a teacher who isn’t attending to our child.  Just like the dog with a bone, we want to growl at intruders and drive them away so that our bone is safe.  We want to bite and snarl and defend that which is ours.  That is the animal instinct in us and we can’t deny our fear or our worry or even our impulse to be suspicious.  It is part of who we are as animals: there is nothing we can do to change those feelings, but we can choose whether to act on those feelings.  Christ calls us to rise above our animal instinct and choose to respond in a way that looks beyond tribal feelings, and self-protection and instead responds to our call to manifest the image of God in our lives..

“Who is your neighbor?” Jesus asked.  And then he reached out to the Samaritan and the paralyzed man and the beggar, and those who were unclean, outcast, forgotten, disreputable, and he pulled them into the circle of community.

“These are your neighbors,” he said.  “Choose to show them compassion no matter what your instincts are telling you.”

And he told Peter, “Forgive seven times seventy times,” and he told the rich man to give his things to the poor, and he told us to love our enemies and pray for those who had hurt us.  He told us to respond not to our instincts but to our call.  He invited us to make divine choices, holy choices, choices that are shaped in the image of God and not in the image of the primordial soup from which we all come.

We are blessed to share this earth with our animal cousins but we are also blessed to be endowed with the ability to choose to rise above our animal instincts and show in our lives the face of God in whose image we are made.


[2] Frans de Waal, Good Natured: the Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals