I was recuperating from major surgery when I heard about the kid sneaking into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. My kneejerk reaction was disgust toward a negligent parent, until I remembered the time my wife and I lost our firstborn son at a clothing store in the mall. For several minutes, Mom and I went out of our heads with panic until three-year old Paul stuck his head out of a circular rack of trousers and chirped, “Peek-a-boo!” Kids can be slippery.
But something more disturbing than losing track of a child has surfaced: the elevation of an ape to human status — or, perhaps more accurately, the demotion of a human being to animal status. After the gorilla was shot and killed on May 29, a “Justice for Harambe” Facebook page popped up, garnering nearly 166,000 “Likes” as of this writing. A Fox News poll revealed that 63% of respondents believe that the zoo should not have killed the gorilla.
My family and friends will attest to the fact that I am a passionate animal lover. As a matter of fact, I’m a little nutty in that area. I was once late to a rehearsal because I spied a frightened dog on a busy boulevard. I whipped my car into a parking lot, stopped traffic and ran several blocks before I finally caught the little rascal and got him to an animal shelter. After that incident, I remembered why I hate running so much.
I love monkeys and apes, too. Several years ago, on a day trip to Branson, my wife and I were looking over entertainment brochures. Suddenly I spied a piece featuring a handsome, jazzily-dressed couple holding a Capuchin. I waved the brochure in front of my wife’s face like a five-year old. “Okay, we’ll go see the monkey show,” she sighed, clearly wishing I had chosen something a bit more sophisticated.
I was saddened when I heard that Harambe had been killed. I really was. But I would have been sadder if the ape had torn the kid apart or even lovingly smothered him in his huge, hairy arms. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it was a scary possibility. If I had been the kid’s parent, I would’ve backed the zoo 100%.
It got me to thinking about the theological implications of this situation. (Yep, seminarians can see the theology in just about anything, even a 400-pound gorilla). New Age guru Deepak Chopra wrote in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success that a human being is “like a wiggle, a wave, a fluctuation, a convolution, a whirlpool, a localized disturbance in the larger quantum field.” Imagine introducing yourself not by name or profession, but as a “localized disturbance in the quantum field.” You might find yourself alone in a hurry.
Or take the musings of this blog writer. He sets up a scenario of rescuing either a person or a pair of mice from a burning house. He chooses to save the human being, but for a reason that has nothing to do with intrinsic value: “I don’t think humans are more important than mice, but I would save the baby rather than the mice, because I’m human, and I prefer humans to mice…To me this question has nothing to do with objective species importance, and everything to do with species bias. It’s easier for me to see other animals’ (sic) die rather than humans, because I am human, not because we’re more important.”
Why is this theological? Because when we divorce humanity from divinity, we can make the case that we are on the same value-level as animals, plants and dirt. If we are simply evolved goo, we do not carry the imago dei, the likeness of God that sets us apart mentally, socially and spiritually. In this worldview, humans are merely an accident that happened to crawl to the top of the evolutionary ladder, but this doesn’t make us worthier than amoebas. It means we are just animals that happen to have gotten lucky with some random mutations over a long stretch of time.
There is danger in classifying human beings this way. At the very least, this kind of thinking can open the door to nihilism, the belief that there are no objective morals and life is meaningless. At the worst, such evils as euthanasia, abortion and gross selfishness can be justified. After all, if we are no better than a cat, why not just put your grandmother down when the cancer tests come back positive? If we are beasts, why help each other at all? Let’s roam in packs like wolves and take what we want — or watch a dangerous gorilla manhandle a defenseless boy. After all, the kid is just another creature, no more important than an ape.
When we sever God from human identity, we are monkeying around with dynamite. In his 1980 Easter message, Pope John Paul II warned that a culture which embraces the “death of God” also accepts the eventual “death of man.” Society might survive without religion, but it would be survival of the fittest — and then we would, indeed, become the animals that the secularists so fervently seem to think we are.