Have you read stunning story about the boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo? Or did you read the OTHER story, the one about explosive outcry all over the country in defense of the gorilla? To me, the second one is the bigger story. A petition on change.org has gathered over 300,000 supporters, protesting the killing of the gorilla, as well as charging the parents with negligence.

Throughout the massive public outcry that has resulted, an article in the Huffington Post asks an important question – “Whatever happened to empathy?” Many have been shocked that such a judgmental and harsh reaction has blown up to judge the mother and the decision making of the zookeepers.

All yelling and screaming aside, there is a fundamental question at the heart of this story. It centers on how we react to tragedy and what we value most. Why do we have empathy in the first place? Why do we value the life of a child over the life of a gorilla? Who said the child is more valuable than the gorilla?

The extreme division over this issue merely shows the depth of worldview divide in our culture. The vast majority will agree that it is bad for children to be in danger, that it is bad for mothers to experience the loss of a child and that it is bad that a gorilla had to die. The tricky part comes when we try to navigate these issues morally.

The questions stated above point us to the roots, the reasons why we believe in both human and animal dignity. The reality that dominates our culture today is that most people function out of a secular worldview. Their answers to these questions can only go as deep as their evolutionary perspective. Thus, it is indeed tragic for a gorilla to die, just as tragic as it is for a child to die. From the perspective of the Darwinian worldview, the danger of the child and the danger of the gorilla are equal. There is no inherent reason why one death is more tragic than the other. Neither life is inherently more valuable than the other.

This poses a problem. Most of us will quickly jump in an say that despite these claims we still value the life of the child more than the life of the gorilla. But why? There is no basis for this value. It is arbitrary. Our drive to survive is no more valid than that of the gorillas.

The problem with arbitrary absolutes is that they will eventually crumble. When a cause or reason comes along that will, in our perspective, trump the value we once held, we will give in. Without a legitimate basis for human dignity and worth, we eventually loose our humanity. There is nothing that sets us apart from animals and therefore we start to treat each other in a way that reflects that. This then answers the question posed earlier – what happened to empathy? The answer is this: it was dissolved when we lost the basis for human dignity.

The christian worldview offers a most compelling basis for human dignity. It sets humanity apart from the rest of the world because we are made in God’s image. He has built within us a unique capacity for personality, relationship and moral reasoning. Yet simultaneously it sets us up as those who are to use their position in the world to care for the world and protect it. Francis Schaeffer puts it this way:

People today are trying to hang on to the dignity of man, and they do not know how to because they have lost the truth that man is made in the image of God. He was an unprogrammed man, a significant man in a significant history, and he could change history.¹

We want to believe in this kind of humanity. But if we do not have the basis for it, we will continue to loose it.

 


  1. Schaeffer, Francis A. (2014-07-10). Escape from Reason (IVP Classics) (Kindle Locations 290-292). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.