PhilosophyTheology & Spirituality

Zoos and the Reenchantment of Existence

I am an irrepressible zoo aficionado. During the past two summers, I lived in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., just two blocks from the National Zoo run by the Smithsonian Institution. Almost every morning, I’d see to it that my daily run detoured through the zoo, past elephants and sloth bears and pandas and clouded leopards (luckily for me, the gates generally opened early). For me, visiting zoos (and aquariums) is one way in which I experience a re-enchantment of existence—a recognition, when I might be tempted to take it for granted, of the transcendent beauty and wonder hidden throughout modern life.

Max Weber, a foundational sociologist of religion and culture, wrote at length about the disenchantment of the world, or the historical process by which human understandings of reality moved away from the mystical and toward belief in an ordered series of rational causes and effects. And while this trend allowed for great progress (no more human sacrifices to keep the sun rising each day!), when the imperative toward disenchantment is pushed too far, something important is lost.

Though Weber didn’t extend his argument this far, I’m tempted to suggest that the contemporary disenchantment of the world—by which I refer simply to our jadedness toward its beauty—is in part due to our estrangement from it. This estrangement is facilitated today by the explosion of tertiary-sector jobs and the ubiquity of technology that allows us to become the masters of our own cyber-fiefdoms. To step beyond that safe sphere—to witness, even in limited form and scope, elements of a natural and not-quite-tamed world—is to be pointedly reminded of one’s smallness and one’s dependence on forces far beyond oneself. If the Internet imploded tomorrow, and the cityscapes of the modern West were reduced to smoldering rubble, the world would continue on even in the face of human vanity. For the techno-age triumphalist, that is a potentially troubling thought. And even in zoos—structures ostensibly built by humans for their own entertainment—this impression comes through: the cosmos does not exist at man’s pleasure, but at the pleasure of some Power beyond man.

There are undoubtedly plenty of individuals who would view zoos as playing a very different role indeed—the role of education through demythologization, and of instilling an awareness of the natural world and its fragility. This is partly true—and justified, given the frequent intertwining of poaching and superstition—but scientific inquiry is complementary, not antagonistic, to an appreciation of the natural world’s aesthetic beauty or of the divine Power that created it. At the zoo, I see flashes of a world that humans did not create—and that, in an urbanized world dominated by glass and metal and Photoshop, is a humbling experience indeed. Greater knowledge of the natural universe only casts this point into sharper relief.

Awed humility is a tragically underappreciated virtue, but it illuminates the everyday world with a brilliant sense of wonder. For while the world is indeed full of cause-and-effect relationships, over and above those processes is a unifying, holistic grandeur that leaves the observer in reverential silence. Chapters 40 and 41 of the Book of Job, which proclaim the power of God as manifested in Behemoth and Leviathan, drive home this point with rich poetic language. “No one is fierce enough to rouse [Leviathan],” God challenges Job. “Who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.”

In short, zoos and aquariums bring me to a point of overwhelming joy at the gratuitousness of being—the fact that our very existence, and our related capacity to appreciate the intrinsic majesty throughout the world, testify to the grace of God and His creative and sustaining provision. What’s more, we experience the cosmos as a wholly unearned gift—a universe of beautiful things we explore by His pleasure.

And that’s why I keep coming back to the zoo.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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