I’ve reflected today on an old story. You’ve probably heard it. It goes something like this:
Four blind men are in a room with an elephant. They each approach the elephant and feel it, so as to describe it to those around them. However, each man touches a different part of the elephant.
“An elephant is like a snake!” says the first man, cradling the trunk in his arms. “No,” the second replies as he runs smack into the elephant’s side, “an elephant is like a rock: Large, and round, and strong; and yet also gentle and forgiving.” “You’re both wrong! An elephant is like a tree trunk!” the third man laughs, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “An elephant, my friends, is like a flounder; large and flat.” The last man has hold of the elephants ears.
Which man is right?
This parable is told by many people, who want to downplay the significant differences between the major world religions. They shy away from the mutually exclusive (Christ is either just a good man, or He is God, but He cannot be both), and seek a more inclusive, less dogmatic faith. They call religious dogma and doctrine arrogant. Why? Because in reality, they claim, we’re all blind men touching different parts of the same elephant.
As I was reflecting on this story today, two thoughts struck me. The first is that whoever narrates this story is not blind. They see the whole elephant. The second is that God is not an elephant.
To expound on the first point a bit, the person who calls those of us with a particular view of God “arrogant” or “too dogmatic” operates under the assumption that they know what God is like. They are the narrator in the story — at least in their mind — and they know that all of our petty squabbles are just the grating ignorance of blind men. On the other hand, they assume the ability to see the whole elephant with at least enough clarity to know that the blind men are touching the same elephant. Isn’t it at least as arrogant, and a bit hypocritical to boot, to assume that you have this sight that no other religious tradition seems to have?
Many others have raised this point in response to this story; this is just a refresher on the most basic problem with this objection to the exclusivity of religious dogma. Up to this point, almost any religion would probably be able to appropriate the argument I have used. As we explore the second point, however, that will end.
Now I do not dispute that we are blind men. I’ve certainly never had coffee with God; Jesus and I have never grabbed beers together (or would wine be more appropriate, perhaps?). I am certainly “blind” in that I have never seen God, or known Him experientially or empirically. But God is not an elephant. I know that I’ve immediately ostracized any Hindu’s that might read this. But here’s my point: Elephant’s don’t talk. They can’t communicate. A blind man could spend all day exploring an elephant and he wouldn’t get a single English (or other useful language) word out of him (although I’m sure at some point even the most patient of elephants would protest his persistence).
But God is not an elephant. God can speak. God can communicate to us. How can a blind man know what an elephant looks like? If someone describes that elephant to him. I love how John says Christ came to exegete the Father to us — that Jesus made the Father known to us, because since the beginning He has always been in communion with the Father (John 1). And so God does not sit silently as we shuffle in the dark, each speculating and feeling our way toward Him (Acts 17:27). God the Father sends the Son to earth, and the Spirit upholds those whom the Son sends to tell the world about His death for their sins and resurrection for their new life (1 Corinthians 15; Romans 6). Now, in spite of our blindness, we still can see and know God, because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.
We are blind men, indeed, but God is not an elephant.