An Elephant in the World Religions Classroom: Parsing a Parable

I’m teaching world religions again this semester and I want students to understand that stories carry worldviews. I also want them to know that respecting people means taking them seriously; it means risking disagreement. A central aspect of academic life is respectfully arguing with each other about what is true, good, and beautiful. The respect we give is for the dignity of our dialogue partners, not necessarily every aspect of their life or worldview.

There is a story that you often hear in discussions of world religions. It is a parable that is supposed to put to rest all the discussions about which religion is the true religion. It goes something like this:

A number of blind men bumped into an elephant in a large room one day. They had not encountered such a creature before, so each reached out to touch and identify it. Because they encountered different parts of the elephant, they came up with different interpretations.

         “An elephant is like a rope,” said a blind man as the tail swished his face.

         “No,” said another who was touching the ear. “Its like a carpet.”

         “You’re both wrong,” added the third who sat beside the elephant’s leg. “Its like a tree stump.”

In sum, this parable teaches that we all sense different parts of God and each is a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Together we approach the truth of the whole.

Now if you think of this parable with respect to our fallible, interpretation-based human nature, it works. We are all limited in our capacity to know, and depending on where you are positioned in life on this planet, you will come up with a different feeling for what is really real. Our worldview is relative to where we come from and who we grow with. That goes for everybody. We see through a glass darkly.

We all know in partial ways.

image from pixabay

The “Catch”

There is a “catch” here, however. The parable says much more than the fact that we all see through a glass darkly. It says we all equally sense parts of the same God. This is the key: who is it that sees the one true interpretation—the objective reality that there are blind men are touching the same thing? How does this narrator know that they do not grasp different objects, imaginary things, mistake what they touch, or even are making deliberate fibs? In other words, how did the narrator know it was an elephant?

John Bowen warns us about this story in his book Evangelism for ‘Normal” People (Fortress, 2002). He says that the job of parables is to illustrate a point of view. That is to say, if you already believe that all religions have an equally valid hold on the truth, this story illustrates that belief quite well. It doesn’t prove anything. The fact is that it is a story from the eastern mystics, and it supports the worldview of eastern mysticism very well.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his book Open Secret (Eerdmans, 1995), unveils the story in more detail. He says that in a Hindu version of the tale, a king put the elephant in the midst of the blind men in order to amuse his courtiers and teach them that “the diverse religions of the world are but the gropings of blind men after a truth much too great for any human mind to grasp.” The question is, if the blind men represent all the religions of the world, who does the king—the one who “sees” all religions clearly–represent? Who is this who escapes all the limitations of human perspective? The king, of course, is the enlightened mystic, looking down upon all the confused world religions.

In contemporary terms, the king would be your local mystic, Unitarian, Bahai student, or tolerance-advocating pluralist. They see those who hold to a particular faith, like the blind men, as misguided, if not pitiable or silly. But how did these kings come to “see” everything so clearly? What right to they have to feel superior? By what evidence do they trump everyone else grasping for truth in this ambiguous world?

There is no hard proof here. Only a story steeped in a deep faith. Bowen concludes: “In a strange reversal, the very story that argues against ‘objective truth’ itself claims to be objective truth. What appears at first sight to be a liberal analogy actually imposes its view just as oppressively as the views it is mocking and relativising.” In other words, those who accuse others of being “exclusivistic” and insist on a more humble approach, may in fact be the most offensive and imperialistic of all. How can one know that no religion sees the whole truth unless one assumes to know the whole truth? There is certainly an elephant in the classroom, and its the old claim to universal, objective knowledge. It’s a rival religion in disguise.

Inevitable Particularity

Newbigin sympathizes with the feeling behind the parable. He says “it is very understandable that we should look for some point of view that would enable us to bring together these clashing commitments in a single framework. It is understandable, but we have to face the fact that it is impossible.” We can only see things from within our own framework of meaning. We have no standpoint except the point from which we stand. No one floats above tradition, religion, or worldview commitments. We are all limited by the scandal of our own particularity.

So rather than feeling superior to those who think differently from us, we need to see others as standing in faith commitments just as we are. This means rather than dismissing them, we ought to engage them and challenge them with our own stories even as we listen and learn from their stories. There will be both interesting similarities and significant differences. Our stories will reveal whom we trust, what world we imagine and strive for, and what God we claim to serve. We become accountable to each other, and we will change each other.

Oh, and atheism is just as much a story as any religious one. Its just less enchanting, as Max Weber surmised.

The Zookeeper Guide

That’s the end of my lecture. But I have asked students in the past to create a parable more reflective of the Christian worldview. A different version of the story, for example, might go like this:

A group of blind men entered the zoo in search of the greatest of all animals—the elephant. They knew nothing about the elephant except that it was the greatest of all animals on earth. They split up and agreed to meet at the end of the day.

That evening they shared their stories. The first blind man said that he had discovered the elephant hanging from a tree. He knew it must be so because it was so beautifully long and smooth and it had sharp teeth like no other creature.

“He is a dangerous being,” said the first blind man.

The second blind man disagreed, saying the greatest animal was to be found not in the trees, but in the water. An elephant was a gracefully swift swimming creature and loved to jump out of the water and splash spectators in return for small tasty fish.

“The elephant is a playful being, undoubtedly,” he explained. “Its high pitched utterances are quite whimsical.”

The third blind man shook his head. He said that he had actually found Braille signs on posts throughout the zoo, and when he came to the sign that read “elephant”, a gracious zoo keeper had opened up a gate and led him into the elephant’s quarters. The zoo keeper told him all he needed to know about the elephant—testifying that the elephant lived both on land and in water, often rustling the trees, too.

The last blind man concluded: “I don’t know for sure, but on the testimony of someone who acted like the zoo keeper I learned that the elephant is a gentle animal, but also to be feared. He is not completely safe, but he is most certainly good.”

“He is not completely safe, but he is most certainly good.”

photo from pixabay

I suppose any religion could claim that its scriptures and prophets are the story of the third blind man. But it fits well with a Christian interpretation. First of all, in this story we are not all assumed to be examining the same animal. Our stories are substantially different. If they are only superficially different, then there is no real pluralism. It is only pluralism of the surface.

Secondly, if all our stories are equally valid, there is no reason to disagree or convert. This elephant story suggests that blind people can be wrong. It also suggests that every human character—and thus every religion—is blind.

This leads to the distinctive ending: What ends up being the best examination is not a result of human efforts, but the gift of a gracious presence. We have not been “set up” for inevitable misperception but for real discovery. Our discovery, however, comes to us on the basis of faith: our trust in the testimony of the mediator and his message, the message that God is real, and that he is not quite safe, but most certainly good.

In effect, the story suggests God is revealed, not simply imagined. Humans do not fumble in the dark for him as much as he enters our darkness and weakness. The story tells of a God self-disclosed rather than a God groped-for, God coming to us in grace rather than God eluding us in darkness. This God leaves hints, speaks through servants, and his character and history are proclaimed with clarity.

Now if the zoo keeper had been executed for opening the elephant’s cage to the blind man, the story is more deeply tied to a Christian interpretation. It is an act of suffering love that brings blind people to God. But analogies only go so far, and we need not ask them to do more than demonstrate a single point or two.

We thus end where we began: stories do not prove anything. They demonstrate or illustrate what is already assumed. There are no neutral stories just as there are no neutral theories. There is no way to float above traditions of belief and systematize them all in some non-partisan way. Everyone stands within a tradition of belief, and there is no outside rational adjudicator (besides God himself) to settle the matter. We are not God.

So let’s admit our limits. As Christians we need to find the best way to tell the most compellingly beautiful Christian stories, just as Jesus did (and others, like Kierkegaard!). Not because they prove anything without contention, but because stories are the worlds humans live inside. They point the way, suggest the source of hope, and tell us who we are.

The Ant Farmer Story

From elephants to ants…

image from pixabay

One more try at a good illustration of the gospel, one you might have heard before. But we switch from elephants to ants. Its simple, but adequate for its purpose.

A great inventor cultivated an impressive ant farm. He loved his ant farm as if it were his own family. The evidence of his creativity and presence shone all over the farm and the ant colony flourished.

Unfortunately, one day many of the ants starting attacking one another and the ant aquarium started to smell. The farmer tried talking to them, corralling them, but they ignored his pleas and sabotaged his corrals. A few ants paid some attention, but they were often mauled by other ants. Nothing he did seemed to get the message through.

So he did a drastic thing: he invented a way to transmogrify a version of himself into an ant. As an ant in his own ant farm, he modelled for the ants a life of love and respect for each other, and told them of his dreams for the ant farm to grow and flourish.

We could end the analogy here, noting that God comes to us more than we are enlightened in finding him. But I’ll risk stretching out the story to illustrate the gospel further.

Unfortunately, many of the ants rejected this way of life and his dream of the future. Some ignored him, others mocked him or outright rejected him. One gang of ants was so repulsed by him that in a fit of rage they pulled him apart—they tore him to shreds. He died without retaliating; his last words spoke of his deep love for all the ants.

Some ants took notice and were inspired by his example. They set up small groups of ants to carry on his practice of love and respect—and his dream of a new kind of ant farm. They developed a conviction that someday this victimized ant-leader would come back again and renew the whole ant farm in a spectacular way.

The end. Well, its not easy making up parables. A good parable is hard to find. But stories have power, and they ought to be discerned carefully. Not all stories are created equal.

If you know a good parable for my world religions class, please leave a comment below!


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