To See An Elephant

There’s an old parable about four blind men and an elephant. One man grabbed the elephant’s leg and believed it to be a tree trunk. One grabbed the tail and assumed it was a whip. One touched the elephant’s trunk and called it a hose, and the fourth touched its side and called it a wall. Then a teacher declares to them that all of them are right.

This parable can be awesome or not depending on what one uses it to illustrate. For instance, it works well if we’re talking about people’s perspectives on things. But it’s often alluded to in our religiously pluralistic society as an illustration that there is one God, but many paths to him. For some, Christianity works best for them. For others, Hinduism is how they see fit to pursue God. Some see Buddhism as best for them, while others turn to Wicca and new age beliefs. Still others create a religion based on a conglomeration of many other religions (Baha’ism).

One of the most unpopular things you can do in the West these days is to declare something as universally true. How dare we assume that what works for one person must work for all people? What right has one blind man to speak for all four blind men? But pending the possibility that a wild peg-leg gratti elephant is going around wreaking havoc by whipping people with his whip-tail, then there’s a huge problem with using this proverb to illustrate divine truth: All the blind men are wrong. Whatever each part of the elephant feels like doesn’t change the fact that what each of them are feeling is, in truth, an elephant. Not a hose, not a wall, not a whip, not a tree trunk, but the trunk, side, tail, and leg of an elephant.

It’s not wrong to say that a certain part of the elephant feels like something else, but we are false when we assume that what we feel is not just what it feels like but rather what it actually is. How does this play out with regards to religion? Many feel an unmistakable connection to the divine when they are out in nature. Its not wrong to feel spiritual when you’re in a beautiful, outdoor area. The Bible claims that creation declares God’s glory. But what many people do is to direct their affections and trust towards nature itself, trusting it for guidance. The stars, meant for beauty and for signs of things GOD will do, are thus turned to as divine guides of what we should do in our own lives. Nature becomes its own god.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is way, the truth, and the life, and that there is no other way to God than through him. Not a popular view, I understand. But let me level the playing field. All of humanity is born blind. You, me, everyone. We’re all blind. This is the great strength of the proverb. And like the four blind men, that blindness leads us into falsehoods. We’ve all made a career of trying to interpret what we feel but cannot see. Many take what we feel, certain distinct attributes of God and run with them making religions out of the whip and the hose. But none of them entail what we were truly feeling.

If all of humanity is blind and grabbing hold of some different part of the proverbial elephant, how will we ever know that what we’re touching is an elephant and not something else? In other words, if we’re all blind, how can we ever truly know God? How can we possibly discover that we’re touching a leg and not a tree trunk? Somehow, someway, we need to receive sight, for it is by illumination that we will see the realities that exist beyond our own fingertips. And for this, something must be done to humanity. Something must be done to give sight back to us. And if we’re referring to God with this analogy of the elephant, then God must intervene and reveal himself as he truly is and show us that he is greater than the sum of all the parts of which we’ve merely touched. If we’re to know God as he is and to worship him on his terms, our only hope is that he will show us how, because if our knowledge of God is based upon the blind leading the blind, what hope do we have of knowing him?

So the big question is: has God revealed himself? Has God taken pity on a blind race and given us sight? No religion is worth pursuing if all it does is make us feel better, yet that’s exactly the standard that so many people use when searching out a path to the divine. We’re prone to find out what “works,” and since what works will differ from person to person, it would be wrong to say that only one religion is correct. But if our search for the divine is merely a means of self-improvement, then what is truly divine will be difficult, if not impossible, to pen down. The question we must ask rather is “What is truth?”

So many people claim so many different revelations that God has made to us. Some say that Muhammad was God’s revelation to man, some Buddha, some say Joseph Smith, and some believe that Baha’u’llah was God’s most recent one. Theoretically it makes sense to say that men can speak on behalf of God, but only if God has first revealed himself to them. But to truly know whether or not Buddha, Smith, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah are speaking on God’s behalf in ther revelatory claims, we need to ascertain where God has actually revealed himself, how he revealed himself, what he actually did reveal to the fumbling blind race of humanity about himself, and measure that against what these supposed prophets said.

Christianity is truly unique among the world’s faiths, for many reasons which I won’t go into now. To cling to the elephant proverb is to admit that we are blind, lost, and unable to help ourselves. The Bible states this. It also says that God DID come down to us (Jesus Christ) to open our blind eyes to see the elephant before us. Jesus said that he alone was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one gets to Father but through him. The Bible says that Christ is how God has spoken to us, and therefore the validity of any so-called prophet of God must be determined in the light of whether or not it completely matches up with what Jesus said.

A religion unconcerned with truth is no better than a self-help method. Truth isn’t relative. What we prefer, or what “works” for us doesn’t bend the universe in some cosmic way as to make it true. And Christianity, the people who worship and follow the self-proclaimed God who took on human form to save us, makes the claim to spiritual and historical truth to a degree no other faith ever has.

One comment

  1. Paul Rutherford · April 3, 2007

    Nicely treated. I appreciate your perspective on the flexibility of the parable of the four blind men and the elephant. It’s refreshing to hear a Christian NOT denounce it as pluralistic. Thank you. Your thoughts are well formed and I like how articulate you are.

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