You know the story of the blind men and the elephant right?
A king asks six blind men to determine what they are touching by feeling different parts of an elephant’s body. One blind man feels a leg and says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a pipe.
Then the king explains to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”
What’s wrong with this story?
This story is told to indicate the truth that can be found in all religions. Any religion that makes exclusive truth claims (such as, “Jesus is the only way to God”) should learn from this parable and be more tolerant of other religions.
I can think of at least three problems with this parable (If this comes across as being intolerant of foolishness, so be it.):
- All six of the blind men were wrong.
- Only the king knew the truth.
- The blind men were ignorant of the truth until the King revealed the truth to them.
I also draw three insights from these three problems with the parable:
- Only the one who has seen God (Jesus) can reveal God.
- All other attempts to know God are in vain.
- It is logically impossible for all religions to be true. (for example, is there only one God, is there more than one God, or is there no God? Because it can’t be all three.)
I love what Leslie Newbigin said about this story,
In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant… the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. What this means then is that there is an appearance of humility and a protestation that the truth is much greater than anyone of us can grasp. But if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth, it is in fact an arrogant claim with the kind of knowledge which is superior that you have just said, no religion has.
And here’s some more commentary on the story from Tim Keller:
To say, I don’t know which religion is true is an act of humility. To say, none of the religions have truth, no one can be sure there’s a god is actually to assume you have the kind of knowledge, you just said no other person, no other religion has. How dare you? See, it’s a kind of arrogant thing to say nobody can know the truth because it’s a universal truth claim. To say, ‘Nobody can make universal truth claims.’ That is a universal truth claim. ‘Nobody can see the whole truth.’ You couldn’t know that unless you think you see the whole truth. And, therefore, you’re doing the very thing you say religious people shouldn’t do.”
What do you think? Does the parable of the blind men and the elephant communicate anything valuable?