The Blind Men and the Elephant – The Response!

The following is an excerpt from my book, Contradict – They Can’t All Be True (FYI – the spacing doesn’t always transfer correctly from my PDF file to the blog):

Drawing by my friend Danny Martinez.
Drawing by my friend Danny Martinez.

A popular analogy that depicts an “all religions lead to God” form of pluralism is the story of several blind men touching various parts of an elephant and being unable to agree on a single description of the creature they’re touching. This story has connections to Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Sufi Islam, a mystical branch of Islam. The story is found in the teachings of the Buddha within the Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism. One of the most popular versions comes from a nineteenth-century poet, John Godfrey Saxe, who rewrote the story in rhyme.

Though there are minor discrepancies among the versions, they all present the same basic scenario: since each blind man is touching a different part of the elephant, they disagree on what the elephant actually is. The one touching the tail might think the elephant is a broom; the one touching the side of the elephant might think the elephant is a wall; the one touching
the elephant’s trunk might think the elephant is a snake. Individually, they each know a part of the elephant accurately, but not the sum total of the animal. They fail to grasp what the elephant actually is because of their blindness. Their dispute is futile since they are all mistaken.

It is pretty clear how this story can be used within the framework of pluralistic relativism. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the like are all touching the same sacred elephant, God. But because all of humanity is spiritually blind, we are incapable of knowing God as he actually is. Any fighting among religious faiths is thus futile.

On the flip side, the good news within pluralism is that every religion is true based on what its adherents have experienced of the sacred reality. Since all religions have touched the sacred elephant, all religions lead to the same divine truth. Religious pluralists argue that if humanity could only come to “see” this predicament, all religious fighting could stop. We could recognize what each religion has learned about God and, by compiling the parts of the whole, come to a better understanding of who or what the nature and personhood of the sacred reality is.

The view of the divine expressed by the sacred elephant analogy is plausible and worth considering. Before considering the accuracy of its assertions, I want to stress the pluralistic uses of the story. Far from saying all religions are true, the story of the blind men and the elephant takes all religions and throws them under the bus, where they are left broken in their false perceptions of ultimate truth. As hopeful as this story can appear, in reality it just drops the bomb on absolute truth, at least absolute truth concerning God. The blind men show us that truth concerning God is unobtainable due to our limited faculties.

Skepticism toward God doesn’t invalidate this brand of pluralism. The problem lies within itself. Nestled within the story of the blind men and the elephant is a self-contradiction that makes the entire claim crumble in on itself. The pluralists claim that God is unknowable; every religion is wrong about its perceived understanding of the divine. However, in making this claim, the pluralists also implicitly declare they have an inside track on who God is. If no one is capable of knowing God due to our lack of sight in the realm of the divine, then what prescription glasses have enabled the pluralists to know the nature of God with such certainty? Pluralists are rejecting all exclusive truths concerning God, but making one themselves.

End of excerpt from Contradict – They Can’t All Be True.

In my book, I intentionally wrote with a non-Christian voice for the first six  chapters.  I first present what religious pluralism is and why its so dominant in our culture and society right now.  I then demonstrate how religious pluralism doesn’t actually work logically.  Responding to the elephant analogy was near the end of that section of the discussion before moving into presenting an evaluation of religious truth-claims and ultimately landing on the trustworthy nature of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth to save us from sin and death and reconcile us into a right relationship with God!  Since I wasn’t ready to let it out of the bag that I was a Christian yet in that stage of the book writing process, I didn’t  respond to the elephant analogy the way I typically would.  The following is a more complete Christian response to this popular analogy:

A critique of this parable would contain the following points:

  1. This parable is actually claiming that all religions are false.
  2. This parable makes all aspects of life subjective.  There is no absolute, objective reality that we can be certain we are experiencing correctly.  If absolutes don’t exist in a way that we can comprehend them, morals and ethics also become subjective.  There would no longer be such a thing as right and wrong.
  3. Any exclusive religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are forced to give up their claims to exclusivity to fit into the inclusive, pluralism which this parable projects.
  4. With Christianity’s exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation, all other religions would have to be false if Christianity is true, or Christianity could be false and other religions true.  This does not fit with the elephant analogy at all.
  5. The original telling of this legend has a king who sees the blind men groping at the elephant arguing about what they are touching.  The king reveals to them in laughter that they are all foolish men that they are all touching the same reality, the elephant!  This is very interesting that the original legend has a word from above revealing the truth to the blind men.  This indicates that the truth is actually discernible – we might just need some help from someone up above.
  6. The original ending of this parable lends itself very well to Christianity.  Christianity teaches that help did come from above.  That God has revealed himself to mankind through what he has created as well as through special revelation from the Scriptures and in particular through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, taking on flesh and walking amongst us, revealing the truth to us, healing the blind and helping them see.  This revelatory claim of Christianity isn’t even considered or introduced in pluralistic uses of this parable.

Conclusion: Declare truth where truth is found!

It seems clear that all religions cannot be fully and equally true.  There are direct contradictions within the teachings of the world’s religions, such as Jesus is God (Christianity) and Jesus is not God (Islam), which eliminate the possibility that all religions are true.

This however doesn’t mean that aspects of the truth cannot be found within various religions.  Christians would do good to point these truths out from time to time.  If Christ’s claim is true that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), then all truth would be God’s truth, no matter where it is found.  Where truth is found, declare it, use it, put it in its full context of which it is fully and directly revealed from God in the Bible.  The Apostle Paul did when he quoted the philosophers of the Athenians (Acts 17).  We can do it too!

Could All Religions Contain Aspects of Truth

All religions could contain truth.  Christians should hopefully be willing to admit this point, and should go even further to help point out common points of belief with the various religions of the world.

However, if a person asks this question, he or she generally intends to say that if there are aspects of truth found within each religion, then every religion must then be accepted as being equally valid and true.  The problem with this line of thinking is that religions come not in isolated teachings or beliefs, but in systems of doctrines that form a complete faith.  For example, a recipe for a casserole might call for ten ingredients.  If three people use this recipe, but one cook only uses eight of the called for ingredients and replaces the other two with something of his liking, and the second cook only uses six ingredients total from the recipe, and the third chef uses all ten ingredients but doesn’t make a casserole, but instead makes a stir-fry, did any of them make the recipe’s casserole correctly?  No, none of the cooks made the casserole correctly based on the recipe, yet all of their meals contained ingredients from that recipe.

Similarly, if religions contain aspects of truth, it doesn’t mean that they are true in their entirety.  They each would just contain elements of truth, but as a complete system of doctrine would be false.  If one religion was true in its entirety, then it would be true, while all other religions would be false and only contain aspects of the truth.

What about the elephant parable?

elephant parableA common parable used in this discussion of religious truth is an Indian legend about six blind men touching an elephant.  All the blind men touch a different part of the elephant and come to a different conclusion about what they are all touching.  For example, one of them touches the tail and thinks the elephant is like a rope.  Another one touches his leg and thinks he is touching a tree.  The next blind man touches the elephant’s side and concludes that the elephant must be like a wall.  The story continues as the three other blind men come to different conclusions about the elephant based on their experience of what they have touched on the elephant.

This parable is used to illustrate that we as humans are like the blind men who do not have the proper sight required to comprehend ultimate reality; it’s just beyond our capabilities.  However, all of us have touched and experience reality and have come to accurate conclusions based on what we have experienced and known.  This would mean that all of the world’s religions are equally fair assessments of the truth and therefore are all equally valid paths to articulating the sacred.  It could even be taken to another step to say that by embracing all religions as true, then a person would have an even more accurate understanding of what ultimate reality is.

A critique of this parable would contain the following points:

  1. This parable is actually claiming that all religions are false.
  2. This parable makes all aspects of life subjective.  There is no absolute, objective reality that we can be certain we are experiencing correctly.  If absolutes don’t exist in a way that we can comprehend them, morals and ethics also become subjective.  There would no longer be such a thing as right and wrong.
  3. Any exclusive religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are forced to give up their claims to exclusivity to fit into the inclusive, pluralism which this parable projects.
  4. With Christianity’s exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation, all other religions would have to be false if Christianity is true, or Christianity could be false and other religions true.  This does not fit with the elephant analogy at all.
  5. The original telling of this legend has a king who sees the blind men groping at the elephant arguing about what they are touching.  The king reveals to them in laughter that they are all foolish men that the same reality, the elephant!  This is very interesting that the original legend has a word from above revealing the truth to the blind men.  This indicates that the truth is actually discernible – we might just need some help from someone up above.
  6. The original ending of this parable lends itself very well to Christianity.  Christianity teaches that help did come from above.  That God has revealed himself to mankind through what he has created as well as through special revelation from the Scriptures and in particular through the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, taking on flesh and walking amongst us, revealing the truth to us, healing the blind and helping them see.  This revelatory claim of Christianity isn’t even considered or introduced in pluralistic uses of this parable.

Conclusion: Declare truth where truth is found!

It seems clear that all religions cannot be fully and equally true.  There are direct contradictions within the teachings of the world’s religions, such as Jesus is God (Christianity) and Jesus is not God (Islam), which eliminate the possibility that all religions are true.

This however doesn’t mean that aspects of the truth cannot be found within various religions.  Christians would do good to point these truths out from time to time.  If Christ’s claim is true that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), then all truth would be God’s truth, no matter where it is found.  Where truth is found, declare it, use it, put it in its full context of which it is fully and directly revealed from God in the Bible.  The Apostle Paul did when he quoted the philosophers of the Athenians (Acts 17).  We can do it too!