the blind men and the elephant
last night's issue was whether muslims and christians worship the same god, and one of the guys brought up the "blind men and the elephant" argument, an standard illustration of the "all religions are the same" position, and something i'd been thinking about lately even before last night. so, what w/ the pope in turkey and our community group hashing through all this stuff, for your consideration is tim keller's (and lesslie newbigin's) take on the elephant argument:
(from a sermon entitled "exclusivity: how can there be just one true religion?" by dr. timothy j. keller, redeemer presbyterian church, new york on 24 september 2006)
it’s a kind of fun illustration. it’s about a group of blind men who come up to an elephant [a]nd they all grab hold of it, and everyone begins to say what the elephant is like. and one grabs hold of the trunk, and he says “ah, elephants are long and flexible creatures.” but another one has hold of the leg, and says “No, no, no, no, no . . . elephants are very short and thick and stiff creatures, they’re not long and flexible . . . ." and another blind man has a hold of the side, and says “you’re not right at all; it’s huge and flat.”
they begin to argue, and each one says “no, no, your view of the elephant isn’t right.” and as they’re arguing we realize that every one of the is right and everyone of them is wrong: they all have part of reality of the elephant, they grasp part of it, but nobody can see the whole picture, and therefore none of them should say they see the whole picture . . . . and so, the illustration concludes: religions are the same. all religions see part of the spiritual truth; nobody can see the whole thing; no one should say insist that they have the entire truth; and that’s how we ought to understand religions.”“there is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but it may be, in fact, an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to all others. so we have to ask the person, what is this absolute vantage point from which you claim to be able to relativize all the claims these different scriptures and religions make?”
lesslie newbigin, who was a british missionary to india for many years, writes in a book called the gospel in a pluralist society that over the years he got that illustration thrown @ him over and over [a]nd one day he was listening to it and it suddenly hit him: the only way you could know that none of the blind men had a grip on the entire reality of the elephant was if you could see the whole elephant. the only way you could tell the story othe blind men and the elephant is if you saw the whole elephant. you can only tell about the blind men if you see. and that means, he suddenly realized, the only way you could possibly know that every religion only sees part of the truth is if you assume you see all of the truth. it’s the only way you could know that religions only see part of the truth is that you assume you have the whole truth, which is the very thing you say nobody’s got.
and so lesslie newbigin concludes this page in which he suddenly realized how incredibly arrogant and imperialistic intellectually it is to say "all religions are equal," and he says:
see what the point here is? when you say “no one has a superior take on spiritual reality,” that is a take on spiritual reality which you say is superior to everybody else’s. and whey you say "no one should convert everybody else to your view of religious reality," that is a view of religious reality that you want the listener to convert to. there is no way for you to know that all religions are equal unless you assume the kind of knowledge you say nobody has, and so how dare you have it? how can you have it? so it just doesn’t work; it doesn’t work in the slightest. it’s imperialistic. it looks humble, but it’s not.