[Rough Draft]

A weblog about god, doubt, insomnia, culture, baseball


the blind men and the elephant

i haven't posted in quite a while, primarily b/c we've been traveling and work has been really busy lately (plus, "friday night lights" and "heroes" are way better than i thought they'd be, and i still owe aaron sorkin some loyalty). but after last night's community group meeting, i thought i'd throw this out and see what happens.

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:

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.”

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:

“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?”

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.
(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)


  • At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think it's a good argument. I'm a big fan of intellectual honesty, which appears to lead these guys to their conclusion.
    Matt J.

  • At 12:15 PM, Anonymous will mcbride said…

    Religious pluralism is acceptable because we have no way to scientifically verify who's right. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't vigoursly persue our own hunch.

  • At 12:32 AM, Blogger sammy said…

    i don't so much oppose religious pluralism, if by that we mean "a condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society" (american heritage dictionary def. of "pluralism" -- i actually looked it up, believe it or not). but we should question the assumptions that lead to the conclusion that "all religions are the same," which seems to have become the default view in america and elsewhere. i don't want to cram xtianity down anyone's throat; that's not effective evangelism in any case. but it seems to me that "vigorous pursuit" of our hunch/convictions should include @ least telling people what we believe is true and inviting them to "come and see" for themselves. and what i find to be the case most often is that xtns must implicitly assume that all religions provide equal access to god, otherwise we'd be more disheartened that our neighbors and friends that don't know the god of historical xtianity are laboring under beliefs about god that we believe are not, in fact, true.

  • At 11:38 AM, Blogger Josiah said…

    i knew there was a reason i read your blog this morning, sam.

    (a) christianity, as historically understood, is true. that is to say, there is one God who forbids the worship of any other gods and who has declared that the only approach to Him is through his Son.

    (b) all religions are true and share equally in grasping the true nature of god.

    (a) and (b) cannot both be true. to try and make both true, christianity must be eviscerated to the point that it becomes something altogether different from (a), which, of course, some professing christians have done, and something that worships a god other than the real God, which would mean practitioners of this eviscerated christianity are, in fact, operating in contravention to the directive that we worship no other gods.

    i'll take it one step further. anyone who then participates in one of these combined, feel-good, worship services where christians and muslims, for example, come together to worship jointly is in violation of the first commandment. God decides how he is to be worshipped, and if a christian is worshipping a god who is approachable by means other than Christ, he is worshipping a make-believe, non-existent, diety. a god other than God.

    just thought i'd throw this out there to, you know, see what sticks.


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