Parts of the Pachyderm

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason has an excellent piece called the Trouble with the Elephant.

The ancient fable of the blind men and the elephant is often used to illustrate the fact that every faith represents just one part of the larger truth about God. However, the attempt is doomed before it gets started.

In the story, multiple blind men feel different parts of an elephant and describe it in different ways.  Someone who is not blind then points out the truth to them. 

The typical application of the story is that religious pluralism is true – i.e., we’re worshiping the same God in different ways.   

A good question to ask anyone who repeats this parable is, “Where do you fit into the story?”  If he is one of the blind men, then why would he have anything to offer you?  If he claims to be the person with sight, then what are his qualifications that he understand this world and you don’t?

Note that the blind men are describing different parts of the elephant, but it is still an elephant.  But if one religion says God is personal and another says He is impersonal, then they can’t both be right.  You can’t be an elephant and not an elephant.  I wrote more on the irreconcilable differences in the essential truth claims of religions in Religious Pluralism is Intellectually Bankrupt.

In a sense, the whole story is self refuting.  While the principle message is that we can only know a certain piece about God, the message itself claims to have the big picture. 

It also has a rather odd premise: The “real” religion would be to follow every religion.  That way you’d have the whole elephant.

The only way the parable would work is if the elephant described itself to the blind people – sort of the way the God reveals himself to us in the Bible.  As Koukl says:

If everyone truly is blind, then no one can know if he or anyone else is mistaken.  Only someone who knows the whole truth can identify another on the fringes of it.  In this story, only the king can do that–no one else.

      The most ironic turn of all is that the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, to a great degree, is an accurate picture of reality.  It’s just been misapplied.

      We are like blind men, fumbling around in the world searching for answers to life’s deepest questions.  From time to time, we seem to stumble upon some things that are true, but we’re often confused and mistaken, just as the blind men were. 

      How do I know this?  Because the King has spoken.  He is above, instructing us, advising us of our mistakes, and correcting our error.  The real question is:  Will we listen?

For your viewing pleasure, here are a few pictures some fellow missionaries and I took in Kenya.

[rockyou id=71999343&w=579&h=434]

7 thoughts on “Parts of the Pachyderm”

  1. Odd coincidence. The first time I heard the story about the elephant was in a Baptist church, used by a strong Bible teacher. The conclusion was NOT that all religions were truthful (I think it was to say that there were several jobs for us in the church and all had value). So while Stands To Reason’s analogy (or the one he heard) is not good, the same story can have benefits.

    I may have suggested it before, but anyone considering other religions should read the book “So What’s the Difference?” The book starts by establishing what Christianity actually is and then compares every other major religion. What I liked best about it was that if you read the section on Islam, most Muslims would agree (and the same for other religions). It was not “campy” or threatening, just laid out the information. To borrow/change a phrase “They report, you decide”

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  2. “The only way the parable would work is if the elephant described itself to the blind people – sort of the way the God reveals himself to us in the Bible.”

    What a gracious and loving God we worship. He isn’t impersonal and unknowable, but personal and making Himself known. Amen to that.

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  3. “I may have suggested it before, but anyone considering other religions should read the book “So What’s the Difference?””

    Great book.

    Neil,
    Great post. Another thing to mention is that, in the parable, it doesn’t really matter what animal it actually is. It presumes there are no consequences for not understanding the animal, whereas, when it comes to spiritual viewpoints, it is not the case.

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  4. I have used that parable myself but a little differently. I agree with the analysis in the article.
    When I have used this parable is within our local church. Some people are raised in the church, some have sudden conversions, some gradual conversions and so on.
    Sometimes people get to thinking that the way they came to Christ is the only valid way. (I have had to watch myself on this as a parent)
    That is where I have used this parable, and I still think it is valid there. As far as I can see, when people accept Jesus, God will pretty much customize their experience to lead them where they need to go, but we all end up at the same place (followers of Christ I mean, I am not a universalist).
    As I proofread this, I realize that congregations can also get to thinking that they have the only valid way as well. Of course generally there is only one valid way, but sometimes we can focus too much on trivial details.

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  5. “to illustrate the fact that every faith represents just one part of the larger truth about God.”

    I do think this parable is illustrative of the fact that when you add a bit of falsehood to essential truth you end up with an essential falsehood. How can that falsehood demonstrate anything about the larger truth about God.

    In this parable the men are blind, but in reality Christ came to make blind men see. Any other conclusion is bound to result in a distorted and mistaken view of an elephant, not to mention God………..steve

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  6. Those pictures are beyond adorable. 🙂

    The typical application of the story is that religious pluralism is true – i.e., we’re worshiping the same God in different ways.

    Why is this applied to religious pluralism? Wouldn’t that be like blind people feeling elephants, camels, and panda bears, and then pretending that they are the same animal?

    A few Christians have mentioned experiences that bring them closer to God and make them feel His presence. IMHO, those are the times when someone is touching an elephant.

    (Okay, maybe I just hate the idea of the Koran as the moral equivalent of anything that isn’t the scum of the earth.)

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