Maybe you have heard this story before as an analogy seeking to explain different religions:
Six blind men are touching an elephant and trying to determine what it is.
One man touches the side of the great animal and says: “An elephant is a wall!” Another grabs his ear and says: “An elephant is like a fan!” Another touches the tail, and declares that an elephant is like a rope. Another touches the trunk and declares that an elephant is a type of snake.
All of these men are touching something that is real, but because the thing itself is so big, and they are only touching part of it, the determinations they make about what it is are deficient. None of them have the whole picture, and their experience, while real, leads them to describe only the part of the elephant that they experienced.
The implication is that other people’s experiences are also valid, but that each part – or each religion in this case – while reflecting a real perception of part of the divine, still falls short of understanding the whole. According to this explanation, no religions are actually wrong, nor are any fully right; we are all just blind people groping at something very big and trying to describe and make sense of our experiences.
This parable is very popular. It is often mentioned in introductions to college classes on comparative religions. It is listed on the Peace Corps website, to describe how they think their participants should view world religions.
The Problems with the Parable
There are three enormous problems with this analogy.
Problem 1: The Vantage Point
The whole story is told from the vantage point of someone who clearly knows that the elephant is an elephant. In other words, it is extremely condescending; it judges all religions as being “blind people” trying to describe something that others can clearly see.
The analogy patronizingly pats religious believers on the head and says, “Isn’t that cute, you think the elephant is a snake because you can’t see what I see.”
For an organization like the Peace Corps, or anyone else to use this analogy to describe other people’s beliefs, is patronizing and judgmental, and takes the posture of a superior looking down on inferiors who do not know as much as they do.
Problem 2: Blind Men are Lazy?
The analogy also assumes that the blind men stop their search after their first encounter with the elephant. Are these “blind men” so lazy that they never explore other parts of the elephant? Do they touch it once and then give up their research into what an elephant is?
Furthermore, it assumes that the men are incapable or unwilling to communicate with one another. Again, this is not a fair description of what faith in God entails.
Problem 3: What if the Elephant Talks?
On the one hand, this analogy is a good description of the grandness of God and the human inability to fully grasp the divine, as well as our state of “blindness” when it comes to spiritual matters.
But the story never considers one paradigm-shattering question: What if the elephant talks?
What if the elephant could tell the blind men, “That wall-like part is actually my side. The fan-like part is my ear. That’s not a rope, it’s a tail. What feels like a snake is my trunk.”
If the elephant were to say these things, it would be a form of self-revelation.
Furthermore, if one of those who could see the entire elephant were to come and describe it to the blind men, and explain it to them, then they would understand.
What we have in the God of the Bible, and in Christianity in particular, is that God has revealed himself to us, both by sending us prophets and messengers, and by speaking directly to us through His Word and ultimately through His Son – the Word of God embodied in a human person: Jesus Christ.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his SonHebrews 1:1-2
By God’s grace and because of His love, we are not condemned to merely grope around in the dark, trying to make sense of the divine for ourselves by our own limited experiences. He has made Himself known in His Word and through His Son.