The Elephant In The Room

I had been debating with myself as to whether I should provide my take on this particular analogy describing the world’s religions.  It is not one I see referenced all that often, nor has it ever been offered to me for consideration by someone attempting to defend religious pluralism.  However having read it on another blog recently I have since been motivated to comment.  Below I will provide the text from the blog on which I read it, Mediumsworld.wordpress.com.  The analogy describes a number of blind men encountering an elephant, and not being able to see the creature, all believe the portions of the elephant they felt are representative of the whole elephant.  Each man’s description, while true of the portions they encounter, do not provide the men with the whole truth of what the elephant is like.  The elephant representing God and the men representing a different world religion.  The analogy attempts to show that all the world’s religions have a portion of the truth, but that no one religion contains the total truth about the nature of God.  Below is the text of the analogy as it appeared on MediumsWorld.wordpress.com as of this writing.

Imagine that six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time … One blind man bumps into the leg of the elephant, feeling it carefully… Another blind man bumps into the trunk of the elephant which is swaying around and groping in his pocket looking for food … Another blind man bumps into the elephant’s tail… which is hanging limply down from above, and he carefully feels the tail … Another blind man bumps into the side of the elephant, and feels it… Another blind man groping around, feels an ear of the elephant, which the elephant is flapping back and forth… the last blind man bumps into one of the elephants tusks, feeling the sharp point of the tusk… Later, they are discussing their experience of feeling an elephant …

The first blind man says, “An elephant is like a tree trunk growing up out of the ground” …“The second blind man says, “no, no, an elephant is not like a tree trunk, an elephant is like a big snake, twisting and moving around” … The third blind man says, ” No, an elephant is not like a tree or snake, an elephant is like a thick rope hanging down from above !” … The fourth blind man say, “no, an elephant is like a wall”… the fifth blind man says,”you are all wrong, an elephant is like a fan flapping back and forth”… and the last blind man says, “it is not like any of those things, “It is like a spear with a sharp point”…

Each one knows what he experienced and to him that is the “truth”, so each blind man is convinced that he is “right”, and the other five are “wrong” … These rational blind men will easily conclude that an elephant cannot be “a tree”, “a wiggling snake”, “a rope hanging down”, “a wall”, a “flapping fan”, and a sharp spear”, all at the same time …

If each of these blind men were a “prophet”, and the elephant were the “God concept”, each would found a different religion based on his own experience … Each would espouse a seemingly different God concept, which each would claim to be true …

The six concepts (the leg, the trunk, the tail, the side, the ear, and the tusk of the elephant) would seem to be six totally different contradictory ideas … But if they could “see” the whole elephant they would realize that there was no contradiction … Each had experienced a detail of the total elephant …But each had missed the concept of “ELEPHANT” completely … In this way, each was true, and yet each was also false.

Let us now examine the merits of the analogy, taking into account that I recognize that at some point all analogies break down.  However, I believe the spirit of the analogy is flawed to the point where it is hoisted by its own petard.  There are at least two presumptions the “The Elephant” makes on which the entire validity of the analogy rests.  The first being no religion or religious view can positively lay claim to possessing the full truth about the nature of God.  “The Elephant” presumes that all religions are only part right, but as far as the claims they do make about the nature of God, what they are reporting is true.  Second, “The Elephant” must operate on the notion that truth is relative.  This affirmation of relative truth necessarily leads to contradictions.  For instance, Hinduism is polytheistic, Christianity is monotheistic and denies the existence of all other gods.  They cannot both the correct.  The nature of what it means for something to be true dictates either one or both are wrong.

My first question to the author of the blog was “How do you know it’s an elephant?”.  I made this remark sincerely.  “The Elephant” story-teller tells the story from a point of privilege.  As he is recounting the interaction, it is clear the blind men do not know they are feeling an elephant, but somehow the story-teller does.  The elephant is intended to represent God, or the God Concept.  The blind men are mistaken in their total assessment because they  filter their descriptions through their experience.  “The Elephant” assumes Prophets do not have direct revelation from the God(s) for whom they claim to speak.  All their knowledge of God comes from experience, and therefore is only partially true.

However, the story-teller somehow has complete knowledge of God, otherwise he would not be able to know the men were touching an elephant.  He is able to remain untainted by his own experience and stand back to see the complete picture where the world’s religions cannot.  I can’t help but wonder how the story-teller escapes the point of his own story.  By virtue of the point of the story, if it portrays an accurate account of the world’s religions and religious truth, the story-teller must also be among the blind men unable to see the complete truth.  But it is this idea, that there exists a place of privileged insight into the nature of God is exactly what religious pluralism and skepticism denies.  If “The Elephant” is an accurate representation of the nature of God and the world’s religion’s claims to truth, then the analogy provides us no reason to believe it to be a true representation of reality; and thus take the story as just that, a story and not analogous to the truth of religious knowledge.

The analogy, if true undercuts itself.  If it is true, then it is not true.  If all religious views and claims to truth are made by blind men who do not know the truth, then the story-teller is among the blind.  As Jesus said in Luke 6:39: “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?”.  Unless provided with a reasonable explanation as to why the story-teller is exempt from the liabilities reported in “The Elephant”, we can rest certain the analogy does not represent the world as it really is.

Any Thoughts?

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