Why the Blind Men and the Elephant Doesn’t Work
The story of the blind men and the elephant (which the origins of is tough to determine) is a common illustration used to diffuse a person’s claim to have discovered any sort of absolute truth. It is a favourite in our pluralistic, subjectivistic, open-minded culture. If you are not familiar, the story goes basically something like this…
A group of blind men stumble upon an elephant and begin to investigate it. One man touches the elephant’s side and says, “it is like a wall”. Another man touches the elephant’s leg and says, “it is like a tree trunk”. Another man touches the elephant’s ear and says, “it is like a fan”. Another man touches the elephant’s tail and says, “it is like a rope”. Still another man touches the elephant’s trunk and says, “it is like a snake”.
Though there are variations of the story, you get the basic idea. The main point is that none of the blind men have discovered the truth. Each of them only has a partial grasp on reality. This little story is used to suggest that, particularly when it comes to religion, no single religion has “cornered the market” on truth. Each religion has discovered only a part of the truth, and therefore no religion is superior to another. They are all incomplete and too narrow in their discovery of spiritual reality. Thus, it is arrogant to claim that any particular religion is better or more truthful than another.
While it is an interesting analogy, the story of the blind men and the elephant is one that is really not that helpful because it has some inherent flaws. While every analogy has its limitations, there are some pretty foundational ones that this one contains which lead me to feel that I am not being too harsh in pointing them out.
Flaw #1 – The narrator
Just who exactly is telling us about the blind men and the elephant? This story only works because there is a “narrator” of sorts who stands back and sees what is really going on. This individual, unlike those within the story, can see the whole picture. The folly of the blind men is obvious because of the perspective of the person who can apparently see the whole truth.
Why is this a problem? Because the whole point of the story is that no one person or religion has discovered the whole truth, yet that seems to conveniently exclude the narrator! If the truth is that every person or religion has discovered only part of the truth, then even that claim itself is not fully true. In other words, the narrator is claiming to have a view of reality that is superior to the view of reality that others have, which is ridiculous, since the whole point of the story is to suggest that cannot be the case! The analogy is basically self-defeating. If we really are all blind men stumbling in the dark and coming up with only partial discoveries of truth, then whoever posits that truth is himself blind and only partially true. To suggest otherwise is to take the stance of superior knowledge that the illustration is trying to refute.
What this shows us is that everyone is exclusive. Though the blind men and the elephant story is meant to sound inclusive of other viewpoints, it itself is only one way of looking at reality. Both the person who thinks all religions are equal and the person who thinks one religion is superior to another are exclusive, because both think that their own view of religion is a superior way of thinking.
Flaw #2 – An elephant as God
In this story, we hear about blind man after blind man making claims about their discoveries that are only partly true. These men are apparently in a sad situation with no one to point out their mistakes. They are stuck living in half-truths due to their blindness. They might argue with each other, but they are essentially helpless with no one to set them straight about what they believe the elephant to be. But the whole situation would change, would it not, if the elephant could talk?
The assumption in this story, as it is applied to religion at least, is that God is silent. Humans are feeling around in the dark to discover God, yet he won’t lift a finger to reveal himself to them. In many religious views, in particular Christianity, that is simply not the case. Christianity makes the claim that God does speak, and he has done so most clearly in his Word, the Bible. So, when people spout out flawed ideas like, “it is a tree trunk,” the elephant itself is there to correct, “No, I’m an elephant”. This encapsulates the Christian view. God reveals himself to us in the Bible so that he may be known. We are not left to make educated guesses or shots in the dark. We can know God because he aims to be known and has spoken to us.
All scripture is breathed out by God… (2 Timothy 3:16)
So the blind men and the elephant story is flawed in that it assumes that God is a non-communicating being, which Christians would strongly contend that he is not! Granted, it is not exactly a simple procedure to try and prove that God does speak. But then again, it is not easy to disprove that either. Both viewpoints are taken, at least in part, by a person’s own determination that God speaks or not. Nevertheless, the blind men and the elephant story makes a massive and significant assumption by choosing to represent God with a silent animal. Not everyone would be comfortable agreeing that such an assumption is obvious or true.
Flaw #3 – Blind men
Yet another problem with this analogy is the use of blind men (or in some variations, men in the dark). This is a second assumption that some people might take issue with. The assumption is that human beings are inherently blind to the truth, and we are all ignorant as a result. No one can discover ultimate reality because no one can see. Again, this only increases the problems of having an all-seeing narrator, who essentially is representing the person arguing against exclusive religions. To assume that people are blind to the truth (yet you are not) is to make an unusually definitive and hard stance for someone who is aiming to be open-minded.
To be technical, Christians do believe that some people are spiritually blind. Furthermore, Christians basically believe that everyone who is not a Christian is blind to the truth, and Christians alone are able to see the truth for what it is. Is that a narrow-minded view? Absolutely! Is it arrogant? Not exactly, since Christians are not necessarily adopting their own view as truth, but rather submitting to the Bible as the truth. In other words, Christians are going outside of themselves to discover the truth, while the pluralistic person is using their own mind to determine the truth. Which, I would ask, is the more humble way? I would suggest that the Christian who, though seemingly exclusive and arrogant, is more humble since he is ultimately admitting that he himself is not the measure of truth. He is not the one to determine it. Rather, he admits he needs help. He must be told what is truth from the outside. All good Christians know that the Bible is their standard for truth, and where they and the Bible disagree, the Bible is right.
Therefore, to suggest that all humanity is blind has two problems. The first is that the person who says that humanity is blind is himself blind, so why should I trust what they say? The second is that, even if everyone is blind, that does not mean there is no ultimate source of truth that is accessible to us. Who is to say that there is not a way to be cured of our blindness?
What I hope this has shown is that believing in a pluralistic view of religions is not necessarily humble or open-minded. More specifically, the story of the blind men and the elephant is a flawed one that does not really help that argument. Ideally, I hope that it is becoming more obvious that, try as one might, no one is really inclusive. In reality, everyone is exclusive. Even the person who says that all religions are valid is being exclusive because they believe that their view of religions is right and yours (if you believe in only one religion) is wrong. That is an exclusive view. The difference is that I, as a Christian, am willing to admit that my view is exclusive.
For me, it comes down to this: There is such a thing as truth. There is a right way and a wrong one. Who is to say what that is? Certainly not me! But God can say what is true and what is not. And so I turn to the Bible to find what God says, and there I hear Jesus Christ (God in the flesh) say:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
I am simply saying that I agree with Jesus. I’m going to go with him on this one, rather than come up with my own view. If he says there is one way, and that he alone is that way, then that’s what I believe. The same Jesus also says that this one way is open and available to all. What this means is that Jesus is both exclusive (there is one way) and inclusive (anyone can take it). So, as a Christian, I want to be as exclusive as Jesus is and as inclusive as Jesus is.
Therefore I would simply say, consider perhaps that God is a speaking God, and that he has shown us the one true way. Maybe we don’t all need to be blind men spilling out half-truths. Maybe we can see. And maybe the elephant has spoken. And maybe, just maybe, it is possible to know the truth and have it set you free.