THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
Written by Doug Ponder on December 11, 2016
The Bind Men and the Elephant
If you spend a few hours in a university coffee shop or even a few moments in the hellish lower realms of an Internet article’s comment section, you are likely to overhear the story of the blind men and the elephant.
It is an old parable that originated in India and has been retold many times. The English poet John Godfrey Saxe popularized the story in the West with his poem in the mid-1800s. Lillian Quigley later made the story into a children’s book of the same name. And now, thanks to the wonders of the YouTube, you can even hear a jazzy song about it.
Here’s the gist of the story:
Six blind men stumble upon an elephant, each laying hands on a different part as he tries to discern what the elephant is like. The first touched the smooth side of the elephant. “An elephant is like a wall,” he said. The second blind man grabbed the elephant’s trunk, saying, “No, an elephant is like a snake.” The third touched the point of the elephant’s tusk. “No, an elephant is like a spear,” he said. The fourth blind man wrapped his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. “No, an elephant is like a tree,” he said. The fifth felt the wide ear of the elephant and said, “No, and elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man laid hold of the elephant’s tail. “No, an elephant is like a rope,” he concluded.
The blind men soon begin to argue about which of them were right, waking up the king who was sleeping nearby. Seeking to end the commotion, the king says, “An elephant is a large animal, and each of you has touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.” Enlightened by the king’s wisdom, the blind men agree that each of them had been only partially right. “Each of us knows only a part. To discover the whole truth, we must put all the parts together.”
The ‘Moral’ of the Story
The parable of the blind men and the elephant is usually used to claim that ‘every person has their own perspective, and no one has the whole truth.’ When we disagree with someone, in other words, we may both we right about whatever part of the truth we see. #everyonewins
At another level the story is often used to claim that each religion is only partially right (and thus partially wrong), since each has only one part of the whole truth. If we want to understand spiritual reality, the reasoning goes, we must learn from all world religions.
Why the Story Fails
One of my favorite authors, Lesslie Newbigin, often encountered this story during his time as a missionary in India in the middle 20th century. His critique of the story is now famous.
The entire story is told from the point of view of the king, who is not blind and who therefore can see the whole elephant that the blind men are only guessing about. But if the king were also blind, there would be no story. In other words, if everyone really only “saw spiritual reality in incomplete pieces,” then even the storyteller’s parable would be just one piece of the puzzle! Arrogantly, the parable claims to know what spiritual reality is truly like while suggesting that everyone else has only a partial picture. The parable assumes the sight of the king while casting everyone else as blind men.
Pastor Tim Keller summarizes the critique this way: “How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?” (Keller, The Reason for God, 9).
The King Who Speaks
The message of Christianity has never been, “Everyone is blind to the truth about God except for us!” That would be ridiculously self-righteous. Rather, Christianity believes that there is a king who can see the whole “elephant,” and he told everyone about it. That king, of course, is Jesus.
God revealed himself through the life of Jesus so that all of us might come to know him, his world, and even ourselves. This revelation from God has not left us to blindly search for pieces of the puzzle. Jesus is the whole puzzle, showing us what God is like and what God has done for us.
This, then, is the most ironic aspect of the parable of the blind men and the elephant (which is actually a very good picture of how sin distorts human perception when it is reinterpreted in the light of Christ). For we actually are blind men apart from God’s revelation, groping hopelessly in the dark for a touch of reality. But in Christ, light has dawned. The king has spoken. The nature of the “elephant” has been revealed for all who are willing to listen to only one who sees. And he says to us all, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.