Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Another Perspective

In our skeptical culture it has become unpopular to assert that we can know anything with certainty, especially religious truth. Since the denial of any particular fact is also an assertion of some other fact (about which we must also be skeptical) no religious view can be correct but neither can any be denied. Therefore, all religious views are considered objectively false but each contains elements of the truth and so are equally valid. One of the most popular illustrations used to try to show how such divergent religious opinions can all be equally valid is the “God is like an elephant” analogy.

The analogy is that there are four (sometimes six) blind men who happen upon an elephant. These men have never encountered an elephant before and are attempting to describe it to one another. The first man reaches out, grabs the trunk, and explains that it is like a snake. The second grabs one of the elephant's legs and insists that it is like a tree. The third feels the elephant's tail and explains that it is like a rope. Finally, the fourth blind man walks forward, encounters the elephant’s side, and concludes that it like a wall.

The idea is that each of the men is wrong in an ultimate sense but all are communicating some truth about the elephant. The elephant is supposed to represent God and the blind men are supposed to represent various religions that, while all limited in an ultimate sense, are all actually describing the same thing. The assertion is that no religion fully understands God and yet all religions contain some truth about God. Therefore, all religions must be recognized as limited but since none are complete they each should be accepted as equally valid.

From a logical standpoint, there are many problems with the underlying argument. My goal in this post is not to work through those issues but if you are interested in that kind of analysis I recommend you check out William Lane Craig’s work in this area. My purpose instead is to turn the illustration on its head and use it to argue for, rather than against, the Christian view of religious knowledge. When looked at from a slightly different perspective, the analogy highlights the necessity of God’s revelation and provides an important lesson for modern evangelicalism. Let me explain.

First, notice that the people in the illustration are blind. They are deprived of the natural function that would allow them to clearly see and evaluate the elephant. They are therefore limited in their perspective and must grope at the object they are trying to understand. This is an accurate description of fallen humanity and the Bible also describes the spiritual condition of humans as blindness. Because of sin, we no longer have the natural ability to see God as He is. Apart from His grace, the best we can do is grope in the darkness in our effort to know and understand Him. Like these men we are not completely without knowledge of God but the knowledge we do have is limited and distorted.

Notice also that the elephant exists apart from the experience of the men. There “is” actually an elephant and although they do not accurately describe the creature, it is there and its attributes are objectively real. This too is an accurate picture of the human condition. Many may deny and distort the knowledge of God but the fact is that He is there and He is not dependent upon our assessment of Him. In the same way that the elephant remains every bit an elephant despite the errors of the blind men, God remains every bit God. We may be mistaken about Him but that does not change the objective reality of who He is. Perhaps though, we should not be too critical of the men at this point. After all, what they did was reasonable considering the situation they were in. The only way for them to get information about the elephant was to do what they did. Their mistake was not in the attempt but in assuming that the creature was defined by their subjective experience.

The crucial difference between what is happening in this illustration and our ability to know the truth about God is that we are not completely reliant upon our religious experience. Think about how the lesson changes if there was someone who could see the elephant and explained to the men what they were not seeing. What if, even having this information they continued to insist that they were correct based upon their limited experience? Obviously, we would see them as fools for clinging to opinions based upon incomplete and unreliable experience while rejecting better information.

Sadly, this is often what many people do. Personal experience too often becomes the basis by which people try to understand God. The inconsistent and fluctuating feelings of the limited human intellect become the filter for all that is transcendent and divine. This is not just an issue in unbelieving society. The emphasis on subjective religious experience has continued to grow and influence evangelical churches and seminaries. As a result, it permeates worship styles, teaching methods, and counseling sessions. God, however, has not left His people to grope in darkness. He has spoken to us in His holy Word and through it has communicated the truth about Himself.  He has also sent an unbroken line of witnesses including God the Son as very man and His church to testify to who and what He is.

The lesson for us should be obvious. The Bible is of paramount importance to the Church. Without this revelation from Him, we are in the same position as those blind men; each one grasping some small but ultimately incomplete or inaccurate glimpse of the divine majesty. Personal experience is a wholly inadequate basis for knowing God, especially the experience of fallen creatures like us. The modern emphasis on religious experience in our churches is dangerous. If we are to know God, we must interpret our experiences in the light of His holy and inerrant word and not the reverse. When evaluated in light of the Word, religious experience magnifies the glory of God in our lives. Divorced from the Word it is nothing more than groping in darkness.

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