There’s a bit of conventional wisdom that has been appearing and reappearing in conversations I’ve been a part of this past season. Put it in a sentence, it goes like this:
Each faith, tradition, religion, and spirituality contains a part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.
This can be illustrated with the famous ‘Parable of the Blind Men and The Elephant’. It goes something like this:
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable". So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, "is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
The main idea in the parable is that each blind man could only feel a limited aspect of the elephant, and each man was unable to apprehend the entire elephant.
Upon reflection, the main thrust of the parable becomes clear: humans often assert knowledge of absolute truth based on our limited experience and we ignore the experiences of others which are equally true.
Applied to the realm of faith, this bit of conventional wisdom claims that all religions have a part of spiritual truth, but none can claim to contain the absolute truth.
This seems so clearly self-evident that some go a step further and claim that those who seek to convert others to their tradition are arrogant. How else could we explain why some folks seek to convert others when it seems painfully obvious that each religion contains a part of equally valid spiritual truth?
In his classic book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Bishop Leslie Newbigin addresses this question this way:
“There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to [all others]…We have to ask: “What is the [absolute] vantage ground from which you claim to be able to relativize all the absolute claims these different scriptures make?”
In other words, here’s the problem: the parable is told from the perspective of someone who is not blind. How else could you know that each blind man only sees a part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?
See the problem?
How could you ever know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself can see the whole of spiritual reality you just claimed no religion can have?
Now we also see the problem with the accusation of arrogance. I mean, who's more arrogant? Those who in good faith believe they see the truth and share that with others, or those who assert no one can have the truth while implicitly endowing themselves the absolute truth they deny everyone else?
The fact is, if you have any meaningful convictions, you carry them in a world with competing spiritual and moral visions. How do we carry our faith in our pluralistic modern age?
What doesn’t work is wielding something like the parable of the blind men and the elephant as a weapon to flatten moral and spiritual discourse. It doesn't work for at least two important reasons:
There is a better way. The first step is to accept that we inhabit a complicated social reality, therefore no easy answers. It’s going to take work. Because we need to develop a way of carrying our conviction that Jesus is our only hope in a way that is honest, charitable, and loving. And that doesn’t come to easy to most of us. But we need to make the effort because the plurality of religions don't do a thing to deny that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And since Jesus is the only way to God, we need to be able to share this hope with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter iii. 15)
For us Christians, it’s going to mean taking our faith seriously enough to think through the implications of following Jesus. That may involve taking a Christian basics course like Alpha. Or joining a bible study. Or reading a Christian book out of your comfort zone and discussing it with your faith community.
Above all, it will take committed communal worship and prayer. So meet with us on Sunday. Let’s catch up at coffee hour after service and discuss these important questions.
Let’s grab a coffee during the week and read a book together. An honest faith held with integrity is yours for the taking. I’m here to help.