Most, if not all of us, have at one point or another heard the old story about the blind men and the elephant. The tale varies in the telling, but the general idea is always the same. A handful of blind men are investigating an elephant with their hands and each one feels a different part. The one feeling the elephant’s leg says that the object is a tree, the one feeling the elephant’s trunk says it is a snake, the one feeling the elephant’s side says it is a wall, etc. The point is that each of the men is getting only a part of the truth and that they’re all right in their own way. This is often then analogized toward how different faith systems all teach different aspects of the same god – that we’re all looking at a different part of the elephant.
I do feel that there is a grain of truth or two to the story. For instance, I agree that a certain level of intellectual humility is always in order when discussing points we disagree on and that we should try to respect the opinions of others (so long as they are grounded in appropriate reasoning or evidence). However, that does not mean we should all just agree to disagree, particularly when the subject is one of eternal importance. Spending your life making a case for why Strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream would be silly, but spending that same life making a case for believing in the correct God is incredibly important.
As a whole, though, I feel that the story presents a very flawed analogy. It is successful in showing that different people with different perspectives and different information can come to wildly different conclusions, but it does not show that each of our conclusions, however contradictory they may be, can all be correct in their own way. It is certainly less controversial to say that all of the blind men are correct, but I would suggest it is more accurate to say they’re all wrong. An elephant is not a tree or a snake or a wall and it is certainly not all of them at the same time. It is an elephant.
In addition, the analogy takes a benign approach to a subject that is incredibly dangerous. Let’s say that I have a box with a hand-sized hole in the top. The box also contains an object, approximately six feet long, and five inches thick. The object could be a thick rope, but it could also be a venomous snake. Wouldn’t you like to know which one it is before you stick your hand inside? When dealing with matters of faith and God, we are not dealing with a wall or a rope or a tree as the story depicts. We are dealing with something that potentially has eternal consequences. “You’re all right in your own way so let’s not fight about it” simply isn’t good enough.
Lastly, the story presupposes that each of the blind men (or as applied to God, each religion) is simply trying to “feel out” what is really going on. It disregards any notion of divine revelation. Some versions of the story include an onlooker with full use of his sight that reveals to the blind men what the object really is which would be the closest analog to a divine revelator with perfect knowledge of the situation, but even those versions do not show that each of the blind men was right; only that they were all wrong.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the bible specifically says at least some truth can be known about God from the natural world (Romans 1:19-20). This is currently a field within philosophy called Natural Theology and it has had impressive results over the centuries. For example, Gottfried Leibnitz once developed an argument that shows – simply from the fact that anything at all exists – that there must be a metaphysically necessary, timeless, uncaused, spaceless, immaterial and personal creator of the universe. This argument specifically rules out several concepts of God found in eastern religions.
However, that does not mean the rest of us can simply join hands and ignore our differences. It is common to stress the point that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all believe that there is only one God. Alternatively, in a very Oprah-esque manner the entire concept of “God” may be reduced to some sort of positive force or energy that pervades the universe, but as we start to unpack what each religion specifically teaches about God, we find that there are contradictory claims being made. It is far more complex than “you all believe in only one God, therefore…”. For example:
This whole problem becomes more apparent when many religions claim to have received their specific ideas of the nature of God through divine revelation; that is to say that these faiths claim to have learned about God from the lips of God Himself. If we look again at the concepts being taught about the God of Abraham and lay them out chronologically, we see some serious flip-flopping going on:
If we are to reconcile these ideas, we have to conclude that one of three things is going on. The first possibility is that there are multiple gods, each revealing his own distinct nature to different people at different times. However, each of the faith traditions listed above would reject this notion since each claims that their god is the only true God. Secondly, we could suppose that there is one God who is intentionally giving conflicting information to different people at different times. Again, each of the faiths would reject this as well because it makes God a liar. The only possibility that all of them would accept is that one or more is the product of human invention rather than the actual truth.
It is naïve and irresponsible to sweep every faith tradition into a single lump and claim that they're all true. Not only because it plays fast and loose with cherished beliefs that have been held by significant portions of humanity for hundreds or even thousands of years, but also because the price of being wrong is far, far too high. Don't you want to be sure the box contains a rope instead of a snake before you reach in? Being wrong could kill you.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.