Recently I had someone alude to the elephant parable in a conversation. If you are unfamiliar with this parable, it certainly isn’t one that Jesus taught.
Three blind men decided to trek through the jungle to see an elephant. When they arrive at the place they know the elephant to be, they find it and feel it in order learn about it and understand it. One man feels a leg and describes the elephant as something like a tree trunk. Another, feels the ear and says that the elephant is like a leaf. The remaining man feels the trunk and is adamant that the elephant is like a snake. The three men argue about what the elephant is like and each claims to have the correct knowledge of the elephant, claiming the others have it wrong.
Now, this is meant to show how seemingly mutually exclusive claims can be made about the same thing. This parable is typically used to argue that all world religions are describing the same thing, they each just don’t have the full picture.
Now, while this parable ought to make us pause to consider that not all seemingly mutually exclusive claims are irreconcilable, it doesn’t actually correspond with the situation faced when examining the claims of religions. Consider these observations:
1. The Narrator can see the elephant.
The person making the arguement that all relgions (or even just some religions) are the same puts themselves in the role of the narrator of the parable. But the way that the narrator (and then also the audience) knows that the blind men are describing the same thing is that they know what the whole of the elephant looks like. It is because they understand the whole that they understand what the blind men are doing. I suppose they must also have knowledge of how the blind men came to their descriptions. Based on the knowledge of the elephant and the men, the Narrator can correctly piece together their mistake and make it known the audience.
But can the person who claims all religions describe the same thing do this? Does he/she have the knowledge corresponding to the analogy?
If all religions describe the same thing, shouldn’t the person explaining this be able to describe God? Can the person making the argument explain God, and in such a way that it reconciles the various theologies that exist? But, what happens when the description of the Narrator conflicts with the blind men? In the parable, surely the Narrator’s description of an elephant does not conflict with the observations of the blind men, only reconciles it with the other men’s claims.
Can the person also explain how it is that the various religions came to have only the knowledge they have and the differing views?
Furthermore, how did such a person come about such knowledge? How is it that he escaped being blind himself? After all, the blind men (as far as we know) are blind by no fault of their own, and the narrator can see the events transpire. Now, what would happen if the narrator claims not to have seen the events, but to have heard the three stories and understood what occured? If that is the case, then it is still the case that the narrator must know what an elephant looks like. But, how does he know that the three men actually saw an elephant? Suppose one actually felt a tree, one felt a leaf, and one felt a snake. In this scenario, none of the blind men saw an elephant at all and the narrator is wrong to explain that they did. Or it could be that two felt an elephant and one felt a snake, etc.
In short, the teller of this parable has many questions to answer before his case is actually made; the parable by itself doesn’t demonstrate that all religions describe the same object of worship.
2. Do the blind men’s claims really reflect usual religious claims?
The problem here (the assumed answer is ‘no’, by the way) is that many religions claim to be revelatory. By that I mean that many religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormanism, claim knowledge of God thru God revealing himself to people. So, the picture they would paint of the story would be more akin to a blind man walking along and the elephant calling out to the blind person and beginning to describe himself to the blind person. The Eastern religions that try to achieve some sort of ‘enlightenment’ might portray themselves as men who eventually made use of their eyes and saw the elephant (or even discovered they were the elephant!).
So, it isn’t as if religious teachings about how knowledge of the divine is aquired neatly fall into the scenario presented by the all-religions-are-one camp. After all, the Apostles claimed to have walked, talked, travelled, and ate with the elephant for three years.
3. The content of revelation may prevent such a view.
The trouble with reconciling, say, Islam and Christianity is not altogether that there are seeming mutually exclusive claims. While there is nothing about an elephant’s ear that prevents one from also believing that the elephant has a leg, the Bible (let’s say it’s supposedly the ear in the analogy) tells us that Christ is the son of God and that died on the cross. It also tells us that these things are necessary beliefs and not to follow after those who claim otherwise. The Islamic doctrine of God forbids Jesus from being the son of God, the second person of the Trinity. It also denies his death on the cross. Those who claim the deity of Christ are accused of ‘shirk’ and condemned.
It isn’t that Christians and Muslims recieve doctrine, see that the other’s teaching is different and conclude it to be false. It is they see the doctrine is contradictory, to the point that the doctrine itself – the revelation itself – teaches that it is contradictory!
4. Would a blind man really stop feeling an elephant at a certian part?
It seems to me that if one were to investigate one would try to be thorough. Do we have blind men devoid of curiocity? Are all clerics, theologians, etc. that apathetic?
This parable has serious problems when used to say that all religions are the same or have the same object of worship.