By L. Alfred James
You have probably heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant. It’s an ancient Sikh story with many variations. But the gist of it goes something like this:
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to their town, but none of them knew what kind of creature it was. Out of curiosity, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped all about it. The first man, who was grasping the tail, said, “This creature is like a rope.” The second felt the side of the elephant and said it was like a strong wall. The third moved his hands up and down the elephant’s leg and declared it was like a tree-trunk. The fourth grabbed hold of the elephant’s trunk and confidently announced that the creature was some kind of thick snake.
Whenever I’ve heard anyone share this parable, it is with the intention of proving that the religions of the world are like these blind men, groping around in the darkness. “Each religion, ” they say, “has a partial grasp of the truth. Each religion can tell the world about some important aspect of God or (more generically) ultimate spiritual reality. However, they go wrong when they claim to know the whole truth of the matter.”
A similar parable tells of a mountain that has many paths leading up to the top:
There are many paths to the summit of the mountain. Each of the world’s religions is like one of those paths, taking us to God (or the generic “ultimate spiritual reality”). Look at any particular path and you will see adherents of that religion, that path, dutifully following its route, slowly ascending to the top. And most of these adherents believe that they are on the only path that leads to the top. However, there are many travelers on many paths, and all of them are making the ascent to the summit.
These parables are claiming that the religions in the world are all equally valid systems of truth and equally valid ways of having a relationship with God. The official name for this belief is called religious pluralism because it argues that there is no one single religion that is exclusively true. All of the religions are true, though it might be in a limited sense.
What Are These Parables Saying?
The first thing to note is that these parables are simply illustrating something that is already assumed to be true. They are not making any kind of argument for it, at least not any kind of explicit argument. Look carefully and you will not find any argument being explicitly made. However, there is an implicit claim contained within these parables. Consider the first parable. Each of the blind men confidently proclaim that they understand the nature of the elephant, even though they have only grasped a small part of him. Obviously, each blind man is being hasty in the conclusion he makes. He is rushing to judgment before he has really acquired enough information to justify such a conclusion. Thus, the implicit claim in this parable is this: each of the religions of the world has grasped only a small part of the totality of God, but each of them are hastily proclaiming that they have fully grasped him (or her, or it).
Those who tell this story, therefore, are making an assumption, a big assumption, indeed, a grand assumption (though they probably do not realize it). They are assuming that they have some kind of special insight that enables them to stand above all of the world’s religions, to pronounce judgment on them, and to declare them all guilty of a hasty overgeneralization. “All the religions of the world have only a small part of the truth, and they think they have the whole truth. Well, they are all wrong!” Wow. This is a pretty huge assumption. What justifies this belief in their own wisdom and powers of insight? Nothing does, because nothing can.
There is also an important claim (without any argument) being made in the parable of the paths leading up the mountain. The claim is that all of the world’s religions are equally valid, and they all lead to ultimate spiritual reality. And those who tell this story are also making a grand assumption. They assume that they have some unique perspective that allows them to pass judgment on all the world’s religions. “They are all valid! They all have my approval! I hereby declare them all good!”
Further, they are passing judgment on those adherents who are travelling the paths up the mountain: “They all think that their own path is the only way up the mountain. Well, they are all wrong!” It is as if—within the story of the parable—they are in an airplane or helicopter, or they are a giant looking down upon the mountain, having a god’s eye view. They therefore assume that they have a perspective that is superior to every single person who is traversing those various paths.
Thus, these parables are actually expressions of severe intellectual arrogance. They are based on assumptions of godlike knowledge. Most of all, the claim that they make is not justified. No reasons whatsoever are given for thinking that they accurately describe the way that human beings relate to God.
So the next time you hear someone share these parables you can ask some simple questions that will hopefully provoke some intellectual humility on their part. Just say something like this: “How do you know all of this? Yes, I hear that you are asserting certain things. But you are not making any kind of argument for them. You are only providing an illustration of what you think. However, I think I already understand what you think. I’m not asking for an illustration. I’m not asking for clarification. I’m asking for justification…Why should I think that you are right? In fact, why do you think that you are right?” This dramatically changes the conversation because it puts the burden of proof back on them.
Next week we will look at what makes these parables so persuasive and point out some serious problems with religious pluralism.