The Elephant

hParables abound in our society and we love them. Sometimes though, we need to look at the principal they are promoting and question whether it fits with the Christian message.

My favorite example of that principal was shared by Norman Geisler, then Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary while describing a debate with an opponent who embraced a Hindu idea that there is no one correct perception of God. He told the popular and ancient Indian story of The Blind Men and the Elephant that goes something like this:

Once upon a time in a village, there lived six blind men. In spite of their blindness, they had managed to educate themselves. Seeking to expand their knowledge, they decided to visit a zoo and try out their skills in recognizing animals by their touch.

The first animal they came across, as soon as they entered the zoo, was an elephant. Remember, these men were blind, and they had no idea what an elephant looked like. They sensed an animal nearby and went closer so that they could feel it and see what it was like.

As the first man approached the elephant, the elephant waved its trunk, and the man felt something brush past him. Managing to hold on to it, he felt it, and found something long and moving. He jumped back in alarm, shouting, “Move away! This is a snake!”

Meanwhile, the second man had moved closer, and walked right near its legs. Thankfully, it was a tame elephant, and it did not crush the man at once, but allowed him to touch its legs. As the man touched the thick, cylindrical –shaped legs, he called out “Do not worry. These are just four trees here. There is certainly no snake!”

The third man was curious hearing the other two, and moved forward. As he walked towards the elephant, it bent, and he felt his hand touch one of the tusks. Feeling the smooth, sharp ivory tusk, the man cried out “Be careful! There is a spear here! A sharp one!”

The fourth man cautiously walked up behind the elephant, and felt its swinging tail. “It’s just a rope! There is nothing to be afraid of!” he said.

The fifth man had meanwhile reached out and was touching the huge ears of the animal. “I think all of you have lost your sense of touch!” he said. “This is nothing but a huge fan!”

The sixth man did not want to be left out. As he walked towards the elephant, he bumped into its massive body, and he exclaimed, “Hey! This is just a huge mud wall! There is no animal at all!”

All six of them were convinced that they were right, and began arguing amongst themselves. “It’s a snake!” said one. “No, its not!” said the second. “It’s a tree!” “You are wrong!” cried the third “It’s a spear!” “You are all wrong! It’s just a rope!” shouted the fourth! “It just a fan!” said the fifth, and the sixth insisted, “You are all wrong. There is no animal, just a mud wall here!”

Wondering about the commotion, the zookeeper arrived on the scene, and was surprised to see 6 blind men surrounding an elephant, each of them shouting at the top of their voices! “Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” he shouted out, and when they had calmed down, he asked, “Why are all of you shouting and arguing in this manner?”

They replied, “Sir, as you can see, we are all blind. We came here to expand our knowledge. We sensed an animal here, and tried to get an idea of its appearance by feeling it. However, we are not able to arrive at a consensus over its appearance, and hence are arguing. Can you please help us and tell us which of us is right? Does the animal resemble a snake, a tree, a spear, a fan, a rope, or a wall? Please enlighten us!”

The zookeeper laughed and laughed before answering, “My dear men, each of you have touched just one portion of the animal. The animal you see is neither a snake, nor any of the other things you have mentioned. The animal in front of you is an elephant!”

Turning to the men one by one, he continued, “Sir, you touched the trunk, which is long and curved, hence you thought it to be a snake. Sir, what you thought were trees are just the elephant’s legs. They are so thick and strong, because the animal is huge. Its body is what you thought was a mud wall” he said, turning to the sixth man.

He continued further “Sir, what you thought of, as a spear is just the tusk of the elephant, and what you thought was a fan is one of its ears. As to what you thought was a rope, it is its tail!”

All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it different is because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. So actually the elephant is made up of all the features you mentioned

He continued further, “It is not enough to gather knowledge, but also important to learn to share and pool your knowledge. If, instead of fighting amongst yourselves, if you had tried to put all your observations together, you might have had an idea of the animal as a whole! Also, when you cannot see the entire truth, it is better to go to someone who does know the complete truth, rather than guess about small parts of it. Such half-knowledge is not just useless, but also dangerous.

The story is frequently used to illustrate the idea that no one perception or belief about God (represented by the elephant,) can be certain, because we, like the blind man, only see part of the truth.

Geisler’s response was—“Yes, but once we were blind, but now we see.”

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