Many are familiar with the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, immortalized by the Fritz Eichenberg woodcut that was on the cover of Friends Journal in March. The story is of a group of blind men who are led to an elephant. Each grabs one part of the animal—leg, trunk, tail, body, ear, tusk—and describes the elephant in terms of the part he is holding: an elephant is like a tree trunk, or like a snake, or rope, wall, banana leaf, spear. This causes the men to argue about the true nature of an elephant, each insisting on his own perception as the only true description.
We smile at the silliness of the argument and usually describe the moral of the story as being about the importance of respecting diverse points of view, that no one has all the answers, that it’s important to be humble and open to other ideas.
But behind those superficial lessons are two more profound lessons implicit in the premises of the story.
First, the only reason that the men argued with each other was that they were blind. If they could see, they would have each realized instantly that the elephant had many characteristics at the same time, and what those characteristics are. They would still have different vantage points, and no one of them would see all of the elephant at the same time, but they would each actually see the elephant as a single, integrated living being. The man standing behind the elephant might not be able to see a tusk, but he would have all the context he needed for his brother’s description of the tusk to make perfect sense and enrich his already accurate understanding of the elephant.
The first lesson, then, is that if I want to know what an elephant is like, I must wake up, open my eyes, throw off my blindness, and see for myself.
The second lesson is that there is indeed an elephant! The story only makes sense if the men are feeling and describing something that actually exists—it isn’t a figment of their imagination—and that it is all the same object.
So it is when in my blindness I stumble into an encounter with the Living God. My first perception may be of a particular characteristic or attribute of God: creator, liberator, comforter, judge, lawgiver, mother, father, shepherd, still small voice, pillar of fire, burning bush.
If I remain spiritually blind, my perception of God will be limited to that aspect I immediately encounter. Even if I suspect there may be more than I’m able to perceive, the best I can hope for is to believe in my brothers’ and sisters’ descriptions of their experience, somehow synthesizing their descriptions into my own peculiar image of God. The result is an idea—called God—that would be subjective, idiosyncratic, and, if I am honest, tentative.
And, quite likely, inaccurate.
If this is all I have, how can I testify with power and confidence about what God has done for me (and for you)? The accuracy and persuasive power of my testimony would depend on the reliability of the testimony of others, none of whom I can unqualifiedly vouch for, and about some of whom I may have serious doubts. How could I, a blind guy feeling an elephant’s leg, ever accept without reservation that the thing I am encountering had any resemblance whatsoever to a rope or a banana leaf?
But if I learn how to see, my knowledge of God will be immediate, personal, and authentic. It would be a living knowledge of the Living God upon whom I can stake my life. And the knowledge would not be mine alone: I’d share it with all the others who once were blind but now can see.
There is one crucial difference between blind men encountering an elephant and a human being searching for an encounter with the Living God. The elephant is utterly indifferent towards its perceivers (and is likely to stomp on or gore them if they’re not careful). The elephant doesn’t have the power, or desire, to cure them of their blindness or to bring them into perfect knowledge of itself. So the men are stuck in their predicament and must do the best they can.
Not so with the Living God.