September-October 1998

The Trouble with the Elephant

by Greg Koukl

In the children's book, The Blind Men and the Elephant, Lillian Quigley retells the ancient fable of six blind men who visit the palace of the Rajah and encounter an elephant for the first time.

The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. "How smooth! An elephant is like a wall." The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. "How round! An elephant is like a snake." The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. "How sharp! An elephant is like a spear." The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. "How tall! An elephant is like a tree." The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. "How wide! An elephant is like a fan." The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. "How thin! An elephant is like a rope."

An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was correct. The Rajah, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. "The elephant is big," he said. "Each man touched only one part. You must put all parts together to find out what an elephant is like."

This fable is often used to illustrate one of two points. The religious application holds that every faith represents just one part of a larger truth about God. Each has only a piece of the truth, leading to God by different routes. Advocates of Eastern religions are fond of using the parable in this way.

The second application, a secular application, is used by skeptics who hold that cultural biases have so seriously blinded us that we can never know the true nature of things. This view is often called post-modernism.

Post-modernists hold for all areas of truth, including the rational, the religious and the moral. They argue that morality is not objective. Those who believe that cultural biases blind us are making a strong assertion about knowledge.

Post-modernists essentially believe that all claims to know objective truth are false because each of us is imprisoned in his own culture, incapable of seeing beyond the limits of his own biases.Therefore, truth is relative to culture and no objective standard exists.

But, there are three serious problems with the elephant argument.

Talking Elephants

The first serious limitation is that even though the men are blind, the elephant isn't necessarily mute. What if the elephant speaks?

Christianity claims that human beings don't learn about God by groping. Instead, discovery comes about through God's own self-disclosure. He is not silent, leaving us to guess about his nature. God tells us what he is like and what he wants.

God makes himself known, giving us a standard by which to measure all other religious claims. The parable of the blind men does not take this into account. Yet three of the world's great religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- make this claim.

There is a second problem with the parable. It presumes that Christians reject pluralism merely because they lack exposure to other beliefs, much as the blind men erred because each had explored only a part of the elephant. Christians are just uninformed and narrow-minded.

This is not the case. Christians reject pluralism, in part, because the defining elements of different religions contradict each other. It's not an inductive problem of discovery; it's a problem of coherence.

Contradictory claims can't be simultaneously true. Religious pluralism is false on deductive grounds, not inductive.

The Suicidal Elephant

The third objection is the most serious. The application of this parable to issues of truth is doomed before it gets started.

There's only one way to know if our cultural or religious biases blind us to the larger truth that all religions lead to God. Someone who sees clearly without bias must tell us so. The Rajah was in a position of privileged access to the truth. Because he could see clearly, he was able to correct those who were blind.

Such a privileged view is precisely what advocates of both religious pluralism and the skepticism of post-modernism deny. Completely objective assessments are illusions, they claim. The truth lies in some combination of opinions or, for the more skeptical, is out of reach for any of us. However, this is precisely the kind of thing the parable does not allow one to say.

The problem becomes obvious by offering this challenge. Ask, "Where would you be in the illustration? When you apply this parable to the issue of truth, are you like one of the blind men or are you like the king?"

This dilemma is unsolvable. If the story-teller is like one of the six who can't see -- if he is one of the blind men groping around -- how does he know everyone else is blind and has only a portion of the truth? On the other hand, if he fancies himself in the position of the king, how is it that he alone escapes the illusion that blinds the rest of us?

At best, this parable might justify agnosticism, but not religious pluralism. All one could really say is that it may be the case we're all groping about with no one in full possession of the truth -- but this can't be known for sure.

The King Sees

If everyone is blind, then no one can know if anyone else is mistaken. Only someone who knows the whole truth can identify another on the fringes of it. In this story, only the king can do that -- no one else.

The irony is that the parable of the blind men and the elephant is, to a great degree, a picture of reality. It's just been misapplied.

We are like blind men, fumbling around in the world searching for answers to life's deepest questions. From time to time, we seem to stumble upon things that are true, but we're often confused and mistaken, just as the blind men were.

How do I know this? Because the King of the Kingdom, whom we also know as Jesus Christ, has spoken. He is above, instructing us, advising us of our mistakes and correcting our errors. The real question is: Will we listen? 


Greg Koukl is the founder and director of Stand to Reason, an organization which trains Christians for the public defense of their faith.


Return to Plain Truth Ministries Home Page