Wednesday, May 12, 2004

the elephant has spoken

You may have heard the story illustrated above about the blind men who each claim to grasp the nature of the elephant they're examining. One insists it's a tree because he feels the trunk, the other that it's a wall cause he feels the body, etc.

And you may have heard it employed as an analogy for the world religions. The blind men being each a world religion, and the elephant being God. Consequently each religion has a different angle on God, but none of them understand God completely (EXCEPT of course for the enlightened - those who understand and accept the elephant analogy and can as a result sit back and enjoy being their "spiritual but not religious" selves).

The fable could be adopted as the 21st century Creed. It is, I suggest, the default position of all of us... meaning it is natural for most people in our pluralist context who have thought about God at all to end up committed, even religiously so, to this very Hindu point of view.

The Christian would (I hope) object. Why in the fable is the elephant so passive? Why does he just let these fuddling blind men grope away without offering any assistance? What if the elephant decided to spur along the discovery process? What if the elephant spoke: Said "No, I'm not a tree, not a wall - I am... An elephant." Then one of the blind men who happened to be close to the mouth would say "Wait, this thing's an elephant!"

The fable so adjusted is the position of Christian faith. It may sound arrogant for Christians to assert that theirs is the right way to God, and in fact that would be an arrogant position, if the elephant hadn't spoken up. But if the elephant has spoken, then what arrogance is there in spreading the Word? The arrogance then would be in keeping one's mouth shut.

That being said, here are two qualifying remarks:
1. That the elephant has spoken does not suggest that Christians and only Christians have knowledge of God. Other religions may have important insights. The fact that God has spoken definitively in Christ does not rule this out, it just gives such insights an ultimate context in which to be assessed.

2. That the elephant has spoken does not mean Christians have God in their pocket. Christians understand that God has revealed himself in Christ, but they do not necessarily understand how. Logical comprehension is a satisfaction that God simply doesn't offer us). At the first of the two meetings (in 325) that would give us the Nicene Creed, when one disputant tried to explain definitively how God "spoke" in Christ, this is was St. Spyridon's reply:
"Listen, philosopher, to what I tell you... We believe that He is One in Essence with the Father, and equal to Him in authority and honor. We believe this without any sly rationalizations, for it is impossible to grasp this mystery by human reason."
That is to say, it is only the luxury of heretics to be able to completely understand the deities of their own creation.
Wouldn't it be nice if there was a religion that didn't claim to understand God - just to worship him in the mystery of his revelation? Oh wait... there is.