The Blind Men and The Elephant

The Blind Men and The Elephant is a poem adapted from a very old Indian story by John Godfrey Saxe about a group of blind men who stumble across an elephant. They go about trying to describe what an elephant is by examining it with their hands, each one touching a different part and making vastly different claims about what it is. One grabs the tail and says it’s like a rope. One touches a leg and says it’s a tree. Another feels it’s tusk and proclaims it to be like a spear. The obvious point of the story being that while each was correct in describing one aspect of the elephant, none were correct in that the elephant, taken as a whole is not like anything they put forth. It hints at the relativity and inexpressibility of truth.

The Subtle, Reasoned Harmony

Often this story is used by those who would say that all religions and worldviews are basically saying the same thing. That the aspects where they differ are simply the result of each religion taking hold of a different aspect of the same god and making it central. On the surface, this sounds really good. How better to bring the world religions into harmony than to help them to understand that they are all speaking about the same thing seen from different perspectives?

There is a flaw in this proposal that is just as apparent in the story and it is that in order for the story to make any sense it must be told from the perspective of one who can see. Once we realize the narrator is actually an actor in this drama, the moral has a completely different tone. Instead of being a humble statement of, “Who can know with all these different views?”, the narrator (and we by extension) look down on these blind men and say, “Actually, we have the absolute truth and all of you are only seeing aspects of it.”

The Religion of Modern Man

And now we see the modern man, like the condescending narrator, in order to unify the religions of man, must actually put forth that he has been able to grasp what all others have missed and that his religion has claim to absolute truth. If he does not, his views must be evaluated on exactly the same plane as the religions he is purporting to unite. His claims mask themselves as tolerance, saying that your religion and mine are simply seeing different aspects of the same thing, but it is extremely disrespectful to look at two people well versed in differing religions and essentially say to them, “Actually, I know both of your religions better than you do and neither of you are seeing the whole picture like I am.”

If we truly want tolerance, it must be in the respect found when a person of one worldview can meet a person of another worldview with the understanding that neither comes to their beliefs flippantly. To ignore that there are irreconcilable differences in major world religions is to treat them with the same patronising manner that this modern unity theory purports to do away with.