I just finished God is Not One by Stephen Prothero. I highly recommend it as a great primer on seven of the world’s most important religions: Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Yoruba, (modern), Judaism, Daoism (Taoism) and even the new Atheism. He does a great job of pointing out the basic differences in all of these.
However, I wanted to post book’s ending in order to highlight some points for us to consider, since they represent a thread of the common way of thinking in our culture. So here’s the book’s last five paragraphs, and below I’ll respond with some biblical push-back (I’ve bolded what I think are they key points he makes):
There is a famous folk tale about blind men examining an elephant. It likely originated in India before the Common Era, but it eventually spread to East and Southeast Asia and then around the world. According to this folk tale, blind men are examining an elephant. One feels his trunk and declares it to be a snake. Another feels his tail and declares it a rope. Others determine that the elephant is a wall, pillar, spear, or fan, depending on where they are touching it. But each insists he is right, so much quarreling ensues.
Among true believers of the perennial philosophy sort, this story is gospel. In their eyes, the elephant is God and the blind men are Christians and Muslims and Jews who mistake their particular (and partial) perspectives on divinity for the reality of divinity itself. Because God is beyond human imagining, we are forever groping around for God in the dark. It is foolish to say that your religion alone is true and all other religions are false. No one has the whole truth, but each is touching the elephant. So, concludes the Hindu teacher (and inspiration for many perennialists) Ramakrishna, ‘one can realize God through all religions.’
But this folk tale also demonstrates how different religions are, since it has been told in various ways and put to various uses by various religious groups. Among Buddhists, it shows that speculation on abstract metaphysical questions causes suffering. Among Sufis, it shows that God can be seen through the heart but not the senses. Hindus read it as a parable about how ‘God can be reached by different paths.’ Finally, modern Western writers such as the British poet John Godfrey Saxe turn it into a tale of the stupidity of theology:
So oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
For me, this story is a reminder not of the unity of the world’s religions (as Ramakrishna and the perennialists would have us believe), or of their shared stupidity (as Saxe and the New Atheists would argue), but of the limits of human knowledge. It is commonplace to think of religions as unchanging dogmas demanding unqualified assent. And there are no doubt fundamentalists inside most religions who see things just this way. But one function of the transcendent is to humble us, remind us that our thoughts are not the thoughts of God or the Great Goddess – to remind us that, at least for the time being, we see through a glass, darkly. Yes, religious people offer solutions to the human predicament as they see it. Yet these solutions inevitably open up more questions than they close down. This is definitely true of Confucius and Hillel, who, perhaps more than any of the figures discussed in this book, followed Rilke’s admonition to ‘love the questions themselves.’ But it is also true of Muhammad, who once said, ‘Asking good questions is half of learning,’ and of Jesus, whose parables seem designed less to teach us a lesson than to move us to scratch our heads.
When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. Far more powerful is the reminder that any genuine belief in what we call God should humble us, remind us that, if there really is a god or goddess worthy of the name, He or She or It must surely know more than we do about the things that matter most. This much, at least, is shared across the great religions.
I give Dr. Prothero credit for not falling into the classic traps he outlines when commenting on the elephant story, but I wonder if the position he espouses really amounts to much more than the positions he seeks to overcome. As the bolded sentences indicate, he is willing to grant that the elephant story is basically true, and that the problem is that each of us possesses limited knowledge about God. In other words, he accepts that “blind” is the appropriate metaphor for human knowledge–the “limits of human knowledge” define the issue before us. In doing so, he basically affirms the story as an adequate description of the world’s religious situation.
So, in Prothero’s thinking (and most non-believers in our culture) the question of which belief is right is determined by epistemology. (If you don’t know that word, you really should learn it–it’s the study of knowledge, or how we know what we know. It deals with how we can know anything at all.) To sort through this type of thinking, it is necessary to see the epistemological assumptions that he makes, and those made by the elephant story. Learning to do this is essential in sharing the gospel with people, since we are often called on the give answers to people who hold this same basic set of epistemological assumptions.
The basic assumption being made in this story is simply that the elephant can’t communicate. It is just a big, dumb thing that stands there while people feel it. Once you make God an elephant, and make the people blind, you have the two basic epistemological assumptions made by almost every non-believer in secular western cultures. But those assumptions need to be proven, and I know of know one who has ever successfully done so. Instead, they are simply assumed. If I’ve lost you here, try imagining the story differently. Imagine that the story ends this way:
When the elephant heard the men arguing, he spoke up and said, “You’re all wrong, I’m an elephant. Here–start to move around me and feel all the different parts.” And the men followed his instructions, and agreed, “Yes, this is an elephant.”
See the difference a communicating elephant would make? We do not believe that the God who made our amazing world is a dumb, non-communicative elephant. He is able to speak to the people He has created in ways they can understand. He can tell them about Himself. Why should we assume there is such a being as this elephant–who can make us, but is unable to talk to us? Is this reasonable? Is it logical? Can we expect such amazing things as communicating, investigating human beings to come from a mute, inert, animal-like being?
So we need to retell the story:
There once was a group of blind men who happened upon another man who could see. The blind men began to feel the man to see what he was. He said, “Guys, I’m a person, and my name is Bill. Let’s talk, you don’t need to touch me to get a sense for who I am.” The blind men ignored the voice. One felt Bill’s arm and said, “It is a snake!” One felt his Bill’s hair and said, “It is a rug!” One felt Bill’s leg and said, “It is a tree!” But finally one man said, “No, why don’t we just listen to the voice coming from him. He is a man!” The other men laughed at this last man. Clearly his certainty was misguided. Could they believe the voice? Were they really hearing it? But Bill reached out and touched this last man, and restored the man’s sight. The man said, “Now I see. Now I know!” The men who were still blind left, confident that they knew enough to know that no one could truly see. But Bill and the last man went away together, now friends.
If Prothero’s assumptions are true, and the limits of human knowledge are all we have, than the original elephant story may be correct. But if, as the Bible explains, we are not limited to what we can figure out with our own minds, but have access to what our Creator has communicated to us, then we are in a very different situation.
If the elephant talks, it’s time for us modern humans to rethink some of our cherished assumptions.