In our current cultural moment, one which is steeped in deep skepticism, absolute truth is separated from matters of religion and spirituality as far as the east is from the west. A typical postmodern response to the statement that absolute truth exists would sound like, “That may be absolutely true for you, but absolutely not true for me.” This view is as deluded as it is dangerous in matters of reality, blurring the lines between preference, opinion and truth.
To be sure, the promise in the era of modernism that human reason was able to fix all that was wrong in the world was bankrupt. Two world wars stand as testimony to that failure. Today, postmodernism seeks to correct modernism (where absolutes did exist) with the notion that everything is relative to the opinion of the individual.
We have reached the point where rejection of absolute truth has removed any and all religious distinctions. Religious pluralism claims that no one system of religious belief is superior to any other. Skeptics assert that because absolute truth does not exist, no one religion can claim to be true while the other is false.
The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant
There is a well-known ancient story birthed in India that displays exactly what a philosophy of religious pluralism intends to teach. Six blind men were brought to a Rajah’s palace and encountered an elephant for the first time. As they reached out to touch the elephant in six different areas, each one began to formulate his own personal opinion of what an elephant is.
- The first blind man touched the elephant’s leg. “How tall!” he thought. “An elephant is like a tree.”
- The second blind man touched the elephant’s trunk. “How round!” he thought. “An elephant is like a snake.”
- The third blind man touched the elephant’s tail. “How thin! An elephant it like a rope.”
- The fourth blind man touched the elephant’s ear. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.”
- The fifth blind man touched the elephant’s side. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.”
- The sixth blind man touched the elephant’s tusk. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.”
The six blind men, each believing that his own perception of the elephant was right and true, began to argue heatedly amongst themselves. The Rajah came out on the balcony to see what the commotion was all about, and, recognizing the issue at hand, he said, “The elephant is a big animal, and you, being blind, are unable to see the entire elephant. Each of you touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is truly like.”
The moral of the story is often expressed as an admonition that we must humbly recognize our own limitations of knowledge and respectfully include the perspectives of others, who come from a variety of life experiences and may be able to see what we cannot.
The Fatal Flaw in the Parable
To leave this story there would be a good thing. After all, the Bible tells us there is wisdom in many counselors. But to stretch the parable and apply it to religious truth is a very bad thing indeed. When unbelievers assert that the elephant represents God, their reasoning often backfires on them. You see, the storyteller purports to possess absolute truth.
Leslie Newbigin, who served for almost 40 years as a missionary to India, shone a piercing light on the parable’s fatal flaw. He wrote –
“The story is told from the point of view of the king [the Rajah], who is not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth.
But of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping for. It embodies the claim to know the full reality, which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.”
The storyteller’s arrogance is alarming. He claims to have what he declares no religion can claim: comprehensive knowledge of religious truth. The only way one can know that each man is blind and sees only a part of the truth is to claim that you yourself are able to see the whole truth yourself. How arrogant, intolerant and narrow is that?!
Also note that the only way the blind men were able to recognize their lack of understanding was through the revelation of the king, who spoke up to give the blind men the truth about the elephant. In the same way, the King of kings has spoken up to give us the truth about God:
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:5-6).
In conclusion, Jesus Christ is the only man who ever lived who knows the whole truth. Jesus has superior, comprehensive knowledge of all reality, including spiritual reality, and He has spoken. All roads do not lead to God. There is only one way to God and He is that way. It is not intolerant for the Christian to claim to have the truth. All religions claim to have the truth. It is far more intolerant for the skeptic to say, “My view is superior to the views of all the major religions in the world” — thus claiming to know what he asserts no one can know.
Here is a final word of encouragement for you to share with your unbelieving friends. The God who made the world and everything in it tells us that religious truth does indeed exist. Instead of meekly acknowledging that we see only a tiny portion of truth, we should search for that truth, and we should discuss and debate that truth with kindness and love. God is not silent, and He has laid out His truth in the Bible for all those who seek truth there, so that we can be set free from doubts, disillusionment and ultimately death.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. Never Forget That . . . AMEN!
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.