Someone always sees the whole elephant – or – why we all make exclusive truth claims and so we should just get over it

Everybody thinks they see the whole picture but no one does.  Or do they?

Everybody thinks they see the whole picture but no one does. Or do they?

Have you ever had someone say: “you can’t claim to know the whole truth?”  Or “How can you say belief in Jesus is true and other beliefs are not?”  Or “don’t we all have a piece of the truth and nobody’s truth is more true than another’s?”

Exclusive truth claims are not popular for us today.  To declare that this ‘truth’ is true and this one is not comes across as arrogant and, well, exclusive.  This is a major obstacle and objection to Christian faith which does claim to put forth some truth claims.  And the way truth claims usually work is that they state something is true and something else, necessarily, must not be.  For example, either Jesus is the only way to the Father or He isn’t.

But often people want to have a more accommodating and so-called ‘humble’ approach.  And so some approach truth in a way which doesn’t require anybody to be ‘wrong’.  A popular parable emerges and truth becomes like an elephant.  The parable of the elephant and the blind men has been around for awhile.  It goes something like this:

There is an elephant being patiently examined.  There are some guys gathered around but they are all blind or blindfolded.  Deprived of sight, they are all examining the elephant using their hands.  One fellow feels the trunk and declares confidently:  “It’s a hose!”.  Another feels the ear and says:  “It’s a fan!”  The third guy feels the leg and presumes:  “It’s a post!”  The fourth feels the side of the elephant and says:  “It’s a wall!”  Lastly, another fellow feels the tail and says:  “It’s a rope!”

All the men encounter a part of the elephant but none can see the whole.  The meaning of the parable is that no one should claim to have a handle on ultimate or objective truth claims.  None of us can see the whole truth, we can only perceive part of it.  And all truth claims do not have to contradict.

That may be appealing for some people today.  It is perceived as being humble and open-minded.  But there’s a problem.  It is directly contradicts the truth claims of Christianity.  Christianity teaches that some things are true and some things are false.  Jesus says:  I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.  That’s a big no-no for those who embrace the elephant-and-blind-men view of truth.  Exclusive truth claims are exclusive and therefore bad.  Except there’s a problem with that way of thinking; we’re all exclusive in our view of truth.

Lesslie Newbigin as a young man.

Lesslie Newbigin as a young man.

Someone who pondered this parable and deemed it false was Lesslie Newbigin.*  Newbigin was a missionary for decades in India where the elephant-and-blind-men view of truth was popular.  When he returned to the West as a old man he was astonished to see that many in western culture were starting to adopt it.  Christianity then became unacceptable because it claimed to be have authoritative truth.  But Newbigin was able to point out the shortcoming.

While the elephant parable appears to avoid making an absolute claim to truth, it doesn’t.  Each of the blind men groping around only sees a part of the elephant but there is someone who does.  It’s you!  If you believe that truth works that way, then you are standing in the position that you claim no one should be able to.  You see the entire elephant!

To say truth works like blind men feeling an elephant therefore no one can claim ultimate truth is to make an ultimate truth claim!  You are saying “this is way truth works” and not the way Christians think it does (and Muslims, Jews, secularists, atheists, and others do too).  That’s not as inclusive as it purports to be.  The truth is that every one of us makes ultimate claims about the nature of reality.  Perhaps it is far more respectful to acknowledge that and agree or disagree with one another on one another’s terms.

Christianity makes claims about God, Jesus, human beings, the world, and the nature of reality which do not agree with what others believe.  But that is not narrow or small-minded because…  we all do that!  Christianity claims that God is this and He is not like that.  Christianity claims that Jesus is that God and to believe that is to exclude many other options.  But you know what?  There is a good reason to believe that claim because, according to Christianity, the Elephant himself has spoken!

 

 

*  I heard of this through Tim Keller’s preaching, so… credit given!