You may have heard of the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. It’s from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. There are a number of variations, but in general it goes something like this: three blind men encounter an elephant. One touches the trunk; another touches the tail; the third touches the leg. Each believes that they have learned all that there is to know about elephants.
Later, they describe their encounters to each other. The first says that the elephant is clearly like a snake. The second is no less convinced that the elephant is like a rope. The third man thinks the first two are out of their minds. The elephant is obviously like a tree. They become embroiled in a heated argument; shouting that only their experience could possibly describe the “real” elephant.
The parable, according to tradition, was originally told by a wise man who had been asked by a student to explain why his teachers all taught such different views of religion.
It isn’t that the blind men were wrong; not exactly. They each truthfully described what they’d experienced. The problem was that none of them could experience all of the elephant. And none of them were willing to listen to and learn from the others. How much more would they have known if they had been open to hearing each other?
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, as human beings we see, and understand, only in part.
When I was younger and my father wanted to remind me that it was just possible that I didn’t know absolutely everything (imagine that), he used to say it this way: “I see, said the blind man, and he didn’t see a damn thing.”
On an intellectual level, we can agree that God is beyond our ability to comprehend. And yet, the words are no sooner said than we begin to try to do just that. We call God “Father”, or “Mother”, or “Spirit”, or “Energy”, or “Cosmic Consciousness.”
Which is fine.
At least, it is right up to the point where we begin to tell others that their description of God couldn’t possibly be “right” because it doesn’t match ours.
The idea that there’s more to the elephant – to God – than we can possibly grasp seems, well, hard to grasp. Or at least, for many people, hard to accept. Perhaps that’s because there’s already enough uncertainty in our lives. It’s comforting to have the security of a God who stays within the boundaries we set.
However, the parable of the blind men and the elephant underscores the absurdity of trying to describe the Indescribable. God, like the elephant, isn’t going to be limited by our limitations. Rather, we’re the ones who have to be able to accept a Creator who encompasses the incredible diversity of Creation.
There were just as many opinions about God two thousand years ago as there are now. There were just as many “experts” in doctrine and dogma. Every one of them, like the blind men, ready and willing to tell people exactly what rules were most important; what way of “believing” was “right”; what an elephant was really all about.
And the people were no less cynical of the explanations they offered than we are of those offered by our “experts” today.
As the Gospel writers tell it, Jesus suggested something simpler. He told us we should just “love God with all our heart and mind and strength.”
Love (the original word is “agapé”, which we’ll talk about another time) isn’t something we learn from a book. We learn it by experiencing it.
Nor is it exactly the same for any of us. So trying to put rules around it, as Jesus and the author of the parable of the blind men knew, is useless. Worse, it denies us the joy of learning more of God from the diversity of others’ experiences.
That doesn’t mean that we should abandon our traditions. Whichever expression of God holds the most meaning for us is exactly that – the most meaningful.
We just need to be able to accept that it’s not all there is.
That the agapé love of God, no matter how wide we reach, no matter how far we look, is more.