June 2016 - The Elephant Story

Something about an elephant….

           

Just because something is repeated often does not make it true. I don’t doubt that many who are reading this will find that to be a statement of the blindingly obvious. However, in this media-saturated age, the sheer frequency with which a statement is made and repeated, or posted and shared, can often lend it an unwarranted and unchallenged authority.

Let me elaborate. The following illustration is an example of very muddled and misleading thinking. I first heard it decades ago, and then again more recently, I heard it recited as if it were the orthodox word on why we should not make claims to know anything about God from the Bible. Let me recite it for you, and I imagine many of you will have heard it. If you have heard it, I wonder if you realise how wrong it obviously is.

Here we go. A group of blind men surround an elephant and their knowledge of that elephant is restricted to what they can feel of the poor creature. One man touches the belly and is convinced that he has arrived at a wall. Another man is exploring its ear and is convinced he has found a fan. Yet another is puzzling over the tail which he concludes must be a rope, and yet another has found a tree trunk in the form of the elephant’s leg. And so on. Each man continues to feel parts of the elephant but their blindness prevents them from really grasping what it is they have a hold of. They each have a legitimate, but small and distinct, part of a larger animal that individually they are unable to recognise. (My sympathies are entirely with the elephant).

Then comes the conclusion (or one of them, it is a story with remarkably numerous applications): we are all blind when it comes to God. We only know a part of Him and can never really know who He truly is. No one is therefore any more correct than anyone else when it comes to our musings about God because we are all just grasping in the dark, presuming we know more than we do.

This story is told to encourage great humility in human beings as they think about God and encourage us not to presume to know anything that we might share coherently with others. In particular, it is said, we should not imagine that the Bible really tells us things about God with any certainty.

 

There are two major problems with this story:

 

1. First, the whole story is told by someone who knows there is an elephant. For the story to reach its conclusions, the narrator must have the very clear and accurate knowledge of the elephant that, it is claimed, we blind men cannot have. The narrator is curiously free from the ignorance he is assuming in everyone else, which seems to contradict the lesson on humility (I can see clearly but you lot can’t).

 

2. Secondly, and more importantly, the story assumes a great deal about the elephant. It is actually a good illustration of how, on our own, as human beings we cannot know God. That is a good point. But here is the thing - suppose the elephant speaks! Suppose the elephant has a desire to make itself known! What if the elephant says to the man interfering with his ear - ‘I’m an elephant and that is my ear you’re playing with’, and then continues, ‘and you, back there, stop tugging at my tail…it is not a rope to be yanked.’. If the elephant were to say all this, would the blind men still be considered humble for refusing to listen and take the elephant at its word?

Here we hit on the real issue. This story turns out to be less about us being humble and more about a very wrong view of God. Is God not gracious enough to make Himself known? Does God lack the wisdom to be able to open our eyes to see who He is? Is He not gracious enough to communicate in ways that even the limited and humble can understand?

 

In fact, what you find is that an illustration that began by suggesting that we can’t confidently interpret and understand the Bible so as to know God, is actually saying something about God Himself. In our false humility we are insisting that God is mute, unable to speak, powerless to communicate. And that is nonsense.

The Bible has an innate clarity about it and by it, under the power of the Holy Spirit, even the simplest of us can learn all that we need to know about God and His way of salvation. The point is well made in the Bible itself:

“This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. 12 It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ 13 It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ 14 No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it.  Deuteronomy 30:11-14, New Living Translation)

            Your minister

            Martin Thomson

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