Pilate’s question from our scripture today is the defining question of our culture: What is truth? Leslie Newbigin, in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, reminds us of the ancient fable from India of the blind men and the elephant — popularized by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). The original fable is told from the point of view of a king who leads several blind men to an elephant and asks them to tell him what it is that they are feeling. The first blind man walked into the formidable side of the huge mammal and declared with certainty that what he found was a wall. The second took hold of the elephant’s tusk and asserted that it was a spear. The third blind man felt the squirming trunk of the elephant and jumped back saying that it was, without a doubt, a great snake. A fourth bumped into one of the beast’s large legs and declared it to be a tree. Another was led by the king to the elephant’s flapping ear and proclaimed that he had definitely found a fan. The last blind man groped for what was before him, and grabbing the elephant’s tail was convinced that the thing before him was a rope.
The story is usually told to make the point that none of us have a grasp on the whole truth. One person sees things one way, and another sees truth in a different way. Each of us are holding a part of the truth, and everyone is right in their own way, given their individual experience. It is especially used by people trying to say that all religions are the same, and that we just have different ways of talking about God and experiencing him. “After all,” they say, “we are all feeling the same elephant, but describing him according to our limited perceptions.” Saxe sees a religious significance in the fable and ends his poem saying,
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I [believe],
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Those who use this story try to point out that all religions are merely an attempt by men (blind men at that) to grope after truth. However, those trying to make that point seem to miss several important problems with the story. First of all, as Newbigin points out, “If the king were also blind there would be no story.” There would be no one to lead the blind men to anything. We also have to ask why the king only led each man to one part of the elephant, instead of allowing them to experience as much as they could and were capable of understanding. The most obvious gloss in the fable is that even though there are some people who are born blind, most are born with the ability to see. Sight is a gift of God who wants us to see and perceive. Another important point is that rather than each of them having a portion of the truth, none of them had a part of the truth, they were all completely wrong. What they experienced was not a rope, a snake or a wall, it was an elephant. And the most important point is: the elephant was still an elephant in spite of what their perceptions were. The elephant was unchanged by their imperfect understanding of what they were experiencing. Their misunderstanding came from their blindness.