Blind Men and the Elephant – A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe
Here is John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of Blind Men and the Elephant:
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Blind Men and the Elephant – A Picture of Relativism and Tolerance
The Blind Men and the Elephant is a famous Indian fable that tells the story of six blind sojourners that come across different parts of an elephant in their life journeys. In turn, each blind man creates his own version of reality from that limited experience and perspective. In philosophy departments throughout the world, the Blind Men and the Elephant has become the poster child for moral relativism and religious tolerance.
Some have used this parable to argue that none of us sees God completely so whatever you think of God is true for you if not for me – that there are many paths to come to an understanding of God.
Is truth relative? How often have you heard someone say, “I’m glad it’s true for you – it’s just not true for me.”
If it’s true that today is the day the pilot is going to crash the plane – ok if it’s true for him but not for me.
Jesus before Pilate: John 14:37‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
38‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.
See Guliani – truth isn’t true
What’s missing from the poem and story about the 6 blind men and the elephant is a 7th man – who can see and help each blind man to try to understand each other and together find the truth –
Someone with this sighted insight is sometimes hard to find and often hard to trust. For every 6 of us blundering about unable to grasp the whole picture there might be only one more who is the 7th insightful one.
Who do you turn to for clarification, to explain what it’s all about, to help you see beyond the bit of the elephant you have hold of? So far as the Bible is concerned we know it is God himself:
1 Corinthians 3: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
What a wonderfully encouraging passage of the Bible this is!!
Because we know Jesus, because he has given us his Holy Spirit we can get to understand God Almighty, to understand the Bible, to understand life, to understand ourselves and to understand each other so much better, even to understand death and eternity.
We don’t get to see God face to face but when we look at Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit we see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.
Before Jesus God’s people had to hear from God through Moses and the other prophets.
But people had trouble coping with their leader Moses while he was leading his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert and to their promised land.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. … When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Moses was the one who spoke with God and therefore got the truth, the full picture. When he communicated it to the people they had trouble even looking at him let alone absorbing and following what he had to tell them. His face shone with a reflection of God’s glory so much so that people could not bear to look at him, so he pulled a veil over his face.
But the brilliance faded after a while until it was renewed when Moses went again into the presence of the Lord. Eventually the shine faded altogether but it was still as if Moses’ message was hard to receive, as if it was covered with a veil.
As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:
But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Once again, the Bible brings us the sad news but does not leave us there as it leads us into the good news – the gospel.
The sad news is that people’s minds are hardened. Their spiritual eyes are dim. They come to God, to Jesus and to the Bible like the blind men as they approached the elephant – they only get in touch with bits of the truth, not the whole.
What do people know about God, about Jesus, about the Bible? Unless they go to the source directly what people know are the opinions of other equally ignorant but opinionated people.
It’s easy to find information but it’s very easy to find misinformation, misleading information even falsehoods.
Everyone has an opinion, a point of view they have worked out over time. No one wants to admit it when they get it wrong and seriously listen to an alternative.
Like the blind men in the parable each of us has grasped at the truth and we want to hang on to the interpretation we have come to.
That’s why having SRE, or Scripture, taught in our schools is so important otherwise young people have very little chance of getting the whole story, of finding out what the Bible actually says and they go on in ignorance and easily fooled by others.
Even when people read the Bible they often do so with preconceptions or at least misconceptions. They go looking for what they want to believe rather than what the Bible actually tells them. They go with hardened hearts and closed minds. They want the Bible to support their own ideas, or perhaps the ideas of the society, the culture, of the commentators or the media or friends. It becomes very easy then to find ways to get the Bible to support those ideas.
Sometimes people re-interpret or even edit what they read to make it suit them. Try doing that with other documents, communications or, worse, relationships and see the mess that ensues.
Of course, there are some stiff-necked, hardhearted people who will stubbornly refuse to understand what the Bible says, what the gospel really is but for so many people they just don’t get it. As we see in this passage it’s as if there is a veil over their minds and it’s all very vague, misty and confusing.
But there is good news in this passage: when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. When someone comes to Jesus and says, “help me understand, Lord” then Jesus responds and gives the help that is needed.
We don’t get to see God or even Jesus face to face but Jesus responds by the power and presence of his Holy Spirit and “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.”
We might not see him face to face but we get the picture! The Spirit of Jesus reflects the glory of God and we get to perceive that.
One thing we get straight up is freedom – freedom from falsehoods about Jesus because the truth is there in black and white in the book and in the freedom that only the Spirit of Jesus can bring, as he becomes intimately part of our lives.
We stop blundering about like one of the blind men trying to understand the elephant. The Holy Spirit can see everything and can help us to see the truth, too. What the parable of the blind men and the elephant tells us is how much we need the Holy Spirit to lead and teach us.
Not that we see everything at once – there are limitations in a reflection in a mirror but even so it makes an amazing difference. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The more time we spend reading the Bible, the more time we spend in prayer, the more time we spend with Jesus, the more clearly we see the reflection of the glory of the Lord – and we are changed.
More than changed – transformed. The word the Bible uses is “metamorphosed”. A grub spins its way into a cocoon and emerges with all the freedom and beauty of a butterfly – it goes through a process of metamorphosis.
What a wonderful thought – as we allow the Holy Spirit to show us more and more of the glory of the Lord, the more clearly we see his reflection the more we are changed to be more like him. We are changed, metamorphosed from being like grubs to be like butterflies, to be like the creatures he wants us to be.
We are changed from one degree of glory to another! Bit by bit we become more like Jesus.
Thank God for the gift of his Holy Spirit. As we read the Bible the Holy Spirit lifts the veil from our minds, opens our spiritual eyes, reveals the truth of the gospel to us, and lets us see something of the glory of the Lord. Then, he changes us to be more and more like Jesus.
Read the Bible again:
- find new things
- see things afresh
- even be moved
Jesus confronted Saul, now to be the apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus blinding him at first and telling him, Acts 26: 16“Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
In fulfilment of this the Spirit inspired Paul and others to write the words we find in the Bible so that we, too, have our eyes opened, we turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that we may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus.
Paul went on to write in 2 Corinthians 3: Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
Our ministry is to share this good news, too. Like Paul we, too, do not lose heart, we are not defeated.
There are lots of blind people around us, all missing out on the whole picture.
It can be so frustrating and disappointing when, as we try to share the good news of Jesus with people, so often they just don’t get it. We know why, of course. As we have just been reading, it’s as if Satan has drawn a veil over their minds to prevent them from seeing the truth. We pray for them because, just as it is with us, they need the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to lift that veil.
We encourage them to turn to Jesus and ask for the help of his Holy Spirit so that they glimpse the glory of the Lord, receive forgiveness of sins and are changed from one degree of glory to another.
Bellingen Uniting Church 3 March 2019