Only God Sees the Whole Elephant

The Question of Differences

The story of the blind men and the elephant had always captured Bill’s imagination. He loved it when his pastor wove the story into her sermons. She told it so often as an expression of her attitude about religion that she could simply allude to it and her congregation would nod along agreeably.

The story probably has its origins in Hinduism, but I’ve heard Christians, Buddhists, and more than a few rabbis claim it fits well with their traditions. In case you’re not familiar with the story, it tells of six blind men coming upon an elephant. They feel their way around the elephant’s tusk, tail, side, and ear, and they draw different conclusions about what an elephant is. The blind man holding the tail says, “An elephant is like a snake.” The one with the tusk says, “An elephant is like a spear.” The one by the side says, “An elephant is like a wall.” And so on.

Questioning Faith

Randy Newman

In these honest stories about spiritual searching, doubt, and belief, apologetics teacher Randy Newman gives sincere inquirers the opportunity to investigate faith and encounter God’s love.

When the story is told, the teller usually brings the narrative to a climax with lessons like these:

No one sees the whole elephant. No one has the full picture. And that’s what the different religions of the world are like. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the others only see part of reality; one religion cannot state conclusively what God is like or what life is all about. But if we’d just listen to each other, we could put our partial views together and get a fuller picture.

As you might guess, this parable is a favorite in comparative religions classes. John Godfrey Saxe expressed both the thoughts and sentiments of this story in a poem with these two final stanzas:

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!1

The final appeal calls for humility and a turn away from the arrogance that individual religions have when they claim the truth.

Bill never tired of hearing this story. Until he heard a different take on it. For part of the year, he and his wife, Jana, lived in a condo on the beautiful beach paradise of Treasure Cay in the Bahamas. Away from their home church, they attended a Christian chapel that invited guest preachers from a variety of Christian denominations to lead Sunday morning worship. Bill and Jana loved the mix of perspectives, from liberal, mainline Protestant to evangelical nondenominational.

One Sunday, the guest preacher told the blind-men-and-the-elephant story but then commented:

I was drawn to this story when I first heard it. I liked it until someone challenged me on it. They asked me, “How can we tell that story?” I didn’t understand their question. They elaborated, “The only way we can tell that story is if we claim to see the whole elephant. How else could we know that none of those blind men saw the whole elephant? In other words, we who tell the story are really the most arrogant of all. We’re guilty of the very sin for which we’re judging all those blind men—claiming to know what the whole elephant looks like.”

The preacher paused and added:

I didn’t like hearing someone critique one of my favorite stories. But I had to admit they had a valid point. Isn’t it a little patronizing to say all those religious men are blind but we, the objective observers telling the story, can see? When we tell that story, are we saying Jesus was blind? That Muhammad was blind? Or Buddha? Are we claiming to be smarter and more enlightened than those religious leaders?

Bill felt his world crumbling. It was the worst worship service he’d experienced and the most disturbing sermon he’d ever heard. Unlike so many other Sundays, this time, as he walked out of the chapel, he did not shake the preacher’s hand. But he thought about the sermon for the rest of the day.

The next morning, he knocked on the door of the apartment the church provided for their guest preachers. He asked for a retelling of that part of the sermon about the blind men and the elephant. The preacher invited him in for some coffee and simply restated what he’d shared the day before, adding: “It is rather disturbing to have something you’ve held dear for a long time dismantled, isn’t it? It certainly was for me.” Bill nodded and said he needed to think about it more. He acknowledged that if we claim to see the whole elephant, we are in fact guilty of our own kind of religious arrogance.

The God who has revealed himself through the Bible is not a God who hides.

I know the details of this encounter between the preacher and Bill because I was that guest preacher. I remember Bill’s face when we chatted over that cup of coffee. I was impressed that he was willing to question something he’d believed for a long time. I was more impressed because he was in his midsixties, and he’d held this view for decades. He told me this was the last year he and his wife would be coming to Treasure Cay. They’d reached the stage of life when they needed to be close to the best medical attention they could find. This tiny island, while stunningly beautiful, lacked the doctors and hospitals they would need in the years ahead. “We want to have home field advantage for the fourth quarter,” he told me with a smile. I’ve lost touch with him, but I hope he was able to wrestle with how different religions differ.

Differences Make a Difference

Many people are convinced that the different religions of the world are merely “roads on the same mountain that all lead to the top.” In fact, that image is presented with approval in one of the most frequently used textbooks for religious studies courses, The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. We’re encouraged to find the commonalities of the different religions rather than focus on where they differ.

Respect for one another, a high value for spirituality, pursuing peace in the world, and other “universals” should form the center of everyone’s religious life, according to this framework. But the all-roads-up-the-same-mountain analogy suffers from the same weakness as the blind-men-and-the-elephant story. The only way a person can tell that all these roads make their way to the top of the same mountain is if he, somehow, omnisciently hovers over the mountain and sees the zenith where all the roads meet.

As I’ve talked to people about their individual faith journeys, this all-roads view resonates with very few. It’s championed only by those who subscribe to no particular religion at all. Sincere adherents of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and pretty much every other religion do not see themselves on a road up the same mountain as the others. They think they’re on the best (and, in some cases, only) road to make it to the top. When they compare their religion with others, they believe they’ve found the truth and feel bad for people who have not. It seems that the differences between religions, not their similarities, are most helpful in propelling people through terrains of doubt.

Seeing the Whole Elephant

Here’s what I wish I’d said to Bill over that cup of coffee as he wrestled with the story of the blind men and the elephant: God sees the whole elephant! And he’s told us what it looks like. To be sure, God hasn’t told us everything there is to know about who he is or what the answers to all of life’s mysteries are. The Bible itself says that there are things God hasn’t revealed anywhere.2 But the God who has revealed himself through the Bible is not a God who hides. He eagerly makes himself known so people can know him and enjoy a personal relationship with him. He has told us enough about the “elephant” that we don’t have to feel like blind men groping in the dark.


  1. John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” in The Best Loved Poems of the American People, ed. Hazel Felleman (New York: Doubleday, 1936), 521–22.
  2. Deuteronomy 29:29.

This article is adapted from Questioning Faith: Indirect Journeys of Belief through Terrains of Doubt by Randy Newman.

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