The blind men and the elephant

Tonight, I am sharing an interesting paragraph of Timothy Keller’s book, “The Reason for God”

Elephant with large teeth approaching - Addo National Park
Elephant with large teeth approaching – Addo National Park


“Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth”.

Sometimes this point is illustrated with the story of the blind man and the elephant. Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible  like a snake”, said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all- it is thick and round like a tree trunk”, said the second blind man, feeling the elphant’s leg. “No, it’s large and flat”, said the third blind man, touching the elphant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant- non could envisage the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elphant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant ?

There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to (all others)… We have to ask: “What is the (absolute) vantage ground from which you claim to be able to relativize all the absolutes claims these differents scriptures make” ( quote from Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have ?

2 thoughts on “The blind men and the elephant

  1. It’s simple really, touch more parts of the elephant. I had a religious studies professor who often recited a Weber quote “he who knows one knows none.” Many people are growing up in multi faith homes, others enjoy learning and or studying other cultures and religious beliefs. It’s a brave new out there, people are no longer limited to what their parents believed or the dominate religion in their communities. In other words we can actually examine, if not the whole elephant than a whole heck of a lot more of it.


    1. Hello blacksheep,

      First of all, thanks for you comment.

      It is true that there is something such as social conditonedness of belief, however one cannot use it as an arguement that all truth is completely relative. Someone who would say this would destroy his own argument; why should we believe someone who says that all truths are relative ? He is making his own claim absolute.

      Though, as you say, it is important to know people’s beliefs, and study them, at the end of the day, religious beliefs of every culture are more than Moroccan Tea, French cathedrals and Asian landscapes. It is possible to appreciate the variety that different cultures bring to our world, however, a religion, though it possesses at times a cultural dimension, cannot be reduced to it. Religions make claims that are, for critical/essential points, drastically opposed to one another, at times. Truth, by definition, excludes non-truths. Yet it is loving and Truth died for His enemies.


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