Blind Men, Elephants, and Theology

February 28, 2017

I was chatting with some friends about theology the other day, and I was feeling frustrated. I normally enjoy discussing various ideas about God and listening to different points of view, but this time I was struggling. Not so much with the conversation per se, but with the idea of theology more generally. There are so many things we don’t know about the nature of God. Theology almost seemed like a fruitless enterprise, like it might be impossible to get close to the truth of the matter.

There’s a story I have always liked that does a good job of describing the process of theology and trying to figure out what God is like. In the story, six blind men touch an elephant. Depending on what part of the elephant they touch, each man thinks the elephant is something different. For example, the man who touches the side of the elephant thinks it is a wall. The man who touches the trunk of the elephant thinks it is a snake. And so on—tusk (spear), leg (tree), ear (fan), and tail (rope).

The six blind men get in a heated debate about what the object is, and the conflict is never fully resolved. And it’s easy to see why. Each of the men is correct, at least from their perspective. But they have a limited view of the whole. So each is partly right and partly wrong.

In the same way, when it comes to God, each of us has an incomplete picture. We have a certain perspective based on our cultural and family background, as well as our particular set of experiences. In the words of the apostle Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We don’t have a clear picture of God. We do our best, but it’s impossible to fully get it right.

I think the appropriate response to this reality is humility. We might think we have a pretty good idea of who God is, but we should temper our confidence and enthusiasm with humility. When others disagree, it might not be a matter of right and wrong. We might be grabbing the tail, and our conversation partner might be touching the trunk.


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