Postcard #2 I WANT TO SEE THE WHOLE ELEPHANT
“Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon the false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth—for we do not.”
–Hugh B. Brown
DO YOU KNOW THE HINDU PARABLE of the blind men and the elephant? It has come to express a core element of my spiritual philosophy, which is the need for epistemological humility. That’s just a fancy way of admitting we all see through a glass darkly, that our vision of reality is limited by what our particular perspective allows us to take in.
In the parable, one blind man after another goes into a room. Each comes out again in breathless awe at what he has experienced. Eager to share his new understanding of the nature of God, the first man describes God as a long, smooth spear. The second interrupts, revealing that God is more like a flapping fan. The third patiently explains that, no, God is a stout pillar. You’re all crazy, the next says; he’s learned from direct experience that God is actually a tasseled rope. Soon the blind men are clenching their fists and calling each other names and swearing up and down that the others must either be lying or delusional. Eventually the men go their separate ways and, with their partial descriptions of God, each starts his own religion. To this day, their followers argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, certain they have the whole truth.
I retold this parable once in India to a crowd of children from the leprosy colonies. Something about their earnest faces and their willingness to learn from a stranger inspired me to change the ending. I brought up a little girl from the crowd and explained that when the blind men stumbled out of the room and described their separate visions to the villagers, a little girl like this one sat and listened with her whole heart. She believed each man when he described God as a spear, or a fan, or a pillar, or a rope. And each description stretched her imagination, creating a little more space in her heart and in her mind. By listening, she made room for the whole elephant; she made room for God.
Yesterday I said I find myself listening more and more to the stories of others. I suppose I’m making room, too, like the little girl. But this receptiveness rubs against a key tenet of Mormonism: we are taught that only within the LDS Church can we come to a correct understanding of the nature of God. The founder of our religion came out of that room and told us he could see the whole elephant. And so we stopped listening to everyone else.
I want to keep listening, to keep learning. My spiritual imagination is only enhanced when I allow for new possibilities, new ways of understanding something I thought I knew.
I’ve come to realize that any conception of God I can wrap my arms around is still too narrow to take in the whole elephant.