This week we’re going to talk about the idea that all religions are equally valid, that all religions contain a piece of the greater truth, and hence are all equally valid ways to get to God.
This is much larger of a topic than we could possibly cover in one episode, but maybe we’ll attack it from various angles over the coming months, maybe skipping a week here or there. But you’ve probably seen this represented by a wheel, where all the religions are spokes on the wheel and they’re all going towards the center. And the center is, well, it’s not one thing, it depends on who you ask, but at least on the picture, it’s presented as one thing. It’s the end goal of life or religion. It might be nirvana, it might be salvation, it might be enlightenment, it might be the shedding of peace, it might be stoicism, but all of the spokes on the wheels are equally valid ways to get to the center.
And so we start on the outer edge. And you find a path you like and I find a path I like, or I find that one that works for me, and we use our various spokes, our various paths to get to the center. And so it’s said all religions, all spokes, all paths are equally valid.
Well, there’s another way of representing this and it actually, it seems a little more compelling. And so this is how a parable is often told about an elephant. And so here’s how it goes.
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal called an elephant had been brought to the town, and none of them had ever been aware of its shape or size before. Out of curiosity, they said, “We must inspect this and know it by touch of which we’re capable,” because they’re blind men so they can only touch it to experience it. So they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. In the case of the first person whose hand landed on the trunk, he said this being is like a thick snake. For another whose hand reached an ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person whose hand laid upon a leg, the elephant was like a tree trunk. The blind man who placed his hand on the side, so the elephant was like a wall. And another who felt its tail described it like a rope. And the last one who felt its tusk stated that the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
And so, as this parable is told, often in an eastern religious context, and maybe a Hinduism context, a Buddhist context, a Janus context, that said, well this is describing man’s experience with religion.
And so all of us today, all the different religions are like the different blind men. They have a different experience with God, a different experience with the truth, but they’re all just seeing parts of the greater whole. And so, if you’re a Christian, you have no greater claim to say that your beliefs are true and more accurate than a Muslim, than a Buddhist, than a Mormon, etc. Because we’re all just experiencing different parts of the same thing, like the blind men with the elephant.
So how should we respond to that?
Right, because if you actually take it seriously, it should hopefully make you stop and think. I think all too often we as Christians, and just people today in general, we hear an idea, we don’t think about it, and we instantly launch in with something to say, where we implicitly think the opposite of talking is waiting, when the opposite of talking probably should be listening.
So let’s listen to what the person is saying. Let’s analyze it. Let’s think about it. Let’s give the idea its weight and to think about it from different angles, and then let’s respond.
Well, people smarter than myself have pointed out about this analogy that it has a few problems. So here’s one. Who is this person that actually knows that all of these blind men are experiencing but a part of the elephant? Someone is claiming to know about the full elephant. Someone is claiming to know that an elephant has tusks. It has a trunk, it has sides, it has legs, it has a tail. Someone is claiming actually to know, in this parable and the way they’re using it, that religion is bigger than the individual religions, that truth is bigger than the individual truths, and hence they’re claiming to know what that bigger truth is.
So far from an analogy that’s meant to maybe put individual religions on an equal playing field or lead to some form of skepticism, it actually is a claim that someone knows the greater whole comprehensive truth. I think that’s a fatal flaw in this analogy, this parable, that if we’re going to talk about individual parts, well, how do we know their parts? That’s a greater claim to knowledge. Someone is claiming to not be blind, but to be able to see the entire animal. So why can’t that, in principle, be one of the religions?
Now, it doesn’t work in this parable, right? I’m not saying that the blind man who only felt the tusk was experiencing the totality of the elephant. No, but I am saying, well, what if someone wasn’t blind? What if we’re not constrained by a made up fictitious parable? What if there actually is the kind of person like the parable teller who does see the entire elephant?
Well, I think that is the Christian worldview, broadly speaking. I’m not saying it has answers for every single question that we will come to know them, but I am saying it’s the best explanation for reality, because what it does is it takes those individual pieces. It takes the trunk, it takes the tail, it takes the side, it takes all these various facets that we see in the world and it puts them together and it makes the best sense of it.
Now, I’m not saying Christianity just includes all the truths from Islam and Hinduism and that sort of thing. I’m kind of pivoting in how I’m using the analogy, but what I am saying is Christianity is the best explanation for reality. We see, in general, the elephant and here’s why.
Here’s the second part where I think this parable breaks down. It’s not a good parallel to God or religion. Elephants don’t talk, but what if the elephant talked? What if the elephant was able to tell us about itself? What if it was able to say, “Hey, you’re holding onto my trunk.” That would be kind of a terrifying thing, but what if it was able to say, “Hey, if you go to the right, that guy who said I was just like a tree because he only felt my leg, actually, that’s just another part of me. And that guy who felt me and thought I was just a wall, actually, that’s a little behind my leg. All of these are parts of me.”
What if the elephant could talk? What if the elephant had a voice? What if he revealed himself? Well, that’s Christianity. This might be a sacrilegious, but in Christianity, the elephant talks, right? If the elephant represents God or religion or the truth, and everyone has a part of it, well in Christianity, God actually has spoken. He’s told us about himself.
So the person who only experiences, if it’s even true that you can only experience a part of God in that way, but the person who experiences a part of him, doesn’t have to wonder if that actually is a part of God. Is it a partial truth? Am I confused? Is it wrong? No. In Christianity, our God has spoken. He’s revealed himself in the world.
As the beginning of Hebrew says, he used to speak through the prophets and the Old Testament writers and the patriarch and the fathers. Okay, so that that has happened. God has a history of speaking, but in these last days, he has spoken to us through his son. And the Bible goes on to tell us that he continues to speak through his word, so we have a speaking God.
In fact, the very first verses of the Bible start out telling us that God spoke and the world came into existence. He created by his word, and then he went on and used his word to reveal himself to us. That’s huge, because we’re not left trying to piece together tails and sides and legs and tusks, no, we actually have been told what the entire thing is like, at least in as much as we need to know because our God has spoken. In other words, the elephant has a voice.
That is very important. Many other religions don’t have that sort of concept, but if they do claim to have that concept, we should evaluate that revelation or that claim to revelation on its merits. And when we evaluate the documents that make up the Bible, as we’ve talked about over the years on this podcast, they stand in a category all their own.
And that shouldn’t surprise us because, as the word of God, they attest to God. God speaks through them, authenticates them, and they are the best attested works of antiquity. They stand up in a category all their own. When we analyze them like historical documents, like we would any other historical documents, and they contain the revelation of our God, we’re not left wondering what part we’re groping at or grasping for, God has told us.
But there’s another issue with this parable. It’s not just that someone has claimed to see the entire elephant. It’s not just that in Christianity the elephant speaks. Once again, pardon that. That still feels kind of odd to say, but more than that, this parable is a way to skim over and minimize the differences and contradictory elements of different religions.
So it only works if you stipulate, if you start from the position that we are experiencing only a part of something, but most of the religions on the planet today are self-contained, systematic understandings of the world, and this is why it’s often very difficult when we talk with people of other religions. We might be debating one point of doctrine between two different religions, and let’s just say the atheist or the Mormon or the whoever says, “Well that doesn’t work at all,” because they’re taking your one puzzle piece and trying to exchange it for the kind of analogous puzzle piece in their puzzle.
Well, of course it’s not going to fit. Their whole puzzle is built to fit together in a certain way. You can’t just swap out, most of the time, one piece of doctrine. What you need is a new puzzle. You need a new worldview. You need a new landscape.
So that’s important to start with. But Christianity is not just a part, in the same way that no other religion actually claims to be a part. And if someone is making this elephant analogy, they’re claiming that there actually is a whole, we’ve talked about that a minute ago, but how should we think about the contradictory elements in religions?
For instance, Christianity says that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. John 14:6,
“No one comes to the father, but through him.”
We see in Acts 4 that there’s only one name under heaven that men can be saved by, it’s the name of Jesus. So that’s either true or it’s not. What it can’t be is a part of something. It’s an exclusive claim. If it’s only a part of something, it’s actually false. It’s not one valid way. It’s a totally incorrect way because it’s claiming that it’s the only way, in the same way that Islam claims to be the one true religion. You can’t be a Christian and be a Muslim. It doesn’t work that way because they make exclusive claims. They’re not just parts of a whole. That’s important to understand. They make mutually exclusive claims about what God is like.
One of them says that God is fundamentally triune. He’s three co-equal, co-eternal persons, that he is fundamentally a God of love and a God of grace. And another religion says that that’s not true. Well, those both can’t be true. He can’t be fundamentally a God of love and not fundamentally a God of love. He can’t be fundamentally a God of grace and not fundamentally a God of grace.
And if we compare the theistic religions, the ones that teach there is a single personal God, to perhaps eastern religions, well those are totally incompatible. There can’t be one God that is the foundation of all reality, and simultaneously be a plethora of gods or where God is everything, which would be called pantheism, where everything is actually God. So these ideas don’t work. They’re mutually exclusive.
Now, in an eastern context, there’s often this big emphasis on both/and thinking, where supposedly, and this is often western people who say this, but western thinking is either/or thinking, it’s this or that. And that’s where you’re going to hear things like, well, these are mutually exclusive ideas, the kind of thing I just put forth.
But some people will say, well, eastern thinking is both and thinking, where we can hold seemingly contradictory truths, intention, and they’re actually both true. It’s just an illusion that they’re different or something like that. But what this person has just done is actually given us an example of either/or thinking. They’re saying it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Well, that’s an either/or. It’s either/or or it’s both/and. That’s an example of using the supposedly “western thinking” that they’re getting rid of, when really what they’re using is one of the fundamental laws of logic.
They’re using the law of non-contradiction, that says that a thing cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time and in the same way. So that’s an either/or, something is either true or it is false, but it cannot be both true and false at the same time, in the same way.
But if you get rid of that, and I think you have to work hard to get rid of that. And in fact, there are accounts of people being trained to have to learn to think differently than the innate human person thinks. That’s not a cultural thing. It’s an image of God thing because God is a logical God. The laws of logic are grounded in his character and his nature, and hence we being created in his image and living in his world think similarly to him. And in fact, to think the truth is to think God’s thoughts after him, but because we are created in the image of God, we can’t help but think logically. We can’t help but realize that something cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time, in the same way. In other words, two contradictory ideas cannot be both true.
It’s the same way with the elephant. It’s the same way with religions. It’s the same way with scientific ideas, and like we’ve said before, and just in closing, let’s not let people put religious claims in a different category to treat them differently. Christianity makes claims about the way the world really is. It makes historical claims. In fact, it’s a historical religion. It’s based on events that happened in history, like the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Those either happened or they didn’t, but they can’t just be true for you and they can’t just be true for me and not for someone else because history is not that sort of thing and religions, and specifically Christianity, is not that sort of thing.
So if you ever hear the elephant parable or analogy come up, I hope you’re better equipped to deal with it, right? Someone is claiming to be able to see the entire elephant. Someone is claiming not to be blind. More than that, our elephant has spoken. God has revealed himself in his word , and third it takes a lot of cognitive dissonance and work to actually not take seriously the mutually exclusive claims that religions make. Two contradictory claims cannot both be true. Well, I’ll talk with you next time on Unapologetic.