The Elephant, The Whole Elephant, and Nothing But the Elephant, So Help Me… God?
by Greg West
Some recent conversations with a good friend of mine have reminded me of a story that she once used to illustrate her view of the human perception of truth. You might have heard it before– it’s the story of the blind men and the elephant, and goes something like this: Some blind men approach an elephant and try to figure out what it is by touching and feeling various parts of it’s body. One man, feeling its trunk, concludes that it’s a snake. Another feeling one of its legs claims that it’s a tree trunk, and yet another feeling its tail claims it’s a rope– and so the story goes, with each of the blind men coming to different conclusions of what the elephant is.
The story is supposed to illustrate that this is how truth is revealed to us, with each person receiving a bit of truth and coming to their own conclusions as to what the truth is—but the illustration really falls flat on its face in a hurry.
Not one of the blind men has come to realize what even part of the truth is, let alone the whole truth. Each of the blind men have come to the conclusion that the elephant (reality) is something other than an elephant (non-reality). The elephant is not a snake, a tree trunk, or a rope–no part of the elephant is what the blind men have concluded that it is. They are not feeling a tree trunk, a rope, or a snake, they are feeling an elephant’s leg, tail, or trunk. The fact is that regardless of their perception or their belief of what they think is true, none of the blind men have arrived at any truth whatsoever.
In spite of their perception or belief, nothing changes the reality that it is an elephant. Were they all to examine the entire elephant, and not just part of it, even these blind men would eventually come to the conclusion that what they are examining is an elephant. A person who is not blind could simply observe any one part of the elephant, or upon seeing the whole elephant, easily conclude that what they are seeing is, in reality, an elephant.
Another good friend of mine, Arthur Khachatryan (of Cold and Lonely Truth) pointed out that the only way the original author of this story could even tell it, would be if they knew the truth about what an elephant was in the first place—that there is an objective truth here that can be known! As he puts it, “The only way to know that we know only part of the truth is to concede that there is the entirety of the truth.”
Some people believe that even if absolute truth exists, that it cannot be known and that we are left with relying on our own perception of various pieces of the truth to determine what the truth is for each of us, and that because no one can possibly know the whole truth about everything, then we cannot be blamed or held responsible for our ignorance. The important thing is that you use what knowledge of the truth you do have for good and that you are sincere in your efforts to do so– and people who think they know what an elephant is should not go around telling blind men that they are wrong about what they think a part of an elephant is, because what’s true for us may not be true for them.
I’m not going to get into the question of, “Does absolute truth exist?”, because I accept it as an axiom that it does. For now I will leave that question to the philosophers or to people who have seen The Matrix one too many times. Let’s presuppose for the sake of this argument that absolute truth does exist, leaving us with the question, “Can absolute truth be known?”, or more specifically, “Can absolute truth about God be known?” I believe the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!”
Now I’m sure it’s possible that there might be someone somewhere who does not know what an elephant is because they have never seen one or have never heard anything about elephants. Such a person would be unable to identify an elephant even if it were standing right in front of them. Without prior knowledge of what an elephant is, we could not reasonably expect a person to be able to identify one. So how does a person come to the knowledge of what an elephant is and that they do indeed exist? A person comes to this knowledge by way of revelation.
Most of us are not going to remember when it was revealed to us for the first time what an elephant was. It was probably while reading a picture book with our parents or possibly during our first trip to the zoo. I think it’s safe to say that none of us can remember a time when we did not know what an elephant was. We know what an elephant is now because at sometime in our lives, someone ‘revealed’ to us what an elephant was by pointing one out and saying, “That’s an elephant.”
As we get older, without even trying, most of us learn more truths about elephants—that they are mammals; that they are from Asia and Africa; that there are different kinds; and that they sometimes live in zoos or perform in the circus. Some of us will learn more about elephants than others, and a few of us will even go on to become bonafied experts on elephants and know just about everything there is to know about them.
Much like not being able to remember when we first came to have knowledge of elephants, most of us are not going to remember a time when we had no concept of God, ‘a’ god, or gods. If historians or anthropologists can pinpoint a specific time in human history when mankind had no concept of a supernatural being higher than themselves, then I would sincerely like to know about it, because I don’t think they ever have, ever will, or even can.
If God exists but has not chosen to reveal himself to us, then we would be left on our own to decide for ourselves who or what God is and no one could truly be blamed for not knowing something that has not been revealed to them. But many people of many different religions have claimed that God has revealed himself to them, either directly by personal communication, or indirectly by accepting what others have told them.
Regardless of what some people would like to believe, most of the world’s religions are mutually exclusive. One of the biggest complaints I hear about Christianity is that they don’t like Christians claiming that Christianity is true and all other religions are false, but the simple fact is that all religions cannot be true. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam for example, cannot all be true. The only choices are that 1.) None of them are true, or 2.) only one of them is true.
As a Christian, my belief is that the God of Christianity is the one true God because I accept as true what I believe he has revealed to us about himself through his general revelation of the natural observable world, through the special revelation of the Bible, and through the person of Jesus Christ.
I find it satisfyingly ironic that the oldest fragment of the New Testament ever found is a small portion of the book of John. Discovered in 1920 and dated to be from the early 2nd century, the fragment known as P52 is a portion of John 18:37-38 which reads (fragment P52 in bold):
ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΕΙΜΙ ΕΓΩ ΕΙΣ TOΥΤΟ Γ
ΚΑΙ (ΕΙΣ ΤΟΥΤΟ) ΕΛΗΛΥΘΑ ΕΙΣ ΤΟΝ ΚΟΣΜΟΝ ΙΝΑ ΜΑΡΤY-
ΡΗΣΩ ΤΗ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΠΑΣ Ο ΩΝ EΚ ΤΗΣ ΑΛΗΘΕI-
ΑΣ ΑΚΟΥΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΣ ΦΩΝΗΣ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΩ
Ο ΠΙΛΑΤΟΣ ΤΙ ΕΣΤΙΝ ΑΛΗΘΕΙΑ ΚAΙ ΤΟΥΤO
ΕΙΠΩΝ ΠΑΛΙΝ ΕΞΗΛΘΕΝ ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΙΟΥ-
ΔΑΙΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΕΙ ΑΥΤΟΙΣ ΕΓΩ ΟΥΔEΜΙΑΝ
ΕΥΡΙΣΚΩ ΕΝ ΑΥΤΩ ΑΙΤΙΑΝ
Now for those of you, who like myself cannot read the original Greek, here is the English translation:
“…a King I am. For this I have been born
and (for this) I have come into the world so that I would
testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth
hears of me my voice.” Said to him
Pilate, “What is truth?” and this
having said, again he went out unto the Jews
and said to them, “I find not one
fault in him.”
The context of the rest of the passage, and indeed in the context of nearly the entire book of John, Jesus claimed not only to know the truth, but to be the very personification of truth itself, and that all truth would point to him.
Whether Christianity is true or not (or any truth claim for that matter) does not depend on whether or not someone believes it, or if anyone believes it. Something is true or not regardless of my perception or personal preference of its truth. There was a time in my life when I did not want it to be true because if it was, then it had serious implications on my life. Since I have embraced Christianity for many years now, I not only believe that it’s true, but I also want it to be true more than anything else in the world.
If we are to know any truth about God, then ultimately the source of that truth must be given to us by revelation from God himself, otherwise we would be left thinking, like the blind men and the elephant, that God is not God, but a rope, a tree trunk, or a snake.