The blind men and the elephant

You have probably heard the fable about the blind men and the elephant. The story, which originated in India hundreds of years ago, tells of a group of blind men examining an elephant and coming to wildly different conclusions about the essence of the great animal. English poet John Godfrey Saxe reduced the story to its best-known Western version in the form of this poem in 1872:

It was six men of Indostan
 To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
 (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
 Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
 And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
 At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
 Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
 Cried:”Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
 To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
 Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
 And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
 Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
 Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
 And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
 Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
 Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
 Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
 Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
 Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
 About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
 That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
 Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
 Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
 Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
 And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
 The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
 Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
 Not one of them has seen!

The point about the blind man fable that is often lost is that there is a larger truth; all of the observations are honest, but incomplete. It is an elephant. It is all of the things observed, but it is more than all of them. Because it is more than all of them, it is none of them. 

God is like that. None of us have seen our Father.  And yet each of us has formed a picture of Him. Regardless of our piety, our knowledge, or our honest good intentions, our picture of Him is colored and shaped by our own personal perspective. We all see the elephant before us, and although we know there is more to Him than we perceive, our limitations prevent us from seeing all of Him.

The danger comes when we forget that we are blind men. We are tempted to believe that we have seen the entirety, and that our vision is the reality. We define God by our own vision, and not by the fuller truth. We create our own personal edition of God.

Faith lies in accepting mysteries, in accepting that we do not, cannot, and will not know everything. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to know God better. We should look for God. If you seek God, you will find Him. You can know God, you can feel His presence, but you will never fully understand His plans. 

Accept with faith the incredible nature of your God. No matter how big you conceive Him to be, realize that he is more. No matter how loving you feel His presence to be, know that He is even more loving than that. No matter how much He has done for you, realize that He wants to do even more.

Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.


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