The Blind Men and the Elephant (and Zoo Keeper Adventure Steve)

Your Rent A Friend is listening to the score from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
His mood is pretty good, though his contacts are pretty dry .

Whenever people talk about the differing religions of the world, someone will come up with the following analogy, or some variation thereof. In fact, mine is a variation thereof. So there. Of.

There is a zoo where works zoo keeper Adventure Steve. He takes care of all of the animals, including an elephant named Zito. The elephant in turn takes care of his rubber duck. The rubber duck doesn’t take care of anyone. She just floats around in Zito’s water dish.

One day, a bus full of philosophers came to the zoo on a field trip. They were the Society of Smarty Pants Philosophers (the S.S.P.P.), and their field trip was also a contest (As everything is for the Society of Smarty Pants Philosophers). When they got off the bus, they were all blind folded and lead to the elephant to see who had the smartest pants (metaphorically speaking).

One of them grabbed Zito’s trunk and said, “This is a fire hose! Clearly we are at a fire station, and I am smarter than all of you.”

The second Smarty Pants grabbed Zito around the leg and said, “This is obviously a tree, so we must be in the jungle. You probably grabbed a python and will be eaten.” Zito twitched his trunk, and the first man dropped the trunk with a squeal of panic.

The third man put out his hands and found the side of Zito. “I have found a wall,” he said, “and it is rough and dusty. We must be in Mexico, or perhaps Arizona. Maybe on an Indian reservation…”

The fourth man was facing away from the elephant, so when he put his hands out he felt nothing. “There is nothing here at all!” he said. “You fools are all imagining things. Clearly I am the only one of us wise enough to know the truth.”

At this point in the parable, the teller will usually end the story and say, “Religions are all like this story. We are all blind men around an elephant. We all have some part of the truth, but none of us can really know the whole truth. Thus, all religions are equally valid, and equally true, even when they differ greatly. They are all parts of the same whole.”

Then they join hands and sing “All You Need is Love,” while drinking cheap wine right from the bottle.

All of this tolerance and lack of conflict sound really good on the surface. Everyone gets to be right, and you don’t even have to spend a lot of money on the wine. The fact is, you can get a fairly good bottle of strawberry Zinfandel for less than $5 if you know where to look (and can lower your standards sufficiently). I learned that in college- but I digress.

The problem is, the story doesn’t stop there. We’ve forgotten that there is one more player in this story- Zito. If the elephant is a metaphor for God, then certainly he must be a talking elephant. What kind of God can’t talk? Not a lot of people are going to worship Harpo Marx, no matter how funny he is.

“Excuse me.” Zito would say, “but you are all mistaken. I am an elephant. One of you grabbed my trunk, another my leg, and another my side. One of you is facing the wrong way and will need to turn around if you are to make contact with me.” Of course, there might be some stunned silence as the Society of Smarty Pants Philosophers consider the words and their meaning. So, Zito will say, “Steve, can you please tell them who I am?” And zoo keeper Adventure Steve will say, “Yes. You men are touching an elephant named Zito, just as he has told you. I’m a zoo keeper and I work here with the elephant. We’ve been friends for many years.”

Each of these men now has a choice. They can believe the elephant and change their minds about what they have discovered, or they can stubbornly choose to ignore his words (and Steve’s) and use their own powers of reason to figure out what he is. One man may say, “An elephant! Then it was not a hose or a snake. It was your trunk!” This man will make a new friend.

Another will likely say, “Elephant is a mistranslation of the Swahili word for Baobab, which is a kind of tree. So, whoever that was, he has only proven that I am right about this being a tree.”

The third man will say, “…and the kind of soft covering is from the many sand storms which are prevalent at this time of year in Central America…” for he has not stopped talking about his perceptions and what he supposes them to be, and he did not hear Zito at all, nor the other men.

The fourth man will say, “What are you people babbling about? We’ve come to an empty field and soon we will get on the bus and go home without having encountered anything.” He heard something Zito said (and most of what Steve said) but he knows if he turns around and hears clearly and reaches out and touches the elephant, he will know that he has been wrong all the time. To a smarty pants philosopher, this is a fate worse than death. Once they are on their way to the parking lot, he will try to use a post-modern epistemology to convince the others that their experience was a subjective illusion so that they will think he was right. To some, there is nothing as valuable as being right, even when they are not. You will not want a person like this flying the plane you are on, or prescribing medicine to you.

When it comes to God, there is something very important that this story fails to mention, and so I will mention it: If God does not want to be found, we will not find him. God is not like a statue of an elephant standing in a field, glued to the spot waiting to be stumbled upon. He is a living being. If Zito did not want to be discovered, he could have quietly snuck around to the far side of a bush and stayed there until the men all left. They may have found the bush, but even a group of philosophers would have a hard time arguing that, because there is a bush, there must be an elephant with a rubber duck on the other side of the bush. Even for them to find a part of Zito, he had to choose to be in a place where they could come in contact with him.

After this encounter, Zito had Adventure Steve paint a big sign to display which says, “African Elephant. His name is Zito, and he has a rubber duck.” Even still, some people walk past without reading it. Others look up at it and say, “I’ve heard the elephant’s name is Mary, Queen of Scotts,” or, “This here is a rhinoceroses from North Korea. Take a picture of me with the rhino.” For some people, being wrong is a fate worse than death. For others, it becomes something of a habit.

So next time you hear the story of the blind men and the elephant, remind the storyteller that there are two people who know that the men have found an elephant:

First, the story teller. He’s put that fact in the story. It’s even part of the title for heaven’s sake. You can’t really know the blind men are each wrong unless you know they’ve discovered an elephant. Unless you know at the offset that they’ve found an elephant, you don’t have much of a story.

And then, there is the elephant. Surely HE knows he is an elephant. What silly religion would worship a mute elephant who doesn’t know what he is? Well, you know what I mean there. Of.


About rentafriend2000
Rocking my 40's with a heart full of love and muffins, science and technology. Jesus loves me and wants me to totally rock! And I am here to help.

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