Christianity and Pluralism (1): Groping the Elephant

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“In a pluralist society such as ours, any confident statement of ultimate belief, any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation.” (Lesslie Newbigin).

If you don’t believe anyone should impress their beliefs on anyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you do believe you should impress your beliefs on everyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you are simply curious about what it means for a Christian to tell someone about her faith in a culture that often tells us such an act is arrogant and unloving, this week’s series is for you. If Christians have been unloving to you when telling you about their faith, but you know that doesn’t rule out the whole religion, this week’s series is for you.

Starting today, I am going to write a series of five blogs derived from Lesslie Newbigin‘s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. This won’t even come close to offering the full scope of his thought on the subject, but I hope it will give you a helpful starting point for thinking about how Christianity/Christians ought to think about themselves in a pluralist society.

I’ll start off with a charming little story, a story supposedly about how no single religion sees the whole of reality. You know that classic story about the blind people groping the elephant? The first guy exclaims, “It’s a tree!” because he’s touching the elephant’s leg. The second says, “It’s a snake!” because he’s holding the trunk. (By the way, I’ve always thought the second guy is the dumbest. He thinks he’s found and holding onto a snake, and he’s announcing it instead of screaming and running away.) Anyway, the story goes on with person after person making an understandable mistake about what they are touching. Only the king, looking down on these poor saps, knows what is really standing in front of him.

This story is the classic, common sense wisdom tale of our time. No one religion, so the story goes, sees the whole of reality. We are all more like blind men groping the elephant than the king on the throne. We each come to each other with our little bit of knowledge from our limited experience, and, if we divulge our beliefs without contradicting anyone else’s, maybe we can piece together more of reality. Maybe all of our beliefs can co-exist peacefully in a big, religious mush-pot.

This is a shortened version of what Newbigin has to say about that pluralistic belief:

“There is an admirable air of humility about the statement that the truth is greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp. The statement is no doubt true, but it can be used against the truth when it is used to neutralize any affirmation of the truth….In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite” (p. 10)

Wait…what? The opposite? Newbigin goes on:

If the king were also blind there would be no story” (p. 10)

In other words, the person telling the story for the sake of affirming pluralism is usually just saying something like, “You thought you were like the king? You’re so wrong. I am the king. I clearly see that you are groping an elephant when you think your holding a snake.”

At the end of the day, we each have a worldview with a claim, held however tenuously, to the truth. Sometimes the truth-claim is that we can’t possibly know the truth.

Now, does that simple fact give Christians like me license to go about lambasting people with our claims? Does that justify people who practically hit others over the head with their Bible hoping it will just sink in a little bit? NO. Newbigin has four basic points for Christians to remember when sharing their faith. And if you’re not a Christian, stay tuned, because you may just like what he has to say.

At any rate, that is what we’ll explore together in the next four days.

5 Responses to Christianity and Pluralism (1): Groping the Elephant

  1. novareylin says:

    I’m not a Christian but I’m very curious to see what the next four days will hold! This was an interesting story and one I’ve never heard. I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with how people see religion. If the blind guys would have studied further they would have figured it out in the end (I mean hopefully!).

    • kbrooksy says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! Your last sentence is really interesting and got me wondering how to translate that from the world of the story back into thinking about religions and their access to truth. Are you suggesting that a valid approach would be agnosticism, not on principle, but rather just because we have yet to figure God out (but some day we will)? I’m really curious to hear you flesh that out a bit more.

      • novareylin says:

        We may never figure out God, I know my views have changed greatly not only on my studies but also on my life experiences, but approaching spirituality as an agnostic helps me to feel like I’m getting somewhere. I know many people feel good just listening to the bible and I think that is great for them! But I have not been one to not ask questions, sometimes I feel my questions lead me down the right path (for myself) and sometimes I can’t find any answers at all!!

        But the funny thing about the story is how the king perceives the blind men. If I were king (lol or queen in my case) I would want to share my experiences with the blind men. As a Christian, I’m pretty sure you would feel the same. Speak up and help the blind men but It’s their choice to accept any other religious claims because they really are strictly for that religion.

        A lot of people feel that if you take a verse in the bible and interpret it, everyone will come back with their own opinion. I’ve heard this as a bad thing. I honestly think that taking an opinion and listening to it is the greatest gift we have. One person could hold insights that maybe even the king doesn’t have, if only he would have listened!

        So, I guess I’m saying that yes, I am agreeing completely with the story but am quite curious what else Newbigin has to say about it. If there were no king, would there not be someone else to tell the story of the blind men, and more importantly, help them?

        Funnily enough, I just read a very interesting book about this very subject. We (people in general) do tend to think that we are correct and we know all, like the king does. But really, what is amazing is the ability to learn from each other. Each society believes in a different God/spiritual practice because of how they were taught. It may not be wrong or right but having the patience and grace to listen and learn from one another is what I think makes people special!

        That was probably more than you wanted! Sorry for the book. I could have written so much more, but I’ll see what’s to come in the next few days! 😀 Thank you so much for this.

        • kbrooksy says:

          Thanks so much for just being honest about your journey. It’s refreshing. No doubt we all have so much to learn from each other.
          I waited to comment because I knew I would be addressing some of the things you said in an upcoming post. Well, that post is now here. I’d love to hear what you have to say.


          • novareylin says:

            Fantastic series! I even got my husband to sit and listen while I read and we discussed the entire thing!

            After reading everything I can understand how Pluralism can affect other religions. Really quick story, when I was in my late teens I was having many difficulties with my parents (more than the usual) and found a fabulous church. They were very loving and helped me to understand what Christians and the life of Jesus was about. My then boyfriend was very religious as well but was the type to bang people with his very thick bible (I bought him a four translations bible) over their heads when they did not accept what he believed. I learned early on that the best way to lead was with honey not vinegar because of the reactions he received.

            After reading this I’ve come to the conclusion that while Pluralism is trying to put forth a good foot they are stabbing themselves in the foot, as was my ex, so anyone that gets the point that they are hypocritical will then react vehemently and probably will not learn anything else from them.

            I absolutely loved the coercion discussion because I do believe a lot of people miss the point and want to MAKE others do as they do and believe what they believe but I am learning that people are going to believe differently and as I stated before, shouldn’t that be a marvelous thing?

            I try not to judge people but I have to admit due to my lessons I tend to judge Christians harshly. I think if you want to go around telling people that you’re Christian then you really should be ready to uphold the life that Jesus Christ did. Understandably in 2012 it is a bit different but I’ve met so many people that are loving and forgiving and not Christian and then listen to some that profess Christianity and really give it a bad name. What I’m trying to say is, as an Agnostic (I’ve gone through my bouts of atheism which definitely didn’t work with me, I was Pentecostal when I was younger, and I’ve been to various churches and mass) I want to learn but I also want people to understand that I’m not just being an Agnostic to spite them! I’m an Agnostic because I want to find my truth. And I am also here to stand beside anyone else that wants to do the same, no matter what their truth is.

            No, I may never really know God, but hundreds of years ago we didn’t know the sun was the middle of the universe. Of course God, as you said, is incomprehensible but I choose to continue studying theology because honestly it just makes me feel good! I love learning about spirituality and discussing with people how they feel. And I realize religion is supposed to be one of those topics that are off limits but I believe the world would be such a better place if more people were unassuming and willing to discuss such marvelous things!

            And as for Easter, funnily enough I am a scientist in my thinking however I do not know what to think of the resurrection of Jesus and honestly haven’t put too much thought into it. As you said in the final post, isn’t it such a great story? Jesus’ story was amazing and yes compelling and I strive to be like him every day! But getting caught on the little details on something that happened two thousand years ago makes us forget how wonderful he truly was! That’s what we should remember and I’m so glad you ended it that way!

            I’m looking forward to reading more and watching your growth also!! It’s such an amazing thing.

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