What if it's not an elephant?

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Ken Trainor and I have known each other a long time.  We count each other as friends. Because we have respect for each other, I felt kind of honored that he wrote a whole column in the Wednesday Journal as a critical response to a posting I made here on my blog on Nov. 3.  It’s nice to be taken seriously.

Like any thoughtful writer, Ken raised several issues which I’d like to address in future postings, but the one on which I’d like to focus in this posting is the use of metaphors.  I think Ken would resonate to the well known tale of The Blind Men and the Elephant.  I found one charming version on the internet which was written by John Godfrey Saxe, b. 1816.  The first verse goes,

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.

You all know how the story/poem goes.  One blind man bumped up against the side of the elephant and concluded that it was like a wall.  A second felt the tusk and said it was like a spear.  Another the trunk and said it was like a snake.  Still another felt the knee and said the elephant is like a tree.  The fifth blind man felt the ear and said it was like a fan.  And the last felt the tail and said it was like a rope.  In the last two verses, Saxe makes some conclusions.

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!

Although I understand where the poem is coming from and acknowledge that it has a point, the poet reveals a certain arrogance, i.e. that he has the ability to see well enough to know that what the blind men were touching was in fact an elephant. 

But here’s the problem: who is it that tells us that what we are exploring is in fact an elephant?  Either some of us need to claim that we see clearly while others are blind or that we have access to someone gifted with the sight which we don’t.  To put it another way, what if what the blind men encountered was really a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope?  To put it another way, what if it is not one god with many names but many objects of worship each with its own name?

Several times in his column, Ken said, in one form another, I can’t or don’t pray to a God like this or like that.  But my question is, what if God really is like the this or the that which you don’t like.  Neville Chamberlain’s wish that Hitler was different than he was blinded Chamberlain to reality.  Freud showed us that creating a god in our own image is delusional. 

To state the epistemological issue bluntly, who dares to claim that they have better vision than anyone else?  Now here, a lot of people will say, “See.  That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you.  How can you say that your picture of God or way of communicating with God is superior?”  Or, as Ken put it, “Essentially he [Tom] is arguing for a kind of ‘spiritual sovereignty.’”

In a way, I think Ken is right about that.  He doesn’t like the term king  as a descriptor for God, because it smacks of subservience and surrender—or to say it clearly, it feels like the monarchical, authoritarian, undemocratic, hierarchical polity of the Roman Catholic Church.  While I’m against subservience when it comes to politics or even ecclesiology, I’m all for it when it comes to the life of faith. 

What it means to have a God is to have a relationship with someone or something that rules you.  We Christians pray, “Thy will be done.”  The definition of Islam is submission. The Buddha taught that we had to let go of our selves.  AA’s path to recover begins with admitting our own powerlessness and surrendering our wills to a power greater than ourselves.  Jesus didn’t say here are some spiritual insights for you to consider.  He said drop your nets and follow.  YHWH said pretty much the same thing to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and Miriam.  It is not only a matter of whom to trust to describe the nature of reality but, more importantly, whom do you trust to lead you through it.

Ken used the image of a membrane.  I prefer the metaphor of marriage.  I and most people I know want to be in loving relationships.  The only way I know of to create those kinds of relationships is to make commitments.  If I get married I’m choosing this one instead of those others.  I might make a wrong choice, but that’s the risk.  If I continue to play the field and not commit to one instead of the others, I’ll never experience the pain of a divorce but neither will I experience profound love.

When people make the promises of marriage, they in one way or another say, “I do.”  That I do implies an I don’t.  There are things I do only with my spouse which I don’t do with any other person.  It doesn’t imply that my membrane is impermeable (catch the switch in metaphors?).  It means my membrane or boundaries are selective.

For example, during the last few months I’ve written articles about a Zen Master, a Unitarian minister, an Hasidic Rabbi and a newly ordained Catholic priest.  The first two are very liberal.  The last two are very conservative.  All four told me that I did a good job of portraying who they are accurately and fairly.  My boundaries did not prevent me from experiencing them with openness. 

I, in fact, felt a certain intimacy with each of them, but I would let that intimacy go only so far, not because I think I’m superior to them but because I’m committed to the One who loves me.  I had to acknowledge that each one gave me profound spiritual insights.  The point I’m making is that all the while I was taking in those insights (see the permeable membrane?) I was internally planning how they could improve the committed relationship I have with the One who loves me.  I had no desire to switch religions.

I’ve attended each of their worship services, not as a worshipper but as an observer, a reporter.  I wasn’t a participant, because in my mind, you see, saying I do implies an I don’t.

That’s why I don’t feel right attending a community ecumenical worship service.  To me the implication of such an event is that we are praying together which to me is violating my vows of faithfulness to the One who loves me.  When I worship I become very vulnerable, naked and exposed if you will.  My membrane becomes very vulnerable.  I could make it less permeable, but I don’t want to.  I don’t need to be on the same page with the people I’m praying with, but my vulnerability requires that we’re at least reading from the same book. 

That’s why sex is a spiritual act.  At its best the participants are completely exposed, their membranes are much more permeable, and that requires deep trust.  At its worst it makes people more defensive instead of vulnerable.

That said, I love hanging out in the serene ambience of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand and chatting with the monks there about religion. I’ll even pray there, but not with the monks.  What I’ll do is sit under a tree, read my Bible and try to commune with the One who loves me.

Thanks, Ken.  Your thoughtful peace made me struggle with a response which might not resonate with anyone else, but sure forced me figure out where I’m at.  That’s what good conversation partners always do.

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