In popular religious discourse, one of the most common claims is that all religions are pretty much the same. They all tap into the same general truth and offer a (partial) glimpse into the reality of the divine. Thus, it is argued, no religion can claim to be the only right one.
I was reminded afresh of this claim the other day when my wife visited the Biltmore House, an historic home here in North Carolina. On display in the house was a carving of an elephant with several blind men examining different parts of it (see inset photo).
This display is patterned after the well-worn analogy that all religions are like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. As the blind men try to determine what an elephant is like, one feels the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake!” Another feels the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope!” Another feels a leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree trunk!”
And so, the argument goes, they are all right because they are only seeing part of the truth. Likewise, each religious system is only seeing part of the truth.
At first glance, this analogy seems quite convincing and utterly reasonable. After all, for a person to claim their religion is right and all others are wrong seems to exhibit a shocking degree of hubris. Who could possibly be that arrogant? Isn’t it more humble to simply claim that all religions are basically tapping into the same truth?
But, sometimes first glances are mistaken. This analogy is deeply problematic on a number of levels. The core problem is that while the analogy argues that all religions only see part of the elephant, the person giving the analogy claims to see the whole elephant! In other words, while all religions are blindly groping around, the person using the analogy is basically saying, “Let me tell you how all religions really work.” But, why is this individual exempt from his own analogy?
Moreover, we might want to ask how the giver of the analogy knows that all religions works this way? Has he personally examined all possible religious systems to know they are “blind”? To make such a claim with any credibility, this individual would have to have near-omniscient knowledge of the world and all the religious systems in it.
On top of all of this, the elephant analogy contains a serious misunderstanding of what counts as arrogant. A given claim is not arrogant simply because it is a “big” claim, or significant in its scope or impact. The arrogance or non-arrogance of a claim depends on whether one has adequate grounds for that claim.
If Christians claimed that Christianity was the only true religion on the basis of their own personal investigations and personal knowledge, then such a claim might indeed count as arrogant. But, that is not the grounds for Christianity’s claim to exclusivity. Rather, it is grounded in the teachings of Jesus himself, the incarnate son of God (John 14:6). And there is nothing arrogant about depending on divine revelation.
In the end, therefore, there is a rich irony in this analogy. It is used to chide Christians for being arrogant, but it is the user of the analogy that is exhibiting the real arrogance. In essence, they are saying, “I know all religions are really blind, and I can see the whole ‘elephant.’ And therefore I can tell you that Christianity is not the only way.”
Or, put another way, the user of the elephant analogy is basically claiming, “I am absolutely sure there are no absolutes.”
And the incoherence of such a statement is its own refutation.