The Blind Men and the Elephant, Revisited

My pilgrim soul once undertook

A journey of the mind

To Hindustan, the mythic East

The truth of things to find.

Of blind men once a rhyme I’d heard

Whose hands did serve for sight

But none of which could comprehend

The human creature’s plight

As mortal and as strait of mind.

Each blind man, so it’s told,

Would shout to others, giving names

To what he touched, and being bold,

Would call the elephant’s leg the whole

Another one, the trunk,

And thus the creature must reflect

What each man held, so each man thunk.

So one man said “It’s like a wall.”

Another, “Like a tree.”

And so on down the line, it’s told,

Each claimed the whole of mystery.

And as each man would speculate,

The older poem did conclude

That God must likewise be beyond

The dogma claimed by any dude–

Divine things must be likewise dark

To those whose limits hold

Perceptions to one’s narrow sight.

And so I heard, and took as told

Until I came upon those men–

As blind as stories tell–

But where the old tale told of five,

Five there were, but one as well

Upon a hill, looking down,

As blind as all the rest,

But telling them with great panache

That what each one would thus attest

Was partial, part of larger mass

An elephant, he cried,

Must be the whole, but now I knew,

And when I knew, I sighed

Because I saw a different sight

From poems’ easy lore

Indeed, five blind men saw with hands,

But objects there were four.

Two men indeed did pat the hide

Of elephant so big,

But one in fact did touch a tree,

Another a nearby pig.

The fifth blind man in fact found a snake,

An oddly sanguine asp:

It never bit despite the abuse!

And then I did begin to grasp:

The sixth was the one to see,

I knew before too long:

The one who wove the tale of One

To that one only did belong

An elephant, a child’s toy,

A tiny world, at that.

As fingers grasped the minuscule

The blind man yelled, the blind man spat

And framed the dark so that it might

Be just like toys so small

And, being blind, the man knew not

That he had missed at all

The grandeur and variety

Of things under the sun

But being prone to claim too much,

The sixth man made all one.

And in the years that came to pass

The blind man fame did gain,

His poem did become a fad

On tour folks paid for his refrain,

And soon the ones who wished to sound

Like learned, reading folks

Would quote the poem I once heard

And tell some good, broad-minded jokes,

“Those fools,” the learned folks would start,

“They think a tusk a spear!”

“They think the ear a fan, I say!”

The fans did shout, then sipped their beer.

But I returned to my small world

Convinced that I’m still fine

To keep confessing creeds of old

And keep a humble mind.

I do not know enough, it seems,

To say that all our ways

Together make an elephant

On which I only gaze.

I do not write, in other words,

To claim that I can see:

I only wish to offer folks

Another possibility.

5 thoughts on “The Blind Men and the Elephant, Revisited

  1. Nathan,

    As one who grew up in the south within the Campbell tradition I can look back, with amuzement at myself, at those parts I thought were the whole and holy. But what amuzes me more is my memory of preachers in the tradition (non-instrumental) who used this very illustration to point out how the “denominationalists” did not have the whole picture of the New Testement church.

    I treasure my past experience of moving from the “parts of my tradition” to seeing and hearing more. Forgive me for laboring on, but it started after I would be so wound up after preaching 2 services each Sunday (I no longer preach), and I would be up until 3 or 4 am Monday morning listening to church services from different cities on the radio. Let me make it clear that I chose what I listened to with care. At the risk of sounding like I am blowing my own horn, I wanted something intelligent. I wanted to be fed!

    That is where I heard someone mention Francis Shaeffer. I started buying his books and reading them as fast as I could. I have moved way beyond Shaeffer now, but I will always be grateful for his writings because they were the first that pushed me to think beyond my tradition.

    Since then I have become a student of the writings of others such as Thomas Merton and Edward Shillebeeckx (though I do not claim to be able to grasp everything he says; I have started his book CHRIST about 3 times, only to put it down with the promise of coming back to it later). But it is an exciting challenge.

    However, over the last year my only readings, besides the Daily Office, have been the Prophets, the Wisdom books and the Gospels…and my favorite, the Psalms in the KJV. I had a desire to scope the landscape by myself…with God’s help, of course.

  2. I should have mentioned that the Shillebeeckx book is CHRIST: The Experience of Jesus as Lord. The section for the Gospel of John is fascinating, but very difficult.

    I am not a scholar, not even an intellectual. But I do consider myself a thinker with a “poetic license” in my back pocket.

  3. Believing a god is just like blind men’s elephant story. Those who could not recognise the truth of this universe tend to believe a god. You can not find a god out side. master your mind to be a human. I surprised why this silly people need a god even to believe that killing is not good. People do lot of sins thinking they are good deeds. Nobody can be devine without eliminating hatred, attachment and ignorance abou the truth of life. Prayers are good for self-deceiving, but useless.

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