Flourishing in the Footsteps of MLK: How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Cultural Diversity – part 2

The Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant is often shared to promote a tolerant view of other cultures and religions.  You have likely heard the story about six blind men each touching a different part of an elephant.  One, touching the tusk, declares that it is a spear.  Another, touching the trunk, thinks it is a snake.  Still another, touching the leg, says it is a tree.  The blind man touching the tale calls it rope.  And so on.

The blind men, of course, represent mankind and his inability to know the truth about ultimate reality.  Limited as we are in our narrow points-of-view, we draw divergent, even contradictory conclusions about the nature of reality, but because no one can see the ‘big picture’ there is no basis to assert that one culture or religion’s view of the real is superior to another.  Therefore, various religions can hold to conflicting claims about reality and still be tolerated as ‘truth’ (true for them, but not true for me; or true for me, but not true for them).

Besides the obvious problem that someone knows that there is a real elephant (otherwise how could we tell the story!) and that those who tell the story are attempting to offer a superior account of what reality is like (and of our ability to know it), the skeptical interpretation of this parable that says none of us can know the Truth for certain so lets just all get along actually misses a deeper, more intellectually and experientially satisfying message this metaphor conveys.  Epistemology professor and author Esther Meek (whose work I draw on frequently in my theory of knowledge course) offers such an interpretation (Meek, Longing to Know):

Many people believe that the fact that people draw divergent conclusions about the real implies either that there is no objective real or that we must all privatize our claims about truth (“This is true for me, that is true for you.”), especially if we are to demonstrate tolerance of all people…The moral of the story [the elephant parable], however, is precisely the opposite of “There is no objective truth” or “Truth is what I say it is.”  The moral is that reality is so rich that we had better talk together if we are to stand a chance of figuring it out.  Plus, each of us, situated as we are at different vantage points with respect to the real, can contribute unique insights.  But we should expect that working together will give us a fuller picture.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe that religious beliefs based on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible provide the most complete and accurate view of God, the nature of man, the meaning of life, the way of redemption, how one ought to live, and so on.  Moreover, I believe that the doctrines of the historical Reformed faith represent the fullest, most consistent interpretation of the Bible.  However, I also recognize that even the best view is fraught with limitations and even distortions, and therefore I need to listen and learn from Christians from other traditions to help complete my understanding of the Bible.  More broadly, though I believe that non-Christian religions contain falsehoods that are at odds with these doctrines, I do not reject them as being entirely false or without merit.  Rather, I see Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. as having some level of insight about the Real and thus believe I should humbly listen to them, even while advocating for and justifying Christian answers to the questions all religions seek to ask.

Cultural relativism only offers us humility without hope:  humbling us that our view is no better than another, but leaving us hopeless  that we can ever actually know the Truth about the Real.  Cultural imperialism only offers us hope without humility:  hope that we can know the Truth, but puffing us up with pride that our group’s vision of the Real is complete and that we are superior to everyone else.  What we need to flourish in a pluralistic society is an understanding of Truth that gives both humility and hope.


2 comments on “Flourishing in the Footsteps of MLK: How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Cultural Diversity – part 2

  1. Last week in Sunday School I heard the “elephant parable” for what I believe to be the 1st time. Now that I see you were just writing about it, I’m wondering how it took me this long to be exposed to such a widespread story.. who knows, someone may have explained it to me before, but I forgot it. Regardless, the Sunday School series (on Doubts & Fears of the Christian life) has been a wonderful foray into epistemology… reviving much of those critical thinking muscles that I don’t often get to use.

    • Yeah, I’m surprised you never came across this in college. You’re endowed with pretty strong critical thinking muscles – my class stretches mine daily; I’m glad to hear your stretching yours. Let me know from time to time what you’re discussing!

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