As a Christian minister to college students for nearly 20 years I’ve discovered there is one topic, more than any other, that causes an uproar when broached on campus. Surprisingly, it’s not the doctrine of hell, nor the problem of evil, nor the perceived battle between science and faith. Those topics certainly spark lively discussions, but they remain civil compared to discussing the idea of exclusivity. It’s considered anathema to suggest that one religion (or view of god) is true and the others are false.
Over the years, students I’ve worked with have written opinion articles in their college newspapers. Articles that address important religious topics such as: “How can a good and powerful God allow so much suffering?” or “Does religion cause violence?” rarely provoke a written response. But when an article titled “Is there one true religion?” was answered in the affirmative, it provoked several strongly worded rebuttals. All of them basically stating how ridiculous, arrogant and intolerable it is to make such spiritual truth claims.
“We have been told since we were very small children that Christianity is the one true religion. We were also told that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and brings presents to the worlds’ children on Jesus’ birthday…My parents didn’t lie to me about Santa and my pastor didn’t lie to me about Christianity.”
“To those of us serving on the Interfaith Council, the article on Christianity does not reflect what we believe are indispensable values — the support of tolerance, the practice of humility, and the encouragement of religious diversity… we simply believe the sentiments expressed are contrary to [the] college’s goals as a liberal arts institution.”
You would think the article that sparked these responses was filled with mockery or profanity. It wasn’t. The article was gracious but it deconstructed a very old, and well known, Jainist parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. (The elephant represents spiritual reality.) This parable has become the gold standard for acceptable religious expression on today’s college campus.
One blind man feeling the elephant’s trunk says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake.”
Another touching the leg says, “Not at all, it’s round and rough like a tree trunk.”
“You are both wrong, it is large and flat like a boulder!” says the third blind man feeling its’ side.
Since none could envision the entire elephant, each blind man described the elephant in part. Each man is properly rebuked for thinking they understood the truth. The parable teaches the nature of spiritual reality. The moral is: “It is ridiculous to bicker over equally valid belief systems”. It is argued that each religion sees spiritual reality in part and no religion can have a comprehensive vision of truth.
The problem with the parable is that it backfires on itself. As Dr. Tim Keller writes, “The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?” (The Reason for God)
One student responded, “the elephant is likened to the ‘unknown’ something that cannot be fully understood or agreed upon.” To say he missed the point is a gross understatement. The moral of the parable falls apart if there is no special revelation given to the narrator and denied to all others. Who knows, maybe the ‘unknown’ is three different things: a snake, a tree, and a rhinoceros? In that case, there would be reason to disagree and hold your ground out of respect for the truth. You could do so humbly, but you’d be arrogant to insist each blind man was grasping at the same thing.
Unfortunately this parable has been used, time and again, to shame Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even atheists when they express exclusive views of spiritual reality. But no one should be intimidated into silence by the Jedi mind-tricks of relativist.
Certainly we must humbly recognize that we can learn from anyone. But, Jesus calls us to do more than tolerate others. He calls us to love everyone, even our enemies. At the very least this means sharing the truth about what Jesus claimed about himself, even with people from vastly different religious backgrounds. The hope of Christianity is that God has revealed Himself in the flesh. In other words, the “elephant” has spoken and declared who He is.
The unavoidable truth is that everyone, even elephant-loving relativists, make authoritative truth claims about spiritual reality that not everyone shares. They are free to do so, but lets be clear about what they are doing. They are making exclusive claims about spiritual reality that boil down to “I am right and you would do better to convert to my view.” Surely if is it permissible for them to work for conversion then how can they deny that right to others. In the name of religious diversity, the biggest favor we can do for our relativistic friends is to point out this hypocrisy, so they may be more self-aware.
Featured Picture Credit (Modified from original)