Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I was blind, but now I see. . .

From ministry delivered in Meeting for Worship on 10/23/2005:

We all know the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, where a group of blind men are led to an elephant and each grabs one part of the animal – leg, trunk, tail, body, ear, tusk – and then describes the elephant in terms of the part he is holding – an elephant is like a tree trunk, or like a snake, or rope, wall, banana leaf, spear. Then they argue with each other about it, each insisting on his own perception as the only true description of an elephant.

We smile at the silliness of the argument and usually describe the moral of the story as being about the importance of diverse points of view, no one has all the answers, it’s important to be humble and open to new ideas, etc.

But behind those obvious, superficial lessons, there are two more profound lessons found in the two premises of the story.

First, the only reason that the men disagreed and argued with each other was that they were blind. If they could see they would have each realized in an instant that the elephant had many aspects and characteristics at the same time. The lesson, then, if that if you want to know what an elephant is like, wake up, open your eyes, and see for yourself.

The second, and perhaps more important lesson is that there is indeed an elephant! The story only makes sense if the men are feeling & describing something that actually exists (i.e., they aren’t making it up), and that it is the same thing.

So it is when we stumble in our blindness into an encounter of the Living God. Our first perception may be of a particular characteristic or attribute of God: creator, liberator, comforter, judge, lawgiver, mother, father, shepherd, still small voice, pillar of fire, burning bush, etc.

If we remain spiritually blind, our perception of God will be limited to the aspect we immediately encounter. Somehow we know that we aren't seeing the whole thing, but if we are blind the best we can do would be to listen to and “believe” in the validity of the others' experience, incorporating their second-hand description into our first-hand knowledge and experience. The result would be an "idea" of "God" that would be subjective, ideosyncratic, and tentative. We will never be able to testify with power and confidence about God and what God has done for us; we'd always have to qualify our testimony on the reliability of the other witnesses. (How could the blind guy feeling the leg ever accept without reservation that the animal he was feeling had any resemblance whatsoever to a rope or a banana leaf?)

But if we learn how to see, our knowledge will be immediate, personal, comprehensive, and authentic. It would be a living knowledge of The Living God upon which we could stake our lives. And not alone: we'd share the knowledge with all the others who also see (i.e., the Church).

There is one important difference, though. The elephant is indifferent towards her perceivers; she doesn’t have the power, or desire, to cure them of their blindness. So they are stuck in their prediciment and must do the best they can.

Not so with the Living God.


Joe G. said...

Wow, I never realized the two parts of this tale that are often forgotten - the people involved are blind and there is an actual elephant in the room. Love it!

This tale is often used to emphasize the personal truth of an individual (as in "my truth" and "her truth"). Yet, when put it in the way that you do, it changes the dynamics of the story - there is a truth, but each person, due to blindness, can only ascertain part of that truth.

Thus, we need each person's aspect of the truth, but because we understand we are limited in our understanding of it. This also holds that the truth is not only a personal understanding, but something that is more (thank God) than that.

At least that's how I read your post - I am blind after all and need to read what others have discovered from this great post so... :)

Paul L said...

You aren't missing the point, except that we need rely on each other's "aspect of the truth" only if we stay blind. If we wake up,all creation will see Truth together.

Dave Carl said...

Could listening to one another's "aspect" help us to wake up?

rex said...

I love the elephant story & I've used it some, but I try to take it a step farther. After we get the 'blind' (all of us) talking to each other, then we need to focus on an awareness of the limitions of language. I don't want to 'waste' your precious space here; so I invite the curious to visit my website (hwcn.org/~aq680) where I am in the process of posting my lastest thinking on this subject. [I love your 'world is flat' comment!]

Paul L said...

Dave Carl -- I don't think the blind leading the blind is particularly helpful. The better bet is that the Living God, who we're all seeking, is the only one who can restore our sight.

Anonymous said...

How do the ideas in this post work within a meeting that does not seem to be in unity with the goal of coming together to worship God? My perception of our meeting is that we are not in unity about this goal, although I wish we were.

(I'm really not trying to be annoying by asking all these questions!)
Elizabeth O.

Paul L said...

Elizabeth -- Your questions are never annoying. They are challenging.

If I can presume to describe our meeting in these terms (and myself as part of the meeting), I'd say not everyone is willing to acknowledge that the Living God is in the midst of the meeting. Too many are content to grasp the little part of God that may be revealed to them and either pretend that it's the whole thing, or are content with what they feel. They are content to be in their blindness and ignorance. Some, sorry to say, make a virtue of it.

And a few can't bring themselves to admit that the Living God is present at all; they think that, because they can't see Him, no one else can, either.

Still others think that there is more than one God present.

The point is that we -- I -- need to wake up and see what is so obviously in front of our very noses. But how?

The classic answer for Friends is that the Living God calls to us -- to every human being -- in a still small voice to wake up and shake off our blindness and enter into intimate communion with Him and with each other.

Thanks again for taking these things seriously.

Dave Carl said...


Could the living God speak to us through another?

Liz Opp said...

Hello Paul and All--

I'm slowly catching up with my blog reading, after many days away... Glad to see so many comments about the elephant, etc.

Beppe writes, in part: ...we need each person's aspect of the truth, but because we understand we are limited in our understanding of it. This also holds that the truth is not only a personal understanding, but something that is more (thank God) than that.

To me, this is a large part of the Quaker practice of engaging in corporate discernment; that because God speaks "to us through another," we need to listen together for that of God and the movement of the Spirit among us. No single individual holds the whole truth; even put all together, a group cannot know that it holds or understands the whole truth.

What's more, going back to the elephant analogy, the capital T Truth is bigger than the sum of all our individual truths put together. What sort of "elephant" would be created if, to each of the blind men, we gave them the object to which they compared their part of the elephant? It would be a mish-mash of banana leaves, tree trunks, ropes (or snakes), walls, etc. It certainly would NOT be an elephant, even if there were 1,000 blind men describing it (perhaps the blind women were wise enough to stay away...? smile).

So I am reminded that there is a relationship between the individual and the meeting; between the individual and the Spirit; and between the meeting and the Spirit, when it comes to corporate discernment.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Paul L said...

David Carl: Yes, of course, God can and does use many means of reaching us. My point with this (perhaps strained) analogy is that the blind men probably wouldn't learn much about the reality of the elephant simply by listening to each other; they need to regain their sight. About all I think their talking with each other about what they "see" may be to create the realization that there is something greater than the part they're feeling, which may be a first step, but doesn't address the real reason for their misapprehension of the whole.

Liz: Welcome back. You're right about the odd creature that would be constructed in the blind men's minds if all they had to go on was their small piece of the elephant plus their neighbors' descriptions. It's said that a camel is a horse created by a committee, and the same would be true here. The only real answer is to wake up. (I realize this is MUCH easier said than done, but it does seem to me to be the only thing to do.)

Tony B. said...

Deep and Powerful stuff.

I am moved to speak to Elizabeth O.'s question about being in a meeting where the Worship of God is not the universal aim. To this I would say that if it is your aim, that is enough. This condition is common enough in families, so why not in meeting for worship?

God loves love. If you enter into meeting with a heart full of love and wait upon God, the God I know will be present with you. You may at times feel alone, but it is only a feeling. In fact, you will not be alone.

Don't allow issues with others in the meeting to distract you from your purpose. Just the act of worship can be a powerful draw on like minds. Perhaps God will change hearts through you. Perhaps God will send others to your meeting, new faces... All you can do is love unconditionally.


Phil Grove said...

Paul – thanks for letting me know about your blog. I must say, though, as an nontheist-Buddhist Quaker, I find it distressing to learn that some people may be uncomfortable with my participation in the Meeting.

I find it hard to understand why it necessarily detracts from anyone's experience of the Meeting and of silent worship to know that some others who participate may not profess belief in a “God” or “Living God” or whatever. I think I can say with complete honesty, that it has never detracted from my experience to worship with all the wonderful theists and Christians in our meeting. When there is theistic or Christian sharing, I find I have little difficulty in translating – I almost always find it meaningful. The love and appreciation I feel for other participants in the meeting has nothing to do with whether they are theists or Christians or whatever. It is my choice and privilege to be in worship with you.

Why is it hard for theists to be in a meeting with non-theists? Are they afraid of being judged for expressing themselves in theistic terms? Do they think I am sitting there thinking, “Listen to that theist moron! Read a book for a change!” or whatever? That is never the case. More likely, I am trying to do the same thing I do whenever anyone else expresses themselves in the meeting: I try to listen carefully and with great empathy and compassion. I hold the speaker in the Light. I visualize a beam of love energy flowing from my heart to theirs. I contemplate the great risk they are taking, the great gift of ministry they are making. I scour their hearts for any truth that I can incorporate into my own spiritual life. Usually, I find plenty, with little effort.

I am so sorry that it has come to pass that theists and Christians sometimes feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in the language of their own hearts in our meeting. I realize with regret that nontheists and non-Christians may be responsible in part when we have received theist or Christian expression as an attack on ourselves instead of a spiritual offering. When we have listened with fear instead of with love. Perhaps there have been times when our fear has led us to criticize or attempt to dicourage theist or Christian expression. [Our fear, I think, is that they won't love and appreciate us, since we don't believe. That they won't want to worship with us – that they'll want to exclude us from the community.]

I realize also that differences between theists and non-theists may be seen as more than just semantic. After all, Paul believes that there is in fact an elephant, that he is not himself the elephant, and the elephant wants the blind to see and helps to bring that about by means of grace. As an atheist-Buddhist-Quaker, I don't believe that the elephant has any separate existence. In my view, separateness is merely a construct of the mind. For me, “waking up” and “seeing” involves coming to a full understanding through direct experience that nothing has any separate existence: there is only one Being. If you want to call that God, fine, but that is clearly not the “Living God” Paul is talking about. Anyway, you have all heard this kind of Buddhist talk before. What I really fail to understand is, why can't we all love one another and worship together? Phil Grove

Anonymous said...

I am not "afraid of being judged" and criticized for expressing myself in theistic terms. I have been judged and criticized -- a lot. Over and over again, I have brought something that is thrilling to me to meeting, and it meets with bitterness, or at best bewilderment, instead of the encouragement and extra insight that I was hoping for. Even when other people have talked about Christian (or God-centered) beliefs, I often hear subtle and disparaging remarks, and I take those remarks very personally -- although I wish I could just brush them aside. These little barbs are ubiquitous.

MOst of the exhausting, discouraging interactions I've described at Meeting happen outside of meeting for worship in fellowship or adult ed, or other places where we're supposed to be building community and growing spiritually.

We can love one another regardless of one's theological beliefs. No issue there. We can worship together, too. The question is: What kind of worship will that be? It will be the kind of worship that meets the needs of some people and not of others.

I am a mystic who needs structure to help me navigate my spiritual life. Some types of Quakers offer that structure through corporate discernment of God's will and reliance of Scriptures. Most people are not interested in that at our meeting. And I think that is because our focus -- our "brand" if you will --is the individual journey.

I think if I'm afraid in this arguement, it's that I'm afraid that there is a movement to evangelize the idea that all Meetings should be focused on individual journeys and to deemphasize Scripture and corporate discernment of God's will.

Maybe some day God will call me to be very active in a very Hicksite meeting again. Then He'll provide me the resources I need to do that. In the meantime, I'll keep my monthly meeting in my prayers, try to maintain my relationship with the beautiful human community there, and try to stay faithful to my leadings as I understand them. (I'm doing a poor job of that at this particular moment because I feel like I've gotten the message long ago from God that engaging in this ongoing debate is not my job. Yet here I go typing away. Forgive me if this conversation goes on at length and I kind of back up out of it to a degree ...)

I have an alternative question: Why is it so hard to understand why I and others want a more unified spiritual focus? (Do people seriously not understand this?) Now and throughout history, this is what works for most worhsipers, whether they're Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, etc. It's also the case for most Friends now and throughout history. I feel that my concern is often passed off as not valid, and that is both frustrating and surreal.
Elizabeth O'Sullivan

Anonymous said...

Ack. This might be why God wants me to shut my mouth about this -- I get too riled up to be faithful.

I just read Phil's post again. It was a very tender, personal post. He might read my last post as being very harsh on him. That's not how it was intended, and I apologize if that's how it is received.

I think that maybe for him, this is a personal issue about whether he's welcome at meeting.

I see it as an issue of leaving bitterness behind and finding a place to worship in a way that will let as much grace flow through me as I can.

It is so hard to talk about this. It's like apples and oranges.
Elizabeth O

James Riemermann said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Riemermann said...

Sorry, I mis-posted previously. Paul, if you're able to delete that last one, please do.

Yes, the men are blind. And yes, there is an elephant. But regarding this particular elephant--presumed to be the creator of the universe who guides our lives in a personal manner--blindness is the human condition. We can differ--in fact I know that we do differ--as to whether there is a personal being who created the universe and guides our lives. But I hope we can agree that, if such a being exists, our ignorance of her ways is as vast as imagination itself. Anything we think we know about such a God we should speak humbly and tentatively, in full awareness of the depth of the mystery.

As I am a self-declared atheist (for lack of a better word), it may sound like I am just playing games with a concept I don't take seriously. But in fact I do seek with Friends to know and understand and live in accordance with something vast, mysterious, and of the greatest importance to our lives, which many call God (among the more thoughtful theists, this word, too, is used for lack of a better word). I do not like using that word because I cannot separate it from a superstitious history I cannot take seriously. I cannot say with any certainty what it is, though my experience is that it emerges from the encounter between human consciousness and the world around us, including each other, and that its emergence is as natural and mysterious as the way grass grows, or the rain falls. I have no experience that suggests that it is a being, nor that it could emerge without our consciousness. I cannot know these things in certainty, but such conceptions clash with my experience of the world.

As Friends we seek to understand and practice goodness, and to know what is true. I think we confuse ourselves greatly by confusing goodness with truth, and it seems to me the theistic picture of a being who created the universe and loves us is to blame for much of that confusion. I don't know what God looks like. I do know that God cannot be limited to the shape of an elephant, or any other shape we can describe.

earthfreak said...

I have been pondering this post for a while now, and discussed it a bit with Liz the other night.

I find that the things that occur to me are that:

-Often in the name of "honoring spiritual diversity" - we are apt to say "that's great that you have your banana leaf over there, and boy do I like my snake, isn't it great we can all get along?

-The caution I am called to in addressing this is that we are ALL challenged to "find the elephant" - and NONE of us has it. I hear something in this post and some responses that seems to claim that the writer knows that it's an elephant and is waiting for me to "catch up". Perhaps I am only projecting, as that tends to be the way I feel myself (Phil talks about what "waking up and seeing" means to him - but what does it mean if it IS something we could all wake up to and see together?

I personally believe that there is something like that - but I think that words are part of our blindness, and will never help us transcend it.

-which brings me to something, that has been said here before - if we simply rely on sharing the descriptions of blind people, we may get to something like "well, it seems to be a banana leaf and a snake tied to a tree stump" - the waking up is something some of us may have done in moments, but I doubt any of us live in an "awake" state most of the time (though some of us are more or less present to our leaf, or tree trunk, than others - that is a different thing.)

- most descriptions simply describe physical sensory information. We could disect and elephant and map it like crazy - but it would probably die in the process. To know the elephant, breathe with it, sleep curled up next to it for its warmth, is (to me) of infinitely greater value than to accumulate and store as much information as possible about its physical being. - We seek something beyond words and description.

- my own awareness leads me to believe that we are not really challenged to find an elephant, but to find something more along the line of "life" - we may not only have someone with an ear and someone with a leg, but someone standing nearby holding a rabbit - which is another experience altogether. We may be asked to "wake up to" something much more broad and complex and mysteriously awe-inspiring than an elephant, or than the sum of all of our decriptions.

-lastly, what do we do with those who aren't holding any part of the elephant, but sitting near it, experiencing the wind of its breath?