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Friday, July 22, 2005

the blind men and the elephant

John Godfrey Saxe's poem The Blind Men and the Elephant (opens in a new window) has always been one of my favorites. I first heard it when I was in 7th grade. My aunt Margaret, who had lived for a while in Indonesia and Africa, was a guest speaker for our geography class. She read the poem to us at the end of her talk. Its theological implications were well beyond my comprehension at the time, but I was captivated by the imagery of the six blind men trying to describe the animal they had found.

I recalled the poem several years later as I was trying to find an analogy for humans' imperfect understanding of God. I didn't remember all the details, just the bare facts that there were six blind men trying to describe an elephant when they had each only experienced one part of the animal. Though their mental images of the elephant were completely contradictory, each was partly right.

At some point I realized that the poem could probably be found on the Internet, so I ran a Google search and found the link that you see above. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the analogy I had made from this old poem was the author's original point!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The poem has taken on even more importance in the three years I've been married. My wife's theology is far more conservative than mine; sometimes we're so far apart, it seems like we belong to different religions. Yet if we talk about it calmly, we are usually able to reach a point of agreement. Many times our differences are more a matter of terminology than of actual disagreement. The hard part, sometimes, is getting past the surface differences to see how our viewpoints really do complement each other.


At 7/22/2005 6:41 PM, Anonymous Glen Armbruster said...

It often amazes me that quiet conversations with someone who is on the far end of the continuum from me will actually alter the way both of us think about an issue. I have always liked the poem you quote, too. The only trouble with the poem is that I tend to identify with the omnipotent narrator, when I am really just one of the blind men.


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