There’s a Buddhist parable that’s over three thousand years old. The parable tells of a group of blind men who come upon an elephant. They’ve never encountered an elephant before, and they want to know what it is, so they all feel it. The first grabs the trunk, and says it’s like a snake. The next grabs its ear, and says it’s like a fan. Another feels its side, and says it’s like a sturdy wall. Another grabs its tail and says it’s a rope. One feels its leg and says it’s like a tree. The last feels a tusk and insists it’s a spear.
The parable usually ends there, before the elephant can get grumpy about all these people grabbing at it. And the point is to get us to consider how limited our perspectives are. It’s entirely possible for us to be right – much like each of the men was right about the particularly part of the elephant they felt – and still miss the bigger picture.
As you might imagine, this parable is really popular in religious circles. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a conversation about God with some friends who don’t follow Jesus who bring up this particular story. They want to suggest that maybe, as a Jesus-follower, my perspective is limited, that I don’t have the whole picture about who God is. That maybe I’ve got ahold of one piece of God.
And again, it’s not hard to argue that my perspective is limited. Have you ever been in a Bible study where everyone was asked to share what they think of a verse, and someone in the group shares something that’s just totally bonkers? I was in a Bible study one time when someone was talking about wanting to buy a new car, and they read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” so they knew God wanted them to have that new car.
I’m like 99.9% sure that’s not what Paul meant when he wrote that while he was locked in prison!
But push back and you hear, “That’s what this verse means to me.”
This is a tricky problem… God calls us all into personal relationships. God wants us to experience God for ourselves, to hear from God in prayer and scripture. To encounter God in service. But… how do we know if our experience of God is right and good? After all, our perspective is limited. We’re not infallible. Far from it.
Experience is a way we know God. A really important way. But since we’re limited and imperfect, there are limits. We can be wrong. And that’s why we need each other.