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Blind Guides


Text: Luke 6:39-42

The parables of Jesus, like those of the rabbis or the Buddha, often depend on some patent absurdity invoked with a few swift strokes. The text from Luke is a great example. The joke is self-contained in a mere pair of words: "blind guides." At once you feel you have seen an old-time Vaudeville skit. You can imagine any number of hilarious, though crude, slapstick possibilities.

The idea is pretty much like the joke in which a nervous patient is about to go under the knife and says to the doctor, hoping for some comfort, "You know, Doc, this is my first operation." "That's funny," replies the young doctor, "It's mine, too!"

You put yourself into the hands of an expert precisely because you don't have expertise in some matter--only to find that he doesn't either! You're headed for disaster. No one would do such a thing in ordinary life, Jesus intimates, but that's what we do all the time when it comes to religion! We'll throw ourselves into the arms of any Tom, Dick, and Harry, any Jim Jones, any Dave Koresh, and Jim Bakker that happens to catch us first.

Why does this happen? A career in teaching Bible and Theology has convinced me it is because most religious people fear education. Secretly they must suspect that their beliefs will not stand up to scrutiny. So they want teachers and preachers who will simply cheer-lead for the same old Sunday-School certainties they believed when they were 3 years old. Religion is one of the few areas in which people fear and shun expertise.

Thus they prefer blind guides: they really don't want to go any where anyway. They're happy enough, for all their talk of spiritual growth, to stay perched right where they are.

And yet I don't want to deny that certain things you learn in childhood can profit you all your life. I remember an issue of The Fantastic Four comics. In it the super-heroes had lost their powers at the worse possible time. They were facing deadly supervillains--empty-handed! Lucky for them, another hero happened by: Daredevil, who had extra-sharp senses but besides this relied only on his wits and some clever technological gimmicks. He was already without impressive super abilities, and so he could give the Fantastic Four some pointers. One other thing about Daredevil: he was blind. His extra-sharp senses made up for that. And the title of the issue was, in Stan Lee's best pseudo-biblical style: "And a Blind Man Shall Lead Them."

If the lights go off, the blind man has the advantage. He's playing on his home court. He knows the territory better than you. It's as if he has already come to accept and adjust to a limitation which you never dreamed of. So you have something to learn from him. And in this case you can have a case of "the blind leading the blind."

And we certainly have a great deal to learn from a particular group of blind men, those in an old Buddhist parable. Let me read you a poetic version of it. I don't know the source or the author.

In the Bible blindness is used as a metaphor for spiritual or moral obtuseness. In the Iliad, blindness means something else: Teiresias the seer is blind for the same reason legend makes the Prophet Muhammad and Joseph Smith illiterate: to say that his human capabilities do not get in the way of seeing with the divine second sight. But in this parable, the blindness of the six men stands for something else again. The men begin acknowledging their ignorance of the truth of the elephant, but as soon as the sense of touch provides a bit of data, they prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They are instantly arrogant and dogmatic. Each, he is sure, holds the whole truth and is quick to denounce his fellows. Ironically, having what knowledge they have, they have sunken into a deeper blindness than before! As the Gospel of John says, "It is because you say, 'We see' that your sin remains."

But then they discover that they have failed to connect the dots. They realize each has merely touched a mountain peak of what is a vast continent. The lion's share, or rather the elephant's share, of the truth remains unseen. As Paul said, "Now we see in a looking glass darkly." So the blindness of the six blind men comes in the end to stand for a kind of Socratic humility, where the great thing to know is that you really know very little. That thoughtful uncertainty is better than cocksure ignorance.

The original point of the parable seems to be a bit more specific than that. The parable teaches religious pluralism by means of humbling human arrogance. The Divine is like the huge and unseen elephant. (As you may know, Ganesha, the Son of Shiva, was pictured with an elephant's head, so this was a traditional image.) And you and I, with our limited apprehensions of the divine, are like the blind men. When will we learn that, as H. Richard Niebuhr said, we may be quite right in what we affirm and yet wrong in what we deny? If another's faith appears radically different from yours, have a care lest you be found blaspheming the divine spirit!

The parable, I believe, has genuine persuasive power. I have seen students influenced by it. They had a restrictive religious background, but they knew it was good in a general way to be broad-minded, and this parable seemed to give them permission to be religiously broad-minded, too. It showed them how it was possible. The story shows us that as religious people, spiritual seekers, we ought to cherish what we do not know as much as the precious things we think we do know.

I count it as proof of the parable's power that we find it reproduced not only in Buddhist documents, where it appears to have originated, but in Jainist and Sufi writings, too. Living proof of this attitude of mutual humility of the different faiths before the tacit immensity of the Holy.

But I believe the parable of the blind men and the elephant still has something to tell us even when we have learned its primary lesson. It is relevant not only between different religious believers, but even within a single religious soul. In brief, the parable warns us not to be too hasty in streamlining our religious beliefs and experiences. In your long process of spiritual evolution, have you ever found that, however reluctantly, you had to discard some spiritual experience or practice because it no longer fit in consistently with your beliefs? Prayer, for instance? Mysticism? The more seriously you found yourself taking Bertrand Russell, the more guilty you felt appreciating Buddhism. The more you went along with Bultmann or Tillich, the less you felt you belonged in a liturgical church. You began to sense that your practice of devotion ill-comported with the concept of God you were developing. And so you felt compelled to jettison one or the other. You did it for intellectual honesty's sake, but you couldn't help feeling that you were somehow impoverished by it.

I'm no longer sure you have to do that. You may, after all, be dropping the tail because you just touched the leg for the first time. Your head is not big enough to hold an elephant. If there is a God, if there is such an Entity as the Divine, it must be far grander than your miserable concept of it. You can build an idol with words and thoughts, and it will be just as much an idol as if you had hammered it together and gold-plated it like they used to do. And that is what you are doing, building an idol, when you start trimming down your experiences to fit your latest favorite theory.

If you have ever enslaved yourself to a jig-saw puzzle, you may have been tempted at length to simplify the solution by throwing out half the pieces and taking the scissors to the rest. But that's cheating. But its what we do with religious experiences and ideas. If you find two competing ideas appealing, don't flip a coin between them. Wait till you have a reason to reject one. If you wait long enough, you may discover that they are the twin poles of a true paradox, or the tusk and the ear of the same elephant.

If you suspect your spirituality won't fit your new understanding, wait a second before cutting either of them loose. You might regret it. You may never be able to reconcile them. You may find you will have to get used to living in that static zone that lies between the two stations on the dial. And I for one am willing to bet that's where spiritual growth happens: on the boundary, as Tillich said.

I remember puzzling over Harvey Cox, one of my favorite theologians. He certainly claimed a Christian identity card, and yet his Harvard office was festooned with sitting Buddhas and books by various Marxist theoreticians. How, I wondered, did he, could he possibly, fit all these things together? The answer: he didn't. He saw that the goal was not to have the truth but to seek the truth. And he sought it from all quarters. He didn't care if he never saw how to connect the dots. Any glimpse of truth was so precious that he dared not pass one up.

Cast nothing aside. Let the sundered shards of truth reflect each other, and not least your own face, in their concave mirror surfaces. Let each sentiment, each theory, every insight, hold counsel with the other, though they may never come to any consensus.

Whence the rush to judgment? Why be haunted by the hobgoblin of little minds? I took a doctorate in the field of systematic theology. The first axiom of systematic theology is that all your beliefs ought to fit together. I now reject that whole approach.  I am less eager to butcher the elephant and walk away only with a couple of tusks. All that is not theology, but rather psychology.  It is the implication of a low threshold of ambiguity.

You become anxious when you are not sure of a set of directions, or of a lover's affection, or your job status. You want the matter settled as quickly and as definitively as possible. But you are just going to have to wait. Waiting is what you need to learn. And if you will not wait, if you press for an answer now, you may abort the whole process and get the very outcome you dread. That's the way it is with the spiritual life, too. It is not a definitive answer you need, and that is good, for none is available. When will you learn that it is the patience, the tenuousness, the acceptance of the lack of security that constitute spiritual maturity!?

A final word about our parable and the relevance it has for the life of a congregation, especially a Unitarian congregation. In any pluralistic church you will find something like a government with several factions lobbying for influence. How is the pastor to cater to the very different beliefs and approaches of Humanists, Theists, Liberal Christians, Feminist Pagans? One's spirituality is rank superstition to another. If the minister sides with one more than another, even out of sincere conviction, there is going to be trouble. This is so obvious that it makes some call the pluralistic experiment a failure. Fundamentalist "church growth" experts, from whom some in our ranks are, it seems to me, a bit too willing to learn, assure us that birds of a feather must inevitably flock together. But is that so?

I happen to know six guys who say it isn't. The minister and the congregation need to realize how much bigger the spiritual reality is than any of us. We ought not close our ears to the accents of Humanists and Rationalists, to Transcendentalists and Mystical Theists, to Pagans, to Channing Christians. Because each has caught something of the Real that the rest of us have missed.  There are some experiences, some insights, some truths that we are just going to have to use the various different languages to say.

I am a New Testament critic, and when I read certain Bible tales, such as those of Ananias and Sapphira, stories which plainly mean to scare readers into cowed submission before church authorities, I have to speak, as the old-time free-thinkers and village atheists did, of "priestcraft," of religious hokum and hoax, and I have to exalt human nature and reason instead, like Feuerbach. But this Humanist, Rationalist perspective doesn't help me at all to account for mystical experiences like those of Tennyson, Nietzsche, Shankara, or Hildegaard. For that, I need a different box of conceptual tools. I just can't describe the elephant's tusk with terms drawn from touching his ear.

My head is small: it can wear only a single hat at a time. But the Divine is the whole hat rack, the whole store. So I expect to have to switch hats often if I want to cover the whole inventory. Depending on what subject I'm addressing on a particular Sunday morning, I'm going to sound like a Humanist, a Theist, a Christian, a Pagan. I have to. But I try not to "be" a Humanist, a Theist, a Christian, a Pagan. Why should I? Each is a window I can look through and see some angle I would miss otherwise. Each is a language in which I can say certain things. I am not going to call one of them my favorite and exclude the rest. It is better to be a pluralist than an narrow exclusivist: "I'll live with my view: you live with yours." But it is better still to be truly plural, inside: "My name is Legion, for we are many." At the very least, we are six, six with an elephant between us.

Robert M. Price
June 27, 1995





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