Elephant Truth

Truth? part 1

An Elephant Joke

In another church in another place, a visiting minister began a children’s story. He invited the children down front, and asked them, “What’s big and gray?” But in this Christian and more conservative church, the children were not used to speaking up. The minister tried again: what’s big and gray and has big floppy ears? No answer. And tusks? And a long, long nose called a trunk? Finally, a boy in the back shyly ventured to raise a hand.
“Yes, yes,” said the minister.
The boy said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like an elephant to me.”

An Elephant Parable

An elephant, in the well-known parable that originated in ancient India, represents the truth. A group of people who have never seen, read about, or heard of such a thing as an elephant are gathered. They are blindfolded and then brought to an elephant. They are led up to the elephant and have the chance to run their hands over a portion of its body. Each person feels a different part of the elephant body, and they then describe the elephant based on their partial experience. When they hear each other’s different descriptions, they are incredulous, suspect dishonesty, and fall to fighting.

The moral is that we each have a part of the truth, and we must be wary of the human proclivity for projecting our partial experiences as the whole truth, and ignoring other people's partial experiences, which have as much connection to reality as our own. It’s a wonderful story, a story that every child should hear, and that a lot of adults still need to hear. The story teaches that my perspective is largely determined by that to which I happened to have been exposed. If I think an elephant is like a tree trunk, it’s because I encountered the leg. If I think of God the way I do, it's because I was raised that way -- and if I’ve deviated from the beliefs with which I was raised, I have done so because some other influence happened to come along.

My beliefs seem to me to make so much sense – to be so eminently reasonable. How could other people be so foolish and pigheaded as not to agree with me? How could they not understand? They must be deluded by the devil, or they have deliberately chosen to become agents of evil. Or perhaps they have some congenital defect which obscures from them the truths that are so obvious to us right-thinking folk. Or maybe they have been biased by the way they were raised.

A lot of us are prepared to attribute other people’s disagreeable beliefs to culture or psychology, while we regard our own beliefs as having nothing to do with culture or psychology but only with seeing plainly what is there. The elephant story, though, tells us we all have the beliefs we have because we've had the experiences we've had. That’s a moral that helps us be more tolerant – and that helps us be more open to new learning.

A related moral of the elephant story – rather more implicit -- is this: More inquiry is a good thing. Hearing the story, we’re likely to find ourselves wishing each person could have the chance to feel more different parts of the Elephant. Get back in there and learn some more.

When I was a boy, I was sure the answer wasn’t supposed to be Jesus. But I did want to know about that elephant out there, truth.


Truth! Rather than being the elephant in the room that everybody can see but nobody will talk about, truth is the elephant in the room that nobody can see, but everybody constantly talks about.

We ask witnesses, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Is it even possible to tell the whole truth?

We speak of true diamonds, true friends. Someone particularly suited to her field – say, medicine, is said to be a true doctor. We speak of the arrow flying straight and true to its target. If the billiard table cloth is true, then it is flat and level. When I take my bicycle in for a tune up, they “true” the wheels – make them straight.

“Truth is beauty,” says John Keats. And “beauty truth. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.” Lord Tennyson says “love of truth” is necessary to make a human life worthy. Plato says that true philosophers are “lovers of the vision of the truth.”

It used to be, once upon a time, that truth was a concept more often invoked by the more conservative, evangelical temperaments. It seemed to me that their idea of truth was a device for imposing uniformity of agreement and demonizing anyone who didn't see things the way they did. I still remember my indignant reaction years ago when I heard a Baptist leader, interviewed on the radio, say, “Diversity is all well and good, but let’s not forget that there is such a thing as the truth.”

Keats and Tennyson and Plato spoke of truth that stirred our souls to strive and soar, yet this guy was using “the truth” – his notion of it -- as a tool for exclusion, for meanness, for justifying injustice.

These days, though, we don’t hear evangelicals invoke “truth” much anymore. They have cast their lot with a leader who manifestly has no concern for what is true. He's not interested in hearing it -- he declines briefings -- and he's not interested in speaking it either, as his long and growing list of documented falsehoods (see HERE and HERE) shows. One may approve of the policy directions emerging from the current administration, and you might like his judicial appointments, but even his most ardent supporters who love his swagger and attitude know better than to actually believe the literal meaning of everything he says. (Daniel Effron HERE suggests that supporters are so delighted by thinking of how Trump's claims could have been true that they don't care if they actually are.)

In response, I find I’m feeling more need to protect the truth – and this is a bit of a switch.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Truth?"
See also
Part 2: The Convergence Theory of Truth

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