On the Seventh Blind Man and the Elephant
(For opposite week, I decided to argue a theist position.)
One of the biggest problems when it comes to any discussion of theism vs. atheism is when some wag asks for a definition of “God”. The general trick is to get them to make some overstatement and then to say “well, yeah, I don’t believe in that” in response. My problem is that I don’t know how to define God except by appeals to things that I know that you (yes, *YOU*, you the person reading this) have experienced yourself (even if, perhaps even especially if, you fancy yourself an atheist).
It’s insufficient to say that God is a force (“that flows through all living things?” “Shut up”) and it’s insufficient to say that God has something analogous to a personality that we can interact with the way we interact with the personalities of our friends and loved ones but, like the blind men feeling the elephant, we can say that we feel a spear or a snake or a wall from time to time. Our interactions with this small piece of *THAT THING* that we experience is an interaction with God. Our problem is that, much like the blind men, we mistake the fan or the rope or the tree for the elephant and when we encounter someone who says “no, it was more like something else” our intuition is to say that they, somehow, did it wrong.
It’s my hope that this essay will explain how the various things that you, blind man, have touched was an experience of you touching God… and, at the same time, explain to those who are secure in their experience of the spear and the spear only that they remain blind and that they’d benefit from feeling around a bit more.
On to the elephant.
It’s a bit of an analogue to C.S. Lewis’s argument from desire. In the same way that hunger implies the ability to eat and horniness implies the ability to have sex, the experience of desire for Justice, for Beauty, and for some vague idea of “The Good” implies the existence of the ability to sate that hunger (or that horniness). When we encounter something truly wonderful, we touch this Elephant.
(Now, it must be pointed out that much of the initial opposition to this idea comes from the fact that the definition of “God” has been poisoned by both well- and ill-intentioned people who explain that, no, God is like *THIS*, he is like *THAT*, and he doesn’t like shrimp (or whatever) and they even have a book to prove it and they want laws to make sure that you don’t engage in any shellfish acts. I don’t have the “where-to-stand” to say that these people have not touched the elephant themselves, but when they point to the book rather than to the Elephant, that’s a good sign right there that they aren’t using their hands to touch things but are stuck reading books written by others that talk about what the Elephant is like. I’m sure you’ve seen them caught once or twice in a situation where they have to choose between believing what they have touched with their hands and what they have read with their eyes. It takes quite a bit of courage to go with what one has experienced rather than with what one has been told, if one has spent one’s life doing what one has been told… enough about them, though. Back to you. (Yes, *YOU*.[/efn_note]
Having touched this moment of Beauty, or of Art, or of Goodness (or the analogous sensation of revulsionrepugnance that comes from a moment of Ugliness, or of Desecration, or of Evil), we know that we have touched upon, as Saint Oscar would put it, the “secret of life”. This is God (though, I need to reiterate, this is not *ONLY* God and God should not be reduced to this, any more than the fan is the Elephant… but when we have touched the fan, we have touched the Elephant).
“Oh, you’re just engaging in wishful thinking”, I can imagine you saying. “You’re trying to feel better about the abyss or death or whatever.” The fact that the abyss or death or whatever is something anxious-making is an indicator of something awry, no? When we say goodbye to a loved one (even a pet!), we know that this is something broken that we experience. A fundamental “this is not the way the world should be” sensation. A sense of fundamental loss and disconnect from the Beauty and Good that was the companionship of another piece of the Elephant in our lives.
Still not convinced? How’s this: you can train your hands to better feel the Elephant. There are a number of books out there that talk about the importance of the contemplation of the divine but the quickest and easiest and most accessible is probably a cute little book by A. J. Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically. In this book, he begins by describing himself as Jewish “the way that the Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant”. Not particularly religious… but with a year of devotion and contemplation upon God, he found himself describing himself as someone who is still agnostic but an agnostic who prays all the time. An agnostic who prays all the time! Even he was poisoned by some of the ideas he had been exposed to. Even as he spoke, he didn’t know when the very act of speaking indicated his *INTIMATE* knowledge of the Elephant he was speaking to. His verbalization was not the point, it was his meditation upon the thing that he, intuitively, knew was there. At the end of the book, he talked about how he thought about whether he’d be sacrificing bulls on the beach if he had spent the last year worshipping Poseidon. Even as he intended this as a humorous way to shrug off his newfound devotion, he failed to see where his worship overlapped… where Poseidon was YHWH was God was the Elephant.
So my advice/gift to you in the coming days/weeks is to quietly keep track of every brush you have. The more you think about noticing them, I guarantee that you will notice them more. Meditate until you are unaware that you are meditating and pray until you are unaware that you are praying. You may be surprised to find how much of the Elephant that you’ve already held in your hands… you may be shocked to find how much is within and among you.
Get to feelin’!