Reflecting the Elephant in the Meeting Room
A Message Shared by Kitty D. Benedixen-Park in
Meeting for Worship at Spokane Friends
May 5, 2013
Elephants have very sophisticated hearing, and incredible infrasound, which is very low-frequency sound that can travel long distances. Elephants can communicate in voices we never hear. They grieve deeply for their loved ones, shed tears, and suffer depression. They also have compassion that projects beyond their own kind to others in distress.
I recently emailed a short musing on the parable about six blind men touching the elephant to a few friends for their enjoyment. And, it ended up being intercepted by an elder who asked me to share it with you. It’s entitled Reflecting the Elephant in the Meeting Room. Now for those of us unfamiliar with the ancient parable, I will summarize it and then read my reflections and finally, since my husband says everything I write needs to be deconstructed, expound more fully on it.
There are many versions of the parable, but generally six blind men touch an elephant to see what it is like. Each feels a different part of the pachyderm and then they compare notes. In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and then begin collaborating in order to “see” the full elephant. In one version each asserts their own views and come to blows over whose view is right. I think the 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe is amusing and begins with this stanza:
It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind.
They conclude the elephant is like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, or rope depending upon where they touch. The last stanza, in Saxe’s version, the conflict is never resolved.
So oft in theologic wars the disputant, I ween,
rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
and prate about an elephant, not one of them has seen.
Reflecting the Elephant in our Meeting Room
Once we agree the elephant in the Meeting room exists, then what? It seems appropriate to begin by acknowledging our ignorance of the elephant? For we all know a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Once our sensory experience provides us with a scrap of data, it’s just all too easy to get puffed up and intolerant about it. Like the six blind men in the ancient Indian parable, we are certain we have touched the entirety of the elephant. And while the acquisition of a little experiential knowledge has indeed awakened us, are we not risking a greater blindness by denouncing others’ experiences of the elephant? The Gospel of John warns against such declarations of full sightedness. It is because we claim to see that our sin remains (9:41).
But journeying forth, we soon discover we have failed to see other parts. We have merely touched a lofty peak of what is an expansive mountain range. The elephant is fuller, grander and more hidden than our sense perception allowed. Like Paul, “we see through the mirror (to esoptron) dimly.” We experience truth but only in an unfinalized, imperfect form. And while we have come to some measure (metron) of understanding through personal reflection, the face in the mirror remains strangely our own. Our personal filters have determined both the questions we raised and the conclusions we reached. Though created with an inner capacity to recognize the elephant (Rom 1:18-32), our confirmation bias distorts this knowledge (Rom 1:28) and we find ourselves worshiping “dark mirrors” of our own creation. Our insights into eternal mysteries do indeed grow “strangely dim.” And like the the six blind men, our blindness now becomes an opportunity for humility. We have learned how our situatedness shapes all our apprehensions. And somehow thoughtful uncertainty holds more integrity for us now than over-reaching credulity. Like the blind men touching the elephant, we were right in what we affirmed, yet wrong in what we denied (Niebuhr). If others experience the elephant differently, please be gentle with them in the midst such ambiguity, for we may be touching the tusk or ear of the same elephant. Let’s not be found quenching the Spirit at work in others! After all, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). The parable exhorts all spiritual seekers to learn the discipline of “dark mirrors” for we see now only reflections, not “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Our vision is not yet 20/20. Our limited and indirect glimpses of eternal truths require full honesty about the nature of our blindness, especially in the gathered presence of the Holy. Apophatic vision, what words cannot say, necessitates a lexicon of humility in light of the “evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
As we grow in our quest for truth, we don’t have to throw out earlier experiences and understandings in favor of new found insights. If we learn anything from the parable of the blind men, we learn this is not always necessary or wise. We may, after all, be discarding the tail because we have just touched the leg for the first time. Learning to value and appreciate previous understandings as well as new insights of continuing revelation is a vital part of spiritual journeying. Yet, our individual finitude requires collective discernment. We will never be able to contain or grasp the entirety of the Holy One who far exceeds human understanding. Experiential knowledge eludes human formulations because it is always incomplete and incalculable, requiring thoughtful and faithful weighing of all things (1 Cor 14:29).
It’s what we do with our experiences of God that matters most. If we find competing experiences compelling, we don’t have to randomly choose between them. We can wait till there is a motive for preferring one over the other. If we linger longer still, we may even discover they are but different sides of a true paradox, or the tusk and the ear of the same elephant. We may never fully be able to integrate or reconcile our disparate experiences. We may have to learn to be at peace with the tension of paradox, where rules prove less useful. Parker Palmer suggests we “live the contradictions” rather than settle for simple either/or solutions. And it just may be that this is the place where spiritual transformation happens: on the boundaries and at the thresholds. For the goal was never to possess the truth but merely to seek the truth. Religion always involves us in a grasping, but faith is being grasped (Barth). The author of Mark’s gospel describes spiritual journeying as an intentional movement of following Jesus on the way. It is dynamic, actively moving toward and seeking that “hidden wholeness” that is part of the unity of all things. We may never discover how all the parts cohere, how everything fits together. We are asked only to be en route. But take care, for each and every glimpse of God’s truth is so momentary and precious a gift that we dare not discount or dismiss any along the way.
The first axiom of systematic theology is that all our beliefs must fit logically and consistently together. As a Quaker, I reject this whole thesis. I have sensed both the mystery and mercy of God’s grace at the threshold of ambiguity, among life’s many conflicting and contradictory experiences. Why should I reduce my experiences to one set of beliefs, one particular history of interpretation of the biblical text or even a single metaphor? As I open myself more and more to experiencing different aspects of God, I am less enthusiastic about butchering the elephant in order to gain a few tusks. We each have experiences of God that others have overlooked. Why not let all the various parts reflect each other? Let each experience, every insight, hold counsel with every other, though we may never reach any approximation of consensus. There are some experiences of God, some insights, some truths that simply require the use of different metaphors to express. It is difficult to give an accurate account of the elephant’s tusk with metaphors derived from touching its ear. Anyway, why should I choose between a tail, an ear or a tusk? Each is a framework through which I gain perspectives that I might otherwise miss, each a metaphor foregrounding certain things. I can hold them all in creative tension through the discipline of dark mirrors. I don’t have to favor one metaphor over others or call one right to the exclusion of others. In the presence of the tacit immensity of the Holy, it is better to be inclusive rather than exclusive and also more humble.
Kitty D. Bendixen-park 4/16/2013
It takes a great deal of humility to acknowledge the nature of our blindness. And it’s not just about the reflected nature of all truth. We’re created with the ability to recognize God (Rom 1:18-21), but we each distort this knowledge. We prefer the “dark mirrors” (ainigma, = enigma, riddle, dim, obscure) of our own creation rather than the transcendent realities they reflect. We know from modern science that every measurement inevitably distorts the reality that is being measured. So, we live by faith that the reflected images to which we have access contain a measure of truth.
But then, Paul says, we even exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). Claiming to be wise, we become fools (Rom 1:22). Whenever we make idols of our interpretations and absolutize our partial truths, we begin to lie, Paul says, and suppress the truth of what we have done. We begin to deceive ourselves, pretending to be something we’re not (2 Cor 3:18; Gal 6:3-5). We conceal the truth from ourselves because we want to appear blameless in our own eyes, we want to be justified on the basis of our own efforts (Rom 10:2-3; Phil 3:3-9).
Daniel Goleman, studying the psychology of self-deception, writes that the roots of self-deception seem to lie in the mind’s ability to allay or put off anxiety by distorting awareness. Simply put, denial soothes. This pattern of self-deception, in both individuals and groups, is in keeping with Paul’s view of the power of idolatrous images to prevent a vision of the truth.
At his conversion, Paul discovered to his great shock his own self-deception. Prior to this, he had been worshiping the mirror of religious law. This led him to oppose Christianity. But when truth revealed itself in a new and unexpected manner, in an iconoclastic Galilean peasant, Paul the Pharisee, abandoned his interpretive schemas and idols. The appearance of the risen Christ meant that he had been looking at life in a distorted manner, even if religious. Paul learned that because of God’s unconditional love and extravagant grace, he could live with his own dark, cracked mirrors. Paul learned to accept himself as a limited creature whose knowledge and prophecy were “in part” and he encouraged his communities to collectively evaluate all things in light of the Christ-event. Even if God’s will is glimpsed by inspired people, it still has to be weighed. All of us are called to ascertain what is the will of God (Rom 12:2). The discipline of dark mirrors requires the collective assessment and insight from all of our varied members in order to guard against the kind of human self-deception that always distorts the truth.
Paul’s understanding of self-deception is congruent with what is known as confirmation bias. We all filter, select, and remember information that confirms what we already think. We all tend to favor, listen to ideas, and read books that agree with what we already believe. We love people who affirm our partial truths we suspect those who don’t. We suppress contrary information and interpret inconclusive evidence as supporting our existing positions. This is why our diversity is so important, because it helps rectify our partial knowledge and biases. Without our diversity our insights into eternal mysteries would indeed grow strangely dim.
You see, we need each other, especially those with whom we disagree. I need you, I need this community, for you can tell me things about myself that I am unaware of, you can see parts of me that I try to filter out and distort. You can see the negative space around me, I don’t have that vantage point. You are a lens reflecting back to me my own blindness, the partiality of my own truth. And I am that for you. And together we’re learning to mirror each other hopefully in loving and gentle ways even as our limitations and partialities are being painfully exposed.
“So what are we supposed to do?” someone asked me. Well, I can think of many things. For one, if you are inclined to judge or tell people they are going to hell because they don’t believe the way you do, Stop it. We don’t know that. That is up to God. And God says “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom 9:15). We look at people through the dark mirrors of external appearances, but thankfully, God sees and knows our inner hearts.
Also, we can learn to be more gentle with others through times of change, for many are afraid of new ideas and approaches to faith. Many simply don’t want to touch different parts of the elephant. So as we continue to share our feelings and experiences, let’s do so with humility, kindness, and with the knowledge that change and newness might actually be giving us all an opportunity to grow, to glimpse a part of God that we have never touched before or even thought possible. These are precious gifts that offer us insight into ourselves and into a larger experience of the truth about God.
We can also expand our musical canon so that our music speaks to the diverse needs and experiences of our whole Meeting. Introducing new music is not “wrong,” but neither is it complete. Likewise, quiet, reflective music or even choruses are not wrong but neither are they complete. All music was new at one time, even our favorite hymns.
Remaining open to new experiences and aspects of God does not mean we believe everything or prefer nothing. It simply means that we remember that no one person or group’s experience of God encompasses all there is to know about God’s thoughts and ways.
How we conduct ourselves inside our Meeting is important, but it doesn’t end there. Even with our partial knowledge, God is still kicking us out the door to share our experiences with others….not because we are right and they’re wrong, but because the more we share, the bigger and fuller our understandings of the things of God become.
Admitting our partial knowledge is important in social and political discussions as well. There is nothing wrong with feeling strongly about an issue, but it will not get resolved without the kind of humility that knows our ways are not God’s. Maybe all sides could use their partial truths to help create something much greater and wider by combining and sharing and collaborating.
So what are we supposed to do? These are some ideas. You can think of your own. Now let me share what I’m learning as I try faithfully to reflect my experiences of God. For the last two years, my journey has taken me to a place of unknowing. It has been a path more about my own ignorance than one of ecstasy. I have had to travel by ways in which, I am not, and know not, in order to be present for people whose memories are not. Whose identities are both living and dead. It is a place where deeper communion is accomplished more often without words, beyond the life of the mind that I so cherish. But I am also an artist and so I know how to feel my way about in the dark, to intuit, to test the many waters beyond sense and notion. And what I thought I went for is not at all what I’ve found. It’s so much more. There are other places where I could reflect God’s loving acceptance, but this is the place for me right now in an adult family home for dementia. I am not there to fix, verify, instruct, or save. I am there to kneel before God whose ineffable presence abounds in their midst; to pray in a place where experience moves me beyond the power of words, to a deeper union and fuller communion.
As my mother’s memories depart, part of me is going with her. But as I live in the present moment with her, affirming her identity, she is being born again in me, in living memories for my future. We are traveling together through an unknown and unremembered gate, and I abide with her so that she may never have to say “my God my God, why have you forsaken me.” So I try to reflect value and love to her, here, now, in her present moments, beyond cognition if need be. I do this in remembrance of her. And, because of God’s tender mercies, I continue to experience new parts of the elephant, parts not known, because not looked for, but found in the stillness and silence beyond words. I try to be a Christ-light, communicating love through touch, feeling, and intuition with people whose dementia is costing them not less than everything. Leaving Christ for Christ, I continue to experience new aspects of God in the least of these, incarnate in their human condition and they in mine. And I am so thankful, and so grateful, that the elephant in that house, and in our Meeting room, and in our world, never forgets.
So what are we supposed to do? We are reflected in each other. Encourage one another, then, to speak their own truth about God. Each person’s truth is important and needs to be shared. And as we humbly share our experiences of God with others, our own blinders will be removed, the scales will fall more and more from our eyes, because others will be sharing with us their own understandings as well.
God allows all of us, even in our blindness to come and touch….just as Jesus let Thomas put his hands on his side and grasp his feet. We can share with the world our experiences of touching a part of the Holy One, who indeed has become our living Lord.