The Sum of an Elephant

There is a parable out of India about three blind men who are brought before an elephant and asked to explain what the elephant is like.  One of the men reaches out and touches the leg and concludes that an elephant is thick and round and much like a column or pillar.  Another man puts his hand on the trunk and concludes that an elephant is slender and flexible and must be something like a snake.  The last man pushes on the elephant’s side and determines that it is broad and unmovable like a large wall.  Sometimes the parable includes five or six men, and you can see from the picture above than there is no shortage of perspectives one could take.  The moral of the story is that everything is relative.  Each of the blind men told the truth based on their experience with the elephant, but no one man’s truth could exclude another’s.  No truth took precedence, even in the face of completely opposite claims.

I think this parable is an incredibly beneficial illustration for our world today, but for a different reason.  If our quest is to find out what an elephant really is, then what are we doing asking blind men when there is one who came to give sight to the blind.  Why trust a man’s limited experience with an elephant when there is one who created elephants?  The religious discussion is full of men espousing experiential truth from their own narrow perspective, but God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, has chosen to speak to us through His Word, the Bible.  We should place a higher priority on God’s word because His perspective is infinitely wider than ours.  He knows more about elephants than 6.7 billion blind men ever could.

Perhaps you don’t believe in God, or that He has communicated to man through the Bible.  That is ok.  My point here is not to convince you of His existence, but to simply show that He is necessary if we are ever to know the true purpose for our existence.  Without the broad perspective of the One who set the universe in motion, we have no hope of true understanding.  We are merely blind men groping around in the dark, thinking the sum of an elephant is a snake.

An Example of Worldview

Our worldview plays a major role in the way we interpret life.

Our home church, New Life, is currently working through The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World in which John Piper, Justin Taylor, and a handful of top-notch contributors contrast the Biblical Theistic worldview against the predominant Western worldview of our day, postmodernism.  If you are interested, New Life’s blog has some excellent running commentary on the subject.

One of our current classes here at our training is called Evangelism in a Postmodern World.  The goal is to gain a proper understanding of the way our worldview affects what we believe and to study the characteristics of various worldviews (including postmodernism) so that we can be prepared to share the gospel as clearly as possible.  Last week in class, we talked briefly about two parallel passages in the book of Acts that are an excellent example of the effect of worldview on our actions.

In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a crippled man in the presence of a Jewish audience.  In Acts 14, Paul heals a crippled man while working among a predominantly pagan audience.  Notice the reaction of each.

Acts 3:1-10 Acts 14:8-13
1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked.
3When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.
6Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8He jumped to his feet and began to walk.
9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

Each group interpreted the miraculous healing according to what they knew about the world.  The Jews in the Acts 3 passage knew (according to their worldview) that only God was capable of a miracle like that, so the man who was healed immediately began running and jumping and praising God.  Those who watched were amazed… could these people really be God’s messengers?  Could Christ whom they preach really be the truth as they claimed?  Those who saw Paul’s miracle had a completely opposite reaction to a remarkably similar situation.  Their worldview told them that the gods were prone to take on a human form from time to time.  Anyone demonstrating that kind of power, therefore, must be a god.  Zeus, according to their worldview was the most powerful of the gods, and he typically used Hermes to be his communicator, so the two men standing before them must be those two deities that they already knew.

Now I can’t say that Paul did or did not know that worldview would be an issue in that situation, but you can see that later in Acts 17 he did take worldview into account.  As he spoke to the Areopagus in Athens he didn’t start with the gospel, but first addressed the beliefs of his audience:

“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” (Acts 17:22-34)

It’s not an easy thing to share the gospel in a way that can be clearly understood, but when we start with an understanding of worldview, we’re on the right track.