hapaxnym (hapaxnym) wrote,

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Being Wrong About The Elephant

I once read an interesting piece on the use of creeds -- formal ritualized "statements of beliefs" -- in Christianity, that argued that the point of creeds was not to define "who were are" but rather to exclude "who were are not."  In other words, the creed served as a fence:  it wasn't a matter that anyone who could assent to the creed was allowed inside, considered One of Us, but that anyone who couldn't sign on was automatically "outside the pale."
Whether or not one buys the historical argument, it does seem that an awful lot of religious (and other) affiliations spend a great deal more effort on establishing the Not Us, and expostulating on their Wrongitude, than they do on exploring what it means to be Us. 
I don't get that. 
I've often said that I am not only open to the possibility that my religious beliefs are "wrong", but that I'd be gobsmacked and disappointed if they weren't.  Don't misunderstand; while I entertain doubts on a daily (hourly) fashion, I'm more or less committed to my peculiar variant of Christianity, and find it satisfying on an intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, moral, and experiential level.  But I'd be crushed if the Source, the Meaning, the Breath of All That Is could be even approximated by the musings of a middle--aged mouthy broad confined to a tiny geographical, cultural, and temporal box.  My faith rests in a conviction that the Divinity Who is so much more than I can ever imagine, guess, or comprehend regards my speculations with amused indulgence.
So there little that fascinates me more than the beliefs that are Not Me.  I want to learn all about everybody else's convictions and worldview. I want to hear everybody else's stories. I want, desperately, to crawl into everybody else's head, and look out through their eyes, and see -- just for a second! -- the world they see, in all its beauty and pain and hope and despair and wonder and possibility.
That's why, as long as I can remember, I've always been seeking out the rich variety of myths and legends and rituals from every belief system, living and dormant, including my own.  That's what sparked a passion for theology that I have never lost.  For what could be a better entry into the minds of others their religion -- defined loosely, as Paul Tillich would have it, as whatever they felt to be of "ultimate concern"?
Not because I'm interested in how Wrong they are.  Or even because I think that they might be Right.  But although I hold as a matter of faith that we all inherited Wrongness with our common limited human perspective, I have come to hope that when we each share our own tiny splinter, our own glittering tessera of almost-certainly-Wrong, we might get a little closer to a lacy edifice, a dazzling mosaic, of something maybe-sorta-kinda-not-hopelessly-far-away-from-almost-approaching Right.
Or even if it's still ludicrously Wrong, I have to think it would be pretty darn AWESOME.
It's like the famous story of the Blind Philosophers and the Elephant.  You all know this one:   the sightless wise men encounter something too vast to fit their limited comprehension, so they all  grasp at one aspect of it and mis-identify it completely.  It's a fable most often employed as a weapon against Not Us, to metaphorically imply how blind and foolish and Wrong their ideas are.
But I like to think of it instead as an example of how, while everybody can be Wrong on their own, the more viewpoints we get, the more closely we about something sort of Right:

Once upon a time, a king had heard that an Elephant -- a strange and fabulous beast never before known in his realm -- had been seen in the land. So he sent his five wisest advisors to examine this rarity and describe it for him.

"But," his courtiers objected, "All of them are blind!"

"All the better," the king shrugged.  "We shall learn of the Elephant that which even the blind can see."

When they reached the grassy plain where the Elephant was grazing, the first philosopher walked ahead.  As chance would have it, she reached out and felt the Elephant's trunk.

"How marvelous!" she exclaimed. "So soft, yet sinewy.  So flexible, yet strong. The Elephant is apparently a kind of hose -- one that can manage anything we should want carried." The Elephant responded with a spray of water, and the soaked philosopher continued, "And excellent for gardening as well!"

Not to be bested, the second philosopher hurried up.  He ran straight into the Elephant's side, banging his nose in the process.

"Ouch!" he said. "You are quite Wrong.  The Elephant is a great wall.  One that cannot be moved with all of my strength, yet warm and solid so I might lean against it when I am tired and hurt."   And he rested there, panting a little.

The third philosopher heard the harsh breathing, and came to assist her colleague.  But she became caught behind the Elephant's huge ear.  "Oh!" she smiled.  "I'm afraid you both are Wrong.  The Elephant is a door, one that keeps opening and closing.  Yet I cannot find my way through."  And she stood there, entranced at the possibilities.

"Idiots!" muttered the fourth philosopher.  The Elephant was getting a little tired of these constant interruptions, and turned its head to regard him with reproach, grazing his hand with its tusk.  "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!" he repeated.  "Anyone can tell that the Elephant is a sharp spear.  Such a weapon will terrify our enemies!"

The fifth philosopher finally arrived.  Circling around the sound of his colleagues' argument, he approached the beast from the rear.  He stepped in something squishy and slipped, and would have lost his balance, except that his flailing arms chanced upon the Elephant's tail.

"Whoops!" he gasped.  "How foolishly Wrong my colleagues are.  It is quite plain that the Elephant is a rope -- quite a sturdy one -- and how fortunate for me that this is the case."

The five argued and argued over what they should report back to the king, never noticing that the Elephant had finished its meal and wandered away, back to the lands more accustomed to its kind.  They were still arguing days later, when the king arrived with all of his courtiers, prepared to behold this great wonder with his own eyes.

"The Elephant is a hose? A wall? A door? A spear? A rope?"  He shook his head at his advisors.  "How Wrong you all are -- and even in this you cannot agree!  But we have looked all over our kingdom for this Elephant, and have seen none, nor any sign of such a one. And frankly, I see no need for one either.  Hoses and walls and doors and spears and ropes we have in plenty in this kingdom already."

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