Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Pondering Pachyderm Perambulation

You will soon learn as you read this blog post about an old story, a new book, and the ongoing issue why I have used such an enticing (and puzzling?) title.

An Old Story

John Godfrey Saxe was an American poet. Saxe (1816~87) is now known mainly for his re-telling of the ancient Indian parable "The Blind Men and the Elephant” (1872), which introduced the story to a Western audience. 

Many of you know that old story, but it is worth reading again in its entirety, so please click here and take a couple of minutes to read what poet Saxe called “a Hindoo fable.”

Early versions of the old tale go back to at least 500 BCE, and its origins were probably far earlier than that. References to it are found in ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts.

That old story has often been used in what the poet Saxe called “theologic wars,” but interestingly, the old fable has been used in teaching about the Peace Corps, in discussions of systems engineering (see here), and in a 2020 Psychology Today magazine article, to give but a few examples.

A New Book

John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. His new (2020) book is titled Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity.

Thatamanil, born in India and a U.S. resident since the age of eight, is an impressive scholar and his book will be appreciated most by scholars in the academic field that used to be called “comparative religion.” Most others will likely find reading/understanding the book quite demanding.

The book begins with “Introduction: Revisiting an Old Tale” (pp. 1~19). In the first thirteen pages, Thatamanil briefly summarizes the old story and discusses some of the criticisms leveled against it.

He informs his readers, “This book is a Christian exercise in pachyderm perambulation” (p. 11). In more common words, it is about circling the elephant, the author’s metaphor for how he “seeks to make theological sense of the reality and meaning of religious diversity” (p. 12).

The first chapter begins with a discussion of the question “Should Religious Diversity Be a ‘Problem’ for Christians?” (pp. 21~29)—and for the next 230 pages Thatamanil argues that the answer to that question should be No.

The Ongoing Issue

So, how do people of one religious faith relate to people of other faiths? Traditionally, the usual stance of Western Christians was the “we are right, they are wrong” position.

But through the years, interreligious contact increasingly morphed the views of many Christians toward inclusivist, as opposed to exclusivist, views—and then more and more toward pluralistic views.

Thatamanil critically examines those three positions in chapter two. He wants to move beyond all three of those widely held viewpoints—or at least to what he calls “relational pluralism,” as elucidated in chapter three.

And then the concept of religion itself is discussed in the fourth and fifth chapters. This prompts us to raise questions such as, In comparing Christianity to other religions, what form of Christianity is chosen? And what form of, say, Islam?

Do we compare the Christianity of the Quakers and Mennonites with the Islamic jihadists?

Or do we compare the Christian militants through the centuries with the Buddhism represented by people such as Thích Nhất Hạnh–or the Muslim family that lovingly cared for my Christian friend Delores (see here)?

In spite of all that Thatamanil wrote in his scholarly book, and the ongoing intellectual issues that he dealt with so admirably, perhaps the most serious religious issue today is not how the various religions “see” the “elephant” differently but how people increasingly don’t see the “elephant” at all.

And even those who do argue most about the various facets of the “elephant” increasingly belong to the same religious tradition—and those embracing significant agreement increasingly belong to different religious traditions.


** I received the book introduced above under the auspices of the Speakeasy book review plan that is headed by Mike Morrell. In addition to this article, I have posted a much fuller summary of the book on my supplementary blogsite (see here).


  1. I was once at an interfaith gathering where a panel of people from different religions were speaking. There were not many Christians there but some representatives of various Christian religions--Catholic, Unity, Protestant, Mormon. Sitting with a Jew on one side of me and someone from some other faith on the other, I realized that I have more in common with the people in that room than with some traditions of Christianity, especially conservative Protestants and Catholics. I'm sure the same was true for some of the others, especially those of Western religions which tend to be worse at exclusivism than Eastern faith traditions. And I began thinking about identity. And I wondered who we are--those of us more at home with one another than with some of the traditions within our own faiths.
    Who are we? What "space" do we inhabit? Clearly it was some kind of transcendent and unspecified identity beyond our own traditions which had always claimed to have the truth. Is it a negative identity, like negative theology or negative dialectics, in which it is easier and far more true to say what we are not rather than what we are? I've been thinking about that ever since.

    My last sermon, titled "Share Suffering," gave an answer of sorts. Springing from a story Thich Nhat Hanh once told about him and Daniel Berrigan sharing the eucharist, which they could do because of the shared suffering of their respective countries during the Vietnam War, I suggested that the one thing all human beings have in common is suffering. Maybe somewhere in there is some kind of answer. I'm still wondering.

    1. Sorry, the sermon was titled “Shared Suffering.”

    2. Anton, thanks for your significant comments and for referring to your recent sermon. Actually, I saw that you had posted it on Facebook and I printed it off--but I didn't read it until this morning.

      I have had mixed feelings about Thích Nhất Hạnh. I have been impressed by and supportive of his emphasis on engaged Buddhism which led him into meaningful activities in support of peace and in opposition to war, but I am much less impressed by what he has written about Buddhism.

      Back in Aug. 2018, I referred to Nhất Hạnh at the beginning of a blog post about #23 of my book "Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now." That chapter is titled "What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe." But it was after that I read his book "The Art of Living" (2017), and upon finishing it I noted, "In many ways, reading this book was a negative experience, for I think less of Nhất Hạnh and of Buddhist beliefs than before."

  2. I have also received comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing the thoughts of John Thatamanil and Saxe's poem, with which I was familiar.

    "To me, the elephant represents the common thread found in all of the major religions; that is, the transformation of each of us into beings of humility, compassion, simplicity, and spirituality. Each religion has its own unique specifics and these specifics are metaphors and aids to achieving the ultimate goal of personal transformation. But some people take these specifics very literally without seeing the bigger picture, as the 'Elephant and the Blind Men' illustrates so well.

    "Christianity, or any of the other major religions, should not fear religious diversity. We should celebrate the teachings we share as well as the cultural traditions that make each religion and culture unique. (Food is a good place to start.)"

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric. But I have trouble with the pluralistic view--at least as regards ultimate beliefs. Sure, there is nothing inherently better or worse about the foods that are common to the various ethnic groups--although I am not sure that even there one could argue that any diet is as good as any other. It seems that some do, indeed, lead to a healthier, longer life than others. If that is so, shouldn't such a diet be considered superior to diets that lead, say, to being overweight, to having high blood pressure, etc.?

      So, then, what about religious views that see people as basically unequal? That is a problem I have with Hinduism that seems to have been the basis of the traditional caste system in India. Thatamanil did deal some with that--but it seemed inconsistent with his general theme. (I want to think more, and write more, about this later.)

  3. On Hospice Now and on my way to Heaven!
    Thanks for All your Wonderful Blogs.
    See you and June in Heaven my Dear friend and Brother in Christ.

    1. John Tim, you are probably the first person in hospice care to comment on my blogsite. As I wrote to you in a private email, I was shocked and saddened when you wrote about your situation. I was glad, then, to receive an email from your cousin Denise, and I am thankful that you have her for your caretaker.

      Bobby Pinkerton, whom we both knew as boys, was on hospice for over a year, so perhaps you have not just weeks but months left. If so, you may be able to write again. If not, please know that I am praying you will be as pain free as possible during this ending of your long and productive life on this earth.

  4. Leroy, thanks for pointing me to Thatamanil’s book! I purchased it today. I think I know myself well enough to recognize that I want and need to read someone new and current who confirms many of my unpublished intuitions. I look forward to observing his sources and his use of them.

    I resonate greatly with his phrase “the hospitality of receiving.” Genuine open-ness to the ‘other’ entails a willingness and practice of receiving one another as (already) interconnected and thus interdependent beings and potential sources of mutual learning.

    The direction of my own journey with the ‘other’ has been toward a hunch that a ‘divinity’ that is not open to ‘non-divinity’ is not a divinity truly hospitable to receiving the other. A shorthand [which may be more misleading than helpful] is ‘the God who is not god.’

    My sense is that after reading Thatamanil I will wonder about ‘a trinity that is not a trinity!’ And so it continues.

    Shalom, Dick

    1. Dick, I have said that Thatamanil's book is one by a scholar for scholars--and as you are a scholar I think you will find the book to be a stimulating one. He cites many of the 20th century writers in the field that I was familiar with but also introduced many 21 century thinkers who have published books since my retirement and, thus, not in contact as much with the ongoing scholarship.

      I may write more later in critiquing Thamatanil's ideas, and I certainly would be happy for you to share insights you have about his main ideas--especially those you find to be problematic.

  5. Leroy, thank you for pointing us to your deeper review on your "supplementary blogsite." I have always been a fan of the story of the blind men and the elephant. For all of us, what we know is so small compared to our ignorance. Meditating on that ignorance is a key step on the road to enlightenment, whatever that might be. My bookclub/Sunday School class recently read "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb begins his book by discussing the library of Umberto Eco. What Taleb finds important in Eco's 30,000 books is the many titles Eco wants to read, but has not read. (I have a smaller version of Eco's library.) A library is a resource for looking things up, and for reminding us of how much we do not know.

    Speaking of ignorance, I wanted to share the story of a book I cannot find, except possibly on the internet, in which case it is "The Magic Plum Tree" by Enrico Arno and Freya Littledale. In this children's story, a Persian prince takes his oldest son to see a plum tree in winter. Then in spring he takes his second son to see it in bloom. In summer he takes his third son to see it in full foliage. Finally, in fall, he takes all three to eat plums. Several arguments came to an end as they were eating. Other than the retro-sexism, it was a great story, and my children enjoyed it many years ago. You can check out the book here: https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/magic-plum-tree_freya-littledale_enrico-arno/1197852/item/34864996/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIlJy4_qbm8AIVpXNvBB00xQK6EAQYBCABEgKcAvD_BwE#idiq=34864996&edition=2961800

    1. Craig, I fully agree with your concluding sentence about libraries.

      I don't remember hearing about the book "The Magic Plum Tree." It is 40 years old now, I find, and I think it is a shame it is not in our local libraries.

  6. I've recently finished a review of a book which I describe as a "heavy duty version of offering alternative interpretations" of the Bible.
    The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Amy-Jill Levine, Marc Brettler

    1. Thanks for your comments, Clif, and for linking to your recent Goodreads.com book review, which I just read this morning. The content of the book, and your review, reminds me of what I have been reading in the book "Inspired" (2018) by Rachel Held Evans. I plan to write about her and some about that book in my June 5 blog post, and even though I have not yet finished reading the book, I highly recommend it as you continue to consider how to interpret the Bible.

  7. Yesterday I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend Will Adams:

    "I think you hit the nail on the head! I wish even 10% of believers of all faiths could accept the concepts you describe. I'm cautiously hopeful that such a thing may come to pass, but I think the barriers are high."