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The Elephant on Mount Fuji – Part One – The Elephant

What does a legend about a late-medieval Mughal Emperor have to tell us about how (and why) to be a religious person in our complex context? And what does it have to do with Mount Fuji?
Part one of a series.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

John 14:6-7a

Why is this saying of Jesus so shocking? That, my friend, is a very, very long story. And I think (probably) the best way to begin is with a story.

There was once a great king of a far-away land. His empire was vast, and gathered many peoples under its capacious wings. The king was both good and wise, and his people loved and respected him, and in turn he had a great care for them. However, the great and wise king was troubled in his heart. There were many different religions under his rule; Muslims and Parsees and Hindus and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and Jains, and many, many others. The king was good and wise, and loved to talk with the many wise teachers who flocked to his grand court and disputed with one another in the broad shady colonnades of his palace. And if they also sometimes seemed a little more attached to the pleasures of the palaces table than seemed altogether compatible with their status as revered spiritual experts, well feasts give way to famines and it is best to make the most of the smiling face of the king while it lasts. Or, at least, so reasoned the king.

However, even though he was great and wise, he was troubled at heart. After a time, their disputations began to seem rather repetitious, verging on tedious. Their table manners were also not always of the highest quality, and some of them seemed a little too comfortable in their new status and not to show the deference that was appropriate to such a beneficent monarch. Although he was patient, the king was both brilliant and witty, and decided that the time had come to accomplish certain adjustments in the situation.

So he called together the various sects and religions, and bade them each to choose their wisest and best, who would be given the opportunity to help the king to understand a great wonder which had recently come into his possession.

The sects conferred amongst themselves, and, with only a small amount of pushing and shoving, and language as polite as the implications were venomous, a number of experts emerged, ready to bask in the approbation of the great king. Each of them was led to a separate antechamber, and blindfolded by a courteous servant. Then, one at a time, each of them was led out to the audience hall, where they were asked to explain what it was they were witnessing.

The first sage very gingerly patted around in front of him, and encountered a warm, vertical surface. He gingerly felt around, but didn’t really trust himself not to fall flat on his face in front of his royal patron, so only checked what was within easy reach.

“Well?” asked the Emperor. “What is it?”

“It is something like a wall, your Imperial majesty.”

“Very well, you may go.”

As the first sage was led away, still blindfolded the second sage was brought forward.  He was led to a different part of the room, and, like his colleague, gingerly put his hands out, only to find something writhing around. Something like a…

“A snake!” he shrieked, cowering away so hard that he fell over. “Why does it always have to be snakes?” he whimpered as he was gently led away.

The third sage was brought in, and, just like his peers, gingerly felt around. His careful hands encountered something solid, rounded, and of considerable vertical extent.

“Your majesty, it is a sort of tree.”

The other sages were brought back into the room, ready for the ceremonial unveiling of this great and wonderful object, now surrounded by a rich velvet curtain. Each of them was quietly confident in their own investigation, and perhaps a little worried about the others. Would this be the time when the Great King might finally see the error of his ways and join their own one true faith, awed by the perspicacity of his or her vision? Faint visions of honours, advancement in relevant denominational structures, even sainthood, danced before respectfully lowered eyes.

“You have all had a chance to investigate this unique phenomenon, and you have all given your opinion. You have said that this object is a wall, a snake, or a tree. It is in fact, an elephant.”

The curtain fell down with a dramatic whoosh! , and before them stood the biggest elephant any of them had ever seen.

“It is, in fact, an African bull elephant – much, much bigger than our Asian elephants, sent to me as a gift by a brother monarch from that great continent. So it is with your religious squabbles. Each of you only has a little part of a much greater truth.”

The King continued his disquisition for quite some time, but as modern, democratic people we don’t need to detain ourselves any longer, except to note that I like to associate it with a great king in India who really was committed to inter-religious dialogue. Akbar the Great, or Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605), to give him his full name, was a truly great historical figure. The third Mughal emperor, he welcomed many religious groups, including Christians of both Oriental and Western varieties, even allowing the Jesuits to build a church in his capital. He founded his own religion, Sulh-e-kul[1], which means “universal peace” in an attempt to reconcile the disputatious religious groups of his empire. I am sorry to report that it did not survive him.

So, what gives? What’s the point of this, extremely atmospheric and very well told, story? We are not ancient kings, and we don’t exactly rule vast tracts of land. So why is Akbar’s story relevant? And how does it relate to that quote from John’s Gospel at the top of the page?

The passage from John makes for uncomfortable reading in our culture. There is a very exclusivist vibe in Jesus’ claim to be “the way, the truth, and the light” and that “no-one comes to the Father except through me” which makes us recoil. How can any teacher, however enlightened and generally impressive he might seem, possibly be “the” way? Surely he is, at best, indicating some particular part of the elephant of spiritual reality?

It is a particularly live issue for us in the West because we (now) live in a culture with a degree of religious pluralism which even Akbar would have found astonishing. This is the result of a historically contingent set of circumstances: the end of the Western Roman Empire, the Great Schism, the wrestling for dominance between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, the Enlightenment, the Age of Empires, Industrialisation, several horrific wars, and any number of other things which I’ve left out[2]. But the same problem presents itself as did Akbar. How are all these different, groups of different faith, and of no faith, to live together?

Our culture has presented us with a traditional, and hence obvious-seeming answer[3], which we might call Modernity. The Modern individual, freed from the shackles of superstition is, in our story, Emperor Akbar. He alone has the clear sight to see that all the different religions are merely talking about different aspects of his elephant. They are blindfolded by tradition, but he alone has clear sight.

The thing is, this is a myth[4]. Modernism[5] no more has a perfect and full grasp of the truth than any other perspective. The different religions might all be grappling with the same thing, or they may not. But whether they are or not, modernity is in precisely the same boat as all other perspectives. It has a firm hold of an ear, but it cannot see the whole elephant.

The problem is that we all, necessarily, have a frame of reference, a language, a way of seeing the world, a set of conceptual tools. There is no “view from nowhere”, as Thomas Nagel, a contemporary atheist philosopher, pointed out. Or, as my one of my favourite bands from my mis-spent 80s youth[6] put it, there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth. Only we don’t exactly have access to the truth. We can only approach truth using our existing ideas and theorie, the tools which are available to us.

This is not to say that science can’t accurately describe the world, or that there is no objective state of affairs “out there.” After all, planes fly, which they do reliably because we understand enough of the way the world works reliably enough. As I write this, I, along with the whole world, hope that scientists will develop a vaccine for COVID-19, or at least some effective treatment for it.[7]

The defining feature of Modern thinking can be summed up in a quote from Emmanuel Kant, a great philosopher of the Enlightenment[8]: sapere aude. It can be translated as “dare to know” or “dare to think for yourself.” In the story, there was literally an elephant there. When the sages’ blindfolds were removed, they could all see it for themselves. But it is by no means clear that we are on such firm ground when it comes to saying that “all religions point to the same thing.”

A well-known attempt to do just this comes from a theologian named John Hick. He argued

Although Hick argues that both theistic and non-theistic religions are equally salvific in value, “he holds that our final (and therefore presumably true) relation to the ‘Real’ is one of eternal loving communion with a personalist, all loving God.” That is, although Hick intends to relativize traditional Christian claims about Jesus as determinative of God, he at the same time implicitly maintains a picture of God as revealed in Jesus.[9]

Here’s an example: my very limited understanding of Zen Buddhism is that it is atheistic (or at least non-theistic – certainly if you google Buddhism you will not find a lot of “God talk”). If we say that, even though it claims to be atheistic, in fact it is about a relationship with a personal God, have we managed to say anything clarifying, or even true? Would Buddhists not be tempted to feel that here is yet another Westerner trying to imperialise our faith and understand us in Christian terms?

Similarly, there was a large billboard in Melbourne which I used to drive past every day which read: Jesus was a prophet of Islam. I had a number of reactions to this, but none of them were a sense that my religious views were being grasped. I don’t think of Christianity as being a sort of deviant Islam, just waiting for the final revelation of God, though I get why Muslims would think something like that.

When it comes to something as slippery as religion, we have moved a long way from seeing an elephant, to the extent that it is actually quite hard to say what a religion is exactly. Or indeed whether it is “a” thing at all. Are Buddhism, say, and Christianity really talking about the same thing? What about Confucianism? Perhaps they are wrestling with the human condition – and then so is Existentialism, and so, in other ways, are using heroin or entering therapy or professional sports[10]. All the definitions seem either too tight (making other traditions into more or less good versions of Christianity) or so vague as to include more or less everything, which makes them pretty useless (do I really want to say that injecting heroin as a way of dealing with life’s problems is the same sort of thing as joining a Zen monastery like Leonard Cohen? Should we be engaged in inter-religious dialogue with Columbian drug cartels?)

The basic problem for us in is that we can’t escape our frameworks. There might be an elephant: there might not.  It seems like we can’t actually know for sure. And, even if there is, Modernity does not seem to give us adequate tools for engaging it.[11]

Given that, what should we do?

I engage that question in my next instalment: On The Many Ways up Mount Fuji – The Elephant on Mount Fuji – Part Two.


[1] Which also seems to be known as Din-i Ilahi

[2] If you’ve followed this footnote, you should definitely read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age where he spells it out in considerable detail.

[3] Again, you really should consider reading Taylor, especially on the civilizational story of “throwing off the shackles of superstitious priestcraft and emerging blinking into the clear light of Reason.” My terminology, not his, but you get my drift.

[4] Both in the sense of not being literally true, but also in the sense of being a powerfully motivating story deeply, almost subconsciously, held in our culture which shapes how we see things and interact. Is it a snore if I commend Charles Taylor to you again?

[5] Or “Enlightenment”, following Emmanuel Kant’s terminology, among others. They aren’t identical, but close enough for government work.

[6] Extreme. You probably haven’t heard of them – but not because they are astonishingly cool.

[7] If you’re interested in how this might be resolve philosophically, and you aren’t particularly convinced by post-modernism and its variants, you might like to have a look at these links on Critical Realism and Theological Critical Realism. Basically it’s about thinking of reality as having levels, and how to apply the correct tools for engaging with each level. Physics doesn’t work very well as a tool for understanding human psychology, and vice versa.

[8] As I noted above, I’m going to use “Enlightenment” and “Modernity” basically interchangeably for the purposes of this series.

[9] D Marshall, “Dialogue, Proclamation and the Growth of the Church in Pluralist Societies” in David Goodhew (ed) Towards a Theology of Church Growth (Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham, 2015) pp. 37-39

[10] Or perhaps I’m just enjoying The Last Dance too much.

[11] Obviously I’ve just brushed the surface here on Modernity and Enlightenment thinking and its limitations around matters of faith. Plenty more to come.

By Alister Pate

I am trying to live authentically as a Christian in post-modern, post-Christendom, post-Christian Melbourne. I am an ordination candidate for the Uniting Church in Australia, and I lead Cafechurch Melbourne (www.cafechurch.org) where we are learning how to deconstruct and reconstruct in a framework of generous orthodoxy together.

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