Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jesus and John Hick’s Elephant

John Hick was a well-known English philosopher who likened God to an elephant. He opined that one religion feels the trunk; one the tail; one feels the tusks; and yet another feels the ears. They all see, know, and feel various parts of the same being—the elephant—but no one knows, or can know the entire elephant. In short, this view proposes that God is too large for one religion to know fully, and so each religion can only know a part of Him.

 Further, since everyone sees or knows a different part, God is essentially the same being, expressed in different forms.
Hick’s analogy is very appealing to post-modern, syncretistic ears. His view sounds humble because it is inclusive of everyone and it makes everyone feel good. In reality, however, Hick’s idea is religious pluralism, which is a distortion of the truth. And Hick’s argument shows itself to be a distortion because it is a self-refuting and circular argument. If God is so large and so unknowable through one single religion (as Hick says) how did one man, John Hick, on his own, ascertain that God is large and unknowable? How did he come to know the “largeness” of the “unknowable God”? To come to know this, Hick would have to be in a position that transcends the finitude he ascribes to everyone else feeling the elephant. He would have to be higher than everyone else. In fact, Hick would have to be in the position of God to make such a broad, sweeping, eagle-eye assessment. But Hick did not transcend the finitude of any other religious figure, neither did he prove to be in the position of God. He proved he was finite, and human, when he died in 2012. Similar claims that “all gods are one”, or that “all paths lead to heaven,” are also self-refuting and circular, because they are all posited by human beings like John Hick, who live and die.

Help from Hick
What John Hick’s analogy does help us with however, is knowing how other religions think of the Man in the position to make an all-encompassing assessment of God and religion: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For every religion has a view of Jesus, or of some part of Him at least, whether true or false. Like Hick’s Elephant, the religions of the world want a piece or part of Jesus in their religious collection. They all claim to have some knowledge about this man, Jesus. Here are a few examples.

Hinduism says Jesus is a ‘good man’, ‘teacher’, even an ‘avatar’ of Vishnu.1 Buddhism calls Jesus a ‘bodhisattva’,2 a figure of great compassion who stepped out of nirvana to enlighten humans. According to the Qur’an, Jesus was a prophet, just like Muhammad. However, the Qur’an also says, consistent with the Bible, that Jesus was born of a virgin, worked miracles, and was called “the word of God”. Inconsistent with the Bible, the Qur’an says that He was carried to heaven, never tasted death, He was not divine, and He will return before the Final Judgment to tell everyone that Islam is the truth.3

So many religions feel (or claim to feel) just a piece of Jesus, as if He were Hick’s elephant. Now, let’s face it. Jesus, because of who He was, is, and always will be, makes every religion’s resumé look good in the market place of ideas. It’s true. He was altogether holy, pure, powerful, loving, truthful, generous and radical. Who wouldn’t want to have Him on their team for a rainy day in the pantheon of gods? But you absolutely cannot have Jesus piecemeal. You can either have all of Him or none of Him.

All of Jesus
In speaking to His disciple Thomas, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, Jesus says, “Thomas, not all ways lead to this home, but only one way. I myself am that way. To know me, is to know the way.” When a sailor is lost at sea and sights the North Star, now he knows which way to navigate. And there is only one immoveable North Star in the sky. Notice that Jesus says He is the way home, to God. Jesus speaks of Himself in absolute and exclusive terms using the definite article—the way, the truth, and the life. There isn’t a plethora of options here that we are used to in this Age of Options.

Now detractors of Christianity will say because of this and similar teachings of Christ, “Christianity is too narrow and exclusivist.” Yes, Christianity is indeed exclusive, as are all other worldviews and religions. But here is the great paradox of Christian exclusivity. It is an exclusivity that strives to include. Woven into the very fabric of the Christian faith is an effort to invite people to Jesus so He may include them and give them life. Other religious figures of the world never invite people to an eternal home they have gone to prepare. They may invite you to follow them, but never invite you to an eternal home, and never give the assurance of eternal life after death. They certainly never claim to be the only way to God. Only Jesus does all of the above.

Since Jesus speaks absolutely and exclusively—being Lord and God—He cannot be just another god tacked on to the list, or just another way, or just one part of the elephant. No, if Jesus is the elephant in Hick’s analogy (for the sake of the analogy) He does not want one group or person to feel the trunk, the other to feel the ears, and the other to feel the tail. Jesus wants people to believe in Him so that we may have all of Him, and He may have all of us. That’s the offer God gives you: the privilege of knowing the infinite and unknowable God through a relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ.

© Kenny Damara, 2017

1 Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, A Passionate Conviction, B&H Publishing, 2007
2 Dean Halverson, Gen. Ed., The Illustrated Guide to World Religions, Angus Hudson Ltd., 2003

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