Discovering the elephant.

Most people have heard the proverbial story about a group of blind men, who had never seen an elephant before, trying to discover what it is like. One would touch its leg and assert that the elephant is like a tree trunk. Other would touch its body and argue that the elephant is like a wall, third would touch its tail, etc., and each of them would get a very different idea about the elephant.

Too many especially in our post-modern age have gotten the teaching of this story wrong, assuming the depressing view that it shows our inability to know the truth, to know what the elephant is like, or even going as far as asserting that there is no elephant, but only our perception of it.

What can we learn from the story, and how is that significant practically? This story helps to illustrate three different ways, or three approaches we tend to use as we explore this world.

Paul Hiebert in his concise and very rich book “The Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts” call them [1] positivisms, [2] instrumentalism/idealism and finally – [3] critical realism. (By the way, it is rather helpful a book.)

First, positivism. It suffers from arrogance. What is it? If you were one of the blind men who touched the elephant and you were categorical in your assertions that your experience fully described what the elephant was like, you would be a positivist. (Far too positive about your abilities.) This approach narrows your ability to perceive the rich diversity of surrounding reality.

Second, instrumentalism/idealism. It suffers from relativism. What is it? It is as if all the blind men agreed that there is no elephant, just their perceptions of it. That there is no such a thing as the truth, only our perspectives. Depressing… Again, it hinders our ability to comprehend and explore the versatile nature of reality.

Third, critical realism. The name tells the story. This approach is healthy critical in assessing our own abilities to know the truth, but at the same time it recognizes that there is the elephant and that we can learn a lot about it if we keep going. This approach is humble about our abilities, and at the same time it is optimistic and adventurous encouraging us to keep exploring.

Okay, how could this help anyone practically?

We all have our elephants, that is, situations and challenges which we face from time to time and where we are not sure what to think about them and how to navigate through them. You know how stressful it can be. That’s why it is helpful to know how to look at such situations.

What is your elephant? What is the situation in your life you are trying to understand, or to sort out? Is that a challenge in your business? Maybe problems with people who you work with, or are entrusted to lead? Maybe your family life?

Whatever it is, take courage from this story. Don’t be arrogant assuming you know everything. It’s not true. Don’t be indifferent and depressed thinking that nothing can be known for sure. It’s not true either. Be critical realist. Be humble and optimistic.

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Pro 11:2)

Remember, – the elephant is real. You may not have discovered it fully yet, but it is there. You may not know all the answers right now. But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Keep looking, keep learning, discover different perspectives, see the world through the eyes of other people and the picture you gather will become richer and fuller and closer to reality.

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