An elephant figures in one of Unitarian Universalism’s most sacred stories, a story that guided us when we needed some wisdom very badly. But has the story worn well over decades? What have we learned since then? (And no, this is not a sermon about the Republican Party?)
Text: The Blind Men and the Elephant. From Long Ago and Many Lands, Sophia Lyon Fahs,1948
The Elephant in the Room
I first encountered the story of the people who are blind and the elephant as a child. The book of stories by Sophia Lyon Fahs, “From Long Ago and Many Lands” was in my home as it was in many Unitarian homes.
Sophia Lyon Fahs was a ground-breaking religious educator who re-shaped Unitarian children’s RE, making it age-appropriate and aimed at stirring up children’s wonder.
Of course, the story is not about blindness, nor about elephants. It is about partial knowledge, and how we are blinded, so to speak, by the limits of our experience.
It’s a story that was perfect for Unitarianism in the 1950’s. It explained ourselves to ourselves, so you can read as foundational story.
Why do I say that?
I talked last week about the public campaign to promote Christianity and public piety throughout the country in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The editing of the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase “under God” and the engraving of “In God We Trust” on our coins and paper money. America was one nation under God, as opposed to the godless Russian Communists.
That very public pressure toward belief and Christianity was the environment in which Unitarians lived. Unitarian and Universalist churches and fellowships became havens from that public religious pressure. And, the public ministry of the Unitarians and Universalists, in that era, was mostly about defending the separation of church and state. (For example, my father, while he was minister here at Westminster, white it was still on Adelaide Avenue, was involved in a public campaign opposing a plan to release public school students one afternoon a week from school to attend religious education classes at their church. Defending the separation of Church and State.)
But Unitarians were themselves divided, between the theists and the humanists, a bitter battle between ministers, between laypeople and between congregations and their ministers. (This division was less pronounced among the Universalists, but still present.)
Our religious tradition was obviously Christian, although it had become increasingly unorthodox over the years. And Religious Humanism had been a growing influence in Unitarian theology throughout the 20th Century. By the mid-century, it was dominant in many congregations, especially outside of New England.
So the question that confronted many Unitarian and Universalist congregations was “Is God real?” “When we gather on Sunday morning, are we worshipping God?”
You have to understand, and it is hard to remember this now, that theology, as a discipline, had always understood itself as describing reality. In the mid-century mind, the question of whether God was real was like the question “Is water made of hydrogen and Oxygen?” Theological realism was the premise of theological thought — and hence the premise of worship and liturgy. The reality of God was either a fact, or it was a fairy tale.
This difference of opinion was very disruptive and challenging in many UU congregations. Congregations split; ministers lost their pulpits. There are still beautiful works of art, paintings, murals, stained glass windows, covered up in church sanctuaries. Every word of the order of service was scrutinized for any sign or signal or reference to a supreme being.
It was during this era, that the joke started going around that the reason why Unitarians sung so poorly is that they were all reading ahead to make sure that they agreed with the words to come.
In the midst of that era, 1949, Sophia Lyon Fahs published From Long Ago and Many Lands, including the story that went by the name then of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
The story of the people who were blind and the elephants spoke right into that conflict within Unitarianism.
The story teaches that every one of us, the humanist, the theist, Billy Graham, and that one Unitarian family in the neighborhood had only partial knowledge about the elephant in the room: was God real and what happens after we die.
If there is any story that describes how Unitarianism in the 20th century and how contemporary UUism understands itself, how it understands religious truth, how it understands the spiritual quest, it would be this story of the people who are blind and the elephant.
The story tells about our approach to religious truth, an approach you could call pluralistic agnosticism. When it comes to God, nobody really knows, but everybody knows some of the truth. I am not saying that Sophia Lyon Fahs formulated that theological insight, but I am saying that this story encapsulates that understanding. And that insight was what allowed Unitarian Universalism to finally put down the humanist-theist dispute. Although, to be honest, that dispute can still embroil a congregation, or a ministry, to this day.
Are you with me on that? Pluralistic Agnosticism.
So, let’s pick at the story a little bit.
One of the assumptions of the story is this: Everybody, except the people who are blind, knows what the elephant is like. Even I, a boy of seven when I first heard this story, I had been to the zoo and I knew what the blind people in the story didn’t seem to know.
Let’s take the situation of the blind people seriously for a minute. What if, in reality, we are, in fact, all blind and trying to figure out something large, and mysterious, and potentially dangerous, and as strong as a wall and sharp as the point of a plow? What if there is no king, no wise teacher, and even no seven year old boy who has been to the zoo?
What if it is just us? And what if our survival depends on learning how to live with an elephant.
What we would have to do?
Well, we would have to stop quarreling and begin to listen to each other. Our very survival would depend on it. We would have to acknowledge that all of us are partially right — add together our knowledge — your little insight and my partial observation and together build a common understanding of this thing we call the elephant in the room.
None of us know the whole truth, but together, perhaps, we can figure out enough to survive.
We would need to agree to respect each other opinions and to listen to each other. We would have to make an agreement! Maybe we could call it, what? a covenant.
So let’s take this in order.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Unitarians and the later Unitarian Universalists were engaged in a humanist-theist conflict. That did not tear us apart because a new understanding of how to be together arose, a new understanding that the story of the blind men and the elephant exemplified. I think Fahs was speaking directly to the Unitarian congregations when she included that story in the book.
And then, what emerged, (actually re-emerged) was the old Puritan notion of the covenant, which has become for many UU’s our highest value. Instead of fighting over the existence of God, we would all give our highest loyalty to the agreement that we have to be together, that we recognize that our knowledge is partial. Now covenant had been around as part of our understanding of the church for centuries — but it became really important at this point. We started saying: “we are not a creedal church, but a covenantal church”. Think about the difference between saying “We are church where you can believe what you want” and “we are church that is bound together by our covenant, which includes respecting each other’s freedom of religious opinion.”
Concern for covenant is a necessary part of understanding ourselves a group of partially sighted people, armed with partial knowledge, sharing our insights in a warm and supportive atmosphere.
Once there is no wise King, no objective observer who knows the truth and can show everyone that their knowledge is not complete, covenant among the seekers becomes necessary.
But let’s push the story a little further. What happens next? What is the next stage of the story?
Let us imagine that we are that group of blind people trying to figure out the elephant. And we know that we have to share our knowledge, and we know that we have to listen to each other. And we have made that agreement. We want to work together. We even have a covenant to respect each other.
And say that, as the story says, there are seven of us.
But two of us, it turns out that two are men and 5 are women. And the men are the kinds of men who are used to being deferred to. They talk loudly, they interrupt, they always have the last word. You know that guy. And the women are those more prone to defer than not. Have you ever been in that meeting?
I ask you: in that situation, is it likely that the elephant we describe together will be an accurate and truthful picture? No, it will be a distorted understanding because the dominant men’s perceptions will be treated as more important.
You know that’s going to happen, because we have seen it happen so many times in our real lives.
We know that some people are at the head of the table in the center of the room, and others at the margins who can’t get in a word edgewise, and some others are just trying to get in the room at all. Some people are talked about, but never get a chance to speak for themselves.
It’s not even a conscious process most of the time.
And we know how hard it is to not have it work that way, even if the group does not want to act that way. We know that from our own experience at trying to bring women’s leadership front and center in our congregations.
The social dominance of some men is just part of the social, cultural, political and psychological system that rules our world. The ways that some are centered and others are marginalized. Some are included and others excluded. The systems of privilege and oppression. Long ago, the Bible called these the “powers and principalities of this world.”
Our story in the 21st century, is that we have been learning about what the Bible called the Powers and Principalities, which we now call the systems of oppression.
So when you tell the story of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, and we are all have to tell that story every time we tell a friend or co-worker where we go to church — you can’t just say that we are a church held together not be a creed, but by a covenant, an agreement to mutual respect and equality.
And you can’t just say that we have a wonderful utopian vision of a world made fair and all her people one, a worldwide covenant of respect, that we call the Beloved Community.
You have to go on and say that we have learned that building a Beloved Community, a world that works according to our seven Principles, is hard, because all the systems of oppression, all the ingrained habits of domination and subordination, all stand in the way.
And they, the powers and principalities of this world, are out there, and in here, and especially in here.
We didn’t just read this in a book, but, if we think about it, we have learned it the hard way, through experience.
This knowledge is dangerous, because it is radicalizing. We are being radicalized, by what we are learning.
This radicalization makes us strangers to our own land, pilgrims on an unknown journey, subversive to the status-quo, and friend to everyone from the trans people being thrown out of our armed forces to the black people protesting the police shooting of Stephan Carter in Sacramento.
This radicalization makes us a part of a large scale social movement(s) against many forms of systemic oppression.
Oh, to be alive in a time such as this is a blessing. It is times like this, times that are scary, and when things seem to be spinning out of control, that ordinary people can push the world toward change. What we do everyday, how we choose to participate, where we put our time, and where contribute our money, and to what do we pay attention, how much hope we will muster and whether we give in to cynicism and despair — at such a time as this, we make the world anew and make a new tomorrow.