The elephant and the blind men: world views in conflict


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The gods of this world are on the move
God is the Creator/Redeemer, the beginning and goal of the scriptures and ultimately of all reality. Both creation and eschatology have disappeared in the postmodern arena. The incarnation is the middle between creation and eschatological goal. The four things that separate Christianity from all the religious belief systems in the world are: (1) Creation, (2) Incarnation, (3) Crucifixion, and (4) Resurrection. “No other name” is offensive to all Postmoderns. It is judged to be both coercive and manipulative. (1) In the 17th century it was truth; (2) in the 18th century it was nature; (3) in the 19th century it was history; (4) in the 20th century it was language, and (5) in the 21st century it is tolerance, pluralism, and relativism.

Luke T. Johnson expresses our Postmodern context with respect to both Creator and Lord of all reality.

Robert Funk is nothing if not candid about the “problem” that Jesus poses for those whose belief in creation or eschatology has disappeared: ‘To put the matter bluntly, we are having as much trouble with the middle, the Messiah, as we are with the terminal points. What we need is a new fiction that takes as its starting point the central event of the Judaeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings.’ (Luke T. Johnson, The Real Jesus (Harper, 1996)

In John G. Saxe’s well-known poem, “The Blind Men and The Elephant,” the six blind men of Indostan all wanted to learn what an elephant was like. Each approached the beast from a different direction; each explored part of the elephant—its side, its tusk, its trunk, its leg, its ear and its tail. Relating their experiences, the six compared the elephant to a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope.
And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeded still and strong

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!

The poem was written in the context of the radical philosophical, scientific/technological revolution that only nouns (name of particulars) exist, i.e., the dubious position of “Nominalism” in British intellectual maze. This represents the culmination of “radical empiricism.
Most Americans reject the notion of absolute truth; one-third of the people do not believe in the God described in the Bible, but have other notions of who (or what) God is or means; most adults do not believe that Satan is a real being; most people believe that it does not mater what god you pray to because every deity is ultimately the same deity; nearly two out of three adults contend that the choice of one religious faith over another is irrelevant because all faiths teach the same basic lessons about life; almost half of the public believe that Jesus made mistakes while He was on earth. (George Barna, Absolute Confusion (Regal Books, 1993, p. 15).

Here we note the atmosphere of resurgent, universalistic “Openness Theology” and postmodern description of Tolerance/Diversity as the only possible approach to the Global Village (see especially Veli-Karkkainess, An Introduction the Theology of Religions (InterVarsity Press, 2004); and my essays “From Syncretism to Relativism to Pluralism”; “The Quest for Truth in Postmodern Interreligious Pluralism”; “The Demise of Truth in Postmodern Interreligious Pluralism (comparison/critique of the concepts of “Truth” in non-Christian religions” (web site:

Dr. Lutzer said—“I attended the Parliament because I wanted to learn more about the religions of the world, to have a better grasp of the complexity we face in America today. Second, I wanted to meet as many people as possible, to compare their beliefs with those of Christ. Third, I wanted to look through the window of prophecy to see the formation of a worldwide religious system which, in all probability, will be the basis of the Antichrist’s brief rule on planet earth.” (Erwin Lutzer, Christ Among Other Gods (Moody, 1994).
The premises that were either directly stated or implied in every session have already taken root in our culture. Listen to our talk shows, read the newspapers, see the media of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, or attend the local school board meeting and you will find these views widely accepted and seldom challenged.
Scholars of world religions state the following premises: The doctrines of the different faiths should not be held as truths but as shells that contain kernels that are found in all religions. Since the claim for truth is a stumbling block to unity, it is best to speak of religious traditions rather than religious truths.
No religion should be thought of as superior to another. Indeed this belief in superiority is the major roadblock to religious unity. At the Parliament, seminars were held to overcome “this crucial obstacle.”
We can retain our own particular religion but must move beyond it to levels of experience. As we move away from religion to this true spirituality, we are united.

Proselytizing (Christians call it evangelism) is bigotry, pure and simple. The idea of winning converts is based on the antiquated notion that one religion has more to offer than another. Our task is to help others discover the hidden inner meaning of their religions, rather than convert them to our own.

At the Parliament, the delegates were often led to shout, “I AM!” as an affirmation of their own godhood. People who still believed in prayer were told that they should pray to their own “god of choice.” We were told that the better we understand ourselves and our global village, the more readily we will be mature enough to realize that no religion has a right to exclusivity. Some gods may work best for you; whereas the rich traditions of the goddesses are more appealing to your friends. (E. Lutzer, notes from “Foundation for Unity,” pp. 14,15)

If this represents widespread Postmodern attitudes, the challenges of the Church’s mission in the 21st century are enormous. Now we turn to a brief journey into the Postmodern maze. We are once more indebted to James Sire in his recent work, Naming the Elephant: World Views in Conflict (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

The Camel, the Kangaroo and the Elephant

Outline chapter 1, pp. 16-22

All world views possess at least two characteristics: (1) Their presuppositional character, and (2) their possible answers to the most fundamental questions we ask. (1) What is the origin of the universe? Is it God’s creation or does atomistic movement of eternal matter incremental change the structuring of reality? (2) What is the origin, nature and destiny of “man”? (3) Where are we going after death? (4) Can naturalistic/materialistic evolution “explain” the origins of the “mind,” “consciousness” “freedom,” responsibility, etc. (e.g. the problems of the mind). Moving from describing what is “to ought,” i.e., the “naturalistic fallacy.” (see Sire’s chart of world view analysis and the study outline of Hesselgrave’s work, Communicating Christ Cross Culturally (on Strauss web site)

1. Cognitive Processes – Ways of Thinking

2. Linguistic Forms – Ways of Expressing Ideas

3. Behavioral Patterns – Ways of Acting

4. Social Structures – Ways of Channeling the Message

5. Motivational Sources – Ways of Deciding, i.e., moving to action
In Sire’s earlier work, The Universe Next Door (new edition, 1999 includes a chapter on Postmodernism), he identified seven basic worldviews and explained what they were.
I began with Christian theism as it has been largely embodied from the 17th century to the present. Then I tried to show how deism arose as an erosion of certain key concepts of theism. Deism, as I see it, is not so much a new worldview as what is left of theism when the personality of God is abandoned. Naturalism, then, is a further erosion of deism, retaining its optimism with regard to the autonomy of human reason. Nihilism is what is left of naturalism when it is realized that human reason, if autonomous, does not have the power to explain nearly so much as was first thought.
Existentialism—both atheistic and theistic—attempts to “go beyond nihilism,” affirming the intrinsic power of the individual self to will into being its own conception of the good, the true and the beautiful or to affirm by faith what cannot be proved by reason. Eastern pantheistic monism provides for the West a fresh start that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of Western thought. New Age thought then combines Western existentialism’s exaltation of the self with the Eastern notion of the deity of all things.

This is where the first edition of The Universe Next Door ended. The second edition, in 1988, updated the book. By 1997 it was obvious that a new twist in naturalism was taking place, and so I added a chapter on the amorphous cultural phenomenon called Postmodernism. Postmodernism has taken a sociological and psychological twist to deny, on the one hand, the human ability to actually know reality in its essence and, on the other hand, to affirm the adequacy of human communities to construct reality by their language. One may not be able to know anything, but one can get along with this knowledge simply by constructing a language that works to get what one wants. Pragmatic knowledge is all one can have and all one needs. (James Sire, Naming the Elephant, pgs. 11, 12.)

Sire clearly expounds two crucial factors in the development of Postmodernism: (1) It takes a sociological and psychological foundation to deny the human ability to actually know reality in its essence, and on the other hand, to affirm the adequacy of human communities to “construct reality” by their language. (See my essay, “Postmodern Context of Pluralistic Pragmatism” and “The Social Construction of Reality.”)
Modernism asserted the privileged position of autonomous reason, thus creating a bias against other cultures; therefore depriving them of “power” or “voice” in the Postmodern world of the 21st century. Reason has been replaced by story, feeling, experience and intuition according to Postmodernism, Meganarratives, i.e., world views are used to legitimize particular political structures, cultural preferences, and ways of life. According to Postmodern all belief systems are not true in any absolute sense, they are constructed by human cultures. There is “no” difference between “reality” and “virtual reality.” In fact, virtual reality is reality. This is, of course, radical relativism (see my bibliography on Relativism on web site). The loss of Critical Realism leads to a blurring of nonfiction and fiction, reality and fantasy, actual people and media generated images, between signs, i.e., symbols and the reality they symbolize. Therefore, there can be no distinction between an event a’ la’ news reports about the disaster (e.g. Iraq, hurricanes) and the real disaster. There is no longer any relationship between them and the truth. Thus the sing becomes the only reality we ever know what we see is what it is!
Worldview: Definitions from Dilthey to Naugle

Chapter 2, pp. 23-50

Metanarrative, i.e., worldview, has a long history, long before the postmodern preoccupation with the concept. Early in the 20th century the works of James Orr, Abraham Kuyper, Gordon Clark, Francis Schaffer manifested serious academic concern for the issue. Through the works of James Sire there was a resurgence of concern for the concept. Deep in the last two decades of the 20th century the works of Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a Worldview (1983) restored concern in the academic area. In 1984 Brian Walsh and J.R. Middleton wrote the Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview. In 1989 the concept was analyzed in Stained Glass: World View and Social Science, edited by P.A. Marshall, Sanders Griffoen and R. Mouw; they produced an excellent series of essays which engaged a serious academic criticism of the concept. In 2002, David Naugle examined in detail the history of the idea of world view thinking in World View: A History of a Concept which summarized the literature from Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Dilthey, His work has provided a “historical contextualization” of the world view concept from the 18th to the 21st century.

The biblical world view fuses the objective referent and its deeply subjective character. Naugle fuses the horizons of reason and experience: “A World View is a semiotic system of narrative signs that has a significant influence on the fundamental human activities of reasoning, interpreting and knowing.” (Naugle, p. 253) The key to Naugle’s work is that God has empowered human beings with the ability to grasp the meaning of “The entire universe should be conceived panthemiotically and interpreted as the sign of God and His glory and power. . . . The totality of creation is divine iconography. . .the universe is drenched with sacred signs.” (Naugle, p. 293)

The essence of Naugle’s contribution to the concept of Christian world view seeks to displace his commitment to the notion that ontology is prior to both epistemology and hermeneutics (my response centers on every non Christian world view has an “ontological” presupposition, not derived from either rational consideration or empirical data contribution, but all such world views must logically contain the capacity to the rational organizing of every dimension of reality, e.g., Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. but cannot positively/constructively engage the universe, i.e., the totality of “all reality.” Their intrinsic pantheism/Hegelianism, is incapable of engaging the nature of ultimate reality which is the physical and spiritual dimension of the “universe.”
In Naugle’s preface he presents his world view as a semiotic system.

Thus, against the background of the previous chapter with its affirmation of an objective reality rooted in God, the central significance of the human heart, the dynamics of sin and spiritual warfare, and the hope of Christian grace and redemption we undertake these philosophical reflection.”

Seven Basic Questions
1. What is prime reality—the really real? To this we might answer God, or the gods, or the material cosmos.
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? Here our answers point to whether we see the word as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit, or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from.
3. What is a human being? To this we might answer a highly complex machine, a sleeping god, a person made in the image of God, a “naked ape.”

4. What happens to persons at death? Here we might reply personal extinction, or transformation to a higher state, or reincarnation, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and rationality developed under the contingencies of survival in a long process of evolution.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Again, perhaps we are made in the image of a God whose character is good; or right and wrong are determined by human choice alone or what feels good; or the notions simply developed under an impetus toward cultural or physical survival.
7. What is the meaning of human history? To this we might answer, to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.
See the following essays on the Strauss web site: : “Eastern Antecedents to the Development of Western Science;” “Idolatrous Absolutes: Man’s Search for Ultimates;” “The Race Toward Immanence: The Demise of Transcendence—Post Modern Rejection of True Truth and Objectivity;” “Whatever Happened to True Truth?” “The Creation/Evolution Controversy;” “From Dilthey to Darwin to Dewey;” “Prophets of Cultural Relativism;” “The Shift from Relativism to Multiculturalism;” “The Greatest Challenge/Opportunity for Christian Education.”
James D. Strauss

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