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November 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-7

   

Religious Pluralism: John Hick and the Elephant With Every Other Name

   

Introduction

   

 

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind),
That each by observation might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant, and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
“God bless me! But the Elephant is very like a wall!”
The second, feeling of the tusk, cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal, and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; deny the fact who can
This marvel of an elephant is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

-John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

 

This poem, written to illustrate what happens when six blind men try to describe the elephant that none of them have seen, has been used to describe religious pluralism. John Hick sets forth an explanation of religious pluralism in which he defends the claim that all religions have different ways of describing the same reality.

 

Religious pluralism is actually understood in at least two major ways. Sometimes the words are taken to refer to the fact that there are a plurality of religions in a society. This is unproblematic and everyone recognizes that this is the case. However, according to Hick’s thesis, religious pluralism’s real significance is that all religions are simply different perspectives of the same reality. This second explanation is much more controversial and, although popular, has some significant problems.

 

In the first section of this paper John Hick’s position about religious pluralism is explained. Section two is a critique of Hick’s position and considers some responses Hick may have. In the third, it is my contention that all should be able to see that Hick is really the prodigal “blind man.”

 

   

 

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