By Brendan Hurley

The Elephant in the Room


Much of our society is built around the idea that we should be tolerant, yet when people say that we should be tolerant it can get confusing.

The reason for this is that “tolerance”, like all words, has changed its meaning over time.

When I was younger people spoke of tolerance as “respectfully putting up with someone who you disagree with.”

Today tolerance is synonymous with acceptance. Today if I don’t accept what someone else believes (especially about God) as correct, I am intolerant. And what’s so wrong with that? Well the elephant in the room, that no one wants to talk about, is how intolerant tolerance actually is.

The most common story people use to describe modern tolerance is the blind men and the elephant.

Have you heard the story? There are some blind men who say to their carer “we don’t know what an elephant is, we have never seen one! Can you take us to one?” So the carer takes them to an elephant.

The first blind man grabs the elephant’s ear and says, “I get it now, an elephant is like a fan”

The second blind man pulls the elephant’s tail and says, “Oh that’s what an elephant is like, it’s like a rope.”

The third blind man hugs the elephant’s leg and says, “That’s what an elephant is, it’s like a tree trunk.”

And as all this is happening you can’t help thinking “this is a tame elephant!” But the moral of the story is that just like there are many different parts of an elephant, all religions are different ways

to the same God. What we need to do is just accept everyone is right and not be so arrogant.

But the elephant in the room is that today’s tolerance isn’t as humble or accepting as it appears. Here are the reasons why:

1. It is condescending to other beliefs

Who is the only one in the story (other than the carer) who can see? It is the guy telling the story. Everyone else (who believes there is only one way to God) is labelled as blind. Modern tolerance says we still accept everyone, on the condition they agree with us. Otherwise we will label them as blind, ignorant, arrogant or bigoted. That sounds more like assimilation then tolerance if you ask me. Can’t we even question the validity of having tolerance as our highest value? To say that everyone who disagrees with me is blind; doesn’t that strike anyone else as at least a little arrogant?

2. It is condescending to our self-expression

The second difficulty with this story is that it assumes all religions are pretty much the same. Yet many religions have different and even contradictory claims to each other.

Islam believes that Jesus is not God. The Quran teaches that Jesus was a prophet and that he didn’t die on the cross. Christians believe Jesus is God and the Bible teaches that Jesus did die on a cross to bring about God’s forgiveness for sinners. Although Buddhism is a non-theistic religion (Buddhists don’t believe in a God) many Buddhists focus on Jesus teachings more than his death.

To say that all these contradictory beliefs are part of the same God is bizarre, because Jesus died or he didn’t, he is God or he is not. We can’t all be right. And to say that we are all correct actually limits the freedom and self-expression of different beliefs and treats them as if they didn’t each have individual, valuable thoughts to offer.

3. It is condescending to God

The third problem with this story about the blind men and the elephant is that it equates God to being as capable of revealing Himself as the elephant. If God hasn’t given us a clear way to know him He is either cruel or a fool.

If God refuses to provide a way for us to know Him clearly He is cruel. That sort of God is withholding Himself from us. To say ‘come to me any way you want’ has caused all sorts of conflict and pain. A God who hides Himself like that, is not loving (though I believe God has made Himself known in Jesus, the problem being not that He has revealed himself but that we won’t listen).

The other option is maybe God is incompetent. Maybe He is a fool. Maybe God just isn’t capable of making Himself clear. But to hold to modern tolerance you have to believe in a God like that, which actually makes God sound horrible, not wonderful.

There are some real problems with modern tolerance. Maybe it isn’t all it is cracked up to be. I am not saying it hasn’t done any good at all, but I believe we have given it too high a ranking in our values. Even worse it has made it impolite to critic anyone else, it has stopped us learning and listening.

That for me is devastating as I believe Jesus has something awesome to offer people. But my gut feeling is that we won’t really explore the truth or hear Jesus (who says He is The Truth, the Life and The Way to God, see John chapter 14 and verse 6) until we deal with the elephant in the room.

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