There is no elephant in the room and that is “the elephant in the room”—offering people a “sundae service” they can genuinely swallow


The Blind Men & the Elephant—A Hindoo Fable by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

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 ‘t is 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 his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is 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!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!


There is no elephant in the room and that is “the elephant in the room”—offering people a “sundae service” they can genuinely swallow

It is conceivable that, for some unspecified reason, half-a-dozen of us could find ourselves evenly distributed in a completely darkened room with our hands touching something in front of us that was — although we would not know this at the outset — an elephant. Once each of us had carefully felt as much of the thing as we were able to touch from where we stood, and had then communicated our findings to each other, it would be possible for us together to build up a picture of an elephant. But we could only reach this conclusion because a) we all know that elephants exist and what they look and feel like and, b) there was an actual elephant in the room with us.

Now, the ancient Indian tale of the “Blind Men and the Elephant”, the earliest versions of which are found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts but which I first heard as a child in the once-famous version by John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887), has been used as a teaching aid many times and in a variety of contexts. But the use with which I’m most familiar is that found in the modern interfaith setting to help some people make a claim about why each religion should be viewed as being equally valid. The argument is that because they are all engaged in exploring a limited aspect of a much bigger, single, tangible, really-real religious reality — often, but not always, given the name God — although they are all individually truly exploring the One God, alone no one single religion can claim to have the whole truth about this same God.

Although I applaud the irenic spirit behind the claim I hope, however,  you can see that, in truth, this kind of religious activity is really very different from feeling an actual elephant in the room because when it comes to God a) we have no idea whether God exists and, if so, what kind of thing that God is and/or looks or feels like and b) we have no way of knowing in any a priori fashion this same something is, in fact, in the “room” of the world with us and capable of being touched, explored and known.

However, despite this, all is not necessarily lost in the search for something that might genuinely lie at the “centre” of the “room” of the world even though what we within our own complex, free-thinking and free-religious tradition seem accidentally to have stumbled upon is unlikely to prove to very congenial to most extant religious traditions. So let me outline what it is I think we have accidentally stumbled upon.

Our first communities began to form in the mid sixteenth-century in Hungary and Poland who were deeply committed to a belief in the existence of the elephant in the room in the form of belief in some kind of One True God who was best revealed by, in and through, the person of the human Jesus as transmitted by the biblical texts.

However, very quickly, this strong dogmatic assertion ran into trouble because it challenged both the Protestant and Catholic Trinitarian orthodoxies of the day and quickly led to our communities being seriously persecuted, even unto exile and death. The experience forced our forbears to begin to promote the idea of religious toleration and the accompanying thought that “we need not think alike to love alike” at least as strongly as their doctrine of the existence of the elephant in the room in the form of a One True God.

This is a key moment in our history because the moment you have realised that people can act together for the common good without necessarily centring on a single description of elephant in the room, namely, the same God, the idea of in what consists the central unifying “thing” has to begin to change because you are admitting this “thing” really does feel different to different people and it is likely to be a very different “thing” from even what you feel it to be.

In those nascent years of religious toleration the value of the elephant in the room story (or at least a more abstract theological version of the same idea) can now be seen, for it allows a person to keep alive the idea that, although we all feel it and speak about it in different ways, there is (or at least still can be) in fact, one, single “putative” central unifying “thing” we are all able to touch.

Naturally, this meant we also engaged in attempts gently to persuade other religions that what was true for us was true for them too. It was nothing less than a noble call to interfaith inquiry and this, more or less, expresses what we thought from between, perhaps, the last quarter of the nineteenth-century until at least the mid-1930s. An important point to notice here is that our promotion of toleration and dialogue was rapidly becoming more important to us than our own community’s historic and distinctive Unitarian beliefs. (See, for instance, how our own first international Unitarian body, the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers founded in 1900 eventually became an interfaith body called the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF)This required us to form a new international body for ourselves called the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) in 1995.)

But this process wasn’t only occurring in our encounters/conversations with other religious communities and traditions, it was also occurring internally within our own movement as we began to apply the metaphor of elephant in the room to ourselves as individuals. By the mid-twentieth century we realised that each of us are, alone, only capable of touching a bit of that putative elephant and not the whole creature. But, please be aware, when this inward process first began there was still a strong sense among (most of) us that there was still an elephant in the room to discover.

Now let’s spin forward now into the late-twentieth century and on into our own time. Today, were you able to gather all Unitarians together in one room (something that, alas, is becoming easier to do by the year) you’d find in use among us pantheist, polytheist, metaphorical, poetic, humanist, atheist, naturalist, materialist and dozens and dozens of other conclusions about in what might consist reality and of how we are (or should be) using (or not using) the word God. Today, were you to turn out the lights in the same room and set us off on the task of feeling the putative elephant in the room and shouting across the room to each other our findings, what do you think we would find? Well, clearly not an elephant nor, indeed, any other single thing. Some, we know, would still find a bit of an elephant but others would find different shaped bits of other things, and still others would find no thing at all.

This seemingly vexatious state of affairs can (and often has) made us wonder whether we have any more one ultimate thing in common with each other that could let us claim we remain a meaningfully coherent religious tradition at all. And that seems justified because at our collective heart there really does seem no longer to be anything traditionally theologically unifying — no single elephant in the form of a single conception of “God” or reality has been found. Consequently, we have often been the butt of jokes about this and, although I’m sure most of you will know the well-known and very witty example of this found in a splendid episode (S. 12 Ep. 19) of the cartoon series the Simpsons, it bears repeating here.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church-related event offering people “a sundae service you can swallow” at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately asks, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

So is there nothing at our centre — is our bowl really empty?

The answer is, I think, both yes and no. It’s an answer which, I’m sure, will frustrate many — perhaps even some people here today — but I think it is a meaningful and coherent (enough) answer and one based upon the real evidence provided not only by the four centuries of our own communities’ religious experiments (which mirrors the experiment of secularisation more generally) but also the evidence provided by the experiments of the modern natural sciences.

It should be clear that the evidence from our own religious tradition’s experimentation suggest that there is no elephant at the centre of the room. Our life together has revealed, or so it seems to me, the truth of the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s wider claim that, despite what everyone thought secularisation, at least in Europe, paradoxically made it possible for a revitalisation of religion. Once religion became decoupled from the state and faith was increasingly able to decouple itself from formal religious institutions, religion inevitably became a much more fluid and flexible phenomenon and was able to find new ways to thrive in what may be called “the marketplace of modernity”. Beck himself emphasised two processes allied to secularisation: “individualisation and cosmopolitanisation. In the former, individuals become free to adapt and choose their religious pathways and find a ‘God of one’s own’. In the latter, religion becomes decoupled from territories and nations and enmeshes itself within a pluralistic world.”

The evidence provided by the modern natural sciences can be summed up in a single sentence uttered by the great twentieth-century physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) who was among the first to realise we can no longer believe, even as did the later Einstein, “that we really can — with much effort — reach a description of reality as it really is, quite independent of ourselves“ (source: Bernard D’Espagnat). Since Heisenberg’s day we have only continued to deepen our understanding about our total enfoldedness in the world. We are beginning to realise reality is made up of complex fluxes, flows and fields of matter/energy and we, of course, are also made of the same fluxes and flows of matter/energy. As the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty beautifully put it, we are discovering that the hands with which we feel the world are also always-already being touched back by what they touch (cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Nail: Lucretius 1. p 88).

In short, our experiments have helped us begin to feel that there is no longer any realistic probability that there could exist some separate ultimate thing-in-itself out there that can be touched, described and named which could serve as religion’s (or a world’s) single centre. As Emanuele Coccia notes (to whose work I have introduced you to over the last two weeks HERE and HERE) we’re beginning to intuit that:

For there to be a world, the particular and the universal, the singular and the whole have to interpenetrate, mutually and completely: the world is the space of a universal mixture in which each thing contains and is contained by all things (“The Life of Plants — a Metaphysics of Mixture”, Polity, 2019 p. 67).

So, to conclude (but just for today) our community's striking religious discovery — if discovery it proves to be — is that “the elephant in the room” is that there is no “elephant” in the room. It is this insight which could — and I think should in the present moment — lie at the heart of any meaningful, coherent (enough), modern naturalistic religion. It’s an insight which may well turn out to be the very tasty ice-cream filling our bowl and go a long way to helping us deliver up for our skeptical and secular age a “sundae service” people can genuinely swallow.