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Introducing Big Picture Thinking 1: The Elusive Elephant

Confucius JPEG

The picture on the left is called Denominational Nightmare, and the man behind the scream is Confucius (A derivative of confusion, nothing to do with the revered Chinese philosopher).

In case you wondered: Yes, it is autobiographical. I drew it in the mid-nineties, when I needed to express an emotion that could not possibly be conveyed with words.

I’m sure many of you have been there…

I use the picture nowadays for teaching purposes. It is an ideal introduction to the wonderful world of “Big Picture Thinking” (BPT for short), and it represents the inevitable intellectual torment associated with the stubborn refusal of NOT thinking in a big picture kind of way – what I would like to call “bits-and-pieces thinking” (BAPT for short).

By the way, if my acronym looks like a sly dig at a famous denomination, the link is unintended and coincidental. If your mind made such a link, it has simply succeeded in illustrating its own propensity to squeeze new information into old moulds rather than allow such information to convey its own intended message. See the next post for an explanation of this mental quirk.

The cartoon represents five main streams of Christianity. See if you can spot them:

1. The Intellectuals or Dogmatists. Some would say “the thinkers”.
Some key words: Doctrine, teaching, truth, study, objective.
Some labels: Reformed, Calvinist, Neo-Calvinist.
Some names: Piper, Sproul, Mohler, MacArthur, Schaeffer.
Some books: Anything by the Banner of Truth Trust.

2. The Contemplatives. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Meditation, solitude, quietude, inward, deeper life, subjective.
Some labels: Mystic, Existentialist, Orthodox, Neo-Orthodox.
Some names: Guyon, Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, St John of the Cross.
Some books: Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

3. The Conservatives. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Holiness, modesty, KJV, creationism.
Some labels: Independent, fundamentalist.
Some names: David Cloud, John Rice.
Some books: Anything by these authors, Jack Chick tracts and comics, above all the 1611 King James Version.

4. The Socially Conscientious. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Conscience, poverty, hunger, brotherhood, compassion.
Some labels: Social gospel.
Some names: Ron Sider, Mother Theresa, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo.
Some books: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

5. The Charismatics. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Pentecost, Holy Ghost, power, gifts.
Some labels: Charismatic, Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Third Wave.
Some names: Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Gordon Fee.

Confucius’ problem is a very simple one: Each time he runs into a representative of one of these streams, he is convinced that he has encountered the truth. But this only lasts until he runs into one of the others. Then, like the sheep in Animal Farm, he is swayed by the new rhetoric.

This leaves him with a problem. What should he do with his former allegiance?

Cognitive dissonance is the term used by psychologists to describe the discomfort a person experiences when trying to hold on to two conflicting beliefs at the same time. It is in fact impossible for the human mind to do so, which explains why you or I cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously. The heart has the capacity for only one overriding allegiance.

This is Confucius’ problem. In fact, it is worse than that. Confucius is trying to hold on to five conflicting beliefs at once. His problem is more than mere dissonance. Confucius feels cognitively blown apart.

You may wish to interrupt me at this stage and ask: Why do these views need to be presented as conflicting ones? Why can they not be integrated? Why can someone not introduce Confucius to the old Indian legend about the blind men and the elephant?

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: Even 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!

The version above is John Godfrey Saxe’s, and I share it because of the last stanza. Confucius’ problem is not the elephant. It is also not his own blindness. It is the blindness of others, and the fact that he has allowed them to become mediators between him and the elephant.

Understanding the connection between the tusk and the tail is not the difficulty. Any sensible person who has a bit of time for exploration and reflection can connect the two. The difficulty arises when, instead of exploring and reflecting, one tries to connect them through the mediation of the second and sixth man in the poem.

In fact this is impossible, for how can a rope and spear be the same thing?

This is the problem. Our denominational confusion oftentimes does not lie in the different dimensions of our faith, but in the fact that some of our faith’s commentators insist that their particular analysis of it is the most important one and the exclusive paradigm or interpretive grid for making sense of all the others. Integrating such claims is impossible, for each excludes the others.

Once this happens, the “big picture” becomes subject to a selection of its own bits and pieces, and hence incomprehensible. To put it differently: The pixel, rather than the screen, becomes the focus. (Important note: I am not taking shots at anyone, and I am not implying that any of the individuals mentioned above are consciously guilty of this. I merely chose them as they are associated with certain broad streams within Christianity, and thus more or less representative of those streams. At the same token, when we emphasise one dimension of our faith above another, the inevitable result is that we turn a part into the lens for interpreting the whole – with disastrous results.)

There is clearly only one way out of the predicament. Confucius needs to meet the elephant. A personal and unmediated encounter will reveal the truth. There is no other way.

In the next post, we will address the obvious question:


(This post has first appeared on the naturalchurch blog, albeit in a slightly different form.)