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The Elephant of Salvation

Paul Yonge


The 19th-century American poet, John Godfrey Saxe, wrote a poem entitled “The Blind Men and the Elephant” based on an ancient Indian fable that begins with this verse: “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 poem continues to tell of the observations of these six seers, each with their own perception of the elephant as revealed to them by their experience and expertise.

“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 ideological wall between Unitarian and Universalist beliefs about salvation was often reduced to the simple statement that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn humankind and that Unitarians believed that humankind was too good to be damned. The first seer did not seem disturbed by his perception of a wall, undoubtedly because of his understanding that walls define and support in addition to their lesser functions of division and exclusion. Following the 1961 consolidation, that ideological wall all but disappeared when the Unitarian Universalists united in giving the matter of salvation the attention it deserved.

“The Second, feeling of the tusk, cried, ’Ho! What have we here so very round and smooth and sharp? To me, ’tis mighty ascribe whatever symbolism they choose to these observations of the other five men of Indostan.  Biblical scholars may view this as an object to be beaten into a pruning hook. 
"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!"  Clearly, this man had no fear of the unfortunate Garden of Eden serpent so often reviled as the symbol of temptation.
"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!"  Resurrection scholars would be quick to see the crucifixion tree as a symbol of salvation. 
"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 (that) this marvel of an Elephant is very like a fan!"  It takes little imagination to see how this misperceived view of the Elephant of Salvation can ignite the embers of dispute among those eager to delineate salvation. 
"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!"  Symbolically speaking, this rope is surely not the blessed tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.  It is interesting to note that none of the six visually impaired elephant-feelers took the trouble to say either "I don't care" or "I don't know."  That might not be considered unusual, however, because none of them were Unitarians and/or Universalists.
One of the questions in "100 Questions that Non-Members Ask about Unitarian Universalism" by John Sias (Transition Publishing [1994], 56 pp., ISBN 0-9654497-3-4) refers to salvation.  In answer to the joint queries of "what about salvation" and "can a UU be saved", the response is: "Salvation is not a word we use frequently.  We do not believe people are born into a state of sin from which they must be saved in order to avoid spending an eternity in hell.  Since we believe in neither original sin nor hell,
avoid spending an eternity in hell. Since we believe in neither original sin nor hell, we do not feel a need to be saved from either.” That comes as close to an “I don’t care” answer as one can risk without the threat of eternal damnation.

The last two verses express my personal “I don’t know” viewpoint on the subject of salvation. “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!” Expressing concern about salvation seems so selfish. Perceiving a need to be “saved” in this life or the next is insignificant compared with the duty one has to be of service to other human beings in the here and now. “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!”

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference