Are you familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave?
A super simple explanation goes like this:
People are chained in a cave, facing a back wall, unable to turn their heads.
There’s a fire behind the people and objects hung in front of the fire cast shadows against the cave wall.
People see the shadows and hear echoes cast by the unseen objects. Unable to see the original objects, people pass judgments and form opinions, believing the shadows are reality.
Many of us today make decisions in our lives based on what we think the facts are, rather than the actual facts.
We may be unhappy with God or deny God altogether, because of shadows we think are real.
Interpreting the shadows poorly, ignoring them, denying their existence, or accepting every motion of the shadows as pure gospel truth has no impact on the shadows whatsoever. Nor on the object casting the shadows.
Some may be convinced their shadow understanding of God is reality, but it’s just that, a dark shadow of the true substance. (If your understanding of God says you should shoot abortion doctors, blow up a public place, kidnap or kill anyone, then you’re following a shadow, not the true God. Ask the average person in your faith, they’ll tell you how wrong you are.)
It’s often easy for us to be convinced that our understanding and experiences are the true reality, because they are our experiences.
The metaphor of the elephant illustrates the point.
Three blind or blindfolded people were led to an elephant. The first person touched the elephant’s ear and said, “This is soft and supple like well worn leather.”
The second person touched the elephant tusk and said, “This is hard and smooth, like marble.”
The third sightless person reached out and felt the elephant’s leg. “This is strong and sturdy like a table leg, and yet rough like the bark of a mighty tree.”
The same elephant from three perspectives – all correct but also all insufficient to describe the massive wonder that is an elephant. Seeing only one aspect of something doesn’t negate what remains unseen.
You can’t dismiss the understanding others have of their elephant experience. Just because you haven’t touched the elephant doesn’t mean others haven’t either.
Consider the earth. An airline pilot, a coal miner and a fishing boat captain would all describe their views of the world in significantly different ways. Each of them have a unique connection to nature and the earth. Different, but equally valid.
Being angry with God for what individuals mistakenly think or do in God’s name is like blaming the planet for allowing miners to strip mine, or loggers to clear cut.
But people do get angry with God, they argue against the shadow understanding of God they were sincerely, but absolutely wrongly, taught by others. They reject outright the existence of the elephant because they were taught the elephant is a tail, and nothing more, when they could clearly see there was much more to the elephant than the tail.
Some people think the elephant is only tail, and they are holding it, while in fact they are holding a tail-shaped snake.
The nine members of Westboro Baptist Church have an understanding of God and the Bible that is absolutely wrong. But to paint all Christians with their brush, or paint all Muslims with a terrorist brush, is like inditing all airline pilots for the actions of a single Japanese fishing boat crew.
Too often, our personalities inform our theology, as often as our theology informs our personalities. We experience the elephant the way we expect to experience the elephant. We see in the shifting shadows what our personalities lead us to expect, and we often reject the true objects casting shadows because the objects aren’t what we expect.
God casts God-shaped shadows in the world, as is evidenced by all the people who see the shadows and occasionally catch a glimpse of God moving. God is in the world, independent of us recognizing or accepting it, independent of how we interpret the shadows or the God casting the shadows.
For many of us, the first step in getting closer to God is to reject preconceived shadows, break the bonds that force us to see what we’ve always seen and to turn our heads to the light. To see God and the natural world for what they are, not what we expect them to be.
To be part of God’s creation, and not trapped in a cave of our own choosing.
God, the cave, and the elephant are larger than you believe or can possibly imagine.