Gift to the World
Rev. Anthony David, Candidate for Senior Minister at UUCA
"The Blind Men and the Elephant" (retold by James
There were once six blind men who stood by the roadside every day, and
begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants,
but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?
It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road
where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before
them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see
him. Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they
thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal
The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant's side.
"Well, well!" he said, "now I know all about this
beast. He is exactly like a wall."
The second felt only of the elephant's tusk. "My
brother," he said, "you are mistaken. He is not at all like
a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than
The third happened to take hold of the elephant's trunk.
"Both of you are wrong," he said. "Anybody who knows
anything can see that this elephant is like a snake."
The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant's
legs. "Oh, how blind you are!" he said. "It is very
plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree."
The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the
elephant's ear. "The blindest man ought to know that this
beast is not like any of the things that you name," he said.
"He is exactly like a huge fan."
The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could
find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal's tail.
"O foolish fellows!" he cried. "You surely have lost
your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake,
or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of
sense can see that he is exactly like a rope."
Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the roadside
all day, and quarreled about him. Each believed that he knew just how
the animal looked; and each called the others hard names because they
did not agree with him. People who have eyes sometimes act as
"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the
year." This comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our Unitarian
Universalist spiritual ancestors, and perhaps he meant it to apply
even to something like Income Tax Day. Definitely, it applies to THIS
day which represents my first time to preach from this storied pulpit.
To be here is an honor and a delight, and I'm looking forward to
candidating week as it unfolds: the many opportunities for saying
hello, for beginning relationships, and for sharing our mutual
excitement about this congregation and all that it has been, all that
it is now, and all it aspires to be in the future.
Now, because this is candidating week, what I'd like to do in my
sermon today and then next Sunday is to share with you some of the
main themes that inspire my ministry. Say a hello of sorts through my
preaching. Next Sunday, I'll talk about my four noble truths of
the spiritual life; and as for today, the focus is on Unitarian
Universalism's affirmation of religious diversity, or what
I'll call its pluralism. People today hunger for religion that is
relevant and speaks to the condition of their lives; and because
Unitarian Universalism is pluralistic at its core, I believe that it
is uniquely positioned to feed this hunger and to speak to this
condition. So if we can cultivate our pluralism, do true justice to
it, invite people into it in healthy ways, then, truly, I believe that
our religion can change lives. It can give people exactly what this
congregation's symbol promises it can: a phoenix experience.
Transformation into new life.
That's our gift to the world. All the world-but especially the
West, especially America, especially Atlanta (since this is where we
are). And what changes this world has seen! Once upon a time,
Christianity was the major show in town, and everything else was at
the margins. There was only ONE blind man, whose experience of the
cosmic elephant established the unquestioned religious norm. Yet the
world has changed, radically and irrevocably. Lots of blind men, now,
in this global religious village. And so here in Atlanta, in this part
of the Bible belt, you have mosques and temples and sanghas and
congregations, all side by side with Christian churches. Go to any big
bookstore, and there on the religion shelves are books ranging from
Asatru to Zoroastrianism and everything else in between. One of the
Presidential Distinguished Professors at nearby Emory University
happens to be none other … than the Dalai Lama.
Christianity is simply no longer the unquestioned religious norm. This
does not mean it has lost its popularity, or its power. It is still
the largest religion around. Yet today, many Christians themselves
question whether it is the only valid path to the sacred. Many
Christians, trying to make sense of the voice of their chosen blind
man even as they know that it's not the only voice out there.
There are other blind men and blind women to listen to as well. They
know it, and we know it. A statistic from 2002 makes my point: 82% of
Americans believe that there's no such thing as one and only one
right spiritual path. That's approximately 240 million people!
Lots of Christians in that mix. Lots of others as well.
What I'm saying is that the old story of the blind men and the
elephant-it tells the truth about our world right now. We're
living it. Advances in transportation technologies and communication
technologies have pushed us towards it. Economic globalization only
ensures it. All this and more make it impossible not to hear what
blind people from many different times and lands have to say about
their encounter with the sacred.
And where does this take us? It takes us right smack into difficulty.
It does. The story envisions it like this: "Each believed that he
knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard names
because they did not agree with him." This is exclusivism, the
idea that ultimately there is one and only one name under heaven
through which people might be saved. Exclusivism, and the endless
quarrels it leads to, is one response to religious diversity. But
there is another response to consider as well. Here, the blind men
hear about each other's experiences of the elephant, and rather
than defend themselves and attack the others, each one finds himself
simply overwhelmed. Each one starts to doubt the validity of his own
experience because the reports coming from the others all sound so
convincing. Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? And so the
end of the story here is six wise men in despair, overwhelmed by
possibilities, not knowing how to distinguish between better and
worse, or perhaps in the end turning nihilistic and rejecting it all
as bunk and foolishness….
Does this ring any bells with you? It's as much a paralysis of the
spirit as exclusivism is. It's just another kind of difficulty
that many people today face as they try to make sense of today's
And finally, there is this. There are people who, in the face of
religious diversity, escape the difficulties I have just outlined.
They escape exclusivism, and they escape exhaustion and nihilism. They
don't go there, because they, unlike so many others, grasp the
deep teachings of the story of the blind men and the elephant. They
hear its message that no one person or tradition can ever have
infallible, unlimited, and complete knowledge of the world. They hear
its message that, whatever reality is, it is elephant-sized, huge,
ever full of surprises and paradoxes, always more than what can be
dreamt of in our all-too-human philosophies. And finally, they hear
its message that despite the fact that human knowing is always limited
and despite the fact that the object of our knowing is fundamentally a
Mystery, still, our knowings capture at least some of reality and work
at least to some degree. Through the symbols and stories and wisdom of
the world's great religious traditions, we can mindfully (if only
partially) connect with the sacred. We really can. All these are the
deep teachings of the story of the blind men and the elephant, and
there are people who hear the message and therefore love religious
diversity. They love it because, for them, it is an opportunity for a
spiritual experience that is unlike any other: open, adventurous,
authentic, experiential, generous, free. A pursuit of truth no matter
where it leads. A life built up by wisdom from many cultures and many
I mean, this is great stuff! And yet, here too is difficulty. For when
such people decide that they can live the spiritual journey in a
perfectly private way that involves no one else; or when they are
satisfied to exist incognito and don't try to share their good
news with people suffering from exclusivism and suffering from
exhaustion and nihilism; then this happens: they fall into hypocrisy.
They grant only lip service to the nonnegotiable imperative that they
encounter in all the world's religions: love one another. Do works
of justice and mercy. Give away all the good that you have, and grow
your soul in proportion to how much you give. That's the wonderful
abundance imperative that all the world's religion's teach. So
then, what can we say about the person who hears and understands the
message of the story of the blind men and the elephant but does not
give it away? What to say about the person who does not actively build
community around it so that more people might live into it, encourage
each other by it, serve each other out of it, and build a better world
in light of it? Perhaps this is what we can say: they do not share,
and therefore the soul within them shrivels. They do not share, and so
it what they have shall be taken away. That's what happens, and
it's a tragedy.
There are just so many difficulties people today face as they try to
make sense of the religious diversity in our world. That's why I
believe, to the bottom of my heart, that Unitarian Universalism is a
gift to the world. It's uniquely positioned to help people engage
religious diversity in a way that escapes all the difficulties
I've outlined here. It's uniquely positioned to help people
live into it in a way that grows souls and changes lives.
It's a gift of relevance. And part of this amounts to something
incredibly simple: just naming the elephant in the middle of the
living room. Just that. Here's why. Religious diversity is as
obvious as obvious can be. It's right in front of people's
eyes. Everyone knows it. Yet there is in human psychology an amazing
capacity for self-deception. Too many people wanting to ignore it,
deny it, argue that it is a bad thing. So simply to stand up and say,
Yes, the elephant is really there and it's not going
away, can start the healing process. Simply to say, It's
not there because of anything wrong; it's because of what's
right, can bring relief and liberation! People just can't
claim religious diversity until they name it first. And so that can be
part of our gift to the world. Help people name it, so they can claim
Beyond this, we can help people avoid feeling overwhelmed by all the
religious possibilities out there. Help people cut through all the
confusion and make good choices for themselves, resulting in a broad,
open-minded spiritual lifestyle that is also very very deep. And to be
honest, I don't have this one all figured out yet. We don't
have it all figured out yet. Born in 1961, our religion is still very
much in its infancy, still has much maturing to do. But it's why
I'm excited about our life together. We are going to be on the
cutting edge of Unitarian Universalism's growth and development.
That's what I see. That's what I dream. That's where we
are going to be, and part of it will involve the development of
practices and traditions that, better than ever before, realize the
potentials inherent in our pluralism! That's what I dream.
I do know one thing, though. It's that, in the face of religious
diversity, our criterion for making choices must shift from where an
idea comes from, to where an idea leads us. It's not about roots;
it's about fruits. It's about consequences. Whatever can help
me live my purpose of becoming a better person and of growing in
service, growing in compassion and justice-seeking, growing in
gratitude, growing in reverence for this wide world-whatever can help
me live out this purpose, that is what I choose. That is what I
choose. It's why I have to be a Unitarian Universalist. Because
it's the context which best allows me to live out my life purpose
of growing a big soul. That's my purpose, and I will not allow
artificial borders and boundaries to trap me into smallness.
So I and you learn to habitually ask of everything, Will you grow
my soul big? Will you grow my soul big? Where an idea comes from
is not important. Who said it, or what it looks like, is not
important. What's important is what it does to a person's
character and heart. Whether it gives me something good to do with my
hands. That's what's important. And this leads us to consider
one more aspect of Unitarian Universalism's gift to the world. Its
potential for public impact. Here is what I know. The greater a power
anything has for good, the greater its power for evil. In all of
history, religious ideals and commitments have inspired some of the
very best examples of human behavior; and they have also contributed
to some of the very worst examples as well. Therefore if we want to
talk about social justice, as I know this congregation does, and as I
do, then a big part of the conversation is about how we can offer up
our gift of pluralism to the world in a way that counteracts unhealthy
religion and strengthens the common good. Public impact.
And so we can bring our pluralism to social values issues like the
family and homosexuality-show that religious voices around this are
not all from a conservative "the Bible said it, I believe it,
that settles it" camp. Show the way towards a different, more
inclusive kind of family values which affirms families with two
mommies and two daddies as much as any other. Lift them up and others
without regard for whether or not they match the traditional norm, and
fight for their social and economic rights, which ought to be equal to
anyone else's. We can show the way forward to that. Our gift of
public impact, our gift of a more inclusive kind of family values,
empowering a progressive politics.
Or consider this. Across the country, public schools struggle with
what to do with the teaching of evolution, and the media invariably
portrays it as a struggle between secular science vs. Biblical
literalism. But what if we were to make it clear that this portrayal
of the struggle is sheer false dichotomy, and that religion and
science can go together easily? That, exactly because of one's
religious beliefs, one could promote evolution in the classroom and
fight against the teaching of intelligent design? I know that this
might be obvious to most people here. But to millions of people in
this country, it comes as a shock. It comes as a shock to hear that
science and spirituality can go together and illuminate each other. It
But that's the kind of gift that our Unitarian Universalist
pluralism can offer. And as we offer it up, using a language that
speaks to people where they are, proactively inserting ourselves into
public debates in the name of liberal religion-as we do all this, we
can bind up the broken. We can counteract the ignorance and inequality
and unfairness. So many of these hurts and evils can be traced back in
some way to how people understand the sacred, or how they read
religious texts, or what they are used to in terms of religious
community. So what we can do is teach people a better way. Show that
God beliefs don't at all have to entail authoritarianism or
brutality. Show that people can take scripture seriously without
taking it literally. Show people that religious communities exist
which cherish the basic humanist ethic of people's right to be
inner-directed in their spirituality, people's right to believe
only that which conscience and reason and intuition in them permits.
Show people that in the end, the truest test of religion is how it
makes you free, how it releases you to love more and to listen more,
to affirm the life around you more, to forgive more.
That, in fact, is the thought I want to leave you with. Beyond how our
pluralism can help people acknowledge and name the simple reality of
religious diversity in our world; or help people navigate the
complexities of the spiritual marketplace and make good choices; or
how it can be used to inspire and empower a progressive
politics-beyond all of this, I want to leave you with one passionate
thought: that our affirmation of religious diversity serves something
higher. There is something deeper it rests upon, and which gives it
meaning, context, definition, direction, urgency. As I see it,
it's the conviction and faith that no matter how difficult life
can get, no matter how broken, what happens to the phoenix can happen
to everyone. I mentioned this at the beginning of my sermon, and I
mention it here at the end. The phoenix: it is your symbol, the heart
of this congregation; and from the first moment I saw it, I knew you
understood what is at stake in our shared faith and all that we affirm
by it. Relationships healed, creativity unleashed, possibilities
expanded. Slavery giving way to freedom, resentment melting into
compassion, fear stepping aside for love. A person, a community, a
world rising up from the ashes, like the phoenix.
For me, that's the ultimate goal of our pluralism: how it can
invite people into true, transformative spiritual adventure. How it
can do that. And I want it for as many people as possible. I want to
share it far and wide. Do you? More people, knowing this first hand.
More people, tasting the sweetness of it. That's what I hope for.
That's what we hope for. And in our life together, let us work for
that. Let us give this gift of pluralism. Let us give this gift to the