Insights for Interfaith Relations
The sky is too vast to contain just elephants or buildings and cars! God is too vast to be contained in just one religion!
By Roshan Shah
Remember the ‘Cloud-Cloud’ game that we used to play when we were young”oh, sorry, I mean younger? We would peep out of our bedroom window or lie on the grass outside and look up at the sky, wonderstruck at all the many beings up there! We’d see clouds stuck high above or gently floating by in a myriad shapes and sizes”some looked like monkeys and lions, others like peacocks and whales or even a grandfather with a giant nose! What seemed a witch sitting on a broom could, at the very next moment, turn into a mouse nibbling at a ball of cheese or a girl twirling on her toes!
Suppose two children, one in a remote village in India and the other in Paris, were playing ‘Cloud-Cloud’ at just the same time. The bits of the sky and the clouds that they would see would, of course, be totally different. In the piece of the sky above him, the Indian boy might spot a band of elephants marching through a dense jungle, while the French child might discern tall buildings and a fleet of cars racing down a highway.
Now, if someone were to ask the two children to describe the sky as they see it at a given moment, one of them might answer, ‘The sky is full of elephants!’, while the other might exclaim, ‘The sky is littered with enormous buildings and funny-looking cars!’
We wouldn’t think twice about their replies, because that’s how the bit of sky that they are looking at appears to them. But what if the two boys meet and begin arguing, each insisting that the sky as such is precisely, and only, as he sees it and that the other is wrong? The Indian boy insists that the sky is populated only by elephants and nothing else, while the French boy is adamant that the only things in the sky are buildings and cars. Their argument gets hotter and hotter, and in a short while they start beating each other up!
At this point, you are forced to intervene. You think they are going just too far, that it’s no longer a childish joke, that things are going totally out of control. You explain to the children that neither of them is totally wrong, yet neither is absolutely right. You tell them that the sky is really vast and that we can see only a wee bit of it at a time. Someone looking up at the sky in a village in India and someone else doing the same in Paris at the same time see entirely different bits of sky and totally different clouds. It is true, you say, that the little wedge of sky that the Indian boy sees is populated, at that moment, by clouds that seem to him to be like a family of elephants. But this does not mean that the whole sky contains just elephants, or even just the particular elephants that he sees and nothing else. There’s much more sky than the bit of it that he sees, you tell him, and it is inhabited by beings other than the elephants that he spots, including the buildings and cars that the French boy sees. You teach him that we are just too small to see the entire sky all at once and all the clouds that there are.
Similarly, you try to pacify the French boy by explaining to him that the sky is really very vast”infinite, perhaps”certainly much more than the piece of it that he sees outside his bedroom window. And so, just as he is not wrong in thinking that the sky contains buildings and cars, because that is what he discerns in the bit of sky that he is able to see, the Indian boy is not mistaken when he thinks that the sky is populated by elephants.
In this way, you manage to convince the children that since the sky is much bigger than the bits of it that they can see, their perceptions of it, while being true, do not represent the whole truth about it. Their perceptions are valid, but they reflect the truth about only one bit of the sky”the bit of it that each of them can see”and not the whole of it. If you just can’t resist the temptation to spout technical-sounding jargon and sound adult-ish, you might even say that their respective perceptions of the sky represent a limited and partial truth, and not the absolute truth, about the sky and its contents.
As long as the boys imagined that the sky was just the portion of it that they could see, they continued to insist their respective perceptions of it represented what the whole sky was all about. Mistaking their limited, partial truth about the sky for the absolute or whole truth about it, they began to quarrel with each other. But when you guided them to understand that the sky is much, much bigger than the piece of it that they could see, they realized their mistake. There are elephants and buildings and cars and many more things in the vast sky, they now understood, and not just the few things that each of them could see.
There’s more to this happy ending than that, though. The boys not only discover how mistaken they were and learn how silly it was for them to let their mistaken beliefs lead them to quarrel with each other, but they are now great friends. The Indian village boy learns about cars and tall buildings from the French boy, and the latter learns many wonderful things about elephants from his Indian friend!
God, I suppose, is something like this. Each of us, individuals and communities, has our own understanding of It/Her/Him. We strongly believe that our own perceptions of, or beliefs about, God are true”and we may not be entirely wrong there. But because God is vast”Vastness, in fact”while we are limited beings with, at best, only very partial understandings of Him, our perceptions of Him are naturally limited and partial. What often happens is that we imagine that our particular understanding of Him, as represented by the particular religion we claim to follow, reflects His totality”just like the little child who thinks that the bit of sky and clouds that he can see is what the whole sky and its contents are all about.
And so, firmly convinced that our limited, partial truth-claims about God are the Absolute Truth about Him”the full sky, as it were”we go about disparaging, denouncing, combating and even waging war against people who see God in ways other than ours, like children fighting with other children who see bits of sky and clouds other than those that we do.
Truly, religionists often behave like little children fighting over the ‘Cloud-Cloud’ game”but, of course, with much more disastrous consequences. But when, as in the story of the Indian and the French boy, we are led to realize that while our respective perceptions of God may not be wrong, they do not represent the whole story of the sky”the whole truth about or reality of God”we can begin to understand where and how we have erred, and at such a terrible cost in terms of human lives lost in the name of wars over and about religion.
When, like the two boys who learn that the sky is much bigger than they had imagined, we are suitably humbled to realize that our understandings of God are just a limited and partial reflection of the Absolute Truth and that others also may possess equally valid (and equally partial and limited) understandings of the same, we might be inspired to reach out to each other in friendship, to learn more about God and goodness from each other and to enrich ourselves spiritually in the process “just as the two boys who stopped quarreling, became great friends and continue to learn from, and grow with, each other!