Touching the Elephant finds common virtue of all faiths
Posted Wednesday, January 22, 2020 6:09 pm
By Telly Halkias, Bennington Banner correspondent
When I was in middle school, my two older sisters headed off to college, and as the only child left at home — a good Greek Orthodox home at that — I was expected to accompany my mother to church every Sunday, without fail.
For all my griping, whining, and wanting to sleep in, one thing stood out about these ecclesiastical sojourns. Without fail, on our walk home after the service, I was overcome by an elation, a type of euphoria which I recall to this day, but as a boy was never able to explain.
While the many years since have found me in a push-and-pull relationship with my own faith — a struggle which has helped me better understand that post-Holy Liturgy emotion — this past week I took one step closer to finding fresh answers while reading Nancy J. Thompson’s new release: “Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us” (Zio Apollo Press, 2019, 278 pages, $25).
The book, Thompson has said publicly in both the media as well as recent talks and presentations, was written in something of a creative frenzy of six months, but then took almost a decade to revise, refine and publish.
It was, it turns out, time well spent. A college professor of religion by trade, and a former Catholic/current Buddhist who attends services at a Jewish temple, Thompson not only has lived the comparative she teaches her students, but also brings all of this to bear in her book, and in an approach she considers her life calling.
As such, “Touching the Elephant” is a unifying meditation on common values stemming from the world’s major religions. It is also, importantly, though probably not intentionally, a mirror into Thompson’s heart and soul. The author doesn’t set out to make the book about her, but one can’t help feeling as they progress from chapter to chapter that Thompson has suddenly, yet quietly, become a good friend.
This progression dovetails nicely with the book’s thesis, that all the world’s religions share the values she examines, and that these connections are not mutually exclusive. It’s a path, not unlike the Buddhist in Thompson, that takes the reader on a journey, a vision quest, toward greater knowledge and understanding toward an empathy which enables one to integrate, and then act, on these sacred values.
To this end, the book’s core is well organized, in order of the values Thompson proceeds to examine: effort, compassion, generosity, order, acknowledgement, truth, mindfulness, and humility. Her hallmarks of comparison are the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, Jainism, Sikhism, Daoism and Confucianism.
In this manner she does her scholarly hero, the inimitable Huston Smith, proud. But Smith, whose seminal comparative work “The World’s Religions” has graced the bookshelves and backpacks of worldwide undergraduates for a good half-century, is more interested in history and exposition.
For her part, Thompson’s chapters salute history but bring values into the here and now. She does this through more current vignettes that put a name and a face to where we as humans can improve by not ignoring what the great religions of the world have to share, with us and with each other:
“Most of us won’t cure Ebola. Most of us won’t solve perplexing mathematical problems. Most of us won’t even shoulder a burden as warriors and join the military. There’s no shame in any of that. We are having our own struggles, and we can engage mightily in them Think of how hard it can be to find our own self-worth. To believe in it, and to act on it, knowing that we put ourselves at risk doing so.”
It’s clear after reading just the first few pages that Thompson’s style is direct, and eschews meandering. While cradling some of the starkness of a Hemingway, in her non-fiction approach she also reminds us that as an academic, she is not going to leave the empty spaces and pauses unfilled:
“A reader could be forgiven for thinking that Job is a simpleton and a fool for maintaining such allegiance to a God that seems arbitrary. Job is no fool, though. Job has vision that pierces the blindness of so much of humanity and expresses that vision by admitting that while he thinks he is blameless, he cannot possibly know if he is truly innocent. He can fool himself, he points out. In this admission, Job recognizes that there is a higher order, a higher knowledge, and a larger scheme of things than that able to be perceived by humans. Job is conceding that God is greater than humankind.”
This is the type of philosophical attention to detail that by no means is proselytizing, but rather digs at a deeper knowledge of the values inherent in its narrative. And the aim of those values is adeptly bookended by two chapters to open and close Thompson’s treatise: “Rescuing the World” and “Rebuilding the World.”
Importantly, the author does not gloss over atheism, which she acknowledges is as potent a force as ever before in human history. But Thompson is writing a book about the practical human worth found in the values of many religions. She makes no bones that it’s not having faith that’s the issue, it’s the application of human frailty through the course of our existence that has, quite bluntly, mucked things up and given religion what many see as a black eye.
Part confessional, part user’s manual, part self-help guide, part history book, and without question a labor of love, “Touching the Elephant” is a primer of sorts, but not simplistic. Thompson, more than anything, is interested in showing the unifying effects and commonality of ideals from the world’s key religions, and thus should be admired for her passionate advocacy of the Golden Rule.
After all, she wants the world around her to be a better place, and makes a strong argument that we have the tools in our systems of belief to make it so. It helps explain why even absent of belief, action in the form of these values remains worthwhile.
It also gave me some insight into my own history. These days, when Mom is in town, at age 94, she is the one who sometimes needs waking up on Sunday morning to come along to church with her son. And on the drives home, she speaks of how blessed she feels to wake up every morning, just to see a new day.
Nancy Thompson’s “Touching the Elephant,” in its intelligent yet unassuming way, follows this same cycle of life: regardless of belief or not, anyone who reads it will be wiser for the effort, and take away something inherently good.
Author Nancy J. Thompson will discuss her new book, “Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23 at the Bennington Free Library. Thompson’s talk is co-sponsored by The Bennington Bookshop, with copies for purchase and light refreshments.
— Award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias is the secretary of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @TellyHalkias