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Eye of the Tiger [a review of "Life of Pi"]

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

(If Life of Pi had plot spoilers to reveal, this would probably give them away. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that can really be spoiled, but do consider yourself warned.)

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins wrote:

I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.

I’ve encountered this line of thought when I discuss religion with my friends who happen to be atheists, and I think I understand the basic point here. None of us, this argument seems to be saying, feel obliged to prove that Zeus doesn’t exist; we simply don’t see a good reason to believe that Zeus exists, and everyone agrees that if someone truly was a Zeus-lim or a Zeus-tian it would be up to him to show us why that belief was really rational. And atheists just apply this to all the gods out there, rather than excepting the one god they choose to believe in.

But while I understand this line of thought, it’s never really held water for me, for a very simple reason. We’re dealing with different questions, different types of skepticism here. When the atheist denies that God exists, he’s answering the question “Does God exist?” with a resounding no. Theists of all types say yes here (or at a minimum, perhaps), and then go on to the next question: “What is God like?” That’s the work theists are engaged in when they say “Mithras doesn’t exist” or “Zeus doesn’t exist” or (depending on your modern religion) Christ or Allah or Vishnu doesn’t exist.” We are saying that God exists – but He isn’t like what people mean when they use that word. Even if I went through all the conceptions of God we humans have ever come up with are false, that doesn’t get you to a “no” answer on the first question.

I was reminded of all this as I was watching The Life of Pi. Pi is an Indian boy who emigrates to America and is the sole survivor when his ships flounders in the middle of the Pacific ocean. His father is what we might call a functional atheists. It’s not clear (at least from the movie) whether Santosh has actually ruled out the possibility that any God exists, or even that God resembles the Hindi pantheon, but he certainly doesn’t see any value in religion, generally speaking. Pi’s mother Gita is presented as more religious, and has simultaneously been harmed and helped by it. She was disowned by her family for marrying below her social position, which I took as coming out of the caste theology, but at the same time it’s this religion that gives her her main connection to her past in later life. For all that, his mum is also a part of the “new India” and is college-educated; she simply seems to have (at least in the movies) more respect for religion than Santosh does.

Pi himself is religious but takes up a hodgepodge of religious beliefs. The movie starts with a recounting of a story about Krishna, a human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. (Bear with me on my Hindu theology; I’m a Christian and any mistakes are unintentional.) Krishna’s mum thought he’d eaten a bit of dirt but when she looked into his mouth she saw the whole cosmos. It’s this story, and the Hindu religion in general, that first introduces Pi to faith. I interpret this story to mean, at least to Pi, that there is something beyond the cosmos, something worth believing in that reason can’t adequately capture. For Pi, this means not just embracing religion but embracingall religion, or at least more than one. This is actually one of the things that bothers Santosh a great deal: not just that Pi has accepted something beyond reason, but that he seems to uncritically accept many different strains of reading; as he puts it, he’d rather have his son believe something, even if Santosh rejects the belief, than believe everything.

If Hinduism introduces Pi to faith, Christianity introduces him to belief, or perhaps the faith seeking understanding that my own dissertation topic is so devoted to. Here he encounters a set of events that are history rather than myth, within Christianity’s theology. Humans sin and needed redemption. Christ entered into the world so that humans could relate to him and through him have a bridge to God. Christ died as a sacrifice for sinners. These are data points about the Christian view of God, and Pi considers them and quite often rejects them. (What kind of God would sacrifice the innocent to spare the guilty, Pi asks? A very good question – I’ve often asked the same one, though for me it’s got a “need to” in there somewhere.) The point is that Pi has moved past a faith that something out there into a kind of belief that he can question. As he says later in the movie, doubt and skepticism are a key part of faith, and that’s impossible if you just have a kind of vague faith in faith.

This first part of the movie is probably my favorite (though the ending gives it a run for its money). There’s some very interesting meditations on the nature of faith, but even here there’s a disquieting “mix-and-match” approach. Young Pi sees no problem in taking some elements from each tradition and putting them together as he sees fit. Now, I am guilty of this myself to a certain degree. I’m a Methodist Christian which means I take my inspiration from the Christian Bible and the history from Paul down to John Wesley and beyond. Bu there are also gaps in this tradition, at least what I know of it. And so I’ve also read the Tao te Ching and other writings on Taoism and I’ve found it an inspiring life philosophy that complements my Christianity quite nicely. Part of the value of religion is it gives you a kind of set corpus, a language of metaphor you must speak through but that you didn’t choose yourself. It’s a way of reminding ourself that we are not the be-all and end-all. And I think Pi’s approach risks overlooking that, and turning religion into psychology or even just wish-fulfillment. He has answered my first question with “yes,” loud and clear, but he doesn’t seem at all driven to tackle the second one.

This is the background of the main event. The Patel family decides to sell their animals and emigrate to Canada, but their ship sinks in a storm, and only Pi escapes with a small group of animals, all but one (a tiger) of which are killed. The next hour or so are filled with a series of spectacles ranging from Pi’s attempts to train the tiger so they can share the raft safely, some exotic ocean animals (think Avatar-esque opulence) and Pi’s struggles with his own loss. It’s probably the closest thing possible to an existentialist’s coming-of-age saga.

This part of the story was described by one of the characters (a surrogate uncle of Pi’s, who sent a writer to visit him years after the events described, setting up the frame story) as a tale that would make you believe in God. I can’t speak for the book, but in the movie I found most of it pretty vague and New Age-y – more a commitment to faith rather than to God. In fact, it took away a major reason to believe in God. The story makes the case that when you’re out on the middle of the ocean, with nothing to keep you company but your thoughts and the blank eyes of a heartless universe, you can’t help but see God. Or at least that Pi couldn’t. This explains how some people in harsh circumstances are convinced God exists, even if God doesn’t exist. If anything, it’s a pragmatic argument, like Pascal’s Wager – a reason we ought to believe God exists, not an argument that God actually exists.

The one part about this middle section that really interested me was the reflections on Richard Parker, the tiger Pi is stranded with. Earlier in the movie, Pi approaches the gtiger because he thinks the animal will be a friend. He insists that he can see the animal has emotions, a soul, but Santosh says Pi is only seeing his own emotions reflected in those eyes. Pi believes the tiger is alive because he wants to believe it is alive. Pi ends up sending 200+ days with only the tiger for company, and they do seem to forge a genuine bond, at least from Pi’s side. At the end of the story, Richard Parker goes off into the forest without even looking back, but Pi is a bit distraught at this failure to acknowledge their relationship. Afterwards he actually mourns the fact he didn’t acknowledge his love of the tiger. And it’s that speaking of love that really interested me. Based on the list of characters I looked up on Cliffnotes, Pi told his Hindu cleric who was concerned he was practicing other faiths, that he simply wanted to love God. For me, this raises a very important question: when Pi was sure he saw God on his ocean-crossing, when he desperately needed to see God after losing his entire world – was that just a blind universe reflecting his yearning to see God, or was there really something there to see? And does it matter?

Based on what we see in the movie, I suspect Pi would say no to that last question. The crucial point isn’t that God actually exists but that we see God and act accordingly. That we hope, Hold tight to our commitment that people are basically good, that we somehow manage to find love even when we are utterly alone. That’s uplifting and a profound look at the human psyche. But is it a story that makes you believe in God?

I think this is where the story ultimately lost me. At root, Life of Pi gives us a faith that even an atheist could feel at home with. Meaning no disrespect to my atheist friends, but that’s proof enough for me that Pi’s story doesn’t offer us proof that God exists. Sure, it says we have to rely on more than facts and logic, but many atheists would be insulted at the thought that that’s all they do. Many of my atheist friends find incredible beauty and value and meaning in a strictly natural world. If anything, Pi’s odyssey proves that the full human life requires us to move behind Spock’s brand of logic. That’s a lesson some atheists (and some theists; I’m speaking as an analytic philosopher who holds a math degree here!) could do to learn – but not all of them. It’s a beautiful meditation on faith and love, but not the kind of faith and love that’s unique to people who believe in God.

As a Christian I believe in a God that transcends reality. I have to admit, when I go looking for God I expect some kind of “thing.” Not an anthropomorphized person like me, necessarily, but also something more than what we philosophers call an emergent property. Basically, this is a property that emerges because reality is arranged a certain way. Happiness may be move than just having a lot of endorphins in your brain synapses, but it’s the kind of thing that emerges from that physical state. Similarly, Pi seems to be saying it doesn’t matter whether the tiger really had the intelligence to form a bond, or whether God exists as something other than just our wanting, needing him to exist. I’m a fairly orthodox Christian with a relatively orthodox theology, and I’m just hot sure that’s what I mean by God. It’s possible that God is so different from me, he’s “real” in a sense I can’t really wrap my head around. Maybe he is that capability to love, or the optimism that lets us hope when we can’t do it any other way. The proverbial light when all other lights go out.

Ultimately, Pi fails to tell me a story that makes me believe God. He didn’t have to, but I don’t think I would have been convinced if I wasn’t already. What he does do, though, is show me that faith matters and hope is possible. That’s no small matter, whether or not Pi (or myself) should call that conviction God. Whatever the case, it didn’t take me 227 days trapped on a lifeboat with a hungry tiger to figure it out. That alone makes it several hours very well spent.

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