We pick up where we left off two weeks ago in a discussion of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel adapted into a movie nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Be warned that the discussion necessarily reveals parts of the novel and movie.
Martel describes in vivid detail Pi Patel’s 227-day survival at sea in a lifeboat, also occupied by Richard Parker, a full-grown Bengal tiger. Pi manages to “tame” the tiger to permit a mutually dependent coexistence. When their lifeboat washes up on a Mexican beach, Richard Parker saunters into the foliage, unnoticed by the rescuers who transport Pi to a hospital, leaving Pi’s account as the only evidence of his existence.
Two Japanese investigators visit Pi in the hospital, attempting to learn the cause of the sinking of the Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum. After Pi’s detailed description of his experiences with the tiger as his companion, Mr. Okamoto declares, “We just don’t believe there was a tiger living in your lifeboat.” Facing unyielding resistance to his story, Pi finally relates a different story, using people instead of animals, which satisfies the investigator.
Florence Stratton offers a brilliant discussion of Martel’s book in her essay, “‘Hollow At the Core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi” in the literary journal, Studies in Canadian Literature (found at http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/scl/article/view/12746/13689). She writes,
“Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story. The extreme poles of this debate are represented in the latter part of the novel by the two officials from the Japanese government.”
For Mr. Okamoto, the only basis for reality is the factual evidence that leads to scientific discovery of truth. Of course, no evidence exists to support either of Pi’s stories, but the one with humans is more believable because it complies with human experience. When Okamoto confesses that he “prefers” the story with the animals, he exposes the human predisposition toward transcendence, toward a pursuit of something beyond human experience, enabling man to escape the material world that only ends in death.
Pi’s responds to Okamoto, “And so it goes with God,” reveals Martel’s postmodernist approach to God. Early in the book Pi criticizes agnostics because they “lack imagination and miss the better story.” For Pi, God’s existence does not depend upon fact or faith, but only upon the better story, the one that appeals to man’s preference.
This approach enabled Pi to embrace three religions simultaneously, despite the protests of the religious leaders who claimed that they conflicted with one another. Pi preferred the better stories of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity without careful analysis of the doctrines that arise from those stories. Where the stories may be construed to supplement one’s love of God, the doctrines expose the incongruity of the stories.
Only one of Pi’s stories conforms with Pi’s experience at sea. They did not both occur, even though one might represent the other. Either Pi survived with a tiger in his lifeboat or he did not. We do not have to suspend the laws of logic to discover God. The better story may also be the real story, the one that occurred in real time and real space. If it was not, then it cannot be qualified as true simply on the basis of its appeal to transcendence.
In the absence of Okamoto’s ability to personally experience the stories, they do require imagination. If the imagination is restricted by previous experiences or personal knowledge, the listener might miss the true story.
Clearly the truthfulness of the story depends upon the reliability of the narrator. If he claims to have experienced that which transcends “normal” or “usual” human experience, then he might be classified as traumatized, delusional or some other category that suggests a loss of one’s mental ability to determine reality. Or he might be accused of using deception for some perceived advantage to himself. Either way, the narrator must be discredited in order to reasonably dismiss his story.
Religions are built on stories. Some religions concede that their stories are only myths, ways of explaining spiritual reality without the stories corresponding to truth or reality. Islam, Judaism and Christianity claim historicity for their stories. The stories of Abraham, Jacob, David and Ruth occurred in historical time and space according to those who recorded their stories. The plagues in Egypt, the miraculous deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea and the miraculous provisions of the Israelites in the desert happened in time and space, according to the biblical texts.
Either they are true stores or they are not. Either they adhere to reality or they are only fictions. Our belief may be contingent upon our imagination, but our religion’s historicity is not. In fact, many people discount these stories because of their supernatural nature, because they escape the bounds of normal and usual human experience.
Jesus feeding a crowd in excess of 15,000 people with only a few fish and loaves of bread, healing a man born blind, walking on water, turning water to wine, raising a young girl from the dead, are all stories that demand our response. They do not claim to be fictions. The narrators claim historicity.
The climax to the Christ story explodes with the empty tomb. The witnesses to this event attest to the reality of the event. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands.” (1 John 1:1) Indeed, Thomas lacked the imagination to believe that Jesus rose from the grave and suspended belief until he could see him with his eyes and touch him with his hands. When Jesus appeared to this agnostic, his imagination was inspired and he believed. (John 20:24-29)
C.S. Lewis called the Christian story “the true myth.” It is not only the better story when compared with the other religious stories that try to explain the purpose and meaning of human existence in this broken world, it is also the most reasonable and satisfying story. It demands faith not because it is better, but because it is true.
Martel’s postmodernism offers an eclectic approach to spirituality, but it seems to compromise the structures of religion, which make specific requirements for adherence. Faith finds its object in the stories and the doctrines derived from them. Subjective redefinition of the religion qualifies as a new religion, a derivative different from the original. Adherents must believe the religion’s premises without picking and choosing.
It seems incumbent on any spiritual seeker to find the story that most corresponds with reality. I believe you will find the real story to be the better story.