Life of Pi: Spirituality and Skepticism

(SPOILERS)

I’m usually late in seeing movies, and I only recently watched Life of Pi. What a fantastic movie, but if you’ve seen it you already know that.

Those of you who have read my books know that the interplay between spirituality and skepticism, faith and reason, is one of the major themes of The Ahmbren Chronicles. The main story arc in When Dragons Die reflects, in parts, my own struggles with faith and skepticism.

A friend of mine told me I should watch Life of Pi. He told me it was a life changing story, one that made him rethink his perspective on the role of religion in the universe. Intrigued, I acquired purchased myself a copy and sat down for a Saturday morning matinee show on our couch with a nice homemade popcorn. (As an aside, you know it’s cheaper to buy a movie than it is to go out as a couple to the theater and have popcorn and drinks?)

The question posed at the beginning to the reported (really, the audience) is: “Do you believe in God?” And then Pi proceeds to tell a story that will supposedly make him a believer. I’m uncertain whether it was the writer’s attempt to make the audience a believer or not, or whether the audience is taken “out of the game”, so to speak. I also don’t get the impression that the reporter is made a convert. Or perhaps he is.

My wife said the movie was a love letter to God. I came away from it thinking it was an ode to skepticism. I like that the mother and father characters, the first being the believer and the second being the rational skeptic, were both portrayed in a positive light.

During the main telling of the tale, the film had a surreal quality. There were many expansive moments inspiring awe, for the universe and for God. The music, the star filled heavens at night, and the star filled reflection in the ocean gave the appearance of Pi floating in the middle of the cosmos. The power and might of the storms, which induced Pi into religious fervor at the display of God’s (or nature’s) might. The island of meerkats stretched the boundaries of credulity, which I interpreted as intentional.

There were two great moments of impact for me in the film, both towards the end. But the setup for each happens in the beginning.

The key defining moment of the film is, before the voyage, when Pi tries to feed the caged tiger. Pi is drunk with religions, and he tells his father he can see the tiger’s soul. His dad teaches him an important lesson by making him watch the tiger pull a goat through the cage bars (I think it was a goat) and eat him. He then told Pi that the tiger is an animal, and that any semblance of a soul was his own imagination projecting humanity into what he perceived in the tiger’s face.

Then we have the incredible tale of him at sea, surviving with the tiger. We later learn that the tiger wasn’t real, but a projection of him self. I would argue that the tiger also represents God in this story.

The first moment of impact for me was before the big reveal, when we still thought the tiger was real. When they reach shore, the tiger wanders off into the jungle without so much as looking back at Pi. Pi is crushed by this, and he hearkens back to his father telling him that any bond, any “soul” the tiger had was just an illusion of Pi’s own projection into the tiger. Nature was unconscious and unforgiving. It stood on its own, and its reality was not transformed by Pi’s projection into it. Pi’s perception of his relationship with the tiger was purely his own experience, and not shared with the animal.

In that moment, I saw the parallels with Pi’s projection into the universe: the cosmos, the starry sky, the storms… all of these were just that: the universe and storms. Pi’s experience of them was purely subjective, and his “view” of God was purely projective. In the end, his experience with the tiger was the same as his experience with the universe. In a sense, the tiger was God.

And then, minutes later in the film, we find that none of it was real. The tiger was himself. The orangutan was his mother, and the hyena the evil cook. He had made up a story. The tiger wasn’t real. In a sense, the movie argues that God is not real either.

When the reporter questions him about the first story, Pi talks about “variables and constants” (my words, not the movie’s words). He says the essential truths about both are the same: the ship sank, his family died, and he survived. Then he asks, “Which version of the story do you prefer?”

The reporter leaves, and my interpretation is that he leaves not converted to faith by Pi. The movie made me sad in some regard. I saw Pi as a tragic character, one who chose to believe in the fairy tale to make the truth of existence more palatable. I felt sorry for Pi, not out of ridicule, but out of sympathy. I resonate with him in that even as, in my own life, I’ve abandoned religion in favor of skeptical inquiry, I continue to believe in… something. It’s a feeling of faith, although I don’t intellectually acknowledge it as belief.

The Life of Pi reminded me of my own struggles differentiating faith from belief. This struggle with spirituality is reflected in my own books, in The Ahmbren Chronicles. The first trilogy, When Dragons Die, is very much about the abandonment of religious beliefs and embracing philosophical principles in favor of narrated mythologies. It’s about the reliance on the self, reason, and fellowship in each other over institutionalized religion and gods. It’s about a commitment to truth over what we desire reality to be. In this case, Pi can be seen as a failure. He fails to escape belief.

On the other hand, I’ve often said belief is not a choice. You choose your methodology for accepting or rejecting information. You program your mind to process information (or your mind is programmed for you) and how you evaluate it. Belief, however… you either do or you do not. I sometimes hear Christians say, “Well, why don’t you try believing in God?” Or, “Why don’t you try believing in the Church?” It doesn’t work that way. To pretend to do so is a lie against the self. It’s dishonest. I was a believer for most of my life, until one day I wasn’t. I had been growing increasingly skeptical about some of my own faith experiences, and becoming more exposed to skepticism as a methodology (part of which is understanding how we are masters of self-deception, and we’re programmed to believe that which validates our beliefs). And during that, I realized at one point I just simply didn’t believe in religion anymore. I didn’t, and don’t, believe that anything in the physical universe, any phenomenon, requires a supernatural explanation.

But even though the internal state of belief faded, the feeling of faith remained.  Intellectually, I don’t believe in an afterlife, or any god described by religion. I no longer interpret meaning from coincidences, nor do I interpret meaning or purpose from religious feelings… which still linger. Faith is also an experience, and I still feel the emotional states of faith. And so, I still believe… in something. I’ve just stopped trying to define it or understand it, beyond believing what it is not. It’s not anything you can tell me about.

But in some ways, I feel something like Pi. After having been confronted with a loss of faith that has humbled me in my prior presumptions of understanding, much like the tiger for Pi reflecting his cosmic God as being only a projection of himself, I still have that indescribable feeling of faith that I also can’t let go of. To pretend it is not there is also a lie against the self. But it is a feeling, not knowledge.

And so, when I get around to writing the sequel to When Dragons Die (after I finish its prequel, Myth and Incarnation), I plan to continue the story of faith. The old religions are dead in Ahmbren, but Arda continues as a character of faith. As a world, and an overall series, The Ahmbren Chronicles isn’t anti faith, or anti spirituality, despite its dim view of religion. It simply takes the position that faith and spirituality are real inner experiences, and too intimate to capture in words.

Until next time,
Kyle

 

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