Saturday, February 23, 2013

Of Tigers and Gods:
An alternative review of “The Life of Pi”

In many of the reviews I've read on "The Life of Pi" they bring up the perplexing question of how this story can "make one believe in God" as it appears to state that it does. I am not going to summarize the movie here. I am expecting that you have seen it already and are also puzzling over this question. Also, I have not read the book so this is based solely on the movie. And I am not addressing what the author or the director or the screenwriter may have been trying to convey but simply what the movie itself says to me.

In the Jewish sacred books of the Prophets is the story of the prophet Elijah who had been hearing the voice of God and speaking God's words fearlessly to the people. Elijah reached a point of great despair and went up into a cave high in the mountains. A fierce wind tore at the face of the mountain as the prophet hid in a crevice of the rocks. But God was not in the wind. Then a great earthquake shook the mountain; but God was not in the earthquake. Then came a raging fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire, in the utter silence of the devastation that spread out around him, the prophet heard a thin whisper behind him. But in this story God gave no answers; he did not explain; he did not comfort. He simply demands to know what the prophet is doing there.

In the exquisitely crafted and stunningly filmed Life of Pi, the boy Pi falls in love with God, first as Krishna in whose being the entire magnificence of the universe exists and has its being. He then falls in love with God as Jesus, the loving savior who sacrifices himself for humanity. He then falls in love with God as Allah who one may encounter in acts of prayer throughout the hours of ones daily life.

But the film also opens with some questions as well. Why, Pi asks, would God sacrifice the innocent Christ to save all the guilty people? The priest tells him it is because of God's love. But Pi still finds the question troubling.

Also at the beginning of the film we are told that this story will make one believe in God. Yet as the story progresses it in no way provides any of the assurances we have come to expect God to manifest. There are no miraculous solutions or even explanations or meaning to any of the intensely terrible situations and conditions through which Pi must find his way. The entire film poses a great overarching question in the mind of the viewer: how does this story make you believe in God? Like the prophet on the mountain, we cannot find God here in the ways we thought we would.

Perhaps this God in whom Pi believes is not the one or ones presented to us by our separate religions, the one about whom we argue and dispute, the one that many of us believe does not even exists. This is not the God who we confine and display from the zoos of our religions, to whom we offer our worship from a safe distance. Pi wants to break through those barriers that separate him from the tiger.

Pi's father owns a zoo where many beautiful and dangerous animals live and people come to view and experience their magnificence and diversity. But as his father also demonstrates to Pi as a small boy, the reality of the life of those animals is a very different reality from the one we experience.

The juxtaposition of Pi's life at the zoo and his exploration of the divine in the different religions which surround him in Pondicherry suggests that perhaps the religions are also a place where we try to approach and experience another reality that is as fierce, incomprehensible, and majestically beautiful as the tiger: God. And as the movie moves into the extraordinarily wonderful theme, Pi is adrift on an infinite ocean that can both destroy him and enchant him with unimagined glory and splendor. The tiger with whom he is bound by their mutual circumstances both terrifies and fascinates him. It is the tiger who brings out his will to survive, who is the companion in the absolute isolation of a universe utterly unconscious of their existence. It is the tiger he comes to love. It is the tiger who gives meaning to the meaninglessness of the ordeal they traverse together.

In the end we are ourselves thrown into an overwhelmingly devastating and horrifying alternate description of the experience through which the boy had been forced to survive. And he asks us which story we prefer, the one with the tiger or the one without. It is the same, he says, with God. Another enigmatic statement with many possible and intriguing interpretations.

The one that comes first to mind is that one believes in God because living consciously through our lives - as we as humans must - is too terrible to endure without belief in God. The belief in God in itself provides dimensions of meaning and purpose to an essentially meaningless and purposeless existence. Seeing life through the lens of God changes the experience of that life. We can choose to perceive our life with God or without God and the one with God, while still terrible, painful, and incomprehensible, can become a place of grandeur, beauty, and meaning.

It is not the experience of our life but the perception of our life, the interpretation of it in which we choose to live. We live our lives not so much in the experiences as in the vast inner residual memories of our experiences, shaped by our frames of reference and constructs of meaning. In this interpretation of Pi's concluding statement, it is belief in God which transforms life from meaningless horror to meaningful terrible transcendence. Not the existence of God or the intervention of God but the mere belief itself.

Many viewers, I think, did not completely abandon their own frames of reference to take the entire journey of the film on its own terms. They were looking for a proof of the existence of God, and expecting some sort of great divine interpretation. But the film did not set out to prove the existence of God, nor did it even set out to prove belief in the existence of God. It is not trying to solve the problem of whether God does or does not exist. That wasn't the destination this journey was concerned with. Though it was what some viewers, coming from a western mind-set, may have expected. And with those expectations, the conclusion is, indeed, weak and unsatisfying.

But I do not see the journey of the film situated in that conversation at all. I see another interpretation in the way the story unfolds. It is an interpretation which confers an aura of magnificence to the experience of life whether there is a God who exists or does not exist. It is an interpretation which works either way.

On one side of this perspective I see the belief in God which in and of itself is an agent of transformation. Not belief in the existence of God, but simply the belief in God, the inclusion of a conception of God in the core structures of your perceptions of life. In this interpretation, it is the nature of the conception of God that matters, not the existence of God as such. With a powerful enough conception, the entire fabric of ones inner perceptions are transformed.

On the other side there is the perception of a God who exists and who shatters all expectations and conceptions, and yet who transforms our experience of our lives utterly and completely. Our lives are not changed, but our experience of our lives is entirely altered. And it is in that profound and overwhelming re-configuration of our experience of our lives that we find ourselves believing in God.

I see both these possible endings to the journey of the film to belief in God, to be equally satisfying and equally profoundly thought provoking. These two perspectives each provide their own respective answers to the original question of the film that it is a story that will make you believe in God - either a belief that in itself is transformative, or as a belief in a God who is as incomprehensible and awe inspiring as a tiger or a storm at sea - a God who takes the raw experiences of your life and shapes them into a story of magnificence and meaning.