It will be fascinating to hear the discussions about spirituality following the film Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee and based on Yann Martel‚??s novel of the same name. I‚??d like to avoid commenting on the film-making (leaving that to the critics), but instead as a pastor, unpack a few spiritual themes which saturate the story.
Pi, or Piscine Patel, is the primary character. He is the sole-survivor of a shipwreck and spends over 200 days in a life boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. His primary travel companion is a Bengal tiger. The lifeboat becomes their ‚??habitat‚?? and an alpha-male must emerge if they are to cohabitate and survive.
Pi understands habitats and animals because he is the son of a rationalist zoo keeper, who tells Pi that ‚??religion is darkness.‚?? The first part of Pi‚??s story details his life in the zoo and his faithful attempt to follow three religions at one time. It makes up a third of the novel, but only a small portion of the film. In the book, Martel uses zoology as a backdrop for theology. Religion is like a zoo: there are habitats, competition over resources, and people on the outside looking in on the spectacle. Pi is no mere observer of religion though; he is a participant and considers himself to be Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all at once ‚?? something that greatly irritates many around him.
Immediately, we see the metaphorical connections. How do three religions co-exist in the habitat of Pi‚??s own soul? Is Pi spiritually adrift? In the book and the movie Pi is pressed to choose a religion. His father, using reason, tells Pi that ‚??choosing to follow all religions is the same as choosing no religion.‚?? Pi‚??s soul is a zoological habitat, like the life boat in which his three religions, the zoo animals, and even his own inner animal must be sorted to survive. If these issues are not settled in boat, he will not survive. If they are not settled in his soul, then survival has no purpose.
Pi‚??s survival with the tiger is, rationally speaking, unbelievable. He admits as much after rescue. Competing stories emerge about what really happened, but Pi insists his story is true. Since no alterative stories change the reality of the sinking ship or the suffering he endured while lost at sea, Pi believes that asking ‚??what is true‚?? is pointless.
Life of Pi asks the same thing of spirituality as a mathematician might ask of the symbol PI -- what is PI really? At its core, we only know PI to be an unresolved quantity. But more important than what PI is, we understand what PI does so we are able to put this unresolved quantity to work for us. The spirituality in Life of Pi comes to us as an unresolved quantity. We are asked to focus on the utility of a religious narrative rather getting tangled in the ‚??irresolvable essence‚?? which Reason might demand of us.
In many ways, culture is adrift on the sea of Rationalism. Reason attempts to segregate our habitats by way of reductionist thinking. It‚??s true, Pi needed reason to survive, but to give survival meaning he needed something much different. He needed a guiding narrative. I think most of us know what that feels like.
In this sense, I believe that Life of Pi will be remembered as a spiritual masterpiece.