A while ago my wife and I had a rare opportunity for a date. We went to the cinema and saw Life of Pi. We were probably among the last to view the movie in the theater, but we enjoyed it very much. I say among the last because not too long after we saw it I read a new post by Joel Miller, a co-religionist and excellent blogger at Patheos, in which he panned the movie. I was a bit surprised, not that someone would dislike a movie I enjoyed, but by the reason for disliking it (one of them anyway) which he gave and which was echoed by several of his readers in the comments section. If you haven’t seen it, Life of Pi is a story about a journalist who goes to meet a man (Pi) who, he is told, can make him believe in God. Pi tells him a harrowing story about embarking on a sea voyage with his family and a host of zoo animals. The ship sinks in a storm, everyone else is lost, and the teenaged Pi is trapped on a life boat with a Bengal tiger. Pi survives the tiger and the sea and eventually makes it to land. The journalist is amazed by the story but confused as to how it is supposed to make him believe in God. Then Pi tells him in a few sentences a very ugly and prosaic alternative version of the same story involving murder and cannibalism; a version which, if true, makes the tiger story a mere metaphor of actual events. “Which story do you prefer?” Pi asks the journalist when he has finished his tale. “The first one” he replies. “And so it goes with God.” Pi returns. Mr. Miller contends the point of the movie is that reality and metaphor have equal weight or value in terms of truth and we can choose which we like better as a guide for life. This is certainly true if you grant that Pi’s tiger story is not the true story. However, the film does not require this, it gives no definitive indication either way. The same story is told twice. Once it is extraordinary and miraculous. The other time it is prosaic and brutal. Pi never suggests that the second story is true or the first a metaphor but neither does he tell the journalist which to believe. The journalist must choose and so must we. Herein lies an irony. Contrary to Pi’s agnostic journalist, Mr. Miller and those Christians who echo his objection make the same assumption about which story is true in the movie that materialists make about which story is true of the world; they choose the one that is least challenging to our ordinary experience.
Perhaps this choice is indicative of how deeply American Christianity is infected with the assumptions of materialism. When the object of our consideration is not obviously related to our theological commitments, we recur to the same psychologized, mechanistic mode of thinking employed by most of the secular culture around us. We find Pi’s mystical story just as dubious as atheists find ours and, like them, are able to supply evidence for this conviction. The result of this way of thinking is not consequence-free. If Pi’s story of the tiger is false; Pi, the seemingly gentle, fundamentally Hindu syncretist, is merely a murderer who psychologizes his own depravity and that of the world around him because he cannot face it. He is not a man of faith at all. He does not really believe in God. His beauty is illusion. To accept this conclusion in the context of a movie who’s existential ambiguities closely mirror those of the real world is to validate the materialist’s objection to Christianity. It is, in fact, to reiterate it. But what if Pi’s fantastic story is true? In the first place, Pi is a more beautiful person if this is the case. He is not a murderer or delusional but, like Job, a man whose faith in God does not wither in the face of tremendous loss and suffering. Since the evidence is split why choose otherwise? More than this, to embrace the tiger story is to embrace faith and hope. It is to open yourself to the possibility of the miraculous; a world in which God is present and active. This is the testimony and experience of Orthodoxy. God is present and active in the world. By the Holy Spirit He is present in bread and wine; He is present in the waters of baptism; He is present in icons, and relics; He is present in people. He is even present in a boat with a syncretist and a tiger.