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A pretty fiction

"I have a story that will make you believe in God" -- a promise made by a 'spry, bright-eyed elderly man' to a writer's-block-stricken author, as they make polite conversation in a busy coffee house in India. And it is precisely this 'story' that lifts Yann Martel's fictional author [1] from the mire of despondent unproductivity and occupies the remainder of Life of latest venture into the world of contemporary literature.

That this novel, like my previous venture, should be so pre-occupied with religion, prompted some hasty generalisation on my part -- until Mr. W reminded me of the high chance of selection bias in a sample based on recommendations made by people who know me. That said, the attitudes and ideas reflected by the two books, as examples of what 'the rest of the world' are reading at the moment, provide some indication that God -- His existence or otherwise, and what to do about it -- is still a burning question. And the two such distinctly different approaches to this topic make for an interesting compare and contrast.

So, does spry old man's bold claim hold true? Well, yes -- in something of a devastatingly subversive sense, I rather think it does.

The character of Pi himself -- a young Indian boy growing up around his father's zoo in Pondicherry -- has no problems whatsoever believing in God. He self-identifies as a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim: "I just want to love God" (p90). His (unreligious) parents are bemused but accepting: "You can't reprimand a boy for wanting to love God" (p91).

When he is 16, political unrest in India prompts the family to sell up and emigrate to Canada. The Japanese freighter which is transporting them -- and an assortment of the zoo's inhabitants which they are escorting to new owners abroad -- goes down mid-Atlantic, taking with it all but Pi and a selection of animals of varying ferocity, who find themselves in an uneasy, unnatural co-existence on one of the lifeboats. It is not long before it is just him and Richard Parker -- the zoo's Bengal tiger! In order to survive, Pi must use all the zoo-keeping experience and insight into animal psychology that he has garnered growing up; crucially, he must assert himself as the alpha male of the unlikely 'pack' of two. And that challenge is on top of the already mountainous task of feeding and watering both of them until the hoped-for rescue.

I'll leave the plot there, and tread carefully so as not to undermine the rather genius denouement -- by far the most expertly-delivered section of the book. (Those who haven't read it and would like to might prefer to stop here, lest my caution prove inadequate and I inadvertently give too much away).

Early on, the book got me thinking ("her hat!", you cry as one with Pozzo) about the tricky, sensitive subject of religious plurality and how, corporately, to respond to it. Pi's syncretic solution is one possibililty; I wonder whether Martel had it in mind to promote such idealism, or to expose it. In a way (let the New Critics object all they will -- I'm lowbrow enough to still care about authorial intent) it makes all the difference to my assessment of him as an author. He so succeeds in the latter that I almost want that to be his motive...

Asserting all faiths as equally true seems inevitably to amount to asserting that they are universally false -- in the important bits, at any rate -- at least if one accepts the law of noncontradiction. From a Christian perspective (sticking to what I know), investigable truth claims, particularly historic events, are central in providing a rational basis for faith. Paul does not shy away from this fact:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
How strange, to those early Christians, would Pi's notion of following Christ have seemed, which allows him to say without blinking: "There have been Christians and Muslims in India for centuries! Some people say Jesus is buried in Kashmir" (p95), and to see this as somehow justifying his faith rather than comprehensively undermining it.

To me, then, religious pluralism of the relativistic variety portrayed in the novel (as opposed to, for example, one of respectful co-existence of adherents) is simply not as appealing an ideal as it might initially appear. The only people whose beliefs are really honoured in such a system are those wise secularists able to see through the crazy dogmatism of all us foolish believers. An illustration that frequently gets wheeled out in such discussions is that of the blind men and the elephant: each man is certain what the elephant looks like ('like a branch', says he by the trunk, 'like a fan', he by the ear) but in reality they each have only a part of the whole. There are problems with this, as Lesslie Newbigin observes:
. . . the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions. (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 9-10)
Besides, the practical outworking of an agreement to view all truth claims as equally (in)valid, does not, I think, produce genuine harmony. For a start, it slams the door in the face of dialogue; there is no longer anything to discuss. Is there not a danger that, in place of a respectful exchange of ideas, with a shared commitment to truth at its heart, you end up with a shared indifference to truth and an 'each to his own' entrenchment of separation? I for one would prefer a society in which individuals are affirmed and respected equally, whilst differences are acknowledged and explored -- with a recognition that conflicting claims are not equally true and a corporate commitment to seeking out a right understanding and helping one another towards the same goal. I fully acknowledge that I speak from a position of strong, reasoned faith, and confidence in the object of that faith -- but it is precisely this confidence which makes me unafraid to have the conversation, and it is the immense value that (I believe) God places on all people which emphasises the importance of tolerance, equality and grace in ones dealings with those who don't share ones beliefs. Indeed, many principles for exploring differences in a godly way can be found in the Bible itself:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18) your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16) 
However, all this talk about truth is really a massive diversion from the novel. As I read on, it became increasingly apparent that the central thesis is not to defend Pi's syncretic belief system as true -- far from it -- but to promote it as beautiful: religion provides us with beautiful stories, far more beautiful than the one we're confronted with in every day reality. And since (so implies the book) it makes no practical difference whether we believe these stories or not, why would we not? Why not chose beauty over truth and be happier for it?

And this is what I found so intriguing about the book when held up against that aforementioned other recent book I recently read. If the take-home message of Shadow of the Wind was "God doesn't exist but that doesn't mean I can't hate Him", then the take-home message of Life of Pi was "God doesn't exist but that doesn't mean I can't love Him". [2]

Martel delivers this thesis with such aplomb that were I not a 'believer' I could almost imagine signing up to his reality-eschewing selective accedence. However, as a 'believer' I find the suggestion deeply unsatisfying. I suppose it is easy for me to say, because on examination of such evidence as I have examined, I have seen reason for faith. I chose (and seek to daily choose) the story I believe to be most true. But, to my delight, it also turned out (and is turning out) to be the most beautiful story. So I have no incentive to seek a fiction: I love God because I believe that He does exist and has revealed Himself as worthy of more love than I could ever muster for Him in a lifetime. As John puts it, I love because He first loved me:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

[1] I rather liked the seemless blending from the 'Author's note' into the story -- although, in my more impatient moments I've a tendency to skip anything that looks like pre-amble, and I don't think I'm alone in that, so it seems a bit of a gamble on Martel's part. Someone close to me, who doesn't read very many novels, was, rather adorably, carried along so thoroughly that they thought the story was 'based on actual events'. We had a little talk about literary devices.

[2] Two seemingly different agendas which, on evaluation, turn out to have more uniting them than separating them. I guess it's just easier to find common ground on the premise 'God doesn't exist' than on the premise 'God does exist' -- because the follow-up question of 'what to do about it' seems to somehow matter substantially more in the second case.