A few weeks ago I posted comments about the acclaimed motion picture, “Life of Pi.” Now that I have read some of the book, I can add comments about that rendition of “Pi.”
(Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss the way the book ends, though I’ll only include as much detail as is necessary to make my point.)
In the final scenes Pi talks with two Japanese officials who are investigating a maritime disaster in which Pi was cast adrift in a lifeboat. He tells them an incredible tale about sharing this little boat with a tiger and other animals. They express skepticism about the veracity of this account, and Pi replies:
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want a dry, yeastless factuality.” (Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 381.)
Pi then presents them with an alternate version of the maritime disaster and its aftermath, recounting this grim, depressing tale in a flat, straightforward manner.
He also suggests that it’s impossible for them to know which story is correct, and that knowing which is correct would not make any practical difference whatsoever. They agree. He then asks:
“‘Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question …’ Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’ Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’ Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God’” (pp. 398-99).
Earlier in the book, Pi prepares us for this crucial scene by implying that a theory of reality that has God in it is “the better story” compared to “yeastless factuality.”
“I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love! My God!’ – and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story” (pp. 80-81).
So this is the challenge to secular humanists – to write a better story, or at least a darned good one. I’m reminded of Steve Martin’s rip on humanism, “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pci-YSLrFIA).
The challenge for theists on the other hand is to see that there are many “good stories” about life and the cosmos. Thus they can draw strength from the story which is beloved by their faith community without ridiculing other foundational tales – including the ones that creative humanists are writing this very minute.
Roger Christan Schriner
To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.
When an experience is beyond our normal frame of reference, then hyperbole and metaphor may give us more truth and empathy than the raw details.