Can you imagine being shipwrecked, lost in the middle of the Pacific, and without a Map? On top of that, let’s say your only companion winds up being a 450 pound Bengal tiger. Yikes. Meet Pi, the main character of Yann Martel’s fantasy fiction, Life of Pi.
Pi is a teenage boy from India who grew up as the son of a zookeeper. When his parents sell the zoo, the whole family ships off for Canada, along with most of the animals. Tragedy strikes, the whole ship sinks, and Pi finds himself on a life boat with a handful of dangerous animals. In the span of minutes his whole life is demolished and he has to fight to survive.
Growing up in India, Pi describes his spiritual journey as simply wanting to “love god”. He starts practicing three different religions at the same time, finding value in them all. Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. As a castaway, he tries to process the disaster he experiences as well as the meaning of life, by blending all three perspectives. Pi’s character seems to think that Hindus, Muslims and Christians are just different variations of each other. It’s simple – God is love.
A mile wide and an inch deep
Pi’s way of seeing the world seems like it works on the surface. He claims that God is love, which is at the heart of the novel. He seems to insist that all the supposed disagreements between different belief systems can be summed up with some witty jokes (there’s a comical passage where a hindu, muslim, and catholic confront Pi) and fixed if we were all like pi, the people who really just want to love God. But if you reject all the specific descriptions of God found in Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, which at their core are contradictory you wind up with something vague, watery, indescribable, imperceptible, unknowable. God becomes this broad concept which covers over everything . . . but there is nothing of substance beneath the surface, no personality from which all others spring, no creator from which all life comes. No great cause . . . simply love. It has breadth but it has no depth. Who is God? Why is the world broken? What is the purpose of life? These questions and many others can be only partially answered, if at all for Pi or any of us if we try to mix Jesus with other gods.
Consider this passage from C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity
I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F, an old hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about HIm. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’
Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. . . Now, Theology (what we think about God) is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really are in touch with God . . . [and] if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion- all about feeling God in nature, and so on- is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from a beach. But you will never get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you certainly will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.
Getting back to God
What is clear from the book is that Pi is lost. He is lost physically. He has no map. He is lost spiritually. He has no “map of life”. He tries all these different religious approaches, calling out to various gods. One day he prays to Vishnu, another to Allah, and again, to Jesus. By trying to relate to God in all these different ways, he rejects them. By trying to find truth in all of them, he denies all of them. We cannot get East by following a map leading West, and so on.
Humanity is lost. We are all, because of sin, separated from right relationship with God. But we won’t get back to Him by “many paths” unless they are paths that go through Jesus. John 14:6 “For I am the way, and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
1 John 4:8 says that “whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.” In that regard, the core idea of this book has an aspect of truth. But let’s continue to 1 John 4:9-10 “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
There is one Map, the Bible, and one Savior which the entire book points to – Jesus Christ. So be careful when you read Life of Pi. The writing is good, and there are some Biblical themes throughout it. But the theology is dangerous. Don’t get lost in the sea of life without the map of God’s word.