January 31, 2013
Philosophy of Pi
— Anil Mundra
Amidst the 2012-end apocalyptic fantasies, the customary commodified Christmastime God-talk, and the usual yarns of saviors and demons in Hollywood's holiday blockbuster season, Life of Pi stood out as an unusually overt pop-culture philosophy of religion teaching moment.
The mainstream critics, though, have been as unanimous in their disdain for the spiritual story framing Life of Pi as they have been in their delight at its seafaring suspense and vivid visuals. They dismissed its "god-bothering" (The New York Times) as "hokum" (Salon), at best "gauzy" (Slate) and at worst "howlingly presumptuous and vapid" (The New Yorker).
Let's just accept at the outset that Life of Pi is not a work of philosophy. The book on which the film is faithfully based barely qualifies as a philosophical novel, devoting many more paragraphs to zoological and maritime issues than religious ones. Still, however sketchily and heavy-handedly, it has brought some big and bona fide philosophy of religion questions into the purview of prime-time—no small feat or cause for such widespread critical complaint.
Perhaps skepticism about spiritual themes is to be expected from film reviewers, paid to be aesthetes above philosophers. But one wishes that they could have brought the same appreciation to the film's simple gestures at an unfathomed religious depth that they did to director Ang Lee's austerely expansive gestures in 3-D. Even if Hollywood has again exercised her inveterate flattening of reality in all its dimensional convolutions, her critics' columns have betrayed a broad-band tone-deafness to overtones easily audible to those with ears to hear.
Many of the critics hasten to distance themselves from protagonist Pi's "slack-jawed piety," per the Times' A.O Scott. Now, a case could be made for the dictum of Pi's father: "If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all." But such a case would need to be made much more deliberately than either the reviewers or the characters have done, and the case would likely have to be a theological one in the end. They surely wouldn't want to see themselves as doing theology; but in swiftly siding with the scientistic father, the critics have betrayed the monotheistic assumptions behind their irreligious postures of Western positivism.
It's the prerogative of a clear-headed post-positivistic pluralism to be "the student and beneficiary of all traditions, and the slave to none," in the words of anthropologist Richard Schweder. Nor is this only the province of post-modern relativism: India—the area both of Schweder's specialization and the protagonist Pi's provenance, a place where Hindus worship at Sufi shrines and Muslim nobles and poets patronize and praise yogis and gurus—offers up persistent and ancient examples of the religiously eclectic inclusivism that allows Pi to give thanks to Vishnu for introducing Christ, and which his purportedly liberal reviewers find so incoherent. The spokespersons of critical cosmopolitan culture share with their fundamentalist adversaries the premise that religion is necessarily an exclusivistic affair. While we ought not efface the history of sectarian conflict or evaporate the serious conceptual tensions in religious pluralism, we ought not take them for granted either.
We should take for granted, however, that the film does not deliver on its hero's promise of a story that "will make you believe in God"—a disappointing outcome for some viewers, perhaps, but not at all a surprising one. There are many ways to doubt whether a single storytelling can cause anyone to believe in anything, especially in God. We might wonder about the coercive capacity of thought, the importance of unconscious and embodied habituation, and so on. But there is another aspect to "make-believe" aside from making people believe: allegories and narratives might be able to express faith commitments irreducibly and better than propositions taken as true-or-false, particularly where some mystery is the matter. Whence another creed that the critics seem to share with the fundamentalists: the characteristically modern notion that religious language need be understood literally.
Without insistence on the literal value of religious language in abstraction from context and culture, Pi's story can be interpreted as a metaphor that sensitizes an audience to insights that would otherwise be missed. Or his mythic narrative might be taken as an existential activity rather than an objective assertion, captured best by one of the few reviewers that I judge to have gotten it right: HuffPost's Nancy Fuchs Kreimer understands the film to be about "living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life... not about preferring one version or another, of 'believing' in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can't help but see the universe as Thou." That's not unlike how the pragmatist philosopher William James or the existentialist theologian Rudolf Bultmann might have seen it. But since the scholarly dithering of philosophers tends not to play well on the big screen, the broad brush-strokes of Pi will have to suffice.
A. O. Scott. "Plenty of Gods, but Just One Fellow Passenger," The New York Times, November 20, 2012.
Andrew O'Hehir. "'Life of Pi': Sugar-coated revelation," Salon, November 19, 2012.
Dana Stevens. "Life of Pi," Slate. November 21, 2012.
Nancy Fuchs Kreimer. "'Life of Pi': Can a Movie Make You Believe in God?" The Huffington Post.
Richard Brody. "Life of Piety," The New Yorker: The Front Row Blog, November 28, 2012.
Richard Schweder. "Post-Nietszchian Anthropology." In Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation, edited by Michael Krausz (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp. 99-140.
Anil Mundra is completing his MA in the Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is himself a former perpetrator of broad mass-media brushstrokes.