On Friday I took my boys to see the new Ang Lee film Life of Pi. We all thought it was mostly wonderful, and certainly one of the most visually stunning films any of us had ever seen. I’d like to talk about the provocative religious message in the movie, but it’s hard to do that without mentioning the ending, which puts everything that came before it in a particular light. If you read the 2001 Yann Martel novel on which the film is based, or don’t intend to see the movie, or don’t care about the spoiler, read below the jump.

For those who don’t know the plot, here’s a bare-bones outline. The title character, Pi Patel, is a native of India who tells the story in flashback to a journalist in Canada, where he lives in the present day. We see young Pi growing up in Pondicherry as a religiously engaged child. He is raised as Hindu, but with no particular piety; his father is a rationalist and a zookeeper, and his mother holds on to her religion as a link to her estranged family. Later, young Pi encounters a Catholic priest, who teaches him about Jesus. Pi comes to accept Jesus and ask for baptism, but he sees no reason why he should give up Hinduism. Then he begins to practice as a Muslim, yet still considers himself a Hindu and a Christian. The boy’s rationalist father tells him that if he believes in everything, that’s no different from believing in nothing. The father also tells him that he ought to trust science, not religion — but his mother counters by saying that science tells us about the world, but religion tells us about the heart.

The family sets out to emigrate to Canada with their menagerie of wild animals, which the father is planning to sell in North America. A terrible storm blows up at sea off the Philippines, sinking their freighter. Pi and four animals, including a Bengal tiger, are the only survivors. Soon enough, only Pi and the tiger are left. They drift together across the Pacific for most of a year, encountering at one point a floating island of carnivorous algae, before at last washing ashore on a Mexican beach. The emaciated tiger wanders into the jungle, leaving exhausted Pi to be discovered on the beach, and taken to the hospital.

Two Japanese investigators from the shipping company arrive at the hospital to interview Pi, for the sake of finding out why the freighter sank. After hearing his fantastical tale, they tell him they do not and cannot believe him. It’s just too strange, his story. He insists that it’s true, but they remain skeptical, and ask him to tell them a story that they can believe. Pi then gives a far, far darker account of the freighter’s sinking, and in this one, there are four survivors: the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg, Pi’s mother, and Pi. The cook kills the sailor and Pi’s mother, and cuts their bodies up for food and to use as bait to catch fish. Pi kills the evil cook, who is disgusted by what he has done. But Pi himself is horrified by his deed, even though it was necessary to save his own life.

The Japanese visitors say then that the animals from the first story represent the actual people who suffered and died; the tiger represents Pi’s own natural instinct, which horrified him. The story of the lifeboat with the tiger inside and the boy floating on a raft tethered to it, because he (the boy) was afraid of being consumed by the tiger, is, in this reading, a metaphor for the human condition. Satisfied with this account, the Japanese leave Pi’s bedside.

In the present day, the journalist asks the older Pi which of the stories is true. Pi turns the question back at him by asking which one he prefers to believe. The tiger story, the journalist says.

“So it is with God,” says Pi. And that’s where the film ends.

Obviously as a Christian I don’t share the film’s pantheistic worldview, but I found it philosophically engaging all the same. When the boy Pi begins meeting with the Catholic priest, he tells the priest that it makes no sense that a loving God would send his only Son, an innocent man to die for the sins of others. The priest gently tells Pi that God so loved the world that He did exactly that, and that the important thing is not to try to make logical sense of the story, but to focus on the sacrificial divine love at the heart of it. If I remember correctly from the film, the priest explains to Pi that some things are beyond our ability to grasp intellectually, but God comes to us in ways that we, in our limited state, can relate to.

The implication, clearly, is that God is beyond all our categories, and our way of talking and thinking about Him and His ways is not the same thing as God. I took the priest to be telling Pi that God desires not to be understood but to be loved, and to show us His love. The world, then, is filled with sacramental mystery, and must be known through the heart.

Aside from the heterodoxy of Pi’s pantheism, it seems to me that this is an Orthodox Christian way of seeing things.

On the other hand, it is equally plausible that the second version of Pi’s adventure is the true one, and the first one a myth Pi created to help him bear the overwhelming horror of what he endured on that lifeboat — the murder of the sailor and his mother by the cook, and his (Pi’s) killing of the cook to save his own life. It is easy to believe that Pi, a sensitive boy with a religious imagination, had to invent this myth to bear, psychologically, the pain of his trials, and to find transcendent meaning in them.

The Japanese visitors could not accept the near-miraculous story to which Pi bore witness. It did not make sense to them. They commanded him to tell them a version of events that they could believe. I don’t know about the novel, but in the film, the truth of what happened in the ocean is left tantalizingly unclear. The older man Pi says he believes God is real and brought him through this ordeal — and even that God sent him that tiger to give him something to care for, to keep his hope alive. I see four possibilities here:

1. Pi is telling the literal truth about what happened, but told the Japanese a conscious lie as an act of mercy when he saw that they could not bear the weight of the miraculous tiger tale, or maybe as an act of self-deliverance (that is, to give them what they want to get them out of his hospital room so he could get some rest).

2. Pi unconsciously created the tiger myth to hide the unbearable truth of what happened on the lifeboat from himself, but told the truthful horror story to the Japanese as a disburdening confession. He then receded unconsciously into believing the myth because it helped him live with and relate to the mystery of evil — including the knowledge of what human beings, including himself, are capable of.

3. Pi knows perfectly well that the tiger tale is a myth, and what the myth symbolizes about himself, nature, and humankind. But he chooses to live by the myth because he recognizes that the facts may be confected, but they tell deeper truths about life, the universe, and God, in a way that finite human beings can relate to.

4. Pi is honestly not sure where truth ends and fiction begins. The tiger tale might have happened exactly as he remembered it. The tale of murder he gave the skeptical Japanese might instead be the truth. He can’t be sure, and there is no way to ever know for certain. But he chooses to embrace the life-giving, hope-inspiring version of what happened on the sea, because it benefits him, including helping him to be a loving husband and father.

Personally, I suspect the truth is No. 4, but I’m not sure why. I need to think about it further. Which of the four do you think are correct? Are there any other possibilities that I haven’t thought of?

Anyway, each possibility expresses a point of view on what religion is, and is for. Like Pi, we are all survivors of shipwreck, seeking to make sense of what happened to us, and what we are supposed to do now.