Friday, January 15, 2010

Truth and Consequences

"Bapu Ghandi said, 'All religions are true.' I just want to love God," I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

I'm currently teaching the novel Life of Pi to my Hammond freshmen - what a wonderful book! This line is from a rather humorous scene wherein the main character, Pi, explains why he wants to practice Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, a pandit, priest and imam stand around him arguing over which one religion he ought to choose. It's been interesting to hear how a variety of students respond to this statement.

The book itself offers beautiful descriptions of the three religions in question, and with the character Pi as a centerpoint, it is easy to see what the three worldviews have in common. Hindus, Christians and Muslims are all seeking the divine, they all pray, they all have beautiful and inspiring rituals, they all tell grand stories that help us understand our own stories, and they all uphold a set of lofty moral ideals. So what's the problem? Isn't each worldview true in its own way?

It seems to me that our culture has lost sight of a very important word: truth. In an effort to be nice to each other, to understand one another's points of view without prejudice, we've watered down what truth means. I was watching Pushing Daisies on TV a couple of years back, and two investigators were knocking on the door of a suspect; one of them expressed some doubts and sympathies towards the woman they were about to interrogate. The character Emerson then says, "Truth ain't a bunch of puppies running around and you get to pick the one you want. There's only one truth and it has come a'knockin'." I think you get a much fairer picture of truth when you cross Pi with Agent Emerson.

Here's one example to ponder: Hinduism says that "God" is an essence, an energy, a universal soul of which we are a part. Christianity and Islam say that "God" is a Person who created non-divine objects and beings that are distinctly separate from himself. These two God-concepts are not equal and cannot be equally true. Do a Christian at church and a Hindu at temple look essentially the same? Yes. Are they praying to the same Entity? No.

I've heard the illustration of an elephant, surrounded by blind men. One touches his trunk and says it is a snake; one touches his foot and says it is a tree; one touches his tail and says it is a rope; one walks right under his belly and says nothing is there at all. Maybe we are all striving to understand the elephant, to love the elephant as Pi insists. OK, but the guy who says it's a rope is still wrong. Actually, they are all wrong, but maybe the first one is closer - at least he recognizes a living animal. What they all need to do is walk a bit further and feel a bit more. If they were to explore four or five parts of the creature's body, certainly they could come closer to figuring out it's an elephant. Blind seekers ought not to be lazy.

Which brings me to one more line from Pi that I really like. He's talking about religious people and atheists when he says that "they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them - and then they leap." I wish more people would spend more time walking on the legs of reason. It is not reasonable to assume that contradictory ideas of God can all be true at the same time. We can all live together and be nice to each other, but somebody's going to turn up wrong at the end.

Note to students: If by chance you have decided to blog about this same quote, and your opinion is contrary to mine, that is OK. But back yourself up. Don't just vent - explain and support your point of view.


Rick said...

I'm of the mind that there's a distinction between fact and truth, and that Truth is much more a person than a reasoned conclusion. And that within relationship with the Person, the notion of Truth takes on a less certain, less clear, more contradictory color than before. But that's just me.

Rick said...

From your post, there's more Truth in the Leap than in the reasoned path leading to it... something like that.

Caryn Kirk said...

Sounds good to me, but deeper than I was going for. What I see when I teach is that no one seems to ponder the distinction between truth or fact anymore. No one wants to apply reason before leaping to truth. There's too much comfort in just saying "everybody has their own truth." This is an assignment for my students - to respond to a line from Pi. I'm glad they can see your comment; discussing "truth" isn't quick or easy. We are forever students of Truth.

Charlotte said...

I wish you were my English teacher. I loved this book. LOVED it. It was so beautifully written, and made me think about faith on lots of different levels.

My biggest take-away was the ending. Do the small facts of my journey really matter as much as the fact that I was there and now I'm here? Are we spending all of our time worrying over the details that we're missing the point?

In an aside, I've heard that M Knight Shamalan (spelled wrong I'm sure) is making this into a movie, but that was a while back and alas, no movie. : (

Caryn Kirk said...

Yann Martel says that a movie is in the works, but negotiations etc are slow. I have no idea if Shamalan is directing, though. Kind of hope he's not - he's gotten progressively worse over the years. And I'm pretty sure we spelled his name wrong.