And so it goes with God

“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“That’s right.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“That’s true.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? 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.”

– conversation between Pi and Japanese officials, in chapter 99 of ‘Life of Pi’

The story of Pi Patel, a shipwreck survivor who crosses the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for company, is introduced as a story that will “make you believe in God”. Quite a claim!

When I watched the film in the cinema, I misunderstood it. I thought it was the character’s survival through such an unlikely voyage, with such a dangerous animal, that was meant to be the proof of God; a miraculous rescue from death. I more or less ignored this aspect; it seemed disappointingly childish compared to the rest of the film.

Having now read the beautiful book on which the film is based, I was astonished to find this was not the point at all. It is much cleverer and more interesting than that. And it really isn’t until the end of the book that the whole point of the story becomes clear.

Pi is a young lad smitten with religion, becoming a practising Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, all at the same time. This story in itself is wonderful, as is the horror in each of his religious leaders when they discover it! Such an eclectic mix of beliefs, like a whole Unitarian church in one boy, was bound to give rise to something deep.

“When Mr. Kumar visited the zoo, it was to take the pulse of the universe, and his stethoscopic mind always confirmed to him that everything was in order, that everything was order. He left the zoo feeling scientifically refreshed.”

“… atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them—and then they leap.

I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. … But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

These views of Pi surprised me; it seems that he regards the ability to have faith in something as more important than the object of faith. In alater chapter, he goes further and imagines an atheist’s “deathbed leap of faith” in God while the agnostic cannot make such a leap and, right to the end, sticks to “dry, yeastless factuality”. Why is it better to be able to have faith? In Pi’s words, it is so that we don’t “miss the better story”. The atheist has this ability; he or she just chooses the inferior story, and may switch over at the last second. The agnostic, however, doesn’t really want a story; just the “facts”. (I don’t actually think ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are the right labels for it, but I have some sense of this difference – I tend to think of people having a ‘religious personality’ or not.)

Those words – “dry, yeastless factuality” – occur again in the 99th chapter, in the context of the conversation between Pi and the Japanese officers. They are trying to find out what happened to the ship, and are finding his story too incredible. He offers an alternative, more ‘reasonable’ story involving human fellow passengers that gradually die off in gruesome ways and leave him the sole survivor. We are thrown into doubt as to which one was actually true. And slowly, it starts to dawn on me. The whole story of his journey on the lifeboat is a parable. And I have unwittingly found myself wanting the story with the tiger to be true, preferring to believe that version. Despite my mild offense at his views on atheists and agnostics, I have eventually found myself indignant at the ‘agnostic’ Japanese officials, and clinging to the better story – without even realising the significance of it.

This, I think, is how his story makes one believe in God, if it does that. It is in the recognition of that human need for the best story. Pi’s religion won’t explain how we came to exist as we are (or in the parable – the reason for the sinking of the Tsimtsum), and won’t make any factual difference in our understanding of life and the universe – it certainly isn’t any conventional religion, but I like it.

It’s a truly brilliant book.

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23 Responses to And so it goes with God

  1. What I understood from that phrase he directed towards the japanese guys is that the religious (miraculous) story is better than the secular one.. it makes life more magical or meaningful..
    i still dont get how it proves god, to me, it just illustrates that life with god/religious is better..

    • Sarah says:

      I guess he is making the point that we tend to go with the story we prefer – not with factual proof alone. Even those who prefer reason and science, like the atheist Mr Kumar, are captivated by the story it tells.

  2. Marahm says:

    People have told me that this book (and movie) are “deep”, “impressive,” “thought-provoking,” etc., but after reading your post, I now believe it. I shall put the book on my list.

  3. Jasmine says:

    Ah, I love that book! So – are you saying that religion (or any philosophy we choose to explain life) fulfills a basic human need / hunger for there life to be significantly more interesting, romantic and amazing than it really is? Bringing the drama to our otherwise robotic lives?

    • Sarah says:

      I’m thinking that for a lot of people, what we believe partly comes down to which story captivates us the most… which story is best in some moral sense, and not just in its ability to account for things. I think I’m one of those people. I came to feel that science tells a better story than religion; I couldn’t find a story of God (or a religion) that didn’t offend my moral sense in some way. I’d never thought of it like this before though!

      • I felt this way too until stumbling across C.S Lewis. He hasn’t (of yet) offended my moral sense to such a degree that I don’t trust what he’s saying. (Pretty much every single other author/writer/speaker who talks about God has, in some way, alienated me) He’s very logical and very convincing. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read one of his books! 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      … so I’m not sure it’s really just about drama or excitement; I think what made the story with animals the better story was the incredible relationship between Pi and Richard Parker; it added more meaning – having him survive alone would be much more bleak…

  4. Jasmine says:

    PS: It (the Life of Pi) demonstrates a human’s ability to choose what to believe – therefore demonstrating the choice to believe in anything that is appealing – no matter how unlikely / untrue that story is (such as the story – one could argue – of God (?)

    • Sarah says:

      Interesting point. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it’s presented as a choice in the book – which one do you prefer. Maybe we really do choose!

  5. amh says:

    I have just seen the film. It really made us all think and talk. “What does it all mean”? Pi seems to be telling exactly the same story in two very different ways. The second story… as most of us seem to see it is the factual account of what happened, which is none the less emotional. The brutality of the situation is layed out. The first tale of the animals is charming, though also quite brutal in moments. But then we find out that Pi is actually the Tiger. When the hyena (the cook) kilss the Orangatan (the boy’s mother), suddenly the Tiger appears and kills the hyena. Pi has to learn to live with this tiger. This animal story seems to be a parabel explaining how Pi learned to live with himself, to train the Tiger (the evil) which had been brought out in him, a Tiger which could not be Tamed and which he could not kill but in the end actually learned to love.

  6. Timofey says:

    I like the idea that the tiger is evil and that evil only appeared onto the boat when he wanted to kill the hyena. Yes the tiger was pulled into the boat by Pi but it was because of fear. The Tiger leaves Pi at the end, but after living with evil for so long its hard to let go of it, which is why Pi cried when he was saved from his misuser. Cool things to think about

  7. Abhineet says:

    Great writing, Sarah !
    This explains the situations in which man chooses different streams of faith. Theism is easily accepted by those who wish to preach the ‘stories’ further to the masses. However, when an individual is answerable to a superior and responsible to provide logical accounts, he/she gives away the luring of better story and chooses the inferior one.
    Thus in the movie, the writer chooses the story with the Tiger, and the Japanese officials choose the one with the mother.

    • Abhineet says:

      Oh, the Japanese chose the Tiger story as well because none explained how the ship went down. None had a different implication from the other on the insurance company. So they chose the more romantic story as well.

  8. I believe you can have a lot of interpretations about the story. For me the Tiger is not the evil, but his animal being, his need to survive even killing another living beings. In the film, he cries when he kills a fish to eat, so for him that was to be a tiger, a carnivore animal, after being raised as a vegetarian.
    And I think that what the phrase “it goes with god” means is that only a son of god can create such a beautiful and amazing story out of a tragedy. Only human beings can suffer and still remain faithfull in our father of Heavens, and make a limonade out of a limon. Only the human race can create beautiful stories and lessons out of our own miseries. The movie “Saving Mr. Banks” is another example of this principles. Only the humans can transmute horror stories into beautiful stories which “goes with god”.

  9. What story we choose to believe does not matter. The fact remains: the ship sinks, Pi’s family dies and he suffers.”So it goes with god” I take to mean “the same thing with religion.” Does this mean so it goes with what one chooses to believe in? At the end of the day,whether we choose to be realists and live a practical life or a religious person and believe in a man-made god in our minds would not matter. We all die.

  10. Tabby says:

    I believe that when Pi says “So it is with God” he doesn’t refer to how God effects us but more on how God was in his story as in he was always there. The tiger was a representation of Pi, but was also a representation of a companion. The animal story was better because Pi didn’t suffer alone, that’s how it is with God, with God (or a God) one does not suffer alone.

  11. Anon says:

    My understanding of the phrase “…and so it goes with God” is that basically he is saying, if the outcome of life is the same no matter what you believe, then why not choose to believe the better story? I think it’s saying that our natural inclination is always to want the more dramatic, fantastical story to be the truth. We all end up dead no matter what our religious beliefs, so what’s the point in denying the existence of God (Atheist) or of getting worked up about it and living in doubt (Agnostic), when you have the option of a much more exciting/comforting way of perceiving things? That’s my impression anyway. Personally I believe that if the outcome truly is the same, why even debate it? Just enjoy it for the spectacle that it is.

  12. Sis Hoskins says:

    How can you choose to have faith? You either believe in God or you don’t, right?

  13. Sarah I am Worship leader at a Unitarian Church and I came across this. Could I please use it as part of my service? If so I cant find a link anywhere to your full name etc in order to credit you. x

  14. filberthuang says:

    I watched the movie just recently when my native English teacher told the whole class to watch it. Being raised in a really religious community, most of my friends miss the whole message of the story. So my native teacher (He’s an atheist, something quite forbidden in my country) told us that the whole story was about how Pi actually survived without God’s help at all, how his father helped him to understand that an animal don’t have any soul, and how his father teached him how to swim. But rather than just nodding to what he said, I thought there must be a really strong message on the last line, which is “And so, it goes with God”. It’s really wonderful to know that many actually also think the same thing. The last line really hooked me, for me, it’s really powerful.

  15. Mo Pair says:

    I’ve read these posts and found that what seemed so clear in the beginning, the phrase, “and so it goes with God,” can actually be reinterpreted. For me, the key word is “choice.” But I’m not sure how- is it we who choose which God-complex we prefer? Is it God who chooses the best way? Pi, in his youth, chose many faiths at the same time. The actual story involving humans, and the fanciful story involving animals, is analogous to two different faiths. Perhaps God is in all faiths, and you may choose which one you prefer… perhaps that’s the simplicity I initially grasped…

    I’ve enjoyed how this audience has grasped the depth of the phrase “and so it goes with God.” When I tell this story to others, I can’t help but shed a tear, but why?

    I would like to commend Jean Clements for using this insightful post for a Unitarian sermon.

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