Thursday, January 31, 2013


Questioning, Pi concludes, is useful. We must have our times in the garden of Gethsemane, like Christ anguished in prayer. Photo: 20th Century Fox.
Questioning, Pi concludes, is useful. We must have our times in the garden of Gethsemane, like Christ anguished in prayer. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Does God exist? Many will remember a world-famous atheist declaring on national TV that this was a meaningless question. So why do people keep asking it?
Yann Martel’s prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, was recently made into a $120 million movie directed by Ang Lee. It is a fantasy adventure about an Indian boy who survives 227 days at sea after a shipwreck, mostly in a life-boat with a Bengal tiger. In the process he explores the question of God’s existence.
US President Barack Obama, who read the book with his daughter, declared it “an elegant proof of God – and the power of storytelling”. Whatever we think of the answers in the book, the question of God’s existence is irresistible, even to the mightiest on earth.
Related questions include: are we more than bundles of atoms and energy, flesh and blood? Are we also spiritual beings, with the possibility of some life after death? What kind of life? Do our lives in the meantime have any sort of purpose? Is there more to our loving, thinking, choosing – more to all our big questions and little answers – than the laws of nature and survival of the fittest? Does God want to say anything to me about these things? If so, how? Would He ever speak so directly to me as to become a human being and so definitively as to give me a religion to live by?
As we reflect upon the wonders of ourselves, our natural universe, our human communities, our histories and futures – the great stories – we realise how unnecessary it all is. I don’t have to be. Time was, when I wasn’t. Time will come, when I’m not. So too, all the rest of these things: why any of it? It all points beyond itself. If it can’t bring and hold itself in being then there has to be another explanation ...
I’m privileged to spend a lot of time with the young people of our Diocese. They are at that stage of life when they are asking the big questions. They lie awake at night thinking about them or spend endless hours discussing them. We have Theology on Tap, right here in a pub in Parramatta, for that very purpose.
They know, they tell me, that there has to be something behind it all. Everything we are and have owes itself to something outside ourselves. Everything comes to us, especially our very lives, as a gift.
That suggests a Giver, one whose that-it-is is included in its what-it-is. Philosophers call this ‘the first cause’ or ‘pure existence’. The Old Testament calls it “I am” or “The God of your fathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Ex 3:14, 6). Faith and reason agree: only this Being is ‘necessary’. Only this Being must be. Only this Being can pass on existence to everything else.
Forces in our culture distract or discourage us from thinking about such things. Worse still, they tell us we are self-creating, self-sustaining, self-redeeming. In this self-sufficiency we are, as it were, our own gods (cf. Gen 3:5). But the storms of life have a way of shattering such illusions and forcing the big questions back upon us.
As a child, young Pi Patel explored various religions. In the novel, when his teacher condemns all religion as darkness, Pi thinks “Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light.” He wonders if the teacher is testing him, like when he says “no mammal lays eggs” waiting for the boy to say “platypuses do”. When his father calls religion darkness in the film, Pi makes the sign of the cross and announces he wants to be baptised!
Questioning, Pi concludes, is useful. We must have our times in the garden of Gethsemane, like Christ anguished in prayer. “But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
Recalling the days of floating lost at sea Pi says “it was hard, oh, it was hard. Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love. Sometimes my heart was sinking so fast with anger, desolation and weariness, I was afraid it would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific”. Until he surrendered to God – like the One on the crucifix who had so disturbed him when first he entered a church.
The film concludes by asking us which story is more satisfying: one with God in it, or one without? It is a rather postmodern way of framing the question. But as Pi concludes in the novel, God doesn’t need to be defended by arguments about His existence: He’ll be fine whether we believe in Him or not. It’s us who need to be shaped by the question and the answers. We need the awe and gratitude, the hope and love, that faith opens up to us. This Year of Faith is our chance to recover that!
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP
Bishop of Parramatta

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