“One such time I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my left and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I had passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with this neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.” [Life of Pi, Ch 20]
I’ve been not writing here because writing for school requirements have been draining all the prosaic energy from me. But I’m squeezing as much of what’s left to reflect on something that’s been at the forefront of my mind of late. I’m taking a class in the Philosophy of Religion with an emphasis on interreligious dialogue and having just finished one of the papers that I’m required to write, I’d like to continue to think about what this dialogue of faiths could actually mean to us, to me. Is it just about coming to a table and talking or is it something much deeper than that?
The long quote from the Life of Pi seems apt to situate some of my thoughts. I picked it up thinking that it’d be good to re-read it given that I’m planning to try to catch the upcoming film adaptation and being the nerd that I am, I’d like to be clear about the literary version of it before trying to approach the cinematic. I also remembered the first section about Pi’s life as being an interesting albeit somewhat idiosyncratic take on interreligious dialogue where he becomes Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. Is that even possible?
My answer to that is ‘No’ not just because I’m religious and a religious but because I believe religion’s more than just a sense of the spiritual. We all have that – the sense of unity that we sometimes feel when out in nature is not unique to Pi or those who profess particular faiths. The feeling that the world is larger than we are, or the sense of wonder are not things that religions have a monopoly on. But what religions do is to give us a frame upon which to hang these contradictory feelings of insignificance and omniscience, especially when they occur at the same time. Religions give us a tradition and community from which we can draw from a wealth of wisdom to understand ourselves and our world around.
That’s not to say that we can’t be spiritual on our own – I’m sure we can appreciate our spiritual selves outside the bounds of organised religion but then again, how are we to speak of this to others? Modern and rational as I purport myself to be, I’m also somewhat wary of the individuated rationality that pervades how we so-called modern people perceive the world. It’s all about how I see things, how I construct my reality, how I relate to others. But isn’t there a place for tradition and history – we are products of both and wouldn’t it be disingenuous to disregard all these and focus solely on the individual when we relate to each other?
I guess the main thing about this is the fact that dialogue happens between people, face to face usually and not between the monoliths that are the religious traditions. It’s people that we meet and engage with that provide us with the insights and understanding that’s the aim of interreligious dialogue. People who are deeply embedded in their faiths who honestly seek to reach out and understand others. To be able to share our understanding (or lack of!) and experiences of the transcendent in our lives. That’s the heart of dialogue.
While not all of us would have the same experiences as Pi, we would do well to be as mindful as he is, to be aware of how the self (atman) can indeed meet God (Allah) in the everyday. We do, don’t we?