Monday, January 02, 2006

zoomorphism and religious pluralism

If you haven't already, grab yourself a copy of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a fascinating story about a 16-year-old boy who ends up adrift on a lifeboat after the cargo ship he's riding on sinks. Almost everyone on board drowns, including the boy's family and just about every animal in the family's zoo (Pi's father was a prominent zoo curator in Pondicherry, India; they were shipping the animals, along with themselves, to Canada). Pi, whose full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, survives the sinking, and to his horror, so does a small gaggle of animals that includes a huge Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Be warned: this is no fanciful account of magical tigers. The story, while fictional, strives to remain true to the brutal realities of animal existence. Pi and the other animals-- an orangutan, a zebra, and a hyena-- share a lifeboat with a dangerous predator. The hyena kills the orang and the zebra... but you can guess who dispatches the hyena.

The adult Pi, our narrator, knows a lot about biology. At one point in the story, Pi tells us that, just as humans anthropomorphize their surroundings, ascribing human characteristics to the nonhuman, many animals practice "zoomorphism," the "animalizing" of the non-animal. Thus it is that dogs will view the human head of the household as the "alpha (fe)male," essentially a larger dog; and tigers will do the same, seeing a trainer as the alpha tiger.

Life of Pi, along with being a story about science, is a story about religion. Pi himself professes to be, simultaneously, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. He somehow makes room for all three traditions in his heart, mind, and practice. Perhaps because the story so cleverly weaves scientific and interreligious themes together, I began to wonder whether zoomorphism might provide some insight into the question of religious pluralism. Is a "zoomorphic" model at all meaningful?

It's not as simple as you think: a pluralistic model based on zoomorphism isn't merely a rehash of the age-old idea that "we see what we wish to see." In the case of a dog or cat that perceives a human being as an alpha-dog or alpha-cat, we aren't talking about animals engaged in wishful thinking. Wishful thinking, in the conventional sense of the term, implies being mistaken. Are animals in fact mistaken to view us as alpha versions of themselves? I hesitate to say yes: what they are doing is functional, practical, and completely natural. If the function of an alpha dog is, among other things, to lead the pack and provide food and shelter, then how exactly is the dog wrong to perceive the human head of the household as he does? Or a cat, for that matter?

The zoomorphic model of religious pluralism, then, is an analogy in which the alpha human represents ultimate reality while the various animals represent different and equally correct religious perspectives about the ultimate. Imagine a household with dogs, cats, and birds. In this household, each creature perceives the head human as an alpha version of its own species; in each case, the animal is, practically speaking, perfectly correct to do so. Unfettered by its own analogical imagination, each animal perceives the human as literally being one of its own kind. And on every level, the human fulfills that animal's bestial expectations.

Notice that this model takes into consideration the important question of perspective. This is something John Hick's convergent model of pluralism also covers: the Real has many personae and impersonae, always mediated through various cultures and traditions. The model also addresses the question of difference that is so important to a divergent pluralist like S. Mark Heim: the dog perceives the alpha human as a dog in large part because the alpha human provides the dog with things like dog food and a dog bed. The cat gets cat food; the bird, bird food, and so on.

The model is also flexible regarding the question of the incommensurability of religious perspectives. Whereas Heim's approach would seem to put religions on parallel tracks, and Hick's approach would seem to smoosh religions into each other, the zoomorphic model would be open to a variety of interpretations. Is a dog's view of the world completely different from that of a cat's? Do they share nothing in common, experientially speaking? Or is there a Wittgensteinian "family resemblance" of overlapping similarities when it comes to the inner worlds of dogs, cats, birds, and other beings? If the animals themselves represent different religious perspectives in this model, then I'd submit that the zoomorphic model contains an imperative: we have to strive for empathetic understanding of other perspectives, despite the fact that we don't even know whether such understanding is possible.

I don't want to make too much of the zoomorphic model, of course: I wrote this essay on a whim. The model, like any model, has problems-- not the least of which is that it too closely resembles plenty of models already submitted for metaphysical consideration. But Yann Martel's charming novel got my mental gears turning, and I thought it might be worthwhile to think out loud and explore some possibilities in one of my favorite fields of study.



Kevin Kim said...

Yes, indeed! I suspect that's one of the major flaws of this model. But I wonder whether it's possible to incorporate the dog's misapprehension into a larger paradigm-- in the sense of the Christian folk proverb: "It's not that God doesn't answer prayers; its that He sometimes says no."

How relevant such a strategy might be for the Buddhist or advaitin Hindu is another matter.

Strangely enough, Yann Martel's narrative does deal with the leg-humping question, but not in any depth. He merely notes that the dog's feeling that you're a dog extends into the sexual. Many religious traditions sexualize the divine. Perhaps a case could be made that Human Alpha Male, here standing in as the Absolute, is perceived by some beings in a sexual way. Lame, yes, but work with me, man, work with me!


Kevin Kim said...

I wrote:

"It's not that God doesn't answer prayers; its that He sometimes says no."

The "its" just after the semicolon should be an "it's."