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February 05, 2013

poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” 
Do not I fill heaven and earth?

Before I came to Asia, a friend who hails from here prepared me: "In my homeland, they have their own version of everything. They imitate brand name smart phones, software, computers.... Be careful, or the next thing you know, they'll make a duplicate of you." We laughed.

But indeed, in less than two months here, I've realized that this country appears to have a counterpart for everything an outsider can throw at them. Never mind the fake Apple products or pirated software (I prefer to buy the real deal), this whole duplicate thing has been especially obvious to me in the spiritual realm.

For example, I asked a neighbour about the portrait on her wall. I knew it represented a g0d. She replied, "That is so-and-so." Then she offered an explanatory note, to help this foreigner: "He's like your Je'sus." Oh, gotcha.

I heard loud music blaring during my language lesson, and asked my teacher if it was true that the music was part of a religi0us ceremony. Her reply? "It's like church for you. You sing, we sing. Same thing." I was quiet.

My mind is grappling with the supposed similarities. I am not surprised that most Westerners who come East would just assume, as my Eastern friends do, that we are all doing the same thing and treading the same path, just in our own ways. Poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh.

Here, Eastern religious temples dominate the landscapes. Western* countries draw guests to see cathedrals. Could the pictures on their walls be counterparts to our Sunday school portrait of brown-haired J'esus? They have gurus. We have past0rs. They ask their astrologers about big and small decisions, just as we might consult a wise older believer. The East has factions within their religious groups. The West has denominations. It seems that for everything there is a parallel.

And if anything, it appears Easterners are more zealous, with their regular fasts, abstaining from particular foods always, performing elaborate ceremonies...and setting up g0ds at every gate, every home, every shop....

The first movie I saw in theatre in Asia was, appropriately, Life of Pi. When I entered the theatre I didn't know I would be watching a profoundly spiritual film. What for the first 100 minutes appeared to be simply a fantastic 3-D story slapped me silly with huge philosophical implications in the last 20 minutes. Yann Martel knows how to weave a powerful tale. I spent the next 48 hours digesting what I saw.

He sought to convey, in parable form, the variance and semblance between Eastern and Western worldviews. The Eastern worldview is a tangled, colourful tale. The Western is straightforward and to-the-point. The Eastern story had talking animals and incredible feats. The Western tale could stand up in a court room: the details are scientific and believable. But the clincher is this: according to the author, both seek to explain events that unknowable. Therefore, either explanation is equally valid. "Pick your story," he says. We start and end in the same place either way.

It sounds tolerant. Wise, even. Enlightened, informed, peace-loving...on the surface. But when examined a bit longer, you must conclude that the glaring hole in the worldview of Martel is its audacious acceptance of uncertainty as a way of life. In fact, on his terms, concepts like tolerance, wisdom and peace cannot be universally defined. They cannot be known and understood by all humans in the same way, because everything must be left open to opinion, interpretation, and persuasion. On such a basis, what is peace? What is wisdom? Who is to say that they are universal values?

The reasoning mind cannot be satisfied, because it cannot answer any of the big questions. The biggest goal seems to be to forget your big questions. In Life of Pi the big question is "Why did the ship sink?" Martel says it doesn't matter because you'll never know. Do you have deep questions that keep you up in the night? Hush makes no difference anyway.

In seeking to cater to all worldviews, it could not be more clear that Life of Pi came from one. One where all is one: one being, one continuum, one reality. All sources of knowledge are equally valid or invalid because there is no information from outside our realm. This worldview has no eternally separate, distinct, personal, unique Creator who wants for nothing and needs not His creation. The Creator who can provide the back story to the universe, and who can therefore answer the big questions in a satisfying way. The Creator, whom no one can truly copy, imitate or duplicate.

We visited a tourist city a few hours from here. At a beautiful waterfront restaurant, I caught a bit of a philosophical conversation between two young travellers. It doesn't surprise me that they were talking about core values and ultimate reality in a country like this one. Those themes are begging to be discussed because around every corner there's something that shakes your way of thinking...or threatens to. The human mind is not content with—and not even able to strictly live by—Martel's proposition that all is relative. It wants to know.

Do you hear again the challenge Isaiah and Jeremiah transmitted?
“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” 
Do not I fill heaven and earth?

Let me know when you find a copy of Him.

"The Portion of Jacob is not like them,
for He is the Maker of all things."

"There is none like You."

*While followers of J'esus are followers of a faith that has its roots in East, the Western world is much more influenced by the teachings of J'esus than the East. This is why I speak of the general worldviews for which these areas of the world are known, in collision. I do not mean to insinuate that all Westerners have a correct worldview nor that all Easterners do not.

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