The principle of scarcity—the fear that there is not enough to go round (enough love, enough food, enough land, enough of God, enough ‘salvation’) is a strong motivator for possessiveness and for jealousy.
Piscine Patel (Pi), the character in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, tells the story of Lord Krishna when he was a cowherd:
Every night he invites the milkmaids to dance with him in the forest … The night is dark, the fire in their midst roars and crackles, the beat of the music gets ever faster—the girls dance and dance with their sweet lord, who has made himself so abundant as to be in the arms of each and every girl. But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God.
Being jealous with God is not just a tendency that manifests in or between religions. In her recent work on Christian spirituality in times of terror, God in the Balance, Carter Heyward describes humanity’s hoarding of the capacity for relationship with the divine, our keeping it from the rest of the created order. She sees it as a widespread form of terrorism against the environment: ‘We deplete the earth’s soil. We desecrate the earth’s land. We rip down the earth’s trees, strip her mountains, pollute her waters, foul her air, torture her body—and we dare to call other people “terrorists”.’
Pi is the son of an Indian zookeeper, Hindu by birth but simultaneously (and unacceptably) Muslim and Christian by pilgrimage. He finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, a wounded zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena. Over the months they spend adrift, he and the tiger—the only survivors—establish an unlikely camaraderie. Early on in the series of ‘life and death’ decisions he faces, Pi snares an ill-fated flying fish. After agonising over the idea, and then the act, of killing the fish for bait, he reflects:
I wept heartily over this poor little deceased soul. It was the first sentient being I had ever killed … I was sixteen years old, a harmless boy, bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands … I never forget to include this fish in my prayers.
Although Pi would kill again, he never assumed that this fish, or the tiger, or any other animal—whether in his father’s enclosures or his watery horizons—had less right to live, less entitlement to be itself under God, than he. Pi never dressed up his ‘me or you’ choices in theological garb, nor reduced their moral perplexity. Yann Martel imagines for us a world in which boy and Bengal tiger can—if not quite feed together as Isaiah’s wolf and lamb—at least share a precious lifeboat on a sea of uncertainty. But only by not clinging too tightly.
Whenever we use our doctrines, our scriptures, our resources, our power or our privilege to insist that God’s embrace is for us alone, we heighten anxiety that there is not enough of God to go round. We stir up fear in others, and the abundance of God vanishes.
Richard Treloar is Chaplain of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and teaches at the United Faculty of Theology.