THE RELIGION OF AVATAR

January 3, 2010

James Cameron’s new blockbuster film Avatar has inspired a flurry of commentary about its theological implications. In short, "Avatar" tells the tale of a disabled Marine, Jake Sully, who occupies the body of a 10-foot-tall alien so he can live among the mystical forest denizens of the moon world Pandora.

Sully is sent in mufti, like a futuristic Lawrence of Arabia, to further the schemes of the evil corporate nature-rapists desperate to obtain the precious mineral "unobtainium" (no, really). Jake inevitably goes native, embraces the eco-faith of Pandora's Na'Vi inhabitants and their tree goddess, the "all mother," and rallies the Pandoran aborigines (not to mention the Pandoran ecosystem itself) against the evil forces of a thinly veiled 22nd-century combine of Blackwater and Halliburton.

The film has been subjected to a sustained assault from many on the right, most notably by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, as an "apologia for pantheism." Douthat got it started by attacking the film’s pantheistic implications:

AvatarThe question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

At The Huffington Post, Jay Michaelson corrects him, saying that the film’s Na’Vi are not pantheists, quite, but “panentheists,” “a combination of pantheism and theism.”

Douthat is wrong that nonduality erases God. In fact, “God” becomes seen as one of many ways of understanding Being. Sometimes God is Christ on the cross, sometimes the Womb of the Earth. Sometimes God is Justice, other times Mercy. This is how sophisticated religionists have understood theology for at least a thousand years: “God” is a series of insufficient explanations of the Absolutely Unknowable, a collection of projections and dreams and who-knows-what-else which, neo-atheists notwithstanding, speak to the core of who we are as human beings.

Mark Silk goes even further by arguing that there are strong Christian themes in this Christmastime new release:

consider the name of the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver: “Grace Augustine.” Is Cameron giving us a little hint that the film may have something more up its religious sleeve than the Gospel of Sustainability?

On first meeting our ex-marine hero, Jake Sully, the Na’vi princess Neytiri tells him that he, like the other Sky People (that’s us) is “like a baby”–and not in a good way. We’re greedy, thoughtless…unredeemed (uh, sullied). Did I mention that his life is spared and he is chosen to learn the ways of the Na’vi because the Goddess’ seeds alight on him? Later, he’s informed that the Na’vi believe every person can be “born twice”…born again. And, at the end, he is in fact reborn as his avatar. Throughout the film, Augustine serves as the Sky Person who pretty much understands all this, albeit (up to her dying moment) through a glass darkly.

Conservatives are enraged at the movie's anti-American, anti-military, pro-primitive themes, but they should understand that most spectators won't care what the movie has to say. They'll just enjoy the 3-D spectacle, fun in spite of politics. Adults ought to see it with a teenager. It's an expensive ticket that will be appreciated, and you can shape the discussion afterward.

I watched it with my precocious 8-year-old grandson last week who managed to escape the politically correct didacticism of education today. He said he liked the "action" and told me not to worry about the message! The political cliches are condescending and racist but easy to tune out. I asked him to explain. "The movie is about a mighty messed-up white man who joins blue Native Americans who wear primitive decorations, worship a tree, and who aren't very smart.

While the movie dramatizes human greed and avarice and its director has given fatuous speeches about his feelings over the war in Iraq, nobody I talked to at the theater was there for the commentary. Once you see all the players as cartoon characters (3-D flattened to 2-D) in a predictable, unoriginal plot, you can pick apart the cliched specifics. But the technology is groundbreaking and will be a landmark in the memory of the young who see it today. The grown-ups shaping the conversation for the next generation can learn from them how new digital special effects visually transform the images of real actors into 10 feet tall skinny blue people with pointy ears and versatile tails.

While it is true that for 52 years now, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has stood alone as the shining example of political allegory, the American left may have in Avatar a work of fiction that definitively embodies their worldview. Rand's novel has long been considered to be essential reading for American individualists and advocates of free markets. While the two stories are powerful, their messages are diametrically opposed.

Liberal's in general and the extreme left in particular yield to pantheism.  Their forces that expand it's American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

But pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

Thus Avatar brings to the forefront whether nature is worth dying for or whether it is a part of God's crowning achievement called creation; whether man is more important in that sphere of creation or nature itself. True man is called upon in the Bible as well as the Koran, to be stewards of creation, in Avatar man is called upon to preserve, protect and defend it to the death. God is removed from the equation.

What's left without a God who created nature, rather than nature itself being God? Irrelevance, uselessness and despair.  It would seem that nature (from animals to trees) have more rights and meaning than mere humans. 

As the late Francis Shaeffer once remarked: If man is reduced to mere animal, or less than animal, then living life becomes meaningless and all that's left as alternatives are suicide, infanticide, euthanasia -- and death becomes appealing even most desired among all things that would be called 'virtue.'

The religion of Avatar, in essence is the worship of nature and to die doing it. The religion of Christianity is the worship of a creator God and live doing it.

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