Drawn by my general interest in sci-fi action films, the media hype, and the promise of a titillating visual 3-D experience, I took my wife and some friends to see Avatar on New Years Eve. It more than delivered on that promise, surpassing even Jaws III – the one 3-D film I remember from the 80s! The plot was interesting, the characters compelling, the action fantastic. There was, however, an overt religious message that warrants a critical response.
The indigenous peoples of the planet Pandora, the Na’vi (the blue figures you see on the ads), are the good characters in the story, living an idyllic lifestyle in harmony with nature in the dense, verdant jungles of Pandora. They flourish in this environment, which is hostile to the human characters, because of the deep spiritual connections they have with the forest and of their reverence for the goddess “Eywa” or the “all-Mother,” which is analogous to the idea of Mother Earth or the Gaia theory.
The bad guys in the story are the humans (all except the ones that try to save the Na’vi) who are on Pandora to strip mine a valuable ore that I think can be used as an energy source. Basically the evil characters are the entrepreneurs, motivated by greed, and the military, motivated by power. Pandora is not a place of natural bliss for them, but a place of extreme danger (characterized as worse than hell by the military colonel).
The religious overtones in the film convey a belief in the unity of all living things. The basis for this unity is that all living things share in the divine nature, which is conceived of as an impersonal cosmic energy that pervades the whole universe and sustains life (think of the Force in Star Wars). Such a view of the relationship between nature and the divine, often associated with New Age beliefs and Eastern religions, is called pantheism (‘pan’ is a Greek prefix meaning ‘all’; ‘theism’ meaning ‘god’ – lit. all is god). By equating nature with the divine, this view leads to the worship of nature.
In contrast, theism, the worldview of Christianity and also Judaism and Islam, posits a fundamental, absolute difference between God and nature (called the “Creator-creature distinction”). While the creation depends on God for its existence and reveals truth about the Creator (see Psalm 19), God is ontologically (a philosophical term for the study of the nature of things, of being) distinct from all creation. In other words, trees, animals, humans, etc. are not divine, but possess a nature of their own, which derives value from the divine.
Though the majority of Americans still classify themselves as Christian, it may be the case that a pantheistic worldview is far more pervasive in the popular consciousness. I recommend a great article in the NY Times about pantheism in Avatar and why pantheism is so popular in the US (it’s refreshingly critical of this trend):
I will write more on these reasons later. Also there is much to explore about the implications of one’s beliefs about the relationship between God and creation on how we view using and conserving the environment. More on that to come!