Heaven in Earth: Avatar and Eco-worship

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):

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html?emc=eta1

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!

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5 comments on “Heaven in Earth: Avatar and Eco-worship

  1. Aunt Laurie says:

    I read your blog and found it extremely interesting. Robbie and Sarah would love it, so may I shar it with them?
    I agree that children who play and use their imagination become better adults using these thought patterns in their later years and forming disciples and leaders for today.
    We watched video’s Christmas day on our 3 children putting together a Christmas play about the birth of Jesus, and realize the leader, Krystal, is a leader today. She always had a great imagination and goal oriented focus. She now serves in a succesful college campus ministry where she is a leader focusing on discipling college female students.

    Keep your blog going!
    Hugs and love,
    Aunt Laurie

  2. Daniel says:

    Hey Jeremy – enjoyed the post about Avatar. Haven’t seen it yet but feel more prepared to think through the worldview it presents after reading your thoughts. Will be helpful in discussing the movie with students as it’s pretty popular.

    Daniel

    • Good to hear. Please let me know if you have any fruitful conversations about it, as it would be wonderfully encouraging if the blog helped with you with that. I’ll be writing more about the movie and how to respond to pantheistic beliefs in the culture in the future, so stay posted!

  3. Elisa Z says:

    Jeremy,–Enjoy reading your blog. Your comments about Avartar are quite insightful! I agree they seem to borrow a lot of religious elements from other cultures. It makes me think of Taoism, the idea of nature and humans are one, we are part of nature, and we return to nature… But interestingly or ironically, to me the “Christian” influence seems to be undeniable, although may not be intentional: it is through “incarnation,” that a human enters into another body and becomes an avatar, the mission is accomplished.

    • Yes, the “salvation through incarnation” theme is there (and one I didn’t think of), though of course Christian incarnation is fundamentally different in important ways.

      Speaking of Taoism, I thought of Yin and Yang when the female Na’vi said that the “All-Mother” did not take sides but only maintained balance in nature (this was when the lead Avatar prayed at the tree of souls place for help in the final battle). Does this sound Taoist to you? It sounds like a general pantheistic view of good and evil that there ultimately is no difference between them (evil is an illusion that must be transcended), which is consistent with the impersonal nature of god, or ultimate reality, in this system. Of course, the God of the Bible is opposed to evil and sides with the good (thought it is not always clear what side people are on in conflicts!).

      I appreciate your comment!

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