There’s a movie out these days called “Avatar.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of it!
Much of the conversation surrounding “Avatar” has focused on the brilliant filmmaking technology that it represents. Its mind-boggling financial success has also occupied many a Hollywood blog.
Beneath these more obvious layers of cinematic discourse, however, there is a conversation that interests me even more. It is a conversation about the film’s theology.
And make no mistake about it, “Avatar” presents a theological narrative that demands the attention of anyone who is willing to invest the time (2 hours and 37 minutes) and money (about 15 dollars) that the film requires.
It would be accurate, I think, to describe “Avatar’s” theology as a modified or at least nuanced pantheism that blends a nature-friendly scientific worldview with a willingness to assign a divine identity to the natural world. Pantheism (which literally means “God is all” or, perhaps more specifically, “all is God”) is not a new phenomenon. It finds its roots in ideas that were embraced by practitioners of pre-Christian Stoicism and Epicureanism—two philosophies that were vastly different in content but similar in their theological treatment of the natural world.
While pantheism has found a variety of expressions and proponents throughout its history, at the core of its message is the conviction that deity does not exist independently of nature. Rather, in pantheism, the Creator and the Creation are joined in the same kind of mystical and relational intimacy that Christians have always recognized in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For the Christian, to speak of one person of the Trinity is also to speak of the other two persons, since, in Christian theology, the three persons of the Trinity are of one being, one essence, and one nature. In much the same way, for the pantheist, to speak of nature is to speak of the deity that created it (and vice versa), since, in the pantheistic worldview, Creator and Creation are joined together in one identity, one consciousness, one reality. A pantheist will approach nature, not as a product of God to be stewarded, but as a portion of God that is to be engaged in relationship.
New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat has rightly observed (in this column) that “pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.” Douthat maintains that pantheism was what “Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Pocahontas.’ And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.’”
There are probably many different reasons for Hollywood’s fondness for pantheistic sensibilities, not the least of which is that pantheism does not require the naming of a particular deity (which makes it far more theologically palatable to Hollywood than what is often interpreted as a socially divisive Christocentrism). In fact, even atheist moviegoers can buy into pantheism, since, in one sense, the only kind of worship and rebirth that pantheism requires is a reverence for nature and the awakening of an environmentally-sensitive consciousness.
Pantheism, in other words, is seen as an acceptable spiritual common denominator in a theologically diverse culture. In the eyes of many, it brings profundity without dogma; transcendence without complicated sovereignty; revelation without painful conversion; theophany without prophetic demands. In the words of Ross Douthat, “Pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions…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.”
It is not at all difficult to discern the pantheistic sensibilities and presuppositions that permeate the narrative of “Avatar.” The film, in many ways, gives expression to the idea that it is not religion that has to catch up to science and technology. Rather, according to “Avatar,” it is the other way around. Science and technology much catch up with (pantheistic) religion in order to be able to live within appropriate boundaries and understandings.
“Avatar” places before its audience a rich and colorful new world—the planet Pandora—the inhabitants of which (the Na’vi) live by a mystical pantheism that maintains that all life (plant and animal) is a part of the same “energy” that must be nurtured and one day given back to its source. The Na’vi’s most revered altar is the holy “Tree of Souls,” a natural sanctuary where the community gathers for sacred rites and special revelation.
At the heart of the Na’vi’s pantheism is a belief in the goddess Ewya, whose essence manifests itself in the oneness that exists between all living things and who is honored when all living things are in the appropriate relationship and balance with one another. As Neytiri (the film’s primary female Na’vi) puts it, “Our great mother Eywa does not take sides, she only protects the balance of life.”
The villain in “Avatar,” not surprisingly, is a corporation from earth that is interested in a precious resource that can only be mined on Pandora. With its technology and its militaristic methodology, the corporation, oblivious to the mystical oneness between the Na’vi and their natural surroundings, simply wants them to relocate so that they might exploit the land for their purposes. (Sound familiar?)
Interestingly, the scientific community that Earth has placed on Pandora begins to open its heart to the pantheistic realities preached by the Na’vi. Sigourney Weaver portrays Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist whose name bears witness to her openness to further revelation. As the film moves toward its climax, Dr. Augustine offers a speech in which she reveals her conviction that the “primitive” Na’vi are actually onto something with their pantheism:
Those trees were sacred in a way you can’t imagine. I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here. I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest. Alright, look — I don’t have the answers yet, I’m just now starting to even frame the questions. What we think we know is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Each tree has ten to the fourth connections to the trees around it, and there are ten to the twelfth trees on Pandora. That’s more connections than the human brain. You get it? It’s a network—a global network. And the Na’vi can access it—they can upload and download data and memories—at sites like the one you destroyed.
You need to wake up. The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground—it’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they’re fighting to defend it.
With that, the theological narrative of “Avatar” comes full circle. Science and religion join in the proclamation of a pantheistic reality in which nature and its inhabitants are connected in a theological symbiosis.
Critical to remember at this point is that the content of Old and New Testament Scripture (which, to be perfectly clear, is the content that I embrace and preach) does not give support to the pantheistic worldview. According to the Biblical narrative (from Genesis to Revelation), there has always been a distinct and revelatory separation between Creator and Creation. This separation exists, not for the purpose of communicating antipathy between the created order and its Source, but for the purpose of clarifying the identity of the One who creates. God the Creator, according to Scripture, is intimately related to the Creation (labeling it as good and going so far as to become incarnationally present in it), while at the same time maintaining transcendent authority over it (thereby guarding the integrity of his sovereignty).
The difference between pantheism and Christian theism lies in the definition of God’s position in the scheme of things. In pantheism, God, in an important sense, IS nature, so much so that to revere nature is to revere God him/herself. By contrast, Christian theism maintains that the person and identity of God exists independently of the natural order, thereby enabling God to be powerfully and redemptively at work WITHIN the natural order for the purpose of bringing all of creation to its intended state.
This difference between pantheism and Christian theology may also be described as the difference between PANTHEISM and PANENTHEISM. Pantheism maintains that all of nature IS God. By contrast, panENtheism (literally, “all in God”) maintains that, while God is separate from nature, all of nature is embraced by God’s scope and activity.
To suggest that all of nature is IN God is a proclamation that resonates in the worldview of Christian theism. Such panENtheism helps us to make sense of a biblical narrative that tells us that we are to steward the natural order and that all of creation is “groaning” for the redemption that God has provided in Jesus Christ. However, to suggest that God IS nature represents a distortion of the relationship between Creator and Creation that sets up a dangerous idolatry in humankind’s relationship with the created order.
Christian theists, therefore, must be prepared to recognize and name the pantheistic narrative by which “Avatar” operates. It need not prevent them from enjoying a spectacular film. But it behooves an audience to understand the theological import of the story it’s being told.
On the other hand, some are so eager to react negatively to what they consider to be the “green agenda” of the political left that they hastily and thoughtlessly demonize anything that smacks of environmental sensitivity. Some of these folks have weighed in on “Avatar” already, dismissing it as yet another product of a tree-hugging Hollywood.
Personally, I do not find such dismissiveness to be particularly helpful—or, for that matter, particularly Christian. The church, after all, has a long history of exploiting the created order. Much of this tendency toward exploitation is resultant of the church’s willingness to interpret the “dominion theology” of Genesis 1 as a Biblical license for an irresponsible domination of that which God has entrusted to the care of humankind. The effects of this exploitive domination are becoming clearer to us every day.
Given this reality, Christ-followers can ill-afford to be dismissive or arrogant concerning “Avatar’s” call to a deeper environmental sensitivity. While we may not agree with the way in which “Avatar” defines the relationship between the Almighty and nature, and while we might be a bit squeamish about the tenets of the Na’vi, we can and must find a right and prophetic message in the film’s call to an ever-deepening attentiveness to the environment and its care.
No one will walk away from “Avatar” with a clearer understanding of the way in which a sovereign God becomes incarnate through Jesus Christ and immanent through the work of the Holy Spirit. That is a Gospel that James Cameron simply will not preach. But his pantheistic “Avatar,” when interpreted through the filter of Scripture, becomes a powerful and richly-textured reminder to the Church that God takes the treatment of the natural world very, very personally.
That, in and of itself, is a beautiful and unsettling idea.