Spiritual Thoughts on Avatar
I love it when a story presents an idea accurately, even when I disagree with the idea. And James Cameron’s Avatar brilliantly presents pantheism. Not only does the film explore the details of the worldview, but its flaws are revealed as well. In fact, in order to give an exciting climax, the film switches ideology for a while, and the God of scripture shines through.
To define terms, pantheism claims that everything is God or divine. In this belief system, God is not a separate being who created the world, but God is the world, matter and energy, every person, every plant, every rock. Although God is not a distinct person, this collective understanding of the universe may often be referred to by a name and often likened to a female goddess. (Think of the term, Mother Earth.)
In Judeo-Christian theology, the “problem of evil”, which will be the topic of many blog entries, basically asks why a loving, all-powerful God would allow evil in the world. Pantheism has a different type of problem of evil because every time a person hates or kills, it is not merely allowed by God, but it is God Itself hating or killing. This has led to a very different understanding of good and evil. Rather than seeing these two in conflict, in which good eventually wins, good and evil must co-exist, both required for the world to maintain its proper balance.
An Accurate Portrayal
Avatar does not argue that the universe is divine, but it gives a scientifically explained microcosm of pantheism on the moon of Pandora, allowing the film to explore the worldview. All life, plant and animal, connect through a biological neural network. Plants electrochemically conjoin to one another, and the humanoid Na’vi and animals have similar connectors which can be used to bond with each other. But this is the understanding of the human scientists.
Neytiri, a Na’vi woman “talks about a network of energy that flows through all living things. She says all energy is only borrowed and one day you have to give it back.” The protagonist narrates this last line during a burial scene, highlighting a common pantheist belief that a person loses their individuality in death as a he or she rejoins the universe. To the Na’vi, all is sacred as they worship this energy, Eywa, “their goddess, made up of all living things.”1
The conflict in Avatar arises when a human corporation comes to Pandora for desired natural resources, threatening to destroy the land that the Na’vi hold most sacred. To better communicate with the native population, scientists connect a former marine named Jake Sully to a Na’vi body, allowing him to operate it as his “avatar.” As can be expected, he eventually sympathizes with and then supports the Na’vi, fighting off the imperialistic humans. (Although outside the scope of this blog post, I highly recommend David Brooks excellent critique of “The White Messiah” trope.)
The God who Intervenes
Just prior to the final battle between the Na’vi and humans, the pantheistic “problem of evil” comes into focus. Jake prays to Eywa, saying “I will stand and fight. You know I will. But I need a little help here.” To this, Neytiri, responds, “Our great mother does not take sides, Jake; she protects only the balance of life.”2 This culminates the pantheist presentation: balance is the supreme good and whatever happens is what happens. God does not intervene because all that happens is already God3. But what type of story would that make?
The battle begins, and although the Na’vi surprise attack does rather well at first, the technical superiority and sheer numbers of the oncoming human army withstand the assault. When it seems that all is lost, the animals stampede and swarm, fighting the imperialists, ultimately turning the battle. To this, Neytiri joyfully shouts: “Eywa has heard you… Eywa has heard you!”
And so God intervenes. Eywa sheds the pantheistic trappings, and she becomes a lot more like Yahweh4, the God who intervenes, not just saving the Na’vi, but let’s be honest, also the movie! We do not long for stories of balance, but stories where evil is stopped, good triumphs, and the characters “live happily ever after.” Hence, we look for the God who intervenes, who fights on behalf of the oppressed.5
Repeatedly in scripture, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”6, supporting the weak, the powerless, the orphan, and the widow. In the Torah, God saves the Israelites from the oppressive Egyptian empire, giving them laws to take care of those in need. In this way, God’s example of protecting the powerless instructs us to do the same. Centuries later, David, the psalmist spoke from experience as he writes, “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”7
And ultimately, God does not just save us from others, but He saves us from the evil within ourselves. We are not called to a life of balancing good and evil, but to one of pure love. Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples calls us to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart”, earlier explaining, “as [God] who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”8 What we believe about God affects what we believe about our potential. If we do not believe that He is completely good, what hope could we have that He will purify us?
Lastly, Eywa might only be incidentally protecting the Na’vi. She only seems to act when the humans draw near her most sacred tree, and even if she saves the Na’vi, in the pantheistic worldview, she is merely saving herself as she is all. Jesus, the incarnate Yahweh, on the other hand, does not require rescue. Instead, He came to Earth and sacrificed himself for us. He did this to set us free from of our greatest oppressor, our own selfishness, and to make us pure people of love.
A Good Movie, A Better Life
So, despite the initially flawless presentation of pantheism, it seems that the filmmakers of Avatar couldn’t help themselves. To make a good story, the pantheistic God would not suffice. Instead, the filmmakers needed the God who intervenes.
Which God do you need? Now, our needs or wants do not determine truth, but we often argue at asyourpoetshavesaid.com that our needs and wants might be a little, small piece of evidence. Could it be that we love the story of the intervening God because He made us to live in that story?
Of course, actually experiencing the God who intervenes is much better evidence.9 If the God who intervenes on behalf of the oppressed exists, wouldn’t you want to join Him in doing the same? Jake Sully took a risk. During his prayer, he wondered if he was just talking to a tree. Maybe if you ask, taking the risk that you’re talking to no one, you’ll also find the God who intervenes.
- As one more expression of pantheism, I have observed that some pantheists express the idea that all religions agree on the basic premises of pantheism, which the film vaguely references. It is likely not a coincidence that the humans who sided with the Na’vi include Jake (the messiah figure), Dr. Grace Augustine (symbolically representing a powerless Protestant missionary unable to stop the imperialists), Trudy Chacon (who’s Hispanic last name indicates she’s from a predominately Catholic culture), Norm Spellman (with a Jewish sounding name), and Max Patel (who is of a South Asian descent, possibly Muslim or Hindu). In this way, the other faith traditions symbolically concede the pantheistic worldview, perhaps most strongly in Augustine’s dying acknowledgement concerning Eywa, “She’s real.” ↩
- Italics mine. ↩
- At this point, some of you may be wondering if Avatar presents panentheism, not pantheism. To catch everyone else up on the terminology, while pantheism states that everything is part of an impersonal God, panentheism argues that everything is the incarnation of a personal God. In other words, while Christians believe that Jesus is uniquely God in the flesh, panentheists believe that everything in existence is God in the “flesh”. Consequently, there is a thin line between pantheism and panentheism, which makes it difficult to determine which philosophy Avatar describes, especially as many pantheists may describe their deity with varying amounts of personification. (Think of Qui-Gon discussing “the will of the Force” in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.) Nevertheless, the same “problem of evil” applies to both philosophies as God consists of both good and evil. Neytiri’s response still embodies both perceptions of God, as neither worldviews have place for One who intervenes. For simplicity’s sake, I will continue to use the term “pantheism,” understanding both worldviews fit the descriptions found in the movie. ↩
- “Yahweh” is a typical transliteration for the Jewish name of God, often spelled YHWH as scholars do not know the original pronunciation. ↩
- This does not necessarily require the death of the “bad guys”. Indeed, movies showing the redemption of the oppressors paint an even greater victory for good. ↩
- James 4:6, ESV translation. ↩
- Psalm 9:9, ESV. ↩
- 1 Peter 1:22,15, ESV. ↩
- Ultimately, we need our own stories of God’s intervention, but in the meantime, I’d suggest asking some of His followers for their stories. ↩