James Cameron’s new blockbuster film Avatar has inspired a flurry of commentary about its theological implications. As I mentioned last week, Ross Douthat got it started by attacking the film’s pantheistic implications:
The 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.
On the political front, also, don’t miss conservative responses to Avatar‘s anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, hit-you-over-the-head environmentalist message, linked to (with the promise of a response) by Matt Feeney at The American Scene.