Carl McColman, over at the Website of Unknowing, recently wrote a brilliant and thought-provoking review of the film, Avatar, and I for one find it refreshing to see a Catholic who can think deeply about spiritual themes in the film without a knee-jerk reaction against pantheism and Pagan undertones. On the other hand, his analysis of the film as an inspiring blending of Christian and Pagan theological insight, in which Christianity brings a sense of personal grace and redemptive justice to the earthy but impersonal spirit-web of Eywa-consciousness possessed by the natives, is one that I think overstates the overt role that Christianity plays in the film, and ignores the flaws in the film's portrayal of pantheism.
At the same time, his review replays the kind of thinking that early Christian theologians used when seeking converts from indigenous pagan faiths two millennia ago, playing up the apparent lack of justice and personal deliverance in pantheist/animist religions that supposedly offered an individual no spiritual aid or redemption when confronted with suffering and sin. This isn't surprising, since McColman himself was a practicing Pagan for a while before converting to Catholicism and working deeply in the lay monastic tradition of the Church; he would be intimately familiar with the struggle to find justice and personal meaningfulness (i.e. salvation) in a Pagan context, and more honest than most Pagans probably are about how great that struggle can be at times. This is an argument still used in the Catholic Church today to explain why pantheism is inherently inadequate as a spiritual tradition, and even dangerous as it undermines faith in a personal, omnipotent God who both dispenses justice and offers personal salvation through faith.
Having seen the movie myself, twice, over the holidays, I've been planning on writing some kind of response anyway, but McColman's review prompted a comment that grew, and grew, and grew, until I found I had written something far too long to be Comment #12 on his blog. So here is the (somewhat rambling) response provoked by his musings. Please visit his post and read his wonderful take on the film which, even if I disagree with its focus at times, is still incredibly intelligent, creative and syncretic.
Carl, I find your insights thought-provoking, and it's refreshing to see a Catholic diving into the spiritual implications of the movie without immediately putting up defenses against pantheism, but I think I agree with Emily (a previous commenter) that, if there is any Christianity in the film at all, it's incredibly understated and I don't think it holds as prominent a place as you give it. In fact, what struck me about Grace Augustine (the head scientist of the avatar program on Pandora) as the "wisdom-holder" of the humans was just how secular and scientific she was. She was the kind of character that, despite her name, I could easily imagine laughing off the idea of any sort of God (she "doesn't believe in fairy tales," either), and indeed when studying the biological interconnection among the trees and animals, she dismisses the idea that it is anything other than materialist in nature (rather than some nonmaterial "Pagan voodoo"). Seeing this materialism, along with her chain-smoking, as just a way in which she's a "sinner" needing to be redeemed is reading a very Christian interpretation of the movie. The idea of grace as spiritual relationship is not a uniquely Christian concept; and for all we know, the reference to Augustine may be intended to invoke not inherent Christianity, but the sense of determinism or lack of free will, something found often in materialism and, perhaps, an appropriate philosophical point to contemplate when we consider the nature of avatars as empty bodies to be used by some outside controlling force. All in all, I was more surprised by the lack of Christianity, and so I feel your review overstates its importance.
And perhaps that's not entirely unfair, considering it was written and produced in, by and for a predominantly Christian culture that certainly takes particular concepts for granted. For instance, the "connection" between Na'vi and animal is not one of mutual communion (as you might expect in a truly pantheistic spiritual tradition), but of domination, so that the beast itself (whose eyes dilate as though drugged) becomes an avatar for the thinking, self-aware and (implicitly) superior humanoid beings. When Eywa sends these animals in attack against foreign invaders, it's obvious that She is acting not as an ecological body (the way Gaia is conceived here on planet Earth), but as a directing mind (this is made explicit when Grace compares the trees' connections to the neurons in a human brain). But I think this, rather than being a blending of Christian and Pagan perspectives, is just a failure of a mainstream monotheistic culture (accustomed to the Cartesian duality between mind and body) to truly grasp and accurately portray real Pagan pantheism.
Seeking representations of real pantheism in the movie, Eywa's responsiveness as a self-aware ecological body is present throughout (though I suspect mostly by accident) and does not need to subsume or incorporate Grace (and her Christian/sky-people concept of justice) to act justly. When Jake-as-avatar must fend for himself his first night in the jungle, for instance, he is surrounded by vicious six-legged glowing hyena-like predators. Few would consider the hyenas killing Jake as an act of justice, and yet it's clear that Neytiri views their deaths as a kind of injustice for which grief, not thanks, are in order. It seemed to me, watching this scene, to be the most accurate portrayal of pantheistic attitude in the film. Here, the predators act in a manner akin to the white blood cells of the body, recognizing a foreign invader and defending the "body" of the jungle by attacking and consuming it in order to integrate it. (Notice the hyenas don't bother the natives, who are a part of the balanced ecosystem; this might be mere naive Noble Savage idealism, if not for the nifty neuron-tendrils that all the animals possess, implying that they are all potentially tapped into an awareness that functions as a single whole.) This is a kind of justice that relies on integrating opposing forces and seeking and maintaining a living balance, which is different from the punitive/reparative justice commonly found in Christianity and practically inherent in the notion of salvation. The final battle in which Eywa sends Her animals out to defeat the human's raping machinery is actually a departure from the pantheistic portrayal of Eywa up until that point, though I suspect the film-makers knew quite well that it is a more exciting climax than a body slowly fighting off disease, not to mention more intuitively comprehensible and more palatable to a Western, largely-monotheistic audience.
But I admit, by the end of the movie even I wanted Eywa to respond, to participate in some meaningful way in the defense of Pandora. After all, if Eywa is something real in any meaningful sense, She must be capable of response, capable of making some kind of difference in the lives of the suffering, threatened Na'vi. After all, it is clear by the end that to defend the balance of life must also mean to protect that life, all life, from slowly being extinguished all-together by human mining operations. Yet the animals Eywa sends into battle are not like the Huorns, the trees of the forests of Fangorn (in Lord of the Rings), who move spontaneously and mysteriously as free agents to reclaim land that has been cleared and reassert a natural balance. The kind of earth-response in Avatar is, well, remote-controlled, and I see this as a flaw, not as a hopeful message about the fruitful blending of Christian and Pagan traditions to the benefit of both. Surely such blending is possible, and Avatar may inspire some movie-goers to seek in themselves the connections of spirit that can make such blending a meaningful and authentic reality. But the film itself is not yet an example of this, and I think on the whole we as a culture have a long way to go.
UPDATE: 31 December 2009 Carl was kind enough to post a reply to my reply on his own blog, "Pandora, Ken Wilber and William Blake" and I have since replied in the comments section of that post. However, for those of you following along, I am sharing it here as well. I hope it sums up some points that I left unspoken or only implied in the above review (I'm particularly proud of the penultimate paragraph, if I do say so myself!).
Carl, Thanks for such a lengthy and detailed reply! We've quite a conversation going on, and I'm sorry for not having the chance to get back to it until now!
I wanted to clear up one thing right away that I think may have been lost in my post and so led to some confusion in your reply. I was not saying that there was something inherently wrong with monotheism, or that Cameron should have toned down the monotheistic assumptions in the film in general (these, like I said, were hardly avoidable, and in any case probably necessary to be palatable to an American audience). What concerns me is the portrayal of the Na'vi culture--a literally alien culture, the very definition of Other-ness, and also fairly obviously meant to represent various native/tribal religions on this planet--in ways that were inaccurate. Avatar is not a "Neopagan's dream," for there is very little actual, accurate pantheism in it anywhere (and of course nowhere is there any suggestion of gasp! polytheism, or even an ecology of spirits and other nonmaterial beings). Indeed, the Na'vi culture is in many ways a poor caricature, an example of what most Westerns think shamanic, indigenous, earth-centered spiritualities are like. Here we have not the interesting blending of two unique perspectives, but the dominant monotheistic culture projecting an "Other" outward in distorted and inaccurate ways. As I mentioned in my own post, what little honest-to-goodness pantheism there is in the movie looks accidental, just the haphazard result of trying to portray the Na'vi as strange and the planet Pandora as wild; and for that reason it is incoherent and full of contradictions.
The hyenas' death is an excellent example. If the hyenas are acting in keeping with the sacred balance in their function as predators that both protect from and consume/integrate foreign elements, then why did the seeds of the Sacred Tree stop Neytiri from killing Jake, and why did Neytiri decide to save him? The question of why natural forces and individuals within nature sometimes work in tension with or even in seeming contradiction to one another (whether in an ecosystem, or an individual organism) is a Mystery-capital-M in pantheistic spirituality, one that a person can spend her whole life grappling with and feeling her way through as a way of seeking towards truth and balance. But in Avatar, it's a contradiction grasped just barely enough to be a joke, to bely a secret attraction between characters and expose the funny backwardness of Na'vi thinking when called out by a straight-shooting-averge-Joe-kinda-guy like Jake.
The ready submission of animals to the Na'vi (which I still believe, though admittedly on very subtle clues throughout the film, to be another intentional invocation of the avatar-as-empty-shell leitmotif) is another example of Cameron making a drastic misstep. Here we are meant to believe that the Na'vi have some sacred connection to the animals, sensual and even affectionate in nature, yet the animals offer no unique personalities of their own during the process of mind-meeting-mind. In actual shamanic traditions throughout the world, animals are most definitely conceived of as possessing unique and in no way inferior spirits. In fact, illness and pain even within the body itself are often experienced or conceived of as powerful monsters, insects or beasts that must be battled and overcome through ritual and inner journey work; all the more so animals and beings beyond the body that participate in a complex landscape of spirit. The idea of creative, loving communion with such beings may be more Neopagan than ancient pagan in flavor, true, but the basic conception of these creatures as separate and independent, putting up resistance and seeking their own wills apart from those of "superior" humans, is found within both, and is not reflected at all in Cameron's portrayal of the Na'vi spirituality.
My concern is that while monotheistic assumptions persist even among characters who are explicitly atheist, even in a plot that hinges largely on secular science and the savior-like role of technology... pantheism is not simply left out of the equation, but portrayed in ways that are, in fact, mostly monotheistic as well. So what we get is a comfortable, familiar-feeling "Pantheism(TM)" stepping in to save the day when traditional monotheistic religions have begun to taste stale, unbelievable or irrelevant, bringing a breath of fresh exotic air and a warm-fuzzy reminder that life is connected and sacred (something the mystic threads of the monotheistic traditions know very well already). The truth is, the challenges, paradoxes and mysteries of pantheism are as deep, puzzling and ultimately fulfilling as any monotheism, and to reduce them to a sidekick of Western postmodernity is saddening, and not the least bit frustrating. Especially when most reviewers, including yourself, mistake Cameron's portrayal as somehow a Pagan "dream" come true. I am all for interfaith dialogue and the fruitful integration and living-together of different traditions. But before we begin our blending, I think it is utterly important that we strive to understand what those differences actually are, and accept no pale caricatures in their place. Otherwise, what we are doing is not integrating, but imposing. While a rose is a rose is a rose, to look at another spiritual tradition through rose-colored glasses, paint a rose-colored picture and then try to pass it off as the real thing is just not something I willing to settle for.
Should Cameron have done better? He was trying to make a Box Office Smash, nothing deeper than that. Should reviewers and critics of the movie point out the flaws and inaccuracies, lest they pass into our culture as "common knowledge" taken for granted? Yes, most definitely.