humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Avatar: The Spiritual Story Continued

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 8, 2010

I saw Avatar for the second time recently. It didn’t have nearly the same effect as the first time where I raised the possibility that the movie could be treated as a spiritual experience. Others have written about the spiritual side of Avatar and I thought I’d revisit the idea. [listen to Science Fiction while reading, it’s today’s blog backing track.]

One writer characterises Avatar as more a “spiritual fiction” than science fiction. James Cameron was interviewed on Oprah and the ideas behind the movie were raised. Oprah asked Cameron if he’s a spiritual person, after all, the Na’vi greeting “I see you” is a phrase with a deeper meaning more akin to “I understand who you are.” “I guess I must be”, replied Cameron, “because this film represents a lot of ideas and feelings I have as an artist,” going on to highlight his movie’s “environmental message and the idea that we are all connected to each other as human beings.”

Emmanuel Reagan writes:

Let’s explore “I see you”. When Jake is being trained by scientist to understand the Navi world view, he tells him, “if someone tells you ‘I see you’, they actually mean, ‘I see (into) you’”. They don’t see just the person. They see ‘into’ the person’s connectedness with the spiritual realm. In other words, the spiritual realm is a part of what they can sense. The biology of the Navis and other organisms in the Pandora is capable of connecting with the spiritual. In fact, Jake survives only because of a spiritual intervention early on. Just as a Navi arrow is about to be shot at him, the shooter senses that the Spirit Mother does not want him dead.

Dominique Teng and Brian Hines note a pantheistic slant in the movie. Hines discusses whether it’s pantheism or panENtheism before concluding the distinction doesn’t matter. However, Avatar’s is not a pantheistic deity. Eywa is LIKE a pantheistic deity. But at best, she’s a deity of the moon Pandora only. Really, this god is a god with a small “g”, a creature or demigod albeit a very powerful one. A bigger “pan” or theistic deity is still possible, and arguably necessary if one finds the classic proofs for god such as the teleological argument compelling.

Certainly watching the movie can make one yearn for the type of simplicty and perfection the Na’avi live in. It’s fiction, after all. Teng says, “[The Na’vi] are warriors and ready to protect their habitat. They understand and respect their connection with nature”, which looks rather like an ad for an “Iron John” type New Age men’s retreat. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat list 15 spiritual lessons from the Na’vi. It’s interesting that a spiritual message is equated by many with environmentalism. I guess that’s Lovelock’s Gaia coming through. Teng has identified the non-materialistic and eco-friendly aspects of Avatar well. Towards the end she mentions in passing that Jake’s avatar is a “genetically modified hybrid”. I think many New Age people are afraid of or opposed to GE technology. An interesting point in a pro-enviromental movie?

Teng writes of “Profit seeking corporations ruthlessly destroying both environment and the indigenous cultures”, the “lack of respect for the habitats of other living creatures” and “controversial military expeditions to secure resources”. However, these are ethical issues, rather that spiritual as such and I think it’s important to distinguish this. An atheist could quite happily make the same points. Ethics and spirituality overlap, but ethics do not require a spiritual base to work from. (Actually, I think there’s a strong case that ethics do in fact require a spiritual foundation, but I’ll save that for another time.)

She writes “In the Hindu tradition, avatars are the reincarnations of deities sent to save the mankind in times of great peril.” Perhaps this is where some of the accusations of racism have come from: Whitey has come to save the savages. It’s been pointed out that the main settler characters are white (but what about the Hispanics?) and the actors playing Na’avi are Black or Native American. I wonder what would be said if Jake had been black? “Jake Sully is our avatar and here to save us, the viewers. He is here to open our eyes and save us as a race, a species, on the brink of self-destruction.” Hello Christianity? The god come to inhabit a human form and save us is also a christian idea.

Some Christians have also found resonance with other messages in Avatar, with one writer praising its vision of interdependence.

The Na’vi (per Indigenous tradition) are incredibly spiritual, sharing a connectedness hard to describe. The sehalo bonds they establish with the creatures and the environment on Pandora prove this connectedness–a connectedness that implies interdependence i.e. the rejection of the cup running over due to sinful pride.

It’s interdependence that defines our togetherness, our teamwork; our collective contributions to the whole, which is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

On the other hand, some other Christians have denounced it. Notably, the vatican has criticised the movie for its “spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.”

My friend Martin Pribble notes that Joseph Campbell’s monomyth can be seen in the story. While I enjoy Campbell’s writing, I don’t find his ideas compelling. According to one commenter

I think the problem with Campbell is also the virtue: namely that the framework of myth he proposes is so malleable it can be adapted to almost any protagonistic narrative. It is a sort of Turing Machine of narrative, in the sense that almost any narrative can be shoehorned into a Campbellian form if it has a beginning, middle and end, and a protagonist. See here for more Campbell criticism and this Christian-based critique of Campbell.

This warm fluffy vagueness perhaps explains why people from quite different perspectives have seen both spiritual truth and damnation in the same movie. This neglect of nuance and detail is the fundamental error of all-religions-are-the-same thinking. On a surface level much in common can be found. Many religions have very similar ethics. However it’s insulting to their teachings and adherents to say all religions are therefore the same or are based on the same ultimate truth. Those who say this simply don’t have a deep enough understanding of the religions (cultures) they exploit by misunderstanding.

It appears the message of Avatar is broad enough to be compelling to many while the details my be quite vague. Can spirituality be vague, or does it have to have a definite content? I’m not sure definition-wise, but for me I want to follow something where the content is clear.

What are your thoughts? Comment below.
Edit: More on Avatar and Pantheism.


listening to Haujobb | The Noise Institute
tful Clever animation

10 Responses to “Avatar: The Spiritual Story Continued”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Martin Pribble, Martin Pribble, Shaun Gamboa , jonathan elliot, jonathan elliot and others. jonathan elliot said: Hi Brian, I linked to you in my latest @oregonbrian http://wp.me/pKoTn-8R […]

  2. I haven’t seen Avatar yet–hopefully this weekend. Thanks for your reviews/comments. That’s good stuff.

    The previews I’ve seen made me think of this quote, though:

    “What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you picked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?” Samuel Coleridge

  3. […] Avatar: The Spiritual Story Continued […]

  4. The Agnostic Pentecostal said

    In your post today you described this as thoughts on non-theistic spirituality. I understand the idea, but perhaps you could elaborate on how it’s possible? In my mind, even a pantheistic-type (or panentheistic) “other” is still representative of something/one beyond. To me, this is a “theos,” regardless of the nature we ascribe it, whether we call that Eywa, great spirit, Nature, Universe, or God…even if it has a lowercase “g.” I like the idea of atheistic spirituality but in my mind, whatever you replace “God” with is still a God. Anyway…very interesting. Thanks!

  5. […] Avatar: The Spiritual Story Continued […]

  6. Dominique said

    I saw the Avatar and decided to write a review of movie. To me this movie “felt” very different than many other movies made recently. I am a hard core atheist and been so for the last 36 years. I did not read any reviews of the movie and wanted to see it for the spectacular 3D effects. Some viewers are unaware of the fact that James Cameron set a new technological milestone here. The “making of Avatar” probably deserves another article. (I wrote another one about the movie’s reception by the public and the critics.)
    I do not think that the character of Jake Sully is some kind of Jesus Christ savior superstar. He is a metaphor for the environmental concerns of James Cameron and as such, is here to open our eyes to the problems that we are facing as humanity. I do not know your personal inclinations, but do hope that you understand that there is nothing and no one, not even an extraterrestrial civilization, to save us from the mess we as species are in. James Cameron managed to create a controversy over his movie, but unfortunately his character did not succeed. Mission failed. Nothing can shake us. Not even the prospect of our own demise. You must have noticed the wave of prayers sent to the people of Haiti. This is how medieval mind works. Prayers and another Jesus Christ is not what we need to solve our problems. My review never even slightly suggested that this was what I thought. James Cameron may have a very different belief about this and this is what he wanted to articulate in his movie. The wounded hero is an archetype deeply embedded in our mythological lore. (see Joseph Campbell, for instance) To really find out what Cameron meant by introducing this concept in a science fiction movie, I would have to conduct an interview with him.

    Dominique Teng

  7. Demas said

    I have a 2-part podcast on my spiritual reactions (from a Christian perspective) to Avatar. It is at my website or you can search itunes for Letters to Laodicea. Hopefully it will give you a different look at a Christian response–one that doesn’t dismiss or denounce.

  8. […] on March 12, 2010 I’ve blogged on spiritual responses to the film Avatar here and here where I discuss possible pantheist readings of the movie. Here I quote Santi Tafarella’s […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: