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.”|
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
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