I went to see Avatar six days after it was released. The theater was packed and the audience intense as the movie unfolded. I was gobsmacked at the action and the out-of-this world special effects.
It was also, as many have commented, a "Good versus Evil" film, especially for those left of center. It was pro-environment, as seen in the way the Na' Vi, people lived in harmony with their planet, Pandora. The "bad corporate guys" (Parker Selfridge) arrive with the military (really a private security force led by Col. Miles Quaritch, a retired Marine) to do the bidding of the capitalist exploiters (RDA Corporation). The search is for "unobtainium," (un-obtain-ium), a rare mineral, worth two million dollars a kilo. As Adriana Barton of the Globe and Mail says, "...many terrible things are [unleashed on Pandora]: greed, brutality and a bewildering array of savage beasts, not to mention a biotech means of going native..."
Jake Scully, an ex-Marine paraplegic, is recruited and agrees to undergo a new bio-tech process that combines his DNA with Na' Vi DNA to produce an "avatar" that is physically identical to the Na' Vi but controlled by a genetic link to Jake. Jake is recruited by Col. Quaritch to spy on the Na' VI and report back the best means to defeat the Na' VI. As his avatar, Jake infiltrates the Na' VI.
At first Jake tries to fulfill Quaritch's orders to find the Na' Vi's weaknesses. After being there for awhile and, especially after being saved from an attacking animal by Neytin, his eyes and heart are opened to the beauty of the Na Vi, their peacefulness and harmony with their planet. In religious terms he is converted.
There's no question but that the Na Vi are deeply connected to the natural elements in their world. In fact they communicate and receive energy by touching the ends of their long tails to fronds of the native vegitation, a practice that also connects Na Vi to each other. There is also no question that the tree over the deposit of unobtainium is sacred and alive, in a way similar to the ent Trees in LOR. This film has a spiritual/religious theme and message. So too, the "Force" in Star Wars ("The Force be you" reminds Catholics of "The Lord be with you" spoken at every Mass). Jake's need to decide whether he will stand against or with the Na Vi, is similar to choosing the red or blue pill in 1999's The Matrix. Comparisons to other religiously themed modern movies is entirely appropriate. Is Avatar exhibiting a pantheistic spirituality? Does it "preach" a fringe, extreme eco-religion?
Vatican criticism of Avatar.
Apparently that is what the Vatican thinks. Gaetano Vallini, writing in L'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican's official paper) expressed neither outrage or enthusiasm over the film in general. He did, however, strongly suggest that Avatar portrayed a form of nature religion or "pantheism." Immediately blogs began debating how "religious" or "spiritual" the film is.
There should be no debate as to whether the film has a definite religious/spiritual message, whether intended or not. It does, and many, many in the audiences perceive a religious theme. But they differ on what it is. [See other article links at the end of this post].
The divinization of man [sic] and universal consciousness.
Why has the Vatican seen pantheism in the film? Isn't this a matter for dialogue? Christians, at least Catholics, appreciate Francis of Assisi's view of a sacral quality of nature in his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. True, Francis distinguished between God and creation/creatures. But one can not deny that for him, creation/creatures are sacred.
The Church, especially the Eastern Church has always emphasized the "divinization of man [sic]," humankind progressively participates in divine life-- we "become gods." In the Twentieth Century Roman Church, Tielhard de Chardin speaks of Christ as the Alpha and Omega and the evolution of all of creation to consciousness. De Chardin was a visionary French Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, biologist, philosopher, and theologian. His major works are:
The Phenomenon of Man,
The Divine Milieu, and
Toward the Future.Is this"pantheism?" Let's dialogue over it.
There certainly are forms of religion and spirituality that deny a transcendent God, but accept a transcendent universe. Others deny any transcendence to a this-worldly existence. We often apply "pantheism" to each of these. It seems to me that the Vatican too quickly assumed too great a gap between traditional Christian views and a vague reference to "nature religion." Why can't there be dialogue between those who view things differently. The "fault" or "blame" if there is any in this lack of dialogue, falls on both/all sides.
Why is the "Church" so often critical?
My concern is with my own Catholic community. So very often official or semi-official statements are very critical and seldom praise ideas, events, behaviors and modern worldviews. The "Church" often looks upon contemporary culture and sees only a glass half-empty. If the hierarchy would assume that modern culture is essentially good, at least a glass half-full, there could be a rapprochement with seeming opponents.
In the case of Avatar, why not speak positively about the film and offer dialogue over "religion" and "spirituality?" Instead of acting in a defensive mode, it might be better to raise questions and enter into dialogue, even debate, over how to grapple with the questions in a search for truth.
Very many modern films have religious/spirituality themes. The Church would be wise to take them seriously and grapple with the issues they raise. Yes, there is a spiritual hunger out here, especially among the young (True a small number are trying to identify with Christianity and Catholics through rather superficial identity markers) who find "religion" irrelevant to their search for meaning and life.
Can we reach out to the other?
In the end all I can say is, "Let's give the 'other' the benefit of the doubt and assume s/he has something worthwhile to offer. Let's not assume that the 'Church' is always right and only needs to repeat and repeat it's position and that others will accept and follow along. The People of God have never validated Paul VI's position on birth control. More than half of all Catholics accept the legitimacy of being gay and support at least civil unions. There is overwhelming support for married clergy and strong support for ordination of women. The Vatican says these are un-discussable issues. Doesn't this illustrate extreme defensiveness and, maybe, a fear that much of the logic of their argument is unsound?
Questions for you, my blog readers!!
Is the Church speaking a language you can hear and listen to?
Do you feel that the Church listens to people like you?
On Avatar see also: