Post Author: Bill Pratt
About a month ago, columnist Russ Douthat wrote a brilliant column about pantheism, the religion of Hollywood. Pantheism is the belief that the world is God and God is the world. The pantheist God is not personal, but is Nature itself.
Douthat notes that this view of God has been popular with Hollywood for many years.
It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
James Cameron’s wildly popular Avatar revisits pantheism with its portrayal of the nature-worshiping Na’Vi, a race of people who pay homage to Eywa, the “All Mother.”
Why is pantheism so popular with Hollywood? One reason is that there is no personal God making moral demands. Nature doesn’t tell you what to do; it just is. As Douthat explains, “For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.” C. S. Lewis once described pantheism as “all the thrills of religion and none of the cost.”
Douthat, however, questions whether nature 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.
He continues, “Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms.”
This is what has struck me about pantheism. None of its adherents really take it to its logical conclusion. In practice, we all believe in good and evil. We all think that death is bad and that life is good, but these positions are incoherent under pantheism, because death is just part of the natural cycle. There is nothing bad about it, under pantheism.
Ironically, even James Cameron couldn’t go all the way. In a scene just before the final climactic battle between the rapacious earthlings and the peaceful Na’Vi, the turncoat human hero prays to the “All Mother” that she would give victory to the Na’Vi over the humans. As he concludes his prayer, his Na’Vi companion tells him that the “All Mother” does not take sides, a classic pantheistic position.
Cameron, of course, cannot follow through. (Caution: if you have not seen the movie, what follows is a spoiler!!)
As the humans are about to win the battle, the “All Mother” joins the fray in the form of the indigenous animals of the planet. The animals attack the humans and help the Na’Vi to victory. The “All Mother” doesn’t take sides? Evidently she does, and with a vengeance.
Cameron understands good and evil like anyone else and he must ultimately override Nature in his movie, providing a great illustration of the practical unreality of pantheism.