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Avatar: An Apologetic for Pantheism

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.

avatar movie poster Avatar: An Apologetic for PantheismDouthat 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.


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Comments

  • Raphael

    Bill,

    I have a question: What does “personal” in “personal God” mean?

    Incidentally, I watched “Avatar” and Eywa is a more complex thing than the pantheism you are describing. In the movie, the biologist who is in charge of the AVATAR project discovers, in the course of interacting with the Na’Vi, that “there is some unique phenomenon occurring in the roots of Eywa”; she forwards this as an argument to why the Colonel should not be sending an assault out onto Pandora. Eywa is more complex than just the “mother nature” you describe.

    Also, a deity not taking sides is not just a “classic pantheist position”; God doesn’t take sides either, rather the different sides appropriate Him for their purposes. If God took sides, then the whole idea of a Just God is undermined.

  • Bill Pratt

    Personal means that God is a person. A person has intellect, will, and emotion. The God of pantheism is not a person, but is an impersonal force, without intellect, will, or emotion. It is more like energy.

    I realize that Eywa is more complex than just Mother Nature in the movie, but those are just details. The basic idea is still pantheism.

    The Christian God doesn’t arbitrarily take sides, but always loves good and hates evil. In the movie, the humans clearly represented evil and the Na’Vi represented good. When the Na’Vi said that Eywa does not take sides, they clearly meant that Eywa does not recognize good and evil. This is classic pantheism.

  • Nikki

    Bill, pantheism doesn’t necessarily stipulate a God without will or intellect. Some pantheists are also panpsychists, meaning a belief that Nature itself is imbued with reason and soul.

    I think the real issue here is the definition of “good” and “evil”. The Christian God’s definition of good and evil seems to hinge entirely upon a combination of arbitrary behavioral regulations and ethnic favoritism, whereas the pantheist definition of good and evil always comes back to the balance; in other words, the pantheist understands that “good” must be good for the whole, or it is not good for any, and too much of anything leads to an imbalance in the delicate equilibrium that makes our world possible.

    In the movie, the humans represent “evil” and the Na’Vi “good” only if those terms are interpreted pantheistically. A more accurate terminology would be that the humans represent “imbalance” and the Na’Vi “balance”. When they said that Eywa doesn’t take sides, they meant she doesn’t intervene in everyday affairs of subjective importance; she does not act like the Christian God and play favorites among the creatures that belong to her. Eywa’s role is not to disrupt the balance by interference; but to observe it, sustain it, and preserve it by non-interference. And it is precisely for this reason that she eventually intervenes against the human invaders who threaten to destroy that balance, because they are NOT a part of Eywa, but aliens. Basically, Eywa was forced to mount an immune response to a foreign pathogen.

    There are actually examples of this kind of thing in the development of 20th century diseases such as HIV, Ebola & West Nile, which have emerged to plague humanity in the wake of our destruction of massive swathes of primeval forest in various parts of the globe. Several theorists have proposed that these diseases are, in fact, a sort of “immune response”, set up to be released upon us when we trigger them by ignoring the necessary balance of Nature. It is also possible that other modern degenerative diseases, such as MS, CFS and others, may also fall into this category of “pantheistic” balance-defending diseases. The more scientists discover about the way the world operates, the more apparent it becomes that ultimately, this world is an intricately self-regulating organism.

  • grace

    Jesus – has all the attributes of one that as humans we would wish to admire – to worship – to emulate – and He is God – this is evidenced by creation. Only God creates. This is the position of those who accept the teachings of the bible. I have no criticism to make of Pantheism – only to invite the readers to examine the matchless love of Jesus Christ.

  • Pete Whitaker

    Avatar is not a film that promotes Pantheism and I’m speaking as a Pantheist!

    In the film the aliens worship a local deity, which at best makes them Panentheistic.

    A Pantheist equates the totality of the universe with god and vice versa, there is no question of transcendence; god is the fabric of existence and not separate from it. It’s a small point to others perhaps but made more important when you actually practice the religion concerned.

    I wish more Christians had Grace’s attitude. As a Pantheist all I ever seem to enocunter from Christians is unprovoked hostility and criticism. Respect is reciprocal, a fact that the practioners of a religion based on love, tollerance and forgiveness seem to have forgotten when it comes to dealing with a faith outside of the Abrahamic tradition.

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Pete,
    Thanks for the comments. I guess your interpretation of the Na’vi worshipping a local deity is not how I saw it. They are worshiping the planet and everything that is on the planet, and throughout the movie there is the implication that this is to symbolize everything for the Na’vi – it is their whole universe. In addition, the movie’s portrayal of the non-existence of good and evil is very pantheistic. All is one and one is all. All distinctions disappear. It seems fairly obvious that James Cameron is enamored with pantheistic ideas, regardless of the differences you cite.

    With regard to respect, I respect you as a person made in the image of God, which makes you extremely valuable and worthy of respect. I would never think of attacking you personally. However, nowhere in Christian teaching does it say that we should respect all ideas equally. Some ideas are true and some are false, and we are to point out the false ones. My criticism of pantheism in no way entails a lack of love on my part. True love corrects false ideas.

  • Pete Whitaker

    The Na’vi worshipped a deification of their planet. It was a thing separate from them in the Panentheistic tradition commonly seen in faiths were people worship local gods in the landscape around them. That in a cultural sense this was to them the extent of their knowledge of the universe does not make that the limitation of the real universe, just a perspective formed from a point of relativity. I would not accept this as a limitation on my belief either. Science underpins my faith, not the representation of some fictional characters.

    Morality exists in Pantheism and if you saw an absence of morality in the film then perhaps that was because you were not seeing Pantheism. Mr Cameron may be enamoured with Pantheistic ideas but that does not mean that he’s presenting them in a cogent fashion, but then he failed miserably with the ‘kill the creator before he creates the thing that invents time travel’ paradox in Terminator 2 as well.

    As my faith is very much a part of me, as I would expect you to claim that your faith is very much a part of you, then to hold it in disrespect is to do likewise with myself; that’s one of the pitfalls of applying conditions, contradictions ensue.

    To claim that your are to point out false ideas suggests that you know all those that are true, which probably explains why I keep coming across so many attacks by Christians against Pantheism on the internet, but not vice versa. As a Pantheist I know that we don’t know everything and that precept keeps me respectful of other people’s knowledge, traditions and beliefs.

  • Bill Pratt

    Pete,
    Christianity is attacked far more frequently than pantheism, at least in the US and Europe; just read through the comments on this blog. I don’t take these attacks personally at all. I understand that the people attacking Christianity are typically doing so because they think that Christian beliefs are incorrect or untrue. If we aren’t able to question other people’s religious beliefs, then how are we to ever know the truth about God, life after death, human nature, the meaning of life, etc.? You obviously think that some aspects of Christianity are false; otherwise you would be a Christian!

    I’m curious. How do you ground morality in your pantheistic beliefs? Is there a real distinction between good and evil or is this illusion?

  • Pete Whitaker

    Bill, thanks for the reply and the questions.

    As for attacks against Christianity I certainly accept your point that it is a target but I cannot answer for members of other religions or beliefs that do this, all I know is that Pantheists, certainly the community I know, don’t look to actively attack any other belief. Since the misrepresentation of Avatar as a Pantheist film however, well even the Pope weighed in not so long ago to knock us in his World Peace Day message!

    I have no problem with people questioning my beliefs, I’m just not comfortable with misrepresentation or misinterpretation of those beliefs and the usually inaccurate criticism that this leads to. I’ve read plenty of Christian criticisms of Pantheism and I’ve always been confused by the frequently vague references to the dangers it holds, dangers never spelt out or recognised by Pantheists like myself. This for me is where the disrespect creeps in; when people do not acknowledge their ignorance of the subject matter that they are criticising.

    Pantheism is frequently criticised for an apparent lack of morality, but this is the illusion. It is the source from which moral values are derived that differs. Good and evil are exclusively human concepts and their place is in allowing us to understand the nature of existence as it relates to our subjective experience of it. The perspective is different to traditions where morality is seen to rest in a written form. This lack of a tangible, concrete source is often equated to having no morality, which is incorrect. For myself, the natural world provides answers to moral questions through example. This requires the ability to observe and rationalise the evidence witnessed, but it has proven no less legitimate than written codes of conduct.

  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks, Pete. If we use the natural world to guide morality, than it seems we have no transcendent source of morality and therefore we are left with moral relativism. Every person decides what is moral for themselves. When you tell me in the comment that Christians should not disrespect pantheists, you are invoking a standard of morality which you expect all Christians to obey, but where does this standard come from if each person is allowed to decide morality for themselves? Is it really wrong for all Christians at all times and places to disrespect pantheists or is this just your particular morality?

  • Pete Whitaker

    There is no transcendence in Pantheism, the universe is everything that there is, therefore there can be no appeal to a supernatural source. All of our knowledge is derived from observing the nature of the existence we experience.

    To state that every person can decide morality for themselves is too simplistic in that it ignores the complex social orders in which we live. We live in a social group because it is the keystone of our success as a species but in order to do so we have to accept that certain behaviours either promote the cohesiveness of the group or disrupt it to the point of endangering the population. It is logical that those behaviours that promote success should be encouraged and those that do not discouraged. All moral codes reflect this no matter what their source of inspiration.

    Respect is a reciprocal notion; if you are not willing to give it then you can’t demand it in return. This is not a question of morality but a norm of our society observance of which promotes harmony. I respect other people, I may not agree with their spiritual beliefs but I respect their right to hold them because I do not know for certain that they are wrong; no one should make such a claim concerning the religious beliefs of others because it could never be substantiated.

  • Bill Pratt

    Pete,
    If there is no transcendent source of morality, then why do you say things like “no one should make such a claim concerning the religious beliefs of others because it could never be substantiated’? It sounds like you are invoking a transcendent source to me.

    You mentioned social groups and the promotion of the cohesiveness of the group, but there are lots of people who could care less about the social group and behave accordingly. Why are these people morally wrong? Nature seems to be producing these people, so maybe we need them for our survival as a species. On what authority could you say to the person who is behaving antisocially, “Stop. You are behaving wrongly”?

  • Pete Whitaker

    Thanks for taking the time to raise these issues Bill.

    For me it is a matter of reason rather than morality when it comes to making claims for their religion over others simply because those claims cannot be substantiated. There is no evidence available to us, at least at the time of writing, that any one belief system is correct and all others wrong. This is a matter of fact, an empirical statement, and not subject to moral considerations.

    There’s a simple social contract between the group and the individual; observe the rules and we all flourish, break them and you will be punished. I’ve yet to encounter a human social order that was not based on this premise. If an individual breaks a law to which all are subject to then they risk moral censure. The degree of the transgression will dictate the degree of the censure. A crime like murder has far reaching consequences, it weakens the group by robbing it of a member and it can destroy social cohesion by inciting a feud between the relatives and the murderer. It is not in the interests of the group to allow murder to occur freely therefore it is deemed to be wrong and it often carries the heaviest form of punishment.

    It is both in the interest and the responsibility of the citizen to attempt to stop anyone from breaking the law. However, in most societies this obligation is resigned to a body of law enforcement such as the police, an act that in turn reinforces the authority of the ruling class.

    Can greater moral weight be given to such laws? Yes, especially if their source is attributed to a divine origin. In Classical Athens a crime that involved the spilling of blood was deemed as sacrilegious and acts of murder were treated as religious rather than civic offences.

    Does it matter what the source of a code of laws may be? This can be problematic. As Draco illustrated with the laws of Athens, it is easy to change or repeal such laws when they are perceived to be no longer of any use, or even too severe in their prosecution. However, laws attributed to divine origin are much harder to work with and can even prove to be impossible to follow practically. A strict adherence to the Christian Commandments would have saved many societies from the scourge of war amongst themselves but probably would also have subjected them to violent conquest by peoples not constrained by pacifism.

  • Chris

    Hi, I would like to learn more about pantheism, panentheism, and panpsychists. I have searched for information on these views all over the web and everyone seems to have their own definition for them. Is there a book that explains exactly what they mean? I want facts not personal (As far as oneself is concerned) opinions.

  • Anonymous

    The best source might be Paul Harrison’s Elements of Pantheism.

  • Anonymous

    Id have to agree, the world is an intricately self-regulating organism. Its just like our bodies, if we do bad things to it, then it will fight against it, naturally… same thing with the movie.. the humans were trying to destroy the earth and the earth naturally “fought” back, Its the laws of nature, cause and effect. And again nature doesn’t have a thought process and picks side, it just is. The Na’Vi Understand this and are in-touch with this. I am a Pantheist, I don’t “worship” the universe (because everything in the universe is one and forever flowing, moving and connected), but rather am in touch with its laws and the fact that I am apart of it. That’s my take on it.

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