Ecological Vision in James Cameron’s Avatar

Ecology was never particularly a subject I thought I would find myself thinking too much about, much less writing about, but it seems to keep coming to the fore for me, especially as I’ve begun to apprehend more of its theological, rather than secular/political, significance. Framing this theological vision in terms of “the story of home” (which is one literal rendering of oikologia, from which we get ecology) makes a good deal more sense than putting it in the rarefied categories of “environmentalism.”

As Master Bueller once put it, “A person shouldn’t believe in an ism.” I don’t agree with him, of course, that a person should instead “believe in himself.” Our confidence and spiritual center as Christians is in Christ, not in ourselves. Ferris’s substitution of self-worship for ideology—and boldly explored in what is still one of the most entertaining films to come out in the past 30 years—is not really much better, but at least he got it half right. Ideology is not the answer. As an Orthodox Christian, I assert that communion is the answer. And that brings us to James Cameron’s Avatar.

This past Sunday afternoon, I went with my father-in-law to one of the local big cinemas (alas, not to the Emmaus Theatre, which, not surprisingly, is probably not going to be showing Avatar; Update: Actually, it looks like it is!), and we took in a matinée of Avatar. I’ll be honest: I like big, action-packed sci-fi flicks, and that is precisely what I expected to see in Avatar. I’ve read some reviews from some of my fellow Orthodox which criticize the film’s lack of character development and serious dialogue, as well as its theological unidimensionality, but I wasn’t expecting any of that kind of depth in Avatar and wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t there. I still judge these kinds of movies like I do Star Wars, which particularly in its 1977 first installment also didn’t have that kind of depth. What it and Avatar do have are archetypal characters dealing with fairly predictable situations in fairly standard ways. All that means is that I still try to watch these movies like I watched Star Wars through the early ’80s—like a kid hoping for a good time. I see nothing wrong with that sort of homely fun. I also admit to some amusement at the film’s humans’ quest for a mineral called unobtainium. Some critics, it seems, took this to be a sign of uninventiveness on the filmmakers’ part rather than the sci-fi in-joke that it is. But no matter.

Anyway, for an intriguing, if brief, comment on the soteriological problems of the film, see these remarks. But perhaps my favorite weblog review is this one from the Front Porch Republic, which takes a localist/conservative look at the film, rather than a neo-conservative/globalist look (the worldview for much of the right-ish punditry on this flick).

That being said, I do think that there are some fascinating questions being explored by Avatar which go a bit beyond the standard cinematic explosions-in-space fare that I was raised on. Given the basic Idyllic-Noble-Savages-in-Tune-with-their-Planet set upon by the Bad-Mean-Military-Industrial-Civilized-Types narrative of the film, there are some writers who have taken Avatar to be “environmentalist” propaganda, and it may well be and may even have been intended that way. But I still think there are some elements of the film worth thinking about and worth comparing with Orthodox ecological and cosmological vision.

One of the basic assumptions of much of modern secular environmentalism seems to be summed up in this question: How do we take mankind out of the picture? Man is typically conceived of as an alien on Earth, and thus the environmental project is to remove man’s presence as much as possible from the planet. The only permissible sentient life is the “noble savage,” who are writ quite large (literally) in Avatar. The Na’vi people are essentially sinless and innocent.

It is a common notion in pagan cosmology and anthropology that there is an identification between mankind, the planet and the creator—in most ancient myths, mankind is birthed from an earth-goddess, and the planet Pandora in Avatar is no exception. The Na’vi’s goddess Eywa is essentially a sort of consciousness for the planet itself, which the scientists there tell us is host to a bioneurological network more complex and conscious than the human brain, via bioelectric connections that run through all the flora of the planet. The fauna, including the Na’vi, are able to interface with other animals and even with plants, thus allowing memories to be stored in the shared network. “Memory eternal” for each person is entirely possible in the mind of their goddess, and there seems to be some kind of communion which can be attained between persons by means of the connection to Eywa.

What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity. With most heterodox, anti-sacramental forms of Christianity, matter and spirit are so disconnected from one another that the environment is looked upon as something wholly “other” from man—thus, one is either an environmentalist seeking to remove man from nature or one is an exploitationist seeking to use nature for all it’s worth. Either way, the human intuition underneath paganism and still present within Orthodoxy is lost—that man is not apart from the rest of creation, but rather is its pinnacle, and also that he is meant to serve as the creation’s priest, making sacred use of materiality as an offering to god/God, to be returned back to him as a means of sanctification. The most bloody pagan knew this as he killed bulls on his altar, and the Christian knew this as he received the Body and Blood in the unbloody sacrifice of the God-man on his own altar.

The Na’vi form a coherent culture, one which is deeply concerned with Place. This goes a bit beyond the devotion to “the forest” or somesuch that we have seen in other kind of environmentalist films (e.g., Fern Gully). The Na’vi not only have their Hometree, but they also have what amount to temples and cemeteries. It is finally the threat to their holiest shrine that is the greatest potential catastrophe in the film. This, too, is an indication of a sense of the holiness of Place, that materiality not only has a functional purpose but a spiritual significance, that any given place is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.

One thing that is a bit different about Eywa, the planet goddess of the Na’vi, is that she apparently hears prayer. This is why I regard the theological vision of this film as more pagan than truly pantheistic. In this, I regard the film as more advanced than most modern environmentalist theologies, which usually want nothing at all to do with a deity with any sort of personal existence. But when we see swarms of native creatures begin a coordinated assault on the mechanistic military of the invading humans, narrated by the deep-chested declaration of Neytiri—”Eywa has heard you!”—then we are clearly being told that this is a deity with self-awareness and with potency. Eywa is concerned only with “maintaining the balance” of life and does not take sides, much like the Holy Trinity Who is not partial and only acts according to the divine plan. But both, nevertheless, in some way interact with the persons in their care in a way that can only be understood as answering prayer.

Another intriguing element in the film is that all energy is “borrowed.” On Pandora, what that seems to mean is that, when anything dies, it returns back to the planet and ceases to exist. Yet its being is somehow remembered by Eywa, such that sentient voices can be heard by those who tap into Eywa’s neural network. Again, this is a more advanced vision than modern secularism, which has no idea whatsoever how to deal with death (other than coming up with new ways to hasten it). That humans (and Na’vi) have always put their dead into the ground is an indication of our understanding of the connection between that ground and the flesh which is made from it. Thus, even in death, the Na’vi’s communion is in and through Eywa. Further, even basic communication seems to carry with it the notion of communion and interpenetration, as with their repeated phrase, “I see you,” meaning “I am looking deeply into you.”

Yet while the Na’vi can only hope for the storage of their memories in Eywa, perhaps in a modified form of the personal oblivion of Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian knows that “Memory eternal” in God’s memory means that He continues to give us His energy so that we may live forever, whether we are righteous or wicked. The Fathers teach us that we are not naturally immortal, but God does sustain us forever, such that we are effectively immortal.

This leads me to my final question, one which I have not yet seen any writing on at all: Why is it that the scientist leading the Avatar Project, played by Sigourney Weaver, is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”? It’s possible, to be sure, that the juxtaposition of Grace and Augustine is purely coincidental. But could it perhaps be an anti-Pelagian comment, that salvation for a people (whether the Na’vi or the humans who are exploiting them) can only come through divine intervention?

So, yes, I am looking forward to a sequel.

Update Dec. 26, 2009: One bit that could probably do with some fleshing out in the above is the major difference between pagan and Orthodox Christian theology—the utter dissimilarity between the Creator and Creation. We have no idea whether Eywa is the creator of Pandora (indeed, she seems to function on the purely created level), but the identification of Eywa with the Na’vi and other life puts this theology firmly in the pagan camp. Persons are quite literally children of their deity.

For Orthodox Christianity (and Judaism before it), the Creator is utterly different from the Creation. Creation is not birthed from the Creator, but rather created ex nihilo. This is probably a major reason why the traditional Jewish and Christian image of God is as Father and not as mother, to preserve the critical theological affirmation of the total difference between the created and the uncreated. Indeed, it is this difference which makes the Incarnation of the Son of God such an astounding miracle. It is honestly nothing terribly special if a deity which is already identified with her worshipers chooses to make herself known as one of them. It is something else entirely if the eternal, changeless, infinite, invisible and uncreated God becomes temporal, subject to change, finite and visible, while yet simultaneously retaining all the fullness of His deity.

Pagan philosophy had begun to head in this direction by the time of Christ (that is, to profess a total disjunction between uncreated and created, as the Unmoved Mover and the Moved), which is why the Incarnation took the world by storm. This is also why the big theological problem of the early centuries of Christianity was not how this man could be God, but rather how God could possibly have become man.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Father for your post. I truly enjoyed “AVATAR” and I plan on seeing it again in IMAX 3D – my first viewing was in 3D also.

    I think you hit on many good points about the ‘ecology’ but although Mr. Cameron admits to being an environmentalist, I think his main emphasis is ‘the Hero’s Journey’.

    One of the things I love about Orthodoxy is its position on ‘ecological balance’ which is subtle but ever present.

    On a personal note; just as you got me connected to my ‘West Virginia’ roots you up and move to Pennsylvania. Well, being originally from Ohio, I do miss my ‘country’ growing up period and all the trees, lakes and home grown foods! About the only things I miss from back there.

    From the ‘Left Coast’, until next time……

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