Wednesday, December 30, 2009

AVATAR and Hollywood's Pantheistic Pandering

Dear Parish Faithful,

You may or not be making plans to see "Avatar," the new "ground-breaking" film by James Cameron in terms of technical achievement and wondrous "special effects." As something of a "film buff" I admit that I am interested in eventually seeing it sometime after the Feast. However, even with a total disinterest, it may be difficult not to at least hear something from the coverage through the media. Whatever the case may be, I found this to be quite an interesting analysis of Hollywood's ideological direction, which ultimately is based upon what it believes the public wants to see and hear. The Op-Ed writer, Ross Douthat, offers a good short critique of superficial pantheism and make a few good comparisons with biblical theism. Mr. Douthat is an undisguised Christian of a traditional bent, and he knows a thing or two about theology.

What may be of greatest interest, is that this critique is found on the pages of the New York Times!

If there is any interest shown in the form of responses, perhaps we can have a short discussion of some of these themes in an upcoming post-liturgy discussion.

Fr. Steven


Heaven and Nature

Published: December 20, 2009

It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.

But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. 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.”

Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” 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.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The question is whether Nature actually 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.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

Link to original article on


  1. I saw Avatar and love it! It is not about pantheism. It's social commentary about American imperialism and unchecked capitalistic greed. Humans attack the planet Pandora to plunder its natural resources. As for the savior roll, a human transfers his mind/soul into the body of a Pandoran - he becomes one of them - and helps them defeat the enemy, much like Jesus/God-incarnate did for us against Satan and death. I am 100% convinced James Cameron's message in Avatar is far more about evil imperialistic greed than about aliens who live in harmony with their planet. Seeing how His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is called "The Green Patriarch", and how American preemptive strikes and imperialism have hurt Orthodox Christians in Serbia and Iraq, I welcome movies like Avatar. Avatar is no threat to Orthodox Christianity. I think every Orthodox Christian should see it. Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" and James Cameron's "Avatar" helped me flee the warmongering GOP. The DNC is a lot closer than the RNC is to the Jesus who was called a friend of sinners and publicans. I, a modalistic monarchian convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity via the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, love Avatar.

  2. Maybe it would be good to look beyond "American imperialism and unchecked capitalistic greed," and just settle with "humans attack the planet." I say this because capitalism has offered Christians and other people of faith greater religious freedoms than socialist and communist societies have. Communism and socialism are ultimately two sides of the same coin but communism uses terror and brutality to enforce socialism versus socialism being embraced because of the democratic process. Also, when you say, "a human transforms his mind/soul into the body of a Pandoran" and equate this to Christ redeeming the cosmos a person could logically conclude that James Cameron was visiting Arianism all over again, which would fit in very well with a modalistic view of God versus Trinitarian view of God. Also, this "humanistic saviour" could even be a more humanistic or demonic inspired form of Arianism because Arius believed Christ was created directly from the Father and was a mediator between God and man, while this human in Avatar is simply human like everyone else and not created differently as the Arian 'Christ" was. Any person can read Fr. Seraphim Rose's Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future if they so choose and see how "alien phenomenon" is to be properly recognized and dealt with by the Orthodox Church.

    The Orthodox Church in its Sophia teaches that man is person-hypostasis as formulated by the Holy Fathers. Man is first person because God is person, but, man is fully person because God is Trinity, and man being made in God's image and likeness experiences his personhood in its fullness through communion with God and his fellow man because God exists as as a Trinity in perfect communion . The collective only matters if man has the individual freedom to choose the collective. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are Love and man must first freely choose to embrace and actualize this love in himself and then gift it to the society around him.

    Communism and socialism place the society first and the individual second, whereas Orthodox Christianity synergizes personhood with society and community because that is what God does as Trinity.


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