Avatar Movie Critique

Avatar's Spiritual Roots

by Alex McFarland


A luminous tree of souls. Airborne spirits. The goddess Eywa. They're all part of the wondrous, richly rendered world of Avatar, which, beyond grossing a billion dollars in 17 days and winning a Best Picture Golden Globe, has prompted serious discussion of its spiritual imagery and worldview. Indeed, much like The Matrix or Star Wars before it, James Cameron's big-screen adventure on the lush moon of Pandora advances spiritual concepts that are just as fantastic as its sci-fi premise.

In this otherworldly tale of remotely controlled blue bodies, 10-foot-tall feline natives called the Na'vi pray to a world-brain connected to all living things, prompting the Vatican to lament, "Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship." Even New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat observed, "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."

Exactly what is pantheism? And how does that belief system compare to a biblical worldview? With Avatar breaking box-office records and exerting worldwide cultural influence, it's worth taking a closer look at this Hollywood export's spiritual roots.

Understanding Pantheistic Monism
Avatar guides viewers through an awe-inspiring world characterized by "pantheistic monism." From the Greek words pan ("all") and theos "God"), we get pantheism. All is God. God is all. Pantheism fails to distinguish between creation and Creator, the temporal and eternal, the natural world and the supernatural.Meanwhile, monism refers to the belief that all of reality is one seamless, unified whole. Pantheistic monism asserts that reality is one...and the one is God. For the pantheist, distinctions in the world are apparent, not actual. Although his intellect or senses may tell him otherwise, reality to him is illusion, or non-being.

Avatar isn't the first major motion picture set against a pantheistic backdrop. From Brother Bear and The Lion King to Pocahontas and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the pantheistic, monistic worldview makes a convenient context for New Age plots that promote nature-worship, employ eastern mysticism or treat life as little more than energy flow.

Could pantheism possibly be true? Could this oneness of everything and "godhood of the cosmos" be how things really are? The evidence says no. For starters, pantheism is counter-intuitive. If reality is so seamless and unified, why does life appear (as apologist C.S. Lewis recognized) so "incorrigibly plural"?

Also, pantheistic monism claims that reason can't tell us about God and ultimate reality. So the pantheist has a problem. He has no choice but to use the tools of reason (words and their distinctive meanings) in order to dismiss rational objections to his beliefs, refute distinctions and deny the efficacy of reason. Furthermore, if a portion of reality is some type of illusion (and therefore, somehow less than ultimate reality), how may I be sure that you or I are not an illusion? Philosophically, pantheism implodes on itself.

Here's another example of that view's faulty logic: Pantheism's position that God is the all means that you and I would be deified. After all, we are part of that "all," right? But if God is eternal and unchanging, why didn't I know I was God? And when I move from not knowing that I am God to accepting that I really am divine, why doesn't this shift compromise reality's seamless immutability?

Also present in Avatar are hints of animism - the belief that "spirit" or "spirits" are everywhere and in everything. The blue-hued Na'vi of Pandora (a color choice Cameron connects to Hindu deities) live in harmony with nature, communing with trees and enlisting loyal animals to assist in battle. It's unclear whether that's possible due to Eywa's favor or simply because the Na'vi and the natural world share the same essence or spirit. Either way, Pandora pulsates with divine life.

Pantheism and Christianity
So how does all of this relate to the Christian worldview? In his book Miracles,Lewis wrote about pantheism's fundamental incompatibility with Christian theism. He notes that the theist distinguishes between the universe and the One who created it. For the pantheist, however, the universe and all of its contents are God, including you and me. Lewis asserts that pantheism almost invariably becomes the "default" position of the unconverted mind, and has "only one really formidable opponent-namely Christianity."

Lewis documents that, throughout history, humans who didn't know the true God have lapsed into believing that they were Him. That fascination never seems to go away. It just gets a new coat of paint from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Although published 50 years pre-Avatar, these words from Lewis have a prophetic ring to them: "By a strange irony, each new relapse into this immemorial 'religion' is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation."

The apostle Paul was aware of pantheistic beliefs in the ancient world as well. In Romans 1:22-23 and 25, he condemns all forms of idolatry, including pantheism. "Although they claimed to be wise," he wrote, "they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. ...they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator-who is forever praised."

Shaping Hearts and Minds

Today, the human heart is still tempted to exchange God's truth for a lie, especially when that luminous counterfeit is braided into the narrative of a fun popcorn flick. As Douthat explains, "For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, [Avatar] is an ideal combination."

That's a real concern when you consider the emotional impact Avatar is having on some viewers. CNN recently reported that an online fan forum has received hundreds of posts from Avatar devotees deeply depressed because they can't actually visit the vibrant world of Pandora. One user, alluding to a scene in which the soul of a dying human crosses over, confessed, "I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and everything is the same as in Avatar."

Why such obsession? Actor Stephen Lang, who portrays the film's evil Marine colonel, suggests, "Pandora is a pristine world, and there is the synergy between all of the creatures of the planet. And I think that strikes a deep chord within people that has a wishfulness and a wistfulness to it."

Avatar is cinematic spectacle. There's no denying it. The filmmakers deserve every accolade they've received for setting a new bar for immersive imagery and 3-D technology. I even appreciate Cameron's respect for the Na'vi's strong spiritual roots. But all spirituality is not equal. Truth matters. Which is why it concerns me that inextricably woven into Avatar's eye-popping sci-fi tapestry is an enchanting pitch for pantheism.


Author and speaker Alex McFarland is Director of North Greenville University's Center for Christian Worldview and Apologetics.