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
before it, James Cameron's big-screen adventure on the lush moon of
Pandora advances spiritual concepts that are just as fantastic as its
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
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
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.
Pantheistic Monism Avatar
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.
the first major motion picture set against a pantheistic backdrop.
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.
pantheism possibly be true? Could this oneness of everything and "godhood of the cosmos" be how things really are? The evidence
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"?
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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
Hearts and Minds
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
is an ideal combination."
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."
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."
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.
and speaker Alex McFarland is Director of North Greenville
University's Center for Christian Worldview and Apologetics.