"Avatar" is [director James] Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism -- a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.For lefties, gazing at Gaia means never having to say you're sorry. Or even asking about ethics or morals. Rather, they seemingly see "nature" as a pre-monotheist angry spirit -- to be appeased by windmill totems, emissions wampum trading, a collection plate for the third world, an energy hair-shirt, and perhaps even suicide.
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. . .
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.
For a New York Times article actually about theology, see the Sunday magazine's surprisingly fair portrait of Princeton prof Robert George. I don't always agree with George, but he's among the most interesting Christian thinkers today.
(via reader Marc, Wolf Howling)