For a fan of the work of director James Cameron, Avatar just about hits all the right spots. Avatar is like a mix tape of Cameron’s greatest hits, with its environmental themes evoking his earlier film The Abyss (1989), and its story—of corporate desire to exploit aliens for profit—feeling familiar if you’ve seen Aliens (1986). Even the military hardware of Avatar looks like a futuristic version of what we’ve seen previously—the exosuit cargo-loader in particular. In Aliens, Ripley used it to beat up the Alien Queen—only this time in Avatar the alien wins. Nice.
And so for me, watching Cameron’s latest outing was incredibly familiar, and all the more enjoyable for it. But with Avatar, Cameron has introduced a new theme to his oeuvre: pantheism—the worship of nature
Avatar shares with The Abyss, the idea that aliens can best teach humans about the value of protecting our planet. Where Avatar goes one better is in adding a spiritual dimension to nature and deeming it worthy of worship. For the Na’vi—the indigenous tribe to Pandora—the world is not only ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ (as the English poet Hopkins would say) but pretty much is God. The Na’vi call her Eywa.
In the film, trees exist as a kind of channel between the Na’vi and Eywa, their “great Mother”. All the sacred places of Na’vi culture involve trees: aside from Hometree (where the Na’vi call home), there’s the Tree of Souls and the Tree of Memories. These are trees that store with Eywa the souls of both Na’vi- and animal-dead, and trees in which the soul of the planet and its inhabitants is recorded, and that allow memories to be uploaded and downloaded at will. But trees are only one aspect of the Na’vi’s cosmology. The Na’vi perceive themselves as completely bound up with their environment, other living beings, and Eywa. The whole planet, it is suggested, is an interconnected network—practically a living, breathing organism in its own right.
Some may dismiss this aspect of the film because of the way it sees God as part of the creation rather than distinct from it. In fact, Avatar attracted the criticism of The Vatican’s official newspaper for precisely this reason. L’Osservatore Romano called the film a bland, unoriginal, emotionally-unengaging, spiritual mess that replaces god with nature. Yet I, for one, am really interested in what the film says about connection being fundamental to existence: connection between people, between all living creatures, between humans and God. In the film, these ideas are mapped onto the pantheism of the Na’vi, but I want to differentiate between pantheism—that essentially sees God as continuous with nature—and what I see as a better kind of connection—one that implies a personal relationship between distinct entities.
At the start of Avatar Jake is adrift, without family, physically and emotionally paralysed. He says that “All I ever wanted was a single thing worth fighting for”. Because he’s the hero of the story, we’re supposed to identify with him. Jake is actually the audience’s avatar, and when he speaks of his own spiritual emptiness, he’s actually diagnosing ours: our search for meaning and purpose. The Na’vi, of course, have meaning and purpose in spades—and community, as well—and it’s all largely due to the way they live and breathe Eywa in the world around them. Part of this is precisely what attracts Jake to their way of life.
The film, in other words, preps us to find in deities like Eywa the answer to our deepest needs for connection. Yet if Eywa is everywhere, she is also nowhere at the same time. And this is the big problem I have with Cameron’s depiction of his nature-god. Even though Eywa is a god whose very basis is connection between all living things; this kind of connection doesn’t go far enough.
In effect, what Cameron has done is depict god without religion. If religion consists of a set of beliefs and practices, it involves drawing boundaries around what you believe in—a task that then provides a moral framework to guide action in the world. Boundary-drawing is not about being closed to new and different ideas (though that has been, and continues to be, a result of such an exercise) but about being sure of what you know and believe in.
The spiritual beliefs of Avatar are poached from a variety of spiritual traditions. The belief system of the Na’vi borrows from Native American spiritualities, New Age beliefs, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as the Judeo-Christian story of the Messiah—the one who saves. Such a combination of different traditions may please the pluralist, but this kind of pluralism also turns spirituality into a consumer experience. The individual, in this case, is free to pick and choose what she or he wants to believe in; leaving out parts they don’t like.
The problem with this exercise is that the individual risks worshipping themselves—the god created in their own image. And while this approach may prove satisfying in the meantime, it is unclear how comforting it ultimately is. If anything, it sounds quite lonely. Rather than uniting people by embracing all beliefs, this sort of pluralism makes people into individual units, all with their own belief systems, and each acting in accordance with those beliefs. It’s kind of ironic, given that Avatar is all about connection.
What Avatar lacks is a personal god with whom it is possible to have an actual relationship. A god who goes into battle for you—you as an individual—and not just because you’re part of the life-force that makes up the planet. Sure, Eywa ultimately gets the native animals to fight in defense of Pandora. But it’s said in the film that Eywa doesn’t “take sides”, which implies that Eywa is a god who is normally remote, detached and impersonal. Other scenes from the film suggest that being with Eywa requires some sort of merge where that person is absorbed, indistinguishably, into Eywa. And once that individual is incorporated, the only trace of their individuality to be found is in the disembodied whispers of the Trees of Memories and Souls.
The Christian worldview is not one in which individuals disappear into God or become the stuff of stardust. It’s also one that honours the human form, and doesn’t treat it like something we will one day discard. We were created, according to the Bible, to bear the image of God (Genesis 1: 26-7), and it’s on that basis that we are to relate and connect with God. This suggests that God is a personal being who likes to relate to us personally.
I find that the final scene of Avatar is my favourite: where Jake is fully accepted into the Na’vi community. It’s interesting that Cameron decided that an image that reaffirms the beauty of connection between personal beings would best end the film. I may not agree with Cameron’s ideas about of God, but we’re in agreement on this account. In my opinion, the image of Jake waking up to his new life, surrounded by family and friends, is an image that Avatar gets completely right.
Dr Justine Toh teaches cultural studies at Macquarie University