Pandora, Ken Wilber, and William Blake

Ali at Meadowsweet & Myrrh has written a thoughtful and perceptive post in response to my review of Avatar that unfolds out into her own nuanced review of the movie. I would commend this to anyone who reads my blog. Here are my admittedly rambling and random thoughts in response to her articulate writing. Hopefully these thoughts, disjointed as they might be, can stimulate even further reflection and conversation for those who choose to read them.

Ali accuses me of “overstating” the Christian elements of the movie. To the extent that Avatar is not an explicitly Christian story, like The Chronicles of Narnia or the Harry Potter books, she is right. While I think Jake Sully can be seen as an “everyman” figure, it would be quite a reach to see him as a Christ figure. Even though one could conceivably argue that he is a “savior” or a “messiah,” he is not a suffering servant, undergoes no crucifixion/resurrection, and brings his “salvation” through military victory rather than through sacrificial love. On the other hand, he does undergo a “baptism” of sorts (when running away from the pursuing beast on his first day in the Pandoran wilderness) and, at the culmination of his training with Neytiri, performs a eucharistic act of thanksgiving when making his first “clean” kill. But back to my first point: this is not an explicitly Christian allegory; I would be quite surprised if James Cameron came out and said he was trying to unpack Christian symbolism in Avatar. I think “reading” Avatar in a Christian sense works only to the extent that the movie explores universal themes that can be understood in a Christian context. Thus, for example, the “baptism” in the river is simply a ritual ablution, that Wiccans could see in terms of a ceremonial bath.

So perhaps I need to back-pedal a bit and say that Avatar tells a tale in which Christians can find meaning that resonate with the Christian story. My review from Sunday is an example of that kind of “reading.” Does this make Avatar a “Christian movie”? Not at all. Reflecting on this, I am reminded that my experience and perception of Christianity is so steeped in the writings of the mystics and the practice of contemplation that my entire approach to the question of Christianity in literature is probably off the scale, especially in relation to most mainstream Christians. Heaven knows, most mainstream Christians can’t even accept Harry Potter, so I doubt that my reading of Avatar in a Christian sense will have too many defenders among garden-variety churchgoers.

Christian mysticism represents a marginal voice within Christianity and has, at least since the High Middle Ages, arguably represented an alternative theology within the faith (even for those mystics like Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila who insist on their own orthodoxy and assent to church authority). I believe a key to understanding this “alternative voice” of mysticism is that mysticism tends toward universal values, in contrast to ordinary religion which tends toward tribal thinking. Thus, Christian mysticism tends to be comfortable with non-Christian art, literature, philosophy, or even religion, because the mystically-oriented Christian is able to recognize universal patterns of truth and wisdom in any context and relate them to his or her “home” wisdom tradition. This is why Christian contemplatives like Thomas Merton or Bede Griffiths tend to be so engaged with other religious traditions (such as Buddhism or Hinduism), while their more tribally-minded counterparts within the church see their exploration as heretical and dangerous. It’s a matter of consciousness.

Back to Ali. She critiques the movie for its “monotheistic assumptions.” As a Christian, I have to respond, “you say that like it’s a bad thing.” I am not persuaded that Cameron had any more of an investment in Paganism or pantheism than he did in Christianity. I believe he was just trying to tell the story of one man’s inner transformation (repentance? salvation?) from militarist to ecological consciousness. Such a story does not require a pantheistic cosmology; as a contemplative Christian, I believe Jake Sully’s transformation works just as well within a panentheistic cosmology.

In fact, I wonder if Ali is overstating the movie’s “real representations of pantheism” just as surely as I overstated the movie’s “Christian” symbolism. She points to the hyena-like creatures as evidence of Eywa’s “white blood cells” at work, but how does this square with the seeds from the sacred tree which cluster around Jake (thus preventing Neytiri from killing him and inspiring her to take him to her village)? Is pantheism ultimately reducible to random chance, or even chaos?

Ali complains that “the ‘connection’ between Na’vi and animal is not one of mutual communion (as you might expect in a truly pantheistic spiritual tradition), but of domination, so that the beast itself (whose eyes dilate as though drugged) becomes an avatar for the thinking, self-aware and (implicitly) superior humanoid beings.” Her assumption that “true” pantheism requires “mutual communion” between humanoid and non-humanoid seems to me to be unfounded, based more on western liberal wishful thinking than anything else. As Ken Wilber points out in his integral theory, we have a widespread assumption in our culture that all hierarchy is “evil” or “patriarchal” or some other such unacceptable thing. Yet the plain truth is that different levels of consciousness do exist. I don’t see that the less-conscious animals submitting to the higher-conscious Na’vi necessarily means “domination” — I think Ali is projecting her own bias here.

Now, concerning Grace: Ali’s comments about her being a scientist more than any kind of explicit Christian figure cannot be refuted. Granted, in her own mind and life choices Grace is a scientist, not a theologian. But she is also the only ethical voice among the three leaders of the earth colony. Cameron could have easily given her a more evocative “scientific” name, like “Honor Newton.” So while acknowledging Ali’s rebuttal to my argument, I remain convinced that she represents at least some measure of Christianity, even if hers is a silenced and doubting Christianity. Obviously we do not know her backstory, but with a name like Grace Augustine I like to think that she had been baptized; according to Christian theology, baptism makes you a Christian for life, even if you reject and renounce it (see the Book of Common Prayer, which states “the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”). Grace, therefore could be seen as the “unbelieving Christian,” and thus is profoundly archetypal for our age. But her rejection of “Pagan voodoo” and “fairy tales” ultimately is overshadowed by her rapture at being taken up into Eywa at the closing moments of her physical life.

Let’s consider one more bit of Christian imagery in Avatar. At the beginning of the movie, Col. Quaritch tells a gathering of newly arrived earthlings that after their tour of duty on Pandora, they might want to go to hell for a little bit of R & R. I am sure he meant “hell” with not one, but two “l”s — in other words, the Christian, not the Pagan, concept of hell. And yet, Jake Sully finds on Pandora his heaven: his redemption, his salvation, his liberation from the wheelchair (consider Christ, who defined his ministry as including “the lame walk” — cf. Matthew 11:5). Pandora-as-heaven is epitomized by the “hallelujah mountains” where, interestingly enough, the “hellish” machinery of the sky-people is compromised. So is Pandora heaven, or worse than hell? I think it depends on how you look at it. Here I am reminded of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a theme that can be found in at least some of the voices of the Christian mystical tradition: that for true mystics the categories of heaven and hell cease to matter. Mysticism, arguably, is the art of finding heaven in the midst of hell. This is Blake’s message, and it is Jake Sully’s experience as well (Pagans and pantheists might howl at this reading of Avatar, but we need to remember that this is what Sully was told: that Pandora was worse than hell. His learning and discovering otherwise is part of his story).

Much of the power of Avatar lies in at least the promise of integrating oppositions. The humans, at least those friendly to the Na’vi, can find their destiny either in Eywa (as Grace did) or in their avatars (as did Jake). In Jake, we see “the lame walk”, but not by some sort of metaphysical intervention, rather through the science of the avatar and, later, the union with Eywa. So, Avatar suggests, something that had been promised to us by Christ finds fruition in science and in nature. Again, reading this film from the perspective of Christian mysticism, I don’t see any contradiction with Christianity in this message. But I can see where more traditional (read: tribally-minded) Christians might. Likewise, tribally-minded Neopagans probably would reject any attempt to read Christian perspectives into this story. But I can only relate to the story from where I sit, as a Christian striving to be a contemplative with an ongoing love and respect for both ancient and postmodern forms of Paganism. So there you go.  :-)

But just as my reading of Avatar is ultimately about me, I believe we need to remember that, ultimately, Avatar is Jake’s story. It’s the story of a white man who learns to walk away from his privilege in search for a more holistic, more authentic, more sustainable life. Granted, it’s an imperfect story, shot through with Hollywood blockbuster-itis, as Ali has so eloquently explored both in her blog post and in various comments. It’s less important that Jake plays savior to the Na’vi than it is that Jake walks away from Quaritch. It’s interesting that Quaritch is felled not by Jake but by Neytiri, who then saves Jake’s life. So as much as Jake is programmed to be the “always-in-control” guy, ultimately he is a vulnerable, broken man, unable to walk, gasping for breath, lovingly cradled by the much stronger (and bigger!) woman who has been his mentor and teacher and advocate all along.

Ali has repeatedly said that, while she disagreed with me on a number of points, she admired the tone of my writing and my willingness to be a non-defensive Christian while engaging with the questions this movie raises. I’d like to respond by saying that I am honored by her perspective and admire her own positive tone. Incidentally, she refers to me as “McColman” in her post, while I’m calling her “Ali” which is how she identifies herself on her blog. I hope my readers won’t see this as any sort of privileged posturing on my part, where I use her given name even though she calls me by my surname. I’m simply identifying her as she has chosen to identify herself on her blog. No lack of respect is intended.

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Cheryl Anne

    I don’t think you could “ramble” if you tried Carl. Thank you for digging a little deeper. Your perspective is refreshing, and an encouragement to the gracious balance of my own journey.
    Deep Peace and Every Blessing,
    Cheryl Anne

  • aggrodude

    I saw Avatar yesterday, and I was surprised at the spiritual content of the film. There were some elements of Shamanism (an idea that Cameron gives more screen time to than overt Christian ideas in my opinion) that I found a tad creepy, but I found the most emotionally charged and I suppose ‘Christian’ scene was an obvious laying on of hands when Sully is accepted by the Na’vi tribe. It was an awesome picture of community, acceptance and Body. Thoughtful post!

  • Carl McColman

    Wow, what did you find creepy? The pinprick with the blood that Mo’at tasted? Or something else? Inquiring minds want to know!

  • John Sobert Sylvest

    My goodness! Carl, you are so incredibly gifted. Thanks for sharing that gift . This post was generous in being self-revealing. It was depthful, as usual. It was dialogical, engaging other perspectives respectfully and authentically. It was poetic, accessible and … makes me want to see the movie, through my own eyes, to be sure, but not without the gift of your own interpretation which was splendid!

  • Ali

    Carl, Thanks for such a lengthy and detailed reply! We’ve quite a conversation going on, and I’m sorry for not having the chance to get back to it until now!

    I wanted to clear up one thing right away that I think may have been lost in my post and so led to some confusion in your reply. I was not saying that there was something inherently wrong with monotheism, or that Cameron should have toned down the monotheistic assumptions in the film in general (these, like I said, were hardly avoidable, and in any case probably necessary to be palatable to an American audience). What concerns me is the portrayal of the Na’vi culture–a literally alien culture, the very definition of Other-ness, and also fairly obviously meant to represent various native/tribal religions on this planet–in ways that were inaccurate. Avatar is not a “Neopagan’s dream,” for there is very little actual, accurate pantheism in it anywhere (and of course nowhere is there any suggestion of gasp! polytheism, or even an ecology of spirits and other nonmaterial beings). Indeed, the Na’vi culture is in many ways a poor caricature, an example of what most Westerns think shamanic, indigenous, earth-centered spiritualities are like. Here we have not the interesting blending of two unique perspectives, but the dominant monotheistic culture projecting an “Other” outward in distorted and inaccurate ways. As I mentioned in my own post, what little honest-to-goodness pantheism there is in the movie looks accidental, just the haphazard result of trying to portray the Na’vi as strange and the planet Pandora as wild; and for that reason it is incoherent and full of contradictions.

    The hyenas’ death is an excellent example. If the hyenas are acting in keeping with the sacred balance in their function as predators that both protect from and consume/integrate foreign elements, then why did the seeds of the Sacred Tree stop Neytiri from killing Jake, and why did Neytiri decide to save him? The question of why natural forces and individuals within nature sometimes work in tension with or even in seeming contradiction to one another (whether in an ecosystem, or an individual organism) is a Mystery-capital-M in pantheistic spirituality, one that a person can spend her whole life grappling with and feeling her way through as a way of seeking towards truth and balance. But in Avatar, it’s a contradiction grasped just barely enough to be a joke, to bely a secret attraction between characters and expose the funny backwardness of Na’vi thinking when called out by a straight-shooting-averge-Joe-kinda-guy like Jake.

    The ready submission of animals to the Na’vi (which I still believe, though admittedly on very subtle clues throughout the film, to be another intentional invocation of the avatar-as-empty-shell leitmotif) is another example of Cameron making a drastic misstep. Here we are meant to believe that the Na’vi have some sacred connection to the animals, sensual and even affectionate in nature, yet the animals offer no unique personalities of their own during the process of mind-meeting-mind. In actual shamanic traditions throughout the world, animals are most definitely conceived of as possessing unique and in no way inferior spirits. In fact, illness and pain even within the body itself are often experienced or conceived of as powerful monsters, insects or beasts that must be battled and overcome through ritual and inner journey work; all the more so animals and beings beyond the body that participate in a complex landscape of spirit. The idea of creative, loving communion with such beings may be more Neopagan than ancient pagan in flavor, true, but the basic conception of these creatures as separate and independent, putting up resistance and seeking their own wills apart from those of “superior” humans, is found within both, and is not reflected at all in Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi spirituality.

    My concern is that while monotheistic assumptions persist even among characters who are explicitly atheist, even in a plot that hinges largely on secular science and the savior-like role of technology… pantheism is not simply left out of the equation, but portrayed in ways that are, in fact, mostly monotheistic as well. So what we get is a comfortable, familiar-feeling “Pantheism(TM)” stepping in to save the day when traditional monotheistic religions have begun to taste stale, unbelievable or irrelevant, bringing a breath of fresh exotic air and a warm-fuzzy reminder that life is connected and sacred (something the mystic threads of the monotheistic traditions know very well already). The truth is, the challenges, paradoxes and mysteries of pantheism are as deep, puzzling and ultimately fulfilling as any monotheism, and to reduce them to a sidekick of Western postmodernity is saddening, and not the least bit frustrating. Especially when most reviewers, including yourself, mistake Cameron’s portrayal as somehow a Pagan “dream” come true. I am all for interfaith dialogue and the fruitful integration and living-together of different traditions. But before we begin our blending, I think it is utterly important that we strive to understand what those differences actually are, and accept no pale caricatures in their place. Otherwise, what we are doing is not integrating, but imposing. While a rose is a rose is a rose, to look at another spiritual tradition through rose-colored glasses, paint a rose-colored picture and then try to pass it off as the real thing is just not something I willing to settle for.

    Should Cameron have done better? He was trying to make a Box Office Smash, nothing deeper than that. Should reviewers and critics of the movie point out the flaws and inaccuracies, lest they pass into our culture as “common knowledge” taken for granted? Yes, most definitely.

  • Carl McColman

    Ali, you’re leaving me feeling humbled by how much my own way of thinking about pantheism (as well as animism and polytheism) is shot through with unexamined monotheistic/Christian assumptions. For that matter, I have a fairly strong existentialist/absurdist approach to nature, seeing no meaning except for what we project into/onto nature, which of course implies an endless array of possible constructs. As keenly aware as I am of how unfair many representations of Christianity are, I should have known better in terms of my own unquestioned assumptions regarding how non-monotheists think about, and interact with, their environment.

    I still think Avatar remains one of the more Neopagan-friendly movies that I’ve seen emerge from Hollywood, even with all the concerns you raise. Perhaps I’ve missed something? Likewise, I can also see how getting something “almost right” can be deeply problematic (this is part of what motivated the hostility among many Christians toward The DaVinci Code).

    The Quakers say that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and so I’m left wondering what kind of literary or cinematic treatments of pantheism and/or polytheism you do find useful and constructive? I’d love to know.