Avatar: Eternal Life?

By Beth Davies-Stofka

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang

Directed By: James Cameron

Produced By:Colin Wilson, Laeta Kalogridis, James Cameron

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking

Run time: 160 minutes

Avatar represents an unparalleled achievement in moviemaking.  Cameron has developed, invented, and deployed 3-D and motion capture technologies to such expert effect that we can finally say that we know how it feels to be in a movie.  Avatar immerses audiences in its extraordinary fictional world.  And by transporting us to Pandora and drawing us into its lush environment, it offers a sensory experience of the central metaphysical proposition of pantheism, that everything is God or Goddess, and God or Goddess is everything.  Bodies are embodiments, incarnations of the Divine Unity.

In the religious worldview of the inhabitants of the distant world Pandora, every creature is an expression of the energy of Pandora's Divine Unity, called Ewya.  Each Pandoran creature is Ewya's self-expression, divine energy manifest as captivating creatures, large and small, benign and dangerous.  Ewya expresses herself as giant trees, floating mountains, and impossibly beautiful bioluminescent flora and fauna.  Even Pandora is Ewya's avatar.

She also expresses herself in humanoid creatures.  The Na'vi are tall, graceful, and athletic blue people with profoundly expressive faces and gestures.  They do not dominate Pandora, or proliferate across its surface.  They are not at the top of the food chain.  But by virtue of the luminous tendrils that emerge from their scalps, they are able to establish direct connections with all the other creatures of Ewya.  The sensation they experience when the bond is established is powerful and unique.  They must be prepared for it.  It is a religious experience. 

Ewya is sacred to the Na'vi because they experience her as such.  They realize that they are avatars of Ewya, as are all other creatures of Pandora.  "All energy is borrowed," explains Neytiri as she teaches the human Jake Sully about death.  "Some day we must give it back."

Into this splendid and peaceful world of avatars, sacred incarnations of the Mother Goddess Ewya, comes an entirely different kind of avatar.  Jake Sully's avatar is not Ewya's self-expression.  Sully's avatar is an organic entity combining human and Na'vi DNA, but it has been grown in a lab using advanced human technologies.  Advanced human technology allows Sully to inhabit this wonderful Na'vi body.  While his crippled body lies still in a coffin-like pod in the lab, his mind is linked up to his avatar and he runs and climbs and leaps and somersaults in his strong, athletic Na'vi body.

Sully's political decisions have been hashed out repeatedly on the Internet, and we won't revisit them here.  Suffice to say that no account of colonialism would be complete without an exploration of the ways in which the culture of the colonizers alters the culture of the colonized.  This feature is nowhere more obvious than in Avatar's exploration of the potential clash between science and religion. 

Since Gutenberg's press, technological achievement has repeatedly and fundamentally altered the meanings of many of the key words in the theological lexicon.  Mass distribution of Luther's theses changed forever the concept of justification.  The invention of the light bulb rendered symbolic the notion that God's son would bring light to a darkened world.  Satellites and cell phones have taken omnipresence out of God's domain. 

How will human avatar technology change Na'vi pantheism?

We sense that the religion of the Na'vi is ancient.  Creation as the self-expression of the Divine Unity is naturally occurring.  The Na'vi and all creatures conform to Ewya's rhythmic balance.  The worldview of the Na'vi is similar to how Daoism might look if humans had continued to exist in very small numbers of hunter-gatherers, somewhere in the middle of the food chain.

When the humans arrive, they expose Pandora and the Na'vi to a completely different worldview, one in which humans have invented, adapted, and deployed technology in order to define the natural world and our place in it.

1/11/2010 5:00:00 AM
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  • Beth Davies-Stofka
    About Beth Davies-Stofka
    Beth Davies-Stofka teaches courses on comparative religion and the philosophy of religion. Her teaching and research focus in two areas: the challenges that violence and human suffering present to theological ethics, and explorations of philosophy and...