Rod Dreher

Rome does not like ‘Avatar’. From the NYT report:

The newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote that “Avatar,” which stars Sam Worthington, right, “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature,” according to The A.P. Vatican Radio said the movie “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium,” adding, “Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”

This is all true, as far as it goes. The film really does hold nature worship up as something good (this is what Ross Douthat meant when he cited the film’s pantheism as exemplary of a religion Hollywood could bring itself to embrace wholeheartedly. It’s also appealing to the general American public. Douthat:

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.

From a Christian point of view, the pantheistic Na’vi, like the indigenous peoples of our own world whose religion is pantheistic (e.g., identifying and establishing relationships to spirits dwelling in trees, rivers, mountains), may be closer to the truth than the Earth people in the film who only see in the natural world inert material to be exploited. Wade Davis speaks somewhat to this point when he writes (in “The Wayfinders”):

We accept it as normal that people who have never been on the land, who have no history or connection to the country, may legally secure the right to come in and by the very nature of their enterprises leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape utterly transformed and desecrated. What’s more, in granting such mining concessions, often initially for trivial sums to speculators from distant cities, companies cobbled together with less history than my dog, we place no cultural or market value on the land itself. The cost of destroying a natural asset, or its inherent worth if left intact, has no metric in the economic calculations that support the industrialization fo the wild. No company has to compensate the public for what it does to the commons, the forests, mountains, and rivers, which by definition belong to everyone. As long as there is a promise of revenue flows and employment, it merely requires permission to proceed. We take this as a given for it is the foundation of our system, the way commerce extracts value and profit in a resource-driven economy. but if you think about it, especially from the perspective of so many other cultures, touched and inspired by quite different vision of life and land, it appears to be very odd and highly anomalous human behaviour.

Davis offers this comment in a chapter in which he discusses how one’s religious/metaphysical orientation toward the world determines how one relates to it, and uses it. He credits the Enlightenment for having

liberated the human mind from the tyranny of absolute faith, even as we freed the individual from the collective, which was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. And, in doing so, we also abandoned many of our intuitions for myth, magic, mysticism, and, perhaps most importantly, metaphor. The universe, declared Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, was composed only of ‘mind and mechanism.’ With a single phrase, all sentient creatures aside from human beings were devitalized, as was the earth itself.

Now, it should be emphasized that like his predecessor John Paul II, Pope Benedict has strongly defended the natural world against exploiters, and done so in explicitly Christian terms. Similarly, Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodox Christians, has a strong record of speaking out for the environment. Interestingly, the Orthodox Christian concept of panentheism — the idea that God interpenetrates matter, as distinct from the belief that He is wholly separate from matter, or (as the pantheists teach) that matter is deity — provides a solid theological basis for piety toward the natural world, and one that may strike Western Christians as novel. Wendell Berry is a believing Protestant of some sort who is fierce, and fiercely intelligent, in his defense of the holiness of creation (read this great essay for an example).
I have not read the full criticism of “Avatar” from Vatican media outlets, only the brief NYT report on the reviews. But I hope the Vatican media at least recognized the important partial truths illustrated in “Avatar.” It is a false choice to say that one must either embrace nature worship, or side with the exploiters and plunderers. The normative Christian tradition offers a robust middle ground on which to stand against both sides — but don’t expect to see that position embraced or even acknowledged by a Hollywood film. Nevertheless, despite its obvious pantheism, which has to be rejected by believing Christians, Jews and Muslims, there is much wisdom in the Cameron film; it merely requires intelligent discernment.

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