Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar, blue skin and the ground of being

Online at Noozhawk

A recent New York Times columnist described Jim Cameron’s latest blockbuster, Avatar, as a “long apologia for pantheism.” This is, we learn as we read further, a bad thing. Pantheism is the notion that the entire universe is God. Pantheism is generally relegated by modern theologians and scholars to an earlier, less advanced, stage of humanity, with a less well-developed notion of divinity. But the Na’vi people of Avatar’s moon known as Pandora may well hold the more accurate – and ultimately more helpful – notion of divinity after all.

Theism is the, since the days of Thomas Aquinas, the basis for most of Christian faith (though what defines Christian faith in the many hundreds of different Christian traditions is itself rather hard to pin down). Aquinas was a 13th Century Italian monk who wrote the authoritative text for Christianity in his era, Summa Theologica. This work remains highly influential today. The basic tenets of traditional theism hold that there is one God and the universe is His creation. God and the universe are separate. God is eternal and uncreated. The universe is created and will one day end – rather soon, according to some of the more fiery theologians.

Pantheism, to the contrary, holds that God and the universe are one: it’s all the same stuff. Pantheism doesn’t necessarily require that there be only one god, and the more “primitive” versions of pantheism view the world as containing a multiplicity of gods. Einstein, not exactly an intellectual scrub, subscribed to Spinoza’s pantheistic God. Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jew, stated that “matter and soul are the outside and inside aspects, or attributes, of one and the same thing in itself …; that is to say, of ‘Nature, which is the same as God.’” (Spinoza’s Ethics, 1677).

As with most things in real life, there are more than two flavors possible. In this case, in between traditional theism and pantheism is panentheism, described by one scholar as “the god of the philosophers.” Panentheism – the extra “en” being very important – holds that the universe is within God but not identical with God. So all of the universe is God, but God transcends the physical universe. Modern proponents of panentheism include the British philosopher and physicist Alfred North Whitehead, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Hartshorne. And of course Hinduism has taught a version of panentheism for many thousands of years, based on the Vedas and Upanishads, which were first written about 1800 BCE. In Hinduism, Brahman is the ultimate ground of being, what some describe as God.

This takes us back to Avatar’s blue-skinned Na’vi. Cameron’s epic depicts a far-flung moon inhabited by a humanoid race that enjoys a tight bond with nature. This bond can at times be physical, due to a bio-psychic link that allows the Na’vi to literally connect with the global living network they describe as Eywa by using open nerve endings at the end of their long ponytails. Eywa, a global network consisting of all life on Pandora, is a clear parallel to Hinduism’s Brahman. Brahman is the source of all things. It is the soil from which every other thing grows.

And the Na’vi’s blue skin is a clear parallel to Krishna, Hinduism’s Christ-like figure. Krishna is always depicted with blue skin. Krishna stars in such epics as the Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary books of the Hindu tradition. The third indication that Cameron intentionally mirrored Hindu teachings is the name of the movie itself. In Hinduism, an avatar is an earthly incarnation of a god, such as Krishna.

We realize, then, that Avatar does not really describe pantheism; rather, it describes a panENtheistic way of life, made very real for its people due to the actual physical connections the Na’vi enjoy with Eywa.

Avatar, as with all movies, is a metaphor. The metaphor in this case is complex and of course open to interpretation. My personal interpretation is that the Na’vi’s ability to interconnect with Eywa and download the collective wisdom of all life on Pandora is a metaphor for every human’s ability to connect with the ground of being and enjoy that same kind of wisdom.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist who decried Avatar’s alleged pantheism, apparently disapproves of Avatar’s religious message, based on his conclusion that this message contradicts Christian teachings. This, however, misses the true meaning of Jesus’ life and message. Interpreting exactly what Jesus’ life and message really were, however, is a veritable cottage industry in this new millennium. Two recent books have been helpful for me in gaining a better understanding of Jesus and situating his teachings within the broader context of universal spiritual truth: Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus and Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.

These books and many others demonstrate that we may accurately interpret Jesus’ teachings as harmonious with the Hindu teachings of Brahman and Atman. Jesus claimed to be God, according to the Gospel of John (interestingly, the only gospel that contains this teaching). Jesus’ claim was considered heretical by not only the Jewish authorities of his day, but also the Roman oppressors. For this and other crimes, he was crucified.

To a Hindu, however, the realization that each of us is God is greeted with a hearty congratulations – “welcome to reality!” This is the case because the core teaching of Hinduism – particularly the Vedanta tradition – is that not only is Brahman the ground of being for all things, but that all things constitute a non-dual oneness. It’s all just one thing. And when we realize that it’s all just one thing, we realize also that we are that one thing. I am the universe, you are the universe, we are the universe. I am God, you are God, we are God.

For Jesus to say he is God is not, then, such a stretch. In fact, it becomes rather pedestrian. But it is a pedestrian truth that all of us should internalize and live, each day. Paul Tillich, a 20th Century German theologian, has written extensively on a similar interpretation of Christian faith.

When we realize that all other people are in fact just pieces of the grand oneness that is us, Brahman, the ground of being, it becomes a lot harder to treat each other inhumanely. And the same realization leads to a renewed reverence for the natural world – because the natural world is just another manifestation of our true identity, the entire universe. And this is, ultimately, a very Christian teaching.

Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney.

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