Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar: Some Baha'i Thoughts

At long last, the film "Avatar" has arrived. From the critical acclaim this movie is generating it would seem that the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming has taken place. I personally have long had an immunity to hype, so am looking forward to what will at best be a good movie and at worst a chance to sit in the dark and eat Sour Patch Kids and popcorn. Part of what makes me excited about "Avatar" is the possibility it might offer a glimpse of what a really good "John Carter of Mars" movie could look like (that's the movie I'm waiting for!).

In addition to the discussion of its special effects wonders, "Avatar" has prompted some interesting cultural commentary. Two of the more interesting I've read are by Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Reihan Salam of Douthat comments on the theological dimensions of the film:

"Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

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." (Read the whole thing here)

Salam critiques "Avatar" for it's take on capitalism and modernization:

"After thousands of years of ignorance and stagnation, a kind of miracle happened that radically transformed humanity's relationship to the wider world. This explosion of wealth has been periodically interrupted by war and famine, yet it has never been fully undone. And though it has involved serious downsides, the prospect of returning to a primeval state strikes most of us as insane. Modern life can be exhausting and even demeaning. It is, however, preferable to spending most of one's waking moments foraging and hunting in a desperate struggle for survival.

Or is it? That is the question James Cameron asks in his brilliant science-fiction epic Avatar. The villains of Avatar are, well, you and me. Rapacious humans from an environmentally devastated Earth have arrived on an alien moon called Pandora in search of a precious resource called "unobtainium." The only hiccup is that the richest source of unobtainium lies beneath the habitat of the Na'vi, a race of long-limbed humanoids who live in blissful harmony with their environment. So naturally the humans, being ruthless and acquisitive by nature, decide that corporate profits matter more than the lives of the Na'vi, and they launch a brutal military assault that, as you can no doubt guess, ends in tragedy. Throughout the film, the Na'vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.(Read the whole thing here)

Reading these columns got me thinking about a few things. First, my impression of the Baha'i Faith is that it does not support the notion that material progress, whether scientific, technological or economic is antithetical to spirituality. Materialism is not the inevitable outcome of modernization and a return to some kind of pre-industrial, back-to-nature, edenic utopia (if this were even possible) is not the answer to humanity's current problems. It is in finding the balance between the spiritual and material, the practical and the metaphysical that we can save our souls and our planet.

"Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised from the heights of the happiness of mankind, awakening the slumbering, granting sight to the blind, causing the heedless to become mindful, bestowing hearing upon the deaf, unloosing the tongue of the mute and resuscitating the dead.

The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertaineth to the world of phenomena, promoteth the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind. It compriseth the laws, regulations, arts and sciences through which the world of humanity hath developed; laws and regulations which are the outcome of lofty ideals and the result of sound minds, and which have stepped forth into the arena of existence through the efforts of the wise and cultured in past and subsequent ages. The propagator and executive power of this call is just government.

The other is the soul-stirring call of God, Whose spiritual teachings are safeguards of the everlasting glory, the eternal happiness and illumination of the world of humanity, and cause attributes of mercy to be revealed in the human world and the life beyond.

This second call is founded upon the instructions and exhortations of the Lord and the admonitions and altruistic emotions belonging to the realm of morality which, like unto a brilliant light, brighten and illumine the lamp of the realities of mankind. Its penetrative power is the Word of God.

However, until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained. For although, on the one hand, material achievements and the development of the physical world produce prosperity, which exquisitely manifests its intended aims, on the other hand dangers, severe calamities and violent afflictions are imminent.

Consequently, when thou lookest at the orderly pattern of kingdoms, cities and villages, with the attractiveness of their adornments, the freshness of their natural resources, the refinement of their appliances, the ease of their means of travel, the extent of knowledge available about the world of nature, the great inventions, the colossal enterprises, the noble discoveries and scientific researches, thou wouldst conclude that civilization conduceth to the happiness and the progress of the human world. Yet shouldst thou turn thine eye to the discovery of destructive and infernal machines, to the development of forces of demolition and the invention of fiery implements, which uproot the tree of life, it would become evident and manifest unto thee that civilization is conjoined with barbarism. Progress and barbarism go hand in hand, unless material civilization be confirmed by Divine Guidance, by the revelations of the All-Merciful and by godly virtues, and be reinforced by spiritual conduct, by the ideals of the Kingdom and by the outpourings of the Realm of Might."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 282)

A second thought is that abandoning the God of monotheism and embracing nature as an object of worship is also not the answer to the excesses of materialism, or environmental devastation. It is not belief in God that is the problem, but failure to recognize the divine reflected in Nature and act accordingly.

"Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.

Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe."
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 141)

I am well aware, O my Lord, that I have been so carried away by the clear tokens of Thy loving-kindness, and so completely inebriated with the wine of Thine utterance, that whatever I behold I readily discover that it maketh Thee known unto me, and it remindeth me of Thy signs, and of Thy tokens, and of Thy testimonies. By Thy glory! Every time I lift up mine eyes unto Thy heaven, I call to mind Thy highness and Thy loftiness, and Thine incomparable glory and greatness; and every time I turn my gaze to Thine earth, I am made to recognize the evidences of Thy power and the tokens of Thy bounty. And when I behold the sea, I find that it speaketh to me of Thy majesty, and of the potency of Thy might, and of Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur. And at whatever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine omnipotence. (Baha'u'llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha'u'llah, p. 271)

I'm hoping to offer a review of "Avatar" and additional comments once I've seen it but would love to hear from readers who already have. What did you think of the movie? What do you think its underlying theological and social messages were? Did you agree or disagree with them?

You can also read a review of the film from a friend of mine here.


  1. I love this post (and your blog in general!) and was wondering if I could have permission to repost it on my film blog.

  2. Anotherworldcitizen, of course you can post this on your blog. Have you seen Avatar? Are you planning do a review? If so, I can connect my review with yours or at least link to it. Let me know.

    Anybody else out there seen this movie yet?

  3. The thing about Avatar is that it's art. And not just the type of art that's pretty to look at. It's the type of art that can be intrepreted in multiple ways, can make us think, and can inspire us.

    When I watched Avatar, I immediately connected the story with what was happening in Peace River, Canada. Peace River is an Aboriginal community which is being harmed by the exploitation of tar sands in northern Alberta. The river is being polluted, wildlife are dying and cancer rates are rising, but the government is ignoring the problems for the sake of fossil fuels.

    It was obviously clear to me that this movie represented the case in Peace River and the mistreatment of Aboriginal communities in Canada.

  4. Here's my review of Avatar

  5. An interesting solution to this crisis is to Stop the humans right over here on Planet Earth , thus in that case we could save the Planet earth and also the future civilizations .

    Praveen , India

  6. What a wonderful synthesis and analysis of not only this popular movie, but also of several current trends extent in the world today. Your blog is a continuing inspiration and a welcome relief from the mundane content of much of what I read in other places. I feel like I attended a deepening - and those aren't popular much in local Baha'i communities anymore, so I need more than ever. Thanks so much for what you do! Lisa Armstrong, Central Arkansas.

  7. I'm mildly disappointed. It's been described as Matrix meets Dances with Wolves. Which I get. But it's also a curious parallel to District 9, and a bit on the reverse side of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, though a bit less high minded. In that sense it was perhaps a touch more realistic and comparable to the history of Tecumseh. But we have his own story to know what comes next.

    There is also a distant touch of A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak.

    There are bits of a higher answer scattered here and there. It has a visceral sense of comeuppance which I think is the appeal to many people, and most of the comments above. Not to say that it doesn't reflect real injustices and problems in society.

    One thought I had is perhaps if we can get past the technology of being fooled with reality we might wake up to reality and discover richness and poverty for ourselves. It's not we can just plug in and be someone else. We have to plug in in an entirely different and far more meaningful kind of way. But hey - who am I - I fell in love with the story of Star Wars when it came out. 'Course I'm not the same person now.

  8. I went to see the movie yesterday, here's my take on it:

  9. Very on-point post. I saw this movie last weekend (very enjoyable, definitely lived up to the hype in terms of its entertainment value), but had mixed feelings about the themes of the movie.

    About the pantheism theme and how Americans seem to appreciate this idea... I think on its face it seems to conflict with Abrahimic religions' doctrine, but rather I think in the long run it's going to broaden (rather than challenge) how most of us believe in God. So perhaps a Christian who believes unequivocally in a single God will be able to make better sense of the concept of the Holy Spirit, and a Muslim who believes God is unknowable and infinitely remote can better understand the phrase "closer than your jugular vein". (For Baha'is I think one equivalent is the concept of God's Primal Will that permeates creation.) There's no conflict, necessarily, between belief in One God and belief in spiritual interconnectedness.

    You rightly pointed out that the movie takes advantage of this myth that Westerners invented materialism and other social problems, as if they bit the forbidden fruit and dragged the rest of humanity out of the Garden of Eden. I have always found this idea to be nonsense. But there's also a scene when the chief researcher who studies the Naa'vi pleads with the military folks, arguing that there's more value in learning about the people than in the minerals in the ground. I think this is one of the big spiritual lessons of our era of human history, that there's immense value in unity and discourse, and that conflict is almost always dumb.

    Love reading this blog, keep up the good work.

  10. Here is a prose-poem about this film, a film I have read about and talked about to some who have seen the film.-Ron Price, Tasmania
    The film Avatar has finally been released this month after being in development since 1994. James Cameron, who wrote, produced and directed the film, stated in an interview that an avatar is: “an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form." He said that "in this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human's intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body.” Cameron stated, "It's not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It's actually a physical body." The great student of myth, Joseph Campbell,(1) should have been at the premier in London on 10 December 2009!

    Composer James Horner scored the film, his third collaboration with Cameron after Aliens and Titanic. A field guide of 224 pages for the film's fictional setting of the planet of Pandora was released by Harper Entertainment on November 24, 2009. The guide was entitled Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora. With an estimated $310 million to produce and $150 million for marketing the film has already generated positive reviews from film critics. Roger Ebert, one of the more famous of film critics, wrote: “extraordinary, Avatar is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough."-Ron Price with thanks to Wikipedia, 30 December 2009.

    Like viewing Star Wars back in ’77
    some said, an obvious script with an
    earnestness and corniness, part of what
    makes it absorbing, said another. Gives
    you a world, a place, worth visiting, eh?
    Alive with action, a soundtrack that pops
    with robust sci-fi music shoot-'em-ups....

    A mild critique of American militarism
    and industrialism: yes the military are
    pure evil while the Pandoran tribespeople
    are nature-loving, eco-harmonious, wise
    Braveheart smurf warriors, said a critic. Received nominations all over the place
    for the Critics' Choice Awards of Broadcast Film Critics Association and on and on go
    the recommendations for the best this and
    that and everything else. What do you think
    of all this Joseph Campbell? You said we all have to work out our own myth now in our pentapolar, multicultural-dimensional world
    with endless phantoms of wrongly informed
    imagination, with tangled fears and pundits
    of error ill-equipped to interpret the social commotion at play throughout our planet, eh?

    (1) Google Joseph Campbell for some contemporary insights into the individualized myth we all have to work out in our postmodern world.

    Ron Price
    30 December 2009

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  12. Anonymous1:40 AM

    I have seen Avatar, six times! six times I have gone back to see this movies, am I insane? or is just the 3D and mind blowing CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) tying a knot in my heart and brain. It floats in my mind like a glimpse of paradise lost, beckoning me to find it. I see magic in this simple well trodden tail where the Navi have a simplistic undivided spirituality that leaves them totally united with their surroundings and the various animals of their world including themselves. This coupled with the outstanding realism pulls on my heart strings with a longing that I know cannot be equaled in my real world, but wait lets engage some imagination, dream a little or a lot and see what might be, if only. Imagine "The Oneness of Mankind" a united humanity, free from the ravages of war, "The Elimination of Prejudice of All Kinds" and "The Equality of Women and Men". Imagine "The Essential Harmony of Science and Religion" where the application of science would be for the benefit of mankind and his environment. Imagine the earth filled with hearts and souls linked and united in the glory of "The Oneness of Mankind", "The Oneness of Religion" and its effect on the earth our mother. Knowledge arts and sciences taught to all "Universal Compulsory Education", is this our Pandora, a real tangible vision of what could be. Well according to Baha'ullah its our destiny, waiting for us to just mirror forth spiritual attributes to reflect our noble promised future, just waiting for us to cast aside the veils that have hindered and stopped such a noble cause from fruition. So maybe Avatar plucks my heart strings as a fantasy based on a deep down longing that every person has imprinted on the very fabric of their being, One Country, One World, One Race, but wait its just a movie and dreams are for fools? it could never happen, we don't have a living neural network like Pandora, this may be true, but think maybe not a natural built system, but a man made system. Consider since the invention of Morse Code in 1844 in just over 160 years the mind boggles as the World Wide Web streams out like roots to all parts and places of our globe, and each single individual can connect millions, billions of others at near the speed of light. So is this a fools dream? or from a prison in 'Akka did Baha'ullah call out to our hearts to fulfill our destiny and James Cameron's Avatar just by chance happened upon a hidden dream deep down in soul of each and everyone of us just waiting to be released from the prison of our hearts and minds. As you can tell I am a Baha'i, but I don't know how else we could reach Pandora.

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