James Cameron’s Avatar is a good movie — but as a paean to a path we forsook long ago, it’s anything but subtle, and its approach to race may even be a little troubling, for the simplistic sort of apology it contains. Should we, as a race, feel personally guilty for the sins of our fathers, and if so, how if at all should we express it? And is allegory so blatant any allegory at all?
These issues, raised by the film, might be worth debate. What’s not worth debate is the question of whether the film somehow marginalizes Christianity. And yet no less than two “mainstream” conservative commentators have attempted to roll Avatar in to the “war on Christmas,” for its failure to further the clear superiority of monotheism. Apparently, Eywa is not the reason for the season.
In his contribution, Jonah Goldberg, the cutting mind who brought us “Liberal Fascism,” starts with — and slowly rejects — the premise that specific religiosity matters. It’s a dishonest and deeply flawed way to deepen, and then purport to abandon culture war tropes.
What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.
Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.
Awww, poor persecuted Christians. It’s tough to be an overwhelming majority and have to feign interest in other viewpoints. Now, watch the hands as Goldberg ditches this losing argument for another one. Apparently the absence of Christ in a science fiction film isn’t so surprising — what’s surprising is that religion is present at all.
What I find fascinating, and infuriating, is how the culture war debate is routinely described by antagonists on both sides as a conflict between the religious and the un-religious. The faith instinct manifests itself across the ideological spectrum, even if it masquerades as something else [as in Avatar].
Goldberg takes this as proof of God’s existence. The language is somewhat less elegant than Cicero’s (“nature herself has imprinted on the minds of all the idea of god”), but the notion is the same, and it suffers from the same flaws. That we think of God does not prove his existence. Indeed, the presence of the “faith instinct” could just as easily point to a shared human need to find (or, failing that, create) certainty in an uncertain world. God’s commonality could be his downfall, not proof of his existence.
Surprisingly, our second commentator is much, much worse. It’s seriously hard to be worse than Jonah Goldberg, but there but for the grace of God goes Ross Douthat, whose problem isn’t with Avatar‘s ignorance of Christianity, but with its apparent support for pantheism, a religion he judges as “empty” because it fails to offer a Christian form of salvation.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
This really isn’t worth commentary, except to note how narrow Douthat’s field of vision is (salvation means a lot of things to a lot of people), and how far religion has fallen. He all but concedes that religion only has value to him if it can offer an “escape upward” — a comfort in the form of an afterlife, or close proximity to a physical, knowable God. That’s just sad. Wasn’t knowledge once its own reward, and its pursuit an integral part of religion? Don’t we want Marx to be wrong? Isn’t the pursuit of wisdom its own escape upwards? Douthat could have benefited from reading — among other things — at least a single page of Platonist philosophy.
Besides, Douthat fails at the threshold. The theology of Avatar begins as a type of pantheism, but slowly becomes a verifiable scientific construct. When your planet is a huge neural net that preserves memories in accessible form, ancestor- and nature-worship aren’t forms of religious reverence — they’re forms of racial memory. Eywa is less a nature-god than a naturally occurring Library of Alexandria. This is not a minor plot point: it’s the film’s writers explicitly avoiding deeper questions of religion. Goldberg yearns to alter, and Douthat tilts against, an allegory that ultimately isn’t there.
Further, the movie is better for it. Explicit religious allegory is a painful thing, because it almost always degenerates into a missionary tract. Science fiction and fantasy work because they let us see ourselves from a distance, and through other eyes: explicit allegory, of the type that our two Christian pundits crave, kills that distance, and strangles the genre of all but escapist value. Goldberg and Douthat would depopulate creative fiction of all works but Narnia knock-offs. And who wants that?