4-D Avatar: What Liberals Are Missing
By Mike Rivage-Seul
Moviegoers everywhere have already made James Cameron’s “Avatar” the second most successful film in history. And why not? “Avatar” is anti-war, critical of the United States, feminist, and enchantingly pro-environment. The film’s box office success suggests that’s where people are across the globe.
However, even more basically, “Avatar” is spiritual. Its popularity reveals widespread sensitivities of that kind in audiences everywhere. Those sensitivities stand ready and available to be mobilized against wars of greed afflicting poor tribal peoples from Palestine to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Yemen, from Pakistan to Zapatista Mexico. Each of those places has its own Na’vi under attack by the military-industrial complex.
Liberals should take note and respond by adopting “Avatar’s” message. Nonetheless, they show little sign of bracketing their fascination with “Avatar’s” technological and 3-D wonders and take seriously the film’s fourth dimension – its spiritual message.
“Avatar’s” message asserts that human beings, and particularly the poor and victims of resource wars, represent God in human form. When tribal peoples are slaughtered, God is somehow murdered. The only way to avoid deicide is not merely to campaign against genocide, but to co-create a world with room for everyone. More basically, it involves sublimating and redirecting militaristic impulses to confront the violent false God residing deep within our own psyches. That God is driving us to suicide writ large. Consequently the fundamental battle must take place in our own hearts and souls.
Am I reading too much into the film? Judge for yourself. “Avatar’s” very title invites such reading. It’s about divine incarnation. In the language of religious studies, avatars represent the descent of God to earth, and the presence of divine consciousness in human beings. Jesus the Christ was an avatar; the Buddha was. Krishna was. Some would identify Mahatma Gandhi as the Buddha of the 20th century, and therefore an avatar.
And then there’s the story itself – so reminiscent of The Bhagavad Gita. The genius of Cameron’s film is that it doesn’t alienate audiences with “God become man” language that would be too reminiscent of a Christianity irreversibly (I fear) hijacked by the militaristic religious right. Instead, it taps into the spiritual power of the Gita. Ironically, the Gita’s saving grace is that it remains largely unknown to westerners. They haven’t domesticated it.
The Gita, of course, is the timeless tale of a great warrior, Arjuna, instructed by the blue-skinned avatar, Krishna, to engage in battle and kill his false self. The Gita imagines that self appearing in the form of all the great warriors Arjuna has been taught to admire. Only by fearlessly killing those warriors within, Krishna instructs, can Arjuna’s true divine Self – his own avatar center – emerge.
The parallels in “Avatar” are unmistakable. Blue-skinned Neytiri introduces her “Arjuna” (Jake Sully) to his deeper Self of which she is a manifestation. Her instruction brings Jake not merely to the “insight” that he and Neytiri are one (to “see” her). She leads him to realize as well his unity with the Na’vi people and all of creation. Neytiri’s teachings cause Jake to understand that “being all you can be” entails engagement in an internal battle that mercilessly kills everything within him all that obscures his divinely incarnate Nature.
So Jake joins battle. Again and again he dives deep within to discover the electric exhilarating beauty residing there. But to appropriate it, he must first conquer his greatest enemy, himself. In the language of mysticism, he must “die before you die.” So repeatedly Jake squeezes himself into a machine that looks exactly like a coffin. There “Avatar’s” real story unfolds.
Jake’s false self is personified in Colonel Miles Quaritch, Jake’s commanding officer. As indicated by his first name, Miles (the Latin for “soldier”), is generic. He represents everything Sully had aspired to be – tough, heartless, supremely confident, and a literal fighting machine. In battle, Jake/Quaritch represents a kind of Anti-Avatar, as he sits in the heart of a huge seemingly invincible robot. The final showdown pits that robot against Jake Sully’s new Krishna consciousness centered at the heart of his new gigantic blue body.
The final confrontation is epic and dramatic as it must be for everyone who aspires to enlightenment. Quaritch attacks and counter-attacks. He absorbs and shrugs off blows that would have killed ordinary humans. In the end however, it is Jake’s androgynous Krishna consciousness, Neytiri who slays his old self, and allows his new divine Self to survive and flourish. Incongruously, she does the job with primitive tribal arrows.
As for the “Avatar’s” outer world, the invaders are, of course, defeated in the story. But it is neither the Na’vi nor their puny armaments nor self-defensive “violence” that defeats the Marine fighting machines. Much less is Jake Sully’s white “leadership” responsible for bringing the aggressors to their knees. Instead it is the Great Mother God Herself, Eywa, who intervenes to destroy the mercenary thugs. They have no understanding of the interconnectedness of absolutely everything. So Nature which takes no sides reacts in the name of restoring balance. Before her mighty powers, invincible machines become as children’s toys thrown about by hurricane winds and earthquake force. In this way, the film portends the inevitable defeat of pretentious and arrogant military might, and the ultimate victory of the divine.
Why is it that liberals are so hesitant to recognize and embrace “Avatar’s” fourth dimension? Why actually deny it, as I imagine so many reading this piece will. Why not instead take advantage of the spiritual opening “Avatar” offers? It may be because we’re simply blind – incapable of understanding anything beyond the scientific and technological. We’re embarrassed to recognize the need to acknowledge the truth that God has become human – and can again incarnate the God-self within each of us.
Our blindness makes us like “Avatar’s” genius scientist, Grace Augustine – the one responsible for creating the technology the story centralizes. True, she had sympathy for the Na’vi. But still she reluctantly cooperated in their destruction. After all, they were primitives without scientific understanding. Their mythic worldview was incompatible with science and stood in the way of progress. As Grace might put it, “It’s sad, but without science there simply is no salvation.” No other worldview is allowed much less honored, embraced, and allowed to flourish.
How like the 5th century Church father, Augustine, and his understanding of grace! He divided the world into saved and unsaved – those with grace, and those without it. Those without grace were condemned (like the Na’vi) to eternal damnation.
Our lionizing of science and rejection of pre-scientific grace makes us the mirror image of the religious right liberals too often ridicule. The right’s exclusivist understanding of “God made man” theology has divided the world into insiders and outsiders. The typical liberal worldview has done something similar.
In the end, though, Grace Augustine shows the way. Embraced by the tendrils of the Tree of Souls, she finally “sees.” She realizes that science and faith are not contradictory but entirely compatible and complementary. All reality is indeed one. We are the Na’vi. We are the Palestinians and the Zapatistas. But we are also the Israelis, Taliban, al-Qaeda, the religious right, and members of the Pentagon Clan. There are battles to be fought. But not principally “out there.”
Implicitly and largely unconsciously, I suspect, audiences love and embrace that message. They are not only anti-war, feminist, and pro-environment. They are spiritually hungry and can recognize truth when they see it.
Progressives ignore that hunger and insight at their own peril. We need to find our own avatar identity and lose our fear of expressing that ownership in public and politically.
Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian who directs Peace and Social Justice Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.