Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Avatar, God, and the Modern Religious Question

At the turn of the third act of James Cameron's Avatar, Jake Sully brings a dying Grace Augustine to the gathering of the Nav'i at the Tree of Souls to see if Eywa, Pandora's deity, will heal her. Ultimately, Grace's wounds are too great, and she passes away. However, before dying, Grace looks up at Jake Sully and says, "I'm with her, Jake. She's real!"

This line caught my attention the first time I saw the film, and again when I watched it a second time last night. It did so for the same reason: I find myself expecting her to say something different than "She's real" as her final words. And this alternative expectation is, I think, rooted theologically in a clarifying distinction between the kind of world (and god) envisioned by James Cameron, and that narrated by Scripture.

On the one hand, the revelatory fact, the singular answer in death, the hoped-for final unveiling for Grace -- and just so, for Jake Sully as a stand-in both for Cameron and the modern audience -- is that Eywa exists. All the natives, all these archaic callbacks to Native Americans, Aborigines, and a time and a way of life seemingly no longer with us, not only believe that this deity is real, but assume it as a fact of lived experience, and without question place their lives in her hands. And so the universal question for the colonialists, for the enlightened humans, for the modernized Americans: Is this Eywa real?

But this is not and cannot be the Christian posture. It is regrettable that Cameron's question (and answer) is so determinatively reflective of the wider modern ethos, including perhaps especially American Christian ways of talking culturally about God's existence. But Christian faith and hope is not like that (nor, even in the film's terms, are the Nav'i). At the terrible but inevitable moment of death, upon saying, as we pass, that we are with God, the next statement is not the happy realization that Pascal's wager was right. We do not go to death in the anticipation of having our philosophical speculations answered. Rather, Christian hope is, among other things, aesthetic; given relationship, given presence with the One who is the beginning and end of all things, it is entirely the glory of the vision of God that will -- and shall forever -- hold our once death-shadowed gaze.

What shall we then say?

"I am with the Lord, friends. And he is beautiful."

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