Fiction and Fantasy Feed Humanity

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Avatar adds new thread to growing tapestry of cosmic unity, spurs discussion of pantheism

Has Avatar added  a new thread to the unfolding tapestry of understanding the unity of the universe? Does it’s “Aha! Moment” measure up to true nonduality? Does it speak of the unity of Spirit and Creation as Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton, the author of the Proverbs and Meister Eckhart have?

Let’s take a look.

Atavar lasts two hours and 40 minutes, can be seen in breath-taking 3-D and is showing on nearly 23,000 screens worldwide.

It tells the story of an interconnected universe in which people, plants, animals and a Mother God, Eywa, form a unified, dynamic network of life.
Not surprisingly, it has been attacked for being pantheistic. Those attacks, in turn,  have triggered responses that point out the value in its view of a dynamic, biologically networked world.

One of the first and most often quoted attacks came from conservative columnist Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times Op-Ed writers who generally is on the other side of the more liberal official voice of the Times.

Douthat called Avatar director James Cameron’s “long apologia for pantheism,” and ends his column by stating that if, at the end of life, “there is no escape upward” to a transcendent God, we are in an “agonized position” and our human lives are “deeply tragic.” Pantheism, Douthat says, is “a downward exit,” that leaves us with nothing but “dust and ashes.”

Quite soon after I read that in the actual paper New York Times with my breakfast coffee at a wooden kitchen table, I wrote a Letter to the Editor, pointing out a third way of looking at reality and spirituality. It was, of course, along the lines of what we have been discussing here.

The NYT didn’t print it, but I was thrilled to see that the letters they did print in response to the column echoed many of my thoughts and that some were written by religious leaders or professors of religion.

Here’s what I said:

Let me suggest that there is a third way to avoid the “agonized position” Douthat describes.

If one believes, as many have through the ages, that Spirit and Creation are One, then one doesn’t have to chose between escaping to God or turning to dust with Nature. The unity has already happened and will continue during whatever comes after the body dies.

That thought sings through the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, Alice Walker, Teilhard de Chardin and Meister Eckhart’s writings, and some parts of the Bible. Ponder the possible implications of unity in Exodus, 3:14, “I am who am,” and Matthew 26:26, 28 “This is my body…this is my blood.”
Martin Buber said it well: “There is no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found.”

Here are a few of the printed letters.

Ross Douthat gives us only two choices: the upward heavenly route or the downward earthly one. The latter, he says, results in the despair of atheism. This is much too dire.

Traditional religions teach the presence of God in all creation, an indwelling of the Holy Spirit in matter. Although we are all agnostics (in the sense of not knowing) about afterlife, it may be that nature mysticism is a prelude to something else. Why discard that possibility?

Eugene C. Bianchi
Athens, Ga., Dec. 21, 2009
The writer is professor emeritus of religion at Emory University.


Ross Douthat’s column treats pantheism with straw-man condescension. It is simply not true that there is no demanding Almighty in pantheistic religions. In Hinduism — my religion and probably the oldest surviving religion with a pantheistic element — stories abound of divine exhortations and actions against evil.

Nor is it true that there is no escape except downward into ashes. The laws of karma and reincarnation are deeply moral constructs that specify a cosmic calculus matching each human action to a just reward or punishment, always fair, yet always allowing second chances to achieve Moksha, our interpretation of salvation.

These beliefs are nonverifiable scientifically — no more or less so than Mr. Douthat’s own, I might add — but it is a mistake not to discuss them when making claims about pantheism’s theological implications.

Raman Khanna
San Francisco, Dec. 21, 2009

The writer is a member of the Hindu American Foundation Working Group.


Ross Douthat is right to say that the ”circle of life” in Disney’s ”Lion King” and the Force of George Lucas’s ”Star Wars” represent a recent trend in American religion. For years, I have argued for the same point.

But the alternative to biblical monotheism is not pantheism or a religion of nature, as Mr. Douthat asserts, but a more sophisticated attitude.

Today, Americans accept many manifestations of God, from Ganesha of the Hindus to Sky Woman of the Iroquois, as equally valid. They seek a sacred power that is also immanent in nature, but not limited to the natural world of death and evolution.

The emergent sense of God in America is neither monotheistic or pantheistic, but transtheistic. It is an attitude that last appeared in the West among Romans of the time of Jesus, but that has been common among philosophical Hindus and Buddhists for many centuries.

Peter Gardella
Purchase, N.Y., Dec. 21, 2009
The writer is a professor of world religions at Manhattanville College.

I would like to know more about Gardella’s meaning in using the term. “transtheistic,” since it is new to me and what I find online isn’t very satisfying. Let me throw out another one, however, which I think fits our analysis of where Avatar fits in our thread of unity of Spirit and Creation.

Rather than pantheistic, I see Avatar as a good example of the slightly but significantly different term, panenthesism, which allows for the mystery of both immanence and transcendency to occur.

Traidtional  critics of pantheism, including Teilhard de Chardin, say it makes nature and God identical – God is everything and everything is God. Panentheism is a concept from the Upanishads that was made popular in the 20th Century by creation theologians.

The late Wayne Teasdale, a student of Bede Griffiths who was involved in the study of science and religions and in the dialogue between Catholic and Buddhist monks before his death in 2004, explained the dfference between the two this way in The Mystic Heart.

[In pantheism,] God is exhausted in his immanence in the universe…[and is] not able to sustain transcendence… [In panenetheism,] everything – the universe, nature, the earth or life – is within God, in the consciousness of the divine or the divine mind.

In other words, God is everything, but not every individual thing is God.

Does the world of Avatar fit that description? I think so. Please let me know in your comments what you think.

For more about the controversy surrounding Avatar and its possible effect on people’s behavior, please see CyberINKonline’s other blog, CyberINKonline.