Fires and earthquakes and floods, oh my! The rapid succession of major natural disasters over the past several years has caused many people to question the worship of Good Mother Earth, which is supposed to take its place among Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as one of the world’s great religions. Wildfires have devastated homes. Earthquakes have shaken cities. Floods have wiped out towns. These natural disasters cause people to wonder whether Mother Nature is kind or cruel. Nature seems determined to do its own thing. Communing with the elements of nature has not turned the tide against killer waves, nor calmed the winds of hurricanes.
Modern worship of Mother Earth is similar to the indigenous cult of the Na’vi people in the popular film Avatar. Human miners find a religion analogous to what European explorers might have met in the primitive regions of Africa, Australia or America. The materialism of the “alien” humans comes as a stark contrast to the vibrant spirituality of the native blue people that grace the movie screen.
Paraplegic, ex-marine Jake Sully gets close to the tribe through his “avatar,” or half-human, half-Na’vi remote-controlled body. He overcomes his own lack of experience in supernatural matters, thanks to the help of his Na’vi guide, Neytiri, with whom he predictably falls in love. She conquers her dislike of humans (even those disguised as avatars) when she notices that Jake is favored by the religious spirit of her world. According to the Na’vi religion, their planet is ruled by the female deity, Eywa.
While preparing the Na’vi people for the inevitable battle (this is still Hollywood) with the evil “alien” invaders (humans), Jake’s religious interest is awakened to the point that he tries to pray to Eywa at the Tree of Souls, seeking her intervention. Neytiri explains that it is no use: Eywa does not take sides; she merely ensures the equilibrium of life. The film eloquently shows that this is the best a natural religion can offer: balance of life. Nature is not interested in the survival of this or that species, neither in this world nor on Avatar’s planet of Pandora. Something in Jake Sully’s nature prompts him to conceive the deity as a person, interested in worldly affairs.
Jake Sully is right to search for a personal god. His natural intuition that the deity is interested in the outcome of worldly events turns out to be true. Neytiri is surprised to find out that Eywa is interested in the specific fate of the Na’vi people and not merely a balance of life on the planet. The help sent by divine intervention turns the tide of the battle and ensures victory for the good guys.
The problem of the Na’vi religion, just like worship of Mother Earth, is not that it is too great, too cosmic, but rather that it is too small. Christianity has the audacity to proclaim a great God, Creator of everything, but also interested in everyone. It is not man that gets lost in the ocean of the divine, but God who takes flesh and becomes man alongside his creatures.
The movie shows the religious nature of man in a fresh way. The good news is that God has revealed himself to man. In the real world, this is not limited to the lighting up of plants or floating pure spirits that manifest the divine presence. Much greater than a network of cosmic energy, our God is extremely personal. Jesus Christ became man, suffered and died to save us from our sins.
A Christian seeing a film like Avatar should react with the spirit of St. Paul when preaching in the public square at Athens. He should recognize the goodness of non-Christians and invite them to the adventure of Christian faith: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious... What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.”
Br. Nicholas Sheehy studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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