The Meaning of Avatar: Everything is God (A Response to Ross Douthat and other naysayers of 'pantheism')

05/25/2011 03:00 pm ET

"If you're an author or Ph.D. candidate who had the foresight to propose a book on the philosophy of "Avatar" before the film was even released in theaters, the past week (and the blogosphere) has been very, very good to you."
- Dave Itzkoff, NY Times, Dec. 22, 2009

Well, good news for me! I'm an author and a Ph.D. candidate whose book on the philosophy of Avatar, a book called "Everything is God," was published by Shambhala two months ago. I wrote the book not because I got a shooting copy of the script last year, but because, contrary to the cries of some critics, the philosophy of the movie has actually been around, in East and West, for thousands of years.

Roughly speaking, Avatar's Na'Vi subscribe to a combination of pantheism and theism, a view scholars today call "panentheism." As scholar of religion Gershom Scholem observed, panentheism is usually rooted less in faith, as the New York Times's Ross Douthat said, than in experience. Like mystics here on Earth, the Na'Vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai'wa. Unlike Earth-bound mystics, the Na'Vi have a convenient plug, attached to their bodies, which physically unites them to other beings (such as steeds, winged or otherwise) and to Aiwa Herself/Itself.

Of course, the experience is one thing, the interpretation another. No one can doubt that, for millennia, contemplatives in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions - among others - have had similar experiences, albeit without the plug-and-play part. These experiences are described in strikingly, though not exactly, similar ways (the "perennial philosophy" scholars postulated a century ago works as a generality, but not in the details). But of course, how we understand such experiences - tickles of neurons, mind-states, prophecy, Unity with the Source oF life - is another matter.

In the Na'Vi cosmology, what's really happening is the Ai'Wa in me is connecting with the Ai'Wa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, "I see you," a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing. ("Avatar" is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word's two meanings of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth.) As the Na'Vi explain in the film, though, "I see you" doesn't mean ordinary seeing - it, like Namaste, really means "the God in me sees the God in you." I see Myself, in your eyes.

Douthat and others don't like this very much. They complain it's a lowering of the human ambition, from an aspirational skyward gaze to an earthbound one, and that the Earth/the One/Ai'Wa cannot provide the comfort, meaning, and guidance that a traditional God-idea can. But this is incorrect for at least three reasons.

First, the Na'Vi are panentheists, not pantheists. In a crucial moment in the film, our hero Jake Sully prays to Ai'Wa, and She appears to answer, in the form of swarms of birds, dinosaur-like creatures, and other forces of nature who work together to defeat the technologically-advanced human invaders. (The sequence is not unlike the Ents defeating Saruman in The Two Towers or the creatures of Narnia defeating the humans in Prince Caspian.) Strict pantheists like Spinoza would never pray to Being. Indeed, the Na'Vi princess Neytiri scolds Sully for doing so, and I myself clucked my tongue a bit when the Na'Vi started swaying and chanting; it kind of confuses the issue.

But panentheists do pray. They pray all the time. Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu sage who, through his disciple Vivekananda, is more responsible than any other individual for the popularization of nonduality - from obscure Vedantic texts to best-sellers by Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra - was both a nondualist sage who believed that All is One, and a devotee of the "Divine Mother" who prayed to Her every day. The Baal Shem Tov and other early Hasidim believed that everything is God, but they also prayed to God as if separate from Him. Rumi and other Sufi poets experienced unity, but also loved yearning for the love of an often-distant Other.

Douthat is wrong that nonduality erases God. In fact, "God" becomes seen as one of many ways of understanding Being. Sometimes God is Christ on the cross, sometimes the Womb of the Earth. Sometimes God is Justice, other times Mercy. This is how sophisticated religionists have understood theology for at least a thousand years: "God" is a series of insufficient explanations of the Absolutely Unknowable, a collection of projections and dreams and who-knows-what-else which, neo-atheists notwithstanding, speak to the core of who we are as human beings.

To me, this is more comforting than old school theology, not less. It allows for multiple paths to the holy, radical ecumenicism and pluralism, and a bit less constriction around our favorite theological myths. God as Friend, Father, "motion and spirit that impels all things" - all of these become dances, tools of the inner life which are available when needed, and enriched, not lessened, by being increased in number.

Second, nonduality/panentheism is not less ethically aspirational than sky-god-worship; it's more so. Thousands of years ago, we may well have needed a Righteous Judge in the Sky as a myth to keep us in line. But now, not only is such a thing philosophically untenable ("Where was God in Auschwitz?"), it's actively counterproductive. The sky god tells us that we humans are masters of the Earth; thus, we, like the humans in Avatar treat Earth as a resource to be exploited. The sky god tells us that only this book is sacred; thus we attack those with another book.

Traditional monotheism has indeed contributed to the growth of civilization, but not it is contributing to its downfall. Yes, the way of the Na'Vi is idealized - Avatar is a Hollywood cartoon. But it, not old-school-theology, holds the ideological promise of a more sustainable future on our planet (as well as Pandora). In our post-industrial age, respect for the web of life is more ethically valuable -- and ecologically urgent -- than fear of Heaven.

Third and finally, let's take a reality check. Douthat and others suggest that all faiths are basically myths, and that we should pick and choose among them by their consequences. Forget what's actually true, if Old Testament God is better for ethics than New Ave Ai'Wa, let's stick with Him. Yet, news flash: Old Testament God probably doesn't exist.

Is Ai'Wa any different? Yes. Here's the thought experiment: right now, please raise your right index finger. Now, reflect for a moment and list out all the various motives you had for raising, or not raising, your finger: curiosity, skepticism, doubt, whatever. All of those factors, if you look closely, are conditioned by things outside of "you" - your genetics, your upbringing, what you ate for lunch, whatever. We may not be able to know all these conditions, but the fact is that your action was 100% determined by those conditions. "Free will" exists as a psychological reality, but not as an ontological one. Who really moved? The conditions moved.

The Na'Vi call "the conditions" by the name Ai'Wa. Hindus call it Brahman. Nondual Jews (Kabbalists, Hasidim, and otherwise) call it Ein Sof, the Infinite - the God beyond "God." Yes, God raised (or didn't raise) your index finger. "You" are a psychological phenomenon. It's not God that's a trick of the neurons in your brain - you are.

Unlike traditional theologies, Nondual "theologies," whether from the Na'Vi or the navi (the Hebrew word for "prophet"), actually describe reality. Read up on your popular neurology books, like Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained or Robert Kane's The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. They'll make the point scientifically, rather than anecdotally or experientially. There is no individual self - it's an illusion, a mirage. "You" exist, sure, but you exist just like a wave on the ocean: here one minute, gone the next, and never apart from the ocean itself. And as the nondual teacher Ram Dass says, you're not a wave, you're water.

In my own life, as in those of millions of contemplatives from around the world, I have found these ideas to have important practical consequences. Most of my neurosis and desires revolve around making my wave bigger or more comfortable than others - remembering that I'm water is an important counterbalance. My desire for "MORE!" is quieted when I settle back out of selfish desire and into a remembering of the nondual truth. And, just my opinion here, I suspect that if more people chilled out about the superiority of their religious or ideological system, we might fight less.

By my estimation, approximately 700,000 people will see Avatar for every 1 that reads Everything is God. Admittedly, it has better special effects. But let's not think that nonduality is something James Cameron, or Hollywood, made up. It's in the Zohar, the Upanishads, the writings of John of the Cross, Rumi, the Tao te Ching, the Heart Sutra, and many other texts written long before Lumiere's train arrived at La Ciotat. Of course, these millennia-old traditions do not fit cleanly into our postmodern world, and so contemporary people adapt them to their lived experience. But at its core, Avatar's philosophy is not new; it is ancient, profound, and liberating.