“Avatar” and Pantheism; “A Serious Man” and Job

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times critical of the religious message of Avatar, Ross Douthat writes that:

… “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

From Wikipedia:  Pantheism (Ancient Greekπᾶν (pan) “all” and θεός (theos) “god”; literally “belief that God is all”) is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing immanent God and that the Universe (Nature) and God are equivalent.

After seeing the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here!), I came to a different conclusion.  Again from Wikipedia:

Panentheism: (from Greek πᾶν (pân) “all”; ἐν (en) “in”; and θεός (theós) “God”; “all-in-God”) is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well.

The difference is whether God IS nature (pantheism, not really a Jewish theology) or God is beyond nature (a theology found within Jewish mystical traditions).  In distinction to “A Serious Man” (not to worry, still no spoilers!), whose directors clearly knew the book of Job and wrestled with serious theological issues in making the movie, James Cameron was focused on telling a compelling story, not exploring or promoting theology.  I don’t think Cameron was sufficiently aware of the theology behind his movie to know the difference between the two theologies or to systematically argue for one or the other.

I thought both movies were terrific, entertaining, and thought provoking.  I suggest that before seeing “A Serious Man,” you should do a little homework.  Read the book of Job (or at least read the article about Job from the Encyclopedia Judaica or the Jewish Encyclopedia).  The parallels are brilliant, and the theology of the movie is a serious critique of the theology of the book.

For Avatar, you might want to read up on the Hasidic idea of leit atar panui mimenu, “there is no place or no thing in which God is absent.”  From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The Divine in all Things.

God in His endless and innumerable attributes manifests Himself in creation, which is onlyoneaspect of His activity, and which is therefore in reality a self-limitation. And just as God in His goodness limited Himself, and thus descended to the level of the world and man, so it is the duty of the latter to strive to unite with God. The removal of the outer shell of mundane things, or, as the cabalist terms it, “the ascension of the [divine] spark,” being a recognition of the presence of God in all terrestrial things, it is the duty of man, if he experience pleasure, to receive such emotion in all purity and sanctity as a divine manifestation, for He is the source of all pleasure.

Read more:  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=103&letter=B&search=hasidism#336#ixzz0bc1r2dPr

As you watch Avatar, see if you think agree with Ross Douthat that the movie argues for pantheism, or with me, that it is equally plausible that the God present in the movie might be a panentheistic manifestation of a larger Divine presence.  In either case, enjoy the ride!