Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.

15 Replies to “Avatar and Eco-theology”

  1. Hi from Vancouver, Eric. Thanks for the privilege of peering into some of your always insightful and thought-provoking musings (missed from my time in your CTC group). I look forward to reading your comments from this event.

    I agree with you (largely) regarding the implicit dualism in Avatar. I don’t know if you will address it, but I think that the film also undermines its dualistic premise just a little bit. The bodies that each person inhabits have a great impact on what their minds/souls/personalities become. (i.e. the security captain in the robot body, Sully in his N’Avi body, even the N’Avi as they “link” with the creatures they take as steeds, etc)

    It’s a rich movie, and a rich topic. I look forward to having you deepen it for me a little more. Wish I could be there in person!

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Great to hear from you! Hope that you are doing well in Vancouver, enjoying or avoiding the international circus as you see fit. I very much miss our discussions from Regent as well. I’m teaching a couple discussions sections of first-year students at the moment, but they are nowhere near ready to have the sorts of conversations that we were privileged to share (nor, I think, do they care quite as much!).

      You are right to bring up positive elements in the film’s portrayal of the interaction between bodies and minds—I suppose that my “fish in a barrel” parenthetical made it sound like I thought that the movie had nothing good to say on this point. Mostly, I just like the image of a barrel full of fish. I’d like to stick my arm down in there…

      More seriously though, it’s clear that bodies and minds do exert a mutual influence on another, and your example is a really helpful one. I may bring it up in the discussion as it becomes relevant. In our world, though, it seems that the interests of bodies (using “bodies” loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our souls. While there is influence in the other direction, we seem hell-bent on minimizing, ignoring, or overcoming that influence—as obviously impossible as that effort remains.

      I don’t intend my response to Avatar’s narrative to be primarily negative. Most of the specifically religious criticism of the movie that I’ve come across has struck me as misguided and counter-productive. Cameron wasn’t trying to portray a parable of the Christian gospel (or any other religious group), so the film shouldn’t be faulted for deviating from some narrative norm.

      The focus of my comments is more asking why the story of this dualism is a story that Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. In other words, I want to use the film as a mirror, or a lens into our cultural starting point. To me, that sounds more interesting and like a more productive way of engaging the film in public.

      I look forward to hearing what you think of the longer comments!

      1. Thanks, Eric. Your point about the dualism predominant in our culture is well-placed. Sounds like it will be a great discussion!

  2. Who has influenced your understanding of the relationship between mind and soul and body? My understanding (click here) comes largely from Blake (“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age” – Marriage of Heaven and Hell) and Dickinson (“The Mind lives on the Heart/ Like any Parasite”).

    “In our world, though, it seems that the interests of bodies (using “bodies” loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our souls.” This is very well put! But it seems to me these “pathologies of our souls” are (at least sometimes) only pathologies relative to our bodies interests. It seems to me that their interests are only completely aligned in the very long-term – and that short term tension between them is necessary to achieve that alignment.

    1. Justin,

      It’s hard for me to pin down a few figures that have been most influential for me in this regard; I’d say that my thinking has changed slowly and accumulated geometric complexity over the years—new aspects, new lines, new planes that significantly change the old shape, but don’t erase it.

      Some convictions:

      1. Reductive materialism is unhelpful. “Nothing but-ery” generally leads to flat and uninspiring descriptions that totally miss the most important parts of being human (body and soul—say, love, courage, sorrow, moral character, and poetry for example.

      2. Flighty ontological speculation is equally unhelpful. Christian ideas about spirits, souls, bodies, and minds have changed so many times in history, that it’s hard for me to think that Christian doctrine stands or falls with the affirmation of an ontologically “real” soul. It’s not a ditch worth dying in. A psychology prof and friend (Tom Fikes), has shown me the coherence of a Christian materialism.

      3. So, to my mind, what we are left with is material (bodies) with irreducibly mysterious and complex depth (mind/soul/spirit). Any theory or language which tends to negate one or the other of these has gone off the rails in my books.

      4. At present, I’ve come to recognize that Freud and the various Freudians downstream of him (though I’m most sympathetic with those in the Lacanian current) are some of the only thinkers who are trying to actually outline the mutual influence between bodies and minds. I find this tremendously exciting, more as theory (i.e. philosophy/theology) than as therapy—though I don’t have enough experience with the latter to be dismissive.

      All that sounds like a polite, vague, via media, doesn’t it! I’ll get back to your second paragraph, for the moment, I’ve got to run. It was good to put this in writing.

      Ok, one more quick thought—so far as poets go, I have to mention Hopkins. There is a dynamic present in his poetry which I find tremendously compelling: a deep attention to particular details and the specificity of every creature combined with the sense that the transcendent shines through this very particularity in all its strangeness.

      1. I love Hopkins too! And he is as you say. It seems a lot of academic types find his fast paced sound patterning and rush of local, often jumbled images cloying. But these are appropriate to his subject matter and he is my favorite poet when I am on overnight hiking trips. Wordsworth, whom I also love, doesn’t really seem to me like a nature poet. He is much more internally driven: The natural world is something he only skims, to be converted and blown up by his boundless imagination.

        Ok, that was a tangent. To your point (1): Materialism, as I understand it, can talk about “love, courage, sorrow, moral character” – it can discuss these things and discuss the mind as a software-like thing which is independent of any particular physical medium but dependent on some physical medium – and can talk about effecting and being effected by that physical medium. But what materialism can’t do is relate the subjective experience of “love, courage, sorrow, moral character.” Is there any chance that by body you mean what I would call ‘the body and mind as object’ and by mind/soul you mean what I would call subjective experience?

        Oops. Now I have to run!

        1. Yes, Justin, the “subjective experience” is precisely what descriptions which stubbornly focus on the material level are quite unable to comprehend; and yet likewise, on a certain level the body and mind are an “object.” I don’t think it’s necessary to talk about subjectivity being “independent” from the matter in which it resides—that’s already a terrible metaphor—but we do need to take into account the incommensurability of neurological descriptions (neurons firing in a recognizable pattern) and subjective descriptions. You could also easily substitute “phenomenological” or “existential” for “subjective” in that last sentence.

          My curiosity is piqued by your comment that in the very long term the interests of bodies and minds are aligned, but that the conflict of interests in the present is necessary to achieve this greater harmony. I can certainly agree with the first bit, but I’m afraid that Western minds are largely blind to just how dependent they are on “bodies.” So, I’d say that the interests of bodies and minds are aligned in the long term, and that this is the reason why minds need to put their energy to work in service of bodies (rather than flight from, or mastery over). In part, the “pathology” I referred to is this blindness and refusal to serve.

          But I can’t quite make sense of why the present conflict of interests between minds and bodies should be necessary, nor how it should be productive in the long term. The closest guess I’d venture would be some kind of Hegelian dialectic in which we so thoroughly trash the planet with our consumption that we change our lifestyles on account of a crisis. As much as that may be the most likely path of change, I hope it’s not a necessary one. There’s a whole lot of “negation” that I’d rather avoid. Can you explain what you meant?

          1. What I’m talking about is definitly related to dialectic.

            It seems progress happens through a complex of cooperations and competitions. Darwin showed the importance of competition in biology; In the twentieth century we began to understand the importance of cooperation to evolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kin_selection).

            Even if, like me, you think capitalism should be tempered by government regulation and social welfare, competition played a crucial role in the dramatic reductions of stavation, malnutrition and disease that’s taken place over the past several decades. (And business is itself as much about cooperation as it is about competition – when business goes right, anyway, owners, managers, workers, and consumers all cooperate.)

            Moralities compete with each other via art/entertainment/rhetoric – and that competition has helped curb racsism, sexism, and other types of bigotry.

            And as far as intellectual progress goes, new ideas build themselves out of old ideas (cooperation) and then are compared in merit to other ideas that are trying to explain the same phenomenon (competition).

            Maybe this listing is tedious. But I do it because the importance of both competition and cooperation seems less well understood and accepted when it comes to the individual – who the individual is at a given moment, who she has been, and who she becomes. Our desires change radically through the course of a day, even more so through a year or a lifetime.

            Everyone has at least an implicit understanding of how these desires compete with each other. If I wake up and go for a jog in the morning, that means my desire for health has won out over my desire to let my body rest. Maybe I got there through self-talk or social encouragment, but either way my mind has brought me to the choice to endure short-term physical discomfort for the sake of longer term physical well-being.

            What I’m advocating is that we don’t allow our desires to fall into the readiest equilibriums, but actively promote the formation of new desires and the inflation of disonant desires. This means more angst, but I think it’s our only escape from utilitarismism.

            I try to neither like nor dislike pain, but embrace it as part of a process – one which I can’t always understand or explain, but which I believe in.

            1. Thanks Justin, (my apologies for confusing you with one of the “Jeremy”s that I know, I’ve got back and changed the name in the last reply…)

              That is quite a bit clearer to me.

              At this point we are stretching the usefulness of addressing ecological issues under the rubric of a body-mind dualism to the very limit. The substance of your comments, and the desire to avoid any easy equilibria in our subjective lives is something that I’m totally on board with, as well as a distrust of utilitarian calculation.

              So at the human body-mind level, I totally agree.

              When “body” becomes a metaphor for the world around us—as it has in this post and in my comments on Avatar—then talk about productive “competition” or “conflict” gets way, way, less helpful.

              Straight to the point: the manner in which Western culture interacts with the ecosystems on which it depends is not “competitive” it is patently (and suicidally) destructive. Whatever “progress” occurs among the creatures (plant, animal, and inanimate) who come in contact with Western societies, it is generally a “progress” of bare survival (and more often it is not). Sure, something survives the invasion of our unbridled appetites and finds a new niche (rats in the sewers, geese on the golf course), but the immense and intricate network of competitive and cooperative relationships is not so much “tested” by Western societies as bulldozed.

              All that to say, I’m wary of validating or condoning our reckless systems of wealth, production, and consumption by suggesting that the trail of destruction left is simply competitive. There are modes of human interaction with creation which are productively competitive (and cooperative), but by and large, you have to leave mainstream North Atlantic economics and politics to find it.

              I am hopeful that there is a way to bend, or break, North Atlantic economics and politics such that we too might re-enter a merely competitive relationship with the creatures around us. But that is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

      1. Brought the raucous = brought the noise = brought your A game = did a damn fine job.

        Apologies for my attempt at youth-like slang.

        I was merely attempting to say that your paper was “quite good”


        1. Damn the internet and the inability to convey tone in typing! My “What?” was not a “what” of confusion, but a “what” of mock-self-deprecating-faux-humility. And “moving the discussion forward” referred to your very helpful questions and comments over pizza, and was not a sarcastic dig at your youthful slang.

          Apparently, however, my “what” functioned to spur you on to say even more nice things, so that now I awkwardly seem to have been fishing for compliments.

          So I’ll just be straightforward. Anytime anyone wants to say nice things here, things like, “Gee, with incisive comments about pop-culture like those, I can’t believe no one has offered you a tenure-track position at a research university yet!” please feel free.

          There you have it, world, plain as day; I’m fishing for compliments! And eventual employment.

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