Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

7 Replies to “Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind”

  1. Thanks for sharing these comments, Eric. Great food for thought, if I can put it that way. It must have been a wonderful discussion.

  2. Thanks Sarah,

    I hope that the discussion was productive. There were a number of business majors who turned up and were less enthusiastic (to put it mildly) about the trajectory of our comments. But such interactions are necessary and good in their own way.

  3. Thanks for sharing Eric. Rowan Williams, in his fantastic “Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction”, uses a word I had never heard before and I think it bears on this discussion – disincarnate. It can be used as a noun, verb, or adjective. Hey, it even breaks the spellchecker! He uses it in the context of a chapter on Dostoevsky’s treatment of the demonic or diabolical, and how a strategy of those enemies of God is to “disincarnate” us, to separate us from material reality, to get us caught in endless speculation of the mind, to sever our minds/souls from physical reality, etc. If you need a quick example, just read the chapter entitled “The Devil: Ivan’s Nightmare” (I think) in Brothers Karamazov.

    I’d be interested to hear where this discussion went. Were solutions/ideas presented that suggested concrete ways of breaking out of this dualism? Your example of the “spirit” of the Market is great, and I wonder how many people are willing to disengage themselves from current economic and investing practices in order to break the spirit of Market (awkward pun unintended). I feel that Jess and I have taken some simple and good steps in this direction lately and, at the risk of sounding preachy, would be happy to share them if you’re interested.

    1. Hi Tim,

      I might have to borrow Williams’ term—it seems quite helpful here.

      The discussion—unfortunately from my perspective—mostly focused on some of the more basic elements of the analysis of the problem, rather than moving on to any solution. We talked about overpopulation—and I suggested that overconsumption not over population is our problem. Several people argued that neither we nor our corporations are so evil as to willfully unleash rampant destruction on the earth. In this connection we spoke of the difference between personal and structural sin, and how even “good” people contribute to some of the most grave and dire evils simply by going with the grain of the systems in which they live.

      I was prepared to talk about some more positive ideas though, as I had really hoped that they might come up. I would really love to hear what you and Jess have been doing lately—it wouldn’t strike me as preachy at all. We need to get better at sharing our practical wisdom in networks and communities—that is something we’ve lost in our fractured and highly-mobile lives.

      My positive comments were going to be very general and use a few different rubrics that I’ve come across.

      One that I’ve seen/heard Beth Johnson use a few times, and that I find very helpful is this:

      1) We need an ascetic response: taking careful stock of our consumption and the effects it has on us and others; cutting back drastically. 2) We need a mystic response, or perhaps a sacramental response: a different way of seeing the world that recognizes God’s presence and God’s blessing in all things for their own sake. We need to get past a instrumental appropriation of the whole world for our uses, needs, and interests. 3) We need a prophetic response: a direct challenge to the systems, powers, and patterns of life that cause so much damage.

      Another rubric, perhaps more practical, comes from my friend Dave Willis, a life-long evangelical environmental activist. It could fit into Beth’s scheme as well. He suggests that we need to: 1) change our lives, our patterns of consumption etc.; 2) get involved politically, at the national level, for sure, but even more importantly, in the defense of some local cause, some patch of earth in peril or creature on the brink; 3) pray for creation’s well-being, even in despair. Not just that people would change, but pray for creation as one would pray for a sick relative.

      Finally, and closer to my interests, I was going to talk about the dualism in my comments a bit more. One hypothetical solution to the dualism would be to argue that we need to overcome it; we need to more fully integrate our minds and bodies to restore a holistic and organic way of living in the world. This is the direction that most eco-theology goes when addressing the issue. I’m not sure that the dualism isn’t actually somehow basic to human consciousness and personhood, or minimally to the way we think and talk about human consciousness and personhood, and for that reason, I wonder if trying to overcome the dualism is a fruitless enterprise. So, I was going to argue that we ought to keep the dualism, but invert it. Make the first last and the last first, so much as we can. That is, rather than make decisions that treat the matter of creation as a moldable standing reserve for the projects of minds or souls, we ought to think of our minds as the servants of matter. The task of souls is not to flee bodies, but to ensure that the interests of bodies coincide to the greatest degree possible.

      I’m still working this last bit out, and you can expect to see more about this in posts to come…

      1. Eric,
        thanks for taking the time to type all of that out – it was very helpful and enlightening.

        As an Easterner, I particularly liked the rubric offered by Beth Johnson. The further I get into Eastern ascetic/mystical theology and prayer (and I have just dipped my toes in at this point) the more I believe that they can bear great fruit for modern problems. Far from being “flights into the fanciful”, our desert fathers, mothers, and eastern monastics were downright practical in most matters, but I of course don’t mean that in the modern sense of pragmatism; more like “if your hand causes you to sin, cut if off.”

        I think it is always worth questioning our fundamental assumptions about reality, for when we do we find that the game changes completely. For instance, I recently had a discussion about investing with a co-worker, and he was surprised to learn that I don’t invest in the stock market. He asked, “Is this because, as a Catholic, you believe it is too hard to find ethical companies in which to invest?” I replied, “No, as a Catholic, I don’t believe investing in the stock market is ethical. This is tied to my theology of work. I believe that our earnings should be tied to our own labor and our own community.” For him, investing was a given, and how to pursue it ethically was the problem. For me, investing was not a given, and once I freed myself of that assumption I found that I didn’t have to wrangle with a false problem. I had also gotten tired of everyone blaming the Wall Street fat cats for the economic downturn. No, it was all of us – all of us who seek to make unseen money in unseen ways are complicit.

        That said, here are some of the steps Jess and I have taken:

        1. We have moved a good portion of our budget to cash. Studies show that people tend to spend 10-15% more when using plastic, and I am sure that this is because cash is more tangible while credit is somewhere out there in the future. It is hard to overspend when all that is staring you in the face are a couple of twenty dollar bills.

        2. We now only carry debit cards instead of credit cards. Again, knowing the money is coming right out of our checking account out THAT DAY versus some future date is a good constraint.

        3. We’ve moved all of our money to a credit union whose motto is “In Denver, For Denver.” I recently attended their annual meeting and was very impressed with the work they do partnering with local organizations, especially concerning financial education and responsibility for low-income communities, and I feel good knowing that the money we have with them is being put to work for the benefit of other Denver residents. Oh, and they didn’t take a penny of federal bailout money.

        4. I’ve pulled all my retirement money out of mutual funds and parked them in money market funds or cds. I’m not convinced that earning interest on money well saved is a bad thing, but I am convinced that stock market investing is too detached from reality for me to continue participating in that world.

        I am quite interested to see how you pursue the line of thought you articulated at the end of your post. If I come across any resources that are worth sharing I’ll be sure to pass them on.

        On a personal note, it looks like Eli will arrive within the next 24 hours. Jess went to her doctor today and was told that she is very dilated. She very much wants this doctor to deliver Eli, so she decided that if he doesn’t arrive today then her water will be broken at 6 a.m. tomorrow. Since she is 39 1/2 weeks, this isn’t a big deal. Please keep us in your prayers!

  4. Dear Elizabeth,

    I loved reading your article as I not only loved the film Avatar but have always believed in the concept of an all- binding spirituality that connects all people. I believe ‘evil’ happens when people aren’t truely connected to others.
    While having been brought up as Catholic I can understand your point of view of God being the necessary salvation to bind mind and body but I have found the Catholic experience (as well as other Western religions) limiting in their visualization of what the ‘all powerful source of being’ really is. I think the Catholic church comes some way towards understanding the ‘connection’ between people, and the presence of an ‘inner force’ in its use of the concept of the ‘Holy Spirit’, but I have come to love a broader visualization of what our ‘soul’ is in the Eastern philosophies as they provide practices which are practical in reaching the ‘subconscious’ or ‘soul’.
    I don’t see any significant differences between Western religions that are loving and tolerant of difference. In fact all ‘love’ is the same no matter who preaches and practises it. The only difference is how we label it with words.
    I am not as academic as the people who have previously responded to your article and find many of the references to other writings a little overwhelming. Nevertheless I wanted to share my thoughts with you as it has taken a family tragedy to force me seek deeper meaning in life and which can provide practices which help me in every moment of every day, such as meditation, yoga, and various ways of thinking lovingly about the world around me by transcending the negatives.
    I am also a Performing Arts teacher who is putting together a show on ‘Aang, The Last Air Bender (the next film based on the Avatar Anime series). In doing so I have been researching the philosophy behind the legend of avatars in eastern stories, hence my discovery of your article.

    In summary I have found the eastern healing processes very satisfying in explaining the connection between the mind and body, or mind, body and soul. They have been involved in wonderful practices such as meditation, transcendental meditation, yoga, deep prayer (such as that of Tibetan Monks), Tai Chi, Chi Gong etc. for centuries. Indians, South Americans, Chinese, and Tibetans have never wandered from practices which I believe are far more successful in making the connection between mind and body, and which are ultimately more healing.
    I feel Western religions have tried to make the connections with the soul through similar practices such as the use of sacraments, but have so ritualized these that they have become materialistic celebrations that in fact are counter-productive.
    Thank you again for your thoughts on Avatar.

    Anne Murray

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