It’s a little out of my usual areas of interest, but then I thought: well, maybe not so much.
So this is a quick Post on the movie “Avatar”, in regard to the Vatican’s comments on it.
The Vatican’s biggest problem with it seems to be that it implies the possibility that the worship of nature can replace religion, and that environmentalism – if you try to make it the defining principle of your self and your life – can morph rather easily into “neo-paganism”.
Now I’d say first off that there is religion and there is religion. There is, traditionally, the ideal embodied in the message and then there is the organizational structure that accretes around the job of tending to that message. Referring to their own Church, some Catholic thinkers over the ages have referred to the Church-as-She and the Church-as-It; the “She” is the ideal, based in God as He revealed Himself in Christ and works in History through the Spirit; the “It” is the all-too-human (but still Spirit-guided) organizational Church.
So that’s the first point to make.
Disaffection with the Church (the Vatican is the one that made the comments, so let’s stay with the Catholic Church) includes two strong and deeply-felt themes throughout the history of the West: the repulsion at the organizational short-comings of Rome or of the hierarchy and – as things recovered in Europe after the Dark Ages – a very human irritation at the imposition of doctrinal ‘order’ by a central authority.
In the Modern age, many educated folks came to the conclusion that this-world could do quite nicely on its own, thank you, without the Church and its organized religion.
And with that dismissal of the Church went – intended or not – a dismissal of any Sense of the Vertical in life; the great Vulcan Chess Board of Scripture – with angels ascending and descending, pieces and forces moving from one level up or down to another – was essentially Flattened to the single base-board.
And thus Humans too were Flattened: their fulfillment and indeed their very definition and self-understanding were all Flattened into this-world.
Worse, they were not only Flattened into this-world. Given that the Flattening implied that was no other world, no Beyond, then Humans were deprived of any help from that Beyond.
So Humanity was doubly whacked: locked into a single dimension and cut off from any Help or Relationship from Beyond that could help them bear their load.
And of course, there are the Church’s ancient holdings, the vision that She claims was revealed to Her: about the multi-leveled nature of Reality; and about the nature of Humans as participating in all levels and destined to find their fulfillment only through participation in all levels; and about the need of Humans for the Relationship with the God Who created them; and about the similarity of human-ness to a vessel that operates well only when operated in accordance with certain basic but indispensable principles (jet planes don’t fly in reverse; ships full of water don’t sail well).
And then there’s the demanding question: what if She’s right?
Especially when you hypothesize that Her vision is correct, and then take a look at the world and culture around you. You get the idea that maybe far too many folks are convinced that the jet can indeed be flown in reverse and that a ship full of water is a thing of transgressive and rich beauty.
That sort of thing.
So back to my thoughts on the Vatican’s thoughts about “Avatar”.
Great special effects and worth the price of the ticket; even the Vatican says it.
But, reflecting the current Age of the World from which it has sprung, kind of given over to the idea that humanoids can do it on their own, so long as they mean well and they are doing what they do for the right – or Correct – reason.
And in an attempt to have it both ways – to have some sort of benevolent and powerful force from the Beyond that still won’t be so party-pooping as to tell folks what they can and cannot do – the movie raises up … Nature.
Which, in the eyes of the 2000-year-old Church is not creatively and transgressively cutting-edge and fresh and new, but rather the same old-same old. ‘Nature’ is the pagan ‘god’ that the Church, following out the vision (She claims was) revealed to Her, supplanted.
Supplanted with a God Who is a person, and loves His creation, especially the Human – made in His own image – whom He has endowed with freedom (meaning the freedom to frak itself up.
So from a point of view that comprises the several levels of the Vulcan Chess Board, and that stretches back 2,000 years in Time, the great graphics of “Avatar” are still merely in the service of a nature-god sort of thing that, pound for pound, can’t hold a candle to the complex, comprehensive Vision that the Church feels Herself charged to preserve and proclaim.
The deep human need to be in touch with Spirit – its own and some Larger Spirit – cannot be ‘platformed’ on the simple though ingeniously cobbled-together vessel that is “Avatar” or a Nature god or Nature-as-god.
The worry, I would think, is the fate of all the people – cast loose in a culture and civilization that has deconstructed its own marvelous advantages and re-confined itself to the base-level board. I can’t help thinking of the old film “King of Hearts”, where the inmates of a European mental asylum located at the cusp of the Allied and German lines in World War 1, finding themselves unguarded, race outside the walls in a delirium of liberation, behold the uniformed ranks of troops killing each other, and quietly return to their asylum, locking the doors behind them.
But that wasn’t the Church’s vision either, really.
Once called and fortified by the Spirit, and keeping yourself in good enough shape to be mission-ready (as they say in the military), the believer must not return to an older and thinner and more fragile ‘safety’. Rather, the believer(s) must go forth into the darkling and groaning mess of History and be a light and a leaven.
That is an Adult’s work, not to be trivialized or sentimentalized – as, for example, by a distracting and evasive obsession with the Child and the Child’s “innocence”.
The Child is not “innocent” – it is merely inexperienced, and anyone who has attended a 10th or longer high school reunion knows how “innocent dreams and possibilities” fare once out beyond the harbor’s breakwater and onto the deep waters of Time and Events.
As Will Munny, Eastwood’s sober ex-gunfighter in “The Unforgiven” says, “we all got it comin’, kid”.
Yet, in the sure and certain hope of forgiveness (if we seek it) and redemption, the believers must continue to keep their light burnished. That takes JFK’s exhortation at the end of his Inaugural and expands it exponentially.
The genuine Catholic vision is a place for adults, and living it out in the world as it is constitutes a daunting challenge as it is, without hobbling yourself with the old nature-worship and – they can’t be long in coming back – idols.