We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, September 1, 2014

Avatar & Incarnation

Quite a bit has been written in the blogosphere about the theological implications and message of the 2009 movie, Avatar.  From a sample supplied for me by a Google search on the subject, "avatar and theology," there is obviously the usual range of responses from appreciation to deprecation.  A couple of the ones I looked at, however, caught my attention because they wrestle with the nature of Jake Sully's incarnation in a Na'vi avatar designed by human exobiologists.

One is a post entitled, "Scalp Locks, Gaia, and the Incarnation: History and Theology in James Cameron’s Avatar," by Wen Reagan, which comments on the manner in which a human is put into a Na'vi body. Reagan points out the obvious parallel between the movie's version of incarnation and the Christian understanding of the Incarnation of God in Christ.  He esp. highlights the way in which by the end of the movie the human Jake Sully has become a Na'vi, actually leaving his human body entirely.  Reagan observes, "But in the end, we don’t get a glimpse of Vishnu, safe to retreat from his current avatar and come again in another one. Instead, we get a glimpse of Christ, as Jake takes on the risk of fully embracing the Na’vi by becoming one of them, forever." Garrett East in a post entitled, "James Cameron's Avatar and the Critical Response: An Alternative Perspective," picks up on this same theme of the transformation of a human into another species by arguing that the central theme of the whole movie is the conversion of Jake Sully. He writes, "In essence, I think Avatar could be described as a conversion story," and goes on to observe that this conversion,
requires not only a change of mind and intellectual assent, but a whole new embodied way of life. It requires new eyes, new ears, a new language, and a new heart. It is a relearning of what is right and what is wrong. It is a transfer of allegiance from one people to another (the Na'vi), from one God to another (Eywa). It requires that Jake become nothing less than a new creature in a new creation...We are watching the story of a man who moves from despair, death, hate, and disbelief to hope, life, love, and even faith. When we watch Jake Sully’s story, we are watching a story about conversion.
All of which is to say a central dual theme of the story of Avatar is incarnation and conversion.

Most practicing Christians for most of the last two thousand years have held a view of incarnation not very different from that described in Avatar.  In Jesus of Nazareth, the essence of God was transferred into a human body.  God was in Christ just as Jake was in a Na'vi body.  Now, if we start to think about it, there are differences; but most of the time we don't think about it.  God was in Jesus; Jake was in a Na'vi body.  The movie makes a very important observation, however.  You can't place a person into another body and expect that there won't be any change.

One of the themes of the Book of Genesis is that God does indeed change.  In the story of the Flood, God set a rainbow in the sky as a promise that God would never again use violence against the human race and the rest of creation (Genesis 9:1-17).  Did, then, becoming incarnate in Jesus change God?  If so, how so?  If not, then how can we claim that Jesus was at one and the same time fully God and fully human?  Is it not change an essential element of our nature?