Tag: Christian worldview

Dualism in Avatar and in Christianity

James Cameron’s Oscar winning film Avatar may have broken new technological ground, but it perpetuates an age old philosophy. Philosophical Dualism draws a sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual realms, between the visible and the invisible. Dualistic worldviews inevitably end up exalting one realm or the other, the spiritual or the material.

Philosophical Dualism

Plato, for instance, taught that the spiritual realm, the realm of the Forms, was the really real and that the material realm was just the real, a mere replication, a copy, of the Forms. The Forms are superior to the inferior things they create. The classic example is the Form of a chair in the spiritual, which determines the chair-ness of a chair in the material world. The Form of the chair is superior to the chair itself. The material world is a derivative of the spiritual world. The spiritual is greater the material world is lesser.

What’s is an “Avatar”?

This dualism is also played out in Eastern worldviews like Hinduism and Buddhism, where the goal is to escape the material world and enter the spiritual world of Nirvana or the Brahman. Dualism also peaks its head out in Avatar, a film where humans leave their world in order to enter the world of Pandora, the home of the Na’vi. In fact, humans not only enter the world of Pandora but also the very bodies of the Na’vi. They become “avatars” which represent their humanity in Na’vi form. In Hinduism, an avatar is not material. It is a manifestation. Avatars don’t sweat or die. One of the Vedas tells the story of a wife who was asked to distinguish between her husband and an avatar of her husband. They looked and acted exactly alike. In the end, she discerned her true husband by the fact that the avatar did not sweat. An avatar is a microcosm of dualism, the really real being hidden by the real, the spiritual manifested in the material.

Humans discover that the spiritual world of the Na’vi is peaceful, serene, and beautiful. When you walk by flowers, they perk up and glow, mountains float in clouds, and everyone gets along. But the human world is depicted as a place of war and conflict. The marines have come to extract a priceless ore worth 20mL/Kilo from beneath the sacred tree of the Na’vi. Director James Cameron shows us how materialist humans exploit the spiritual paradise of the Na’vi, Pandora. The way of the Na’vi is depicted as superior to the way of the humans. This is dualism, divorcing the spiritual world from the material world.

Dualist Christianity Leads to Materialism

Now, when you do this you end up exalting one or the other, the material or the spiritual. Pandora exalts the spiritual world of Pandora. But in America we exalt the material world. We also draw a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the material. It’s no news that we are a consumer culture. What has been news is that our excessive buying, selling, and debt-making has led to a housing market crash, which lead to an economic recession, which led to record-setting unemployment. What happened? Very simply, our appetites for material things extended beyond our budgets and we just blew by our fiscal responsibility, buying and selling unethically. In our lust for material possessions, we have exalted the material world at great expense. Enter the Recession. We’ve gone into great debt, credit card and other, because our dualism has lead to an exaltation of the material world. Dualism leads to exaltation of either the spiritual or the material. We’ve chosen the material.

See, when Dualism divides reality up into the spiritual and the material realms, one of them has to become more important, because there is no reason to hold them together. American Christians are materialist Christians. We have created a dualist Christianity where we exalt the material over the spiritual. We are functional dualists. We separate faith in Christ from life in culture, theology from money, all in the name of Christianity! This is hardly Christianity at all; it is a false gospel that Evangelicals have bought, lived, and preached, affecting not only our approach to possessions but also our neglect of the environment. May we heed the unintended lesson of Avatar and retrieve a biblical Christianity that places money, possessions, and the earth in its proper place under the lordship of Christ.

*This article is adapted from a recent talk at The Missional Living Conference at Redeemer Church. A&V forthcoming.

Christianity, A Religion of Negatives

Angry Evangelicals

Christianity, especially fundamentalist Christianity, is often cast as a religion of negatives. It is quipped that Christians are known by what they are against, not what they are for. George Marsden has highlighted the particularly negative Christianity of fundamentalists by calling them “evangelicals who are angry about something.”[1]

Numerous examples could be adduced. High profile negative religious folk like Jerry Falwell who blamed 9/11 on homosexuals, Ten Commandment courthouse crazies who insist on a statue remaining outside a courthouse while doing very little to contribute to the social, moral, and spiritual decline of our country, abortion clinic bombers, and Zionist preachers like John Hagee who fervently mix politics with faith.

These negative and angry expressions of Christian faith (which cut across denominations) are, at the very least, misguided and unfortunate. Jesus Christ was primarily known by what he was for. He had a way of wooing followers with his inherent divine goodness, his gospel message, and his ministry to the spiritually blind, resource poor, and emotionally broken-hearted. When Jesus did rattle off what he was against, it was typically against religion and self-righteousness.

Focusing on the Fall

One way contemporary forms of Western Christianity have gotten off track is by misinterpreting the Adam Eve narrative. Many Christian traditions have so focused on the badness of the Fall that they have failed to recognize God’s goodness in Creation. They take Gods negative injunction concerning the tree as the norm of Christian faithdont do this or that and God will be happy. This is simply not how the story reads or how God primarily relates to his creation.

Christian tradition holds that man was corrupted when he ate from the forbidden tree in the garden. (Whether you believe in “the Fall” or not, something has to account for our bent and evil nature.) It should go without saying that humans aren’t born good these days. Every child needs correction and every adult has their demons, but that doesn’t make the whole world thoroughly corrupt. There is still much that is good and beautiful.

Many Christians proceed in their faith by trying to not repeat the folly of Adam and Eve, to not “eat” what is forbidden. As a result, Christianity has often been framed as a religion of negatives, a moral framework of prohibition which, when forced onto culture, becomes a self-righteous rant. This, however, is a distortion of the biblical story. Creation and Gods grace precede any negatives whatsoever. In fact, creation and new creation straddle the Fall. As Cornelius Plantinga points out, The Bibles big double message is creation and redemption. Sin intervenes but never as an independent theme. Thus St. Paul, the Bibles chief theologian of sin and grace, speaks of sin in terms of what it is against.[2] Sin is against all that God is for, and God is for grace, truth, goodness, beauty, and peace.

The Positives of Creation

The biblical story begins, not with the Fall, but with Creation. The injunction to “not eat” is preceded by a rich description of God’s creative provision in which he formed a lavish world for Adam and Eve and all humanity to enjoy—heaven and earth, seas and skies, fish and birds, plants and animals, fruit and friendship. Moreover, God created a special garden where he spent time with man, the crown of his creation, satisfying every need we could ever have. God’s negative command was couched in ten million positives!

God created us for a lush world, companionship, sex, colors, mountains, rivers, language, culture-making, and ultimately for soul-satisfying communion with him in and through all these things. Adam and Eve had every reason to believe that the prohibition to “not eat” was designed for their good. All they had to do was look around to see that God was for them, not against them, that God called them into a relationship of grace and love, not law and rule-keeping.

Christ came to undo the damage done by man’s rejection of God’s goodness, to reorient our affections and hopes back to our kind Creator and toward a re-newed creation. He did this at the costly price of his own death, offering us new creation life and hope in his resurrection. Recognition of the positive context of creation and new creation should lead us away from negative Christianity and into faith and worship. Thus, John Calvin wrote:

God’s inestimable wisdom, power, justice and goodness shine forth in the fashioning of the universe, no splendor, no ornament of speech, would be equal to an act of such great magnitude…It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise, and love him.[3]

Some negatives are a temporary necessity

Nevertheless, there are some good negatives which are a temporary necessity. Like children, we have to be told over and over again not to touch the stove, run into the street, or disrespect our parents. But the promise of faith in Jesus is that even the good negatives will eventually be unnecessary, as God writes them into our hearts, where the goodness of God will be full. Faith in Jesus initiates this process of personal, social, cultural, and creational renewal.

The Christian faith is not a religion predicated on don’ts. It is a faith littered with awe-inspiring promises by God himself. It is not a religion of negatives, but person-renewing, cosmos-restoring reality available only in Jesus. Jesus is calling angry Christians away from their rule-keeping, self-righteous religious ghettos and into Creator-honoring, joy-promoting, cosmos-restoring glory. Its hard to imagine a faith more positive than that.

[1] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1.

[2] Plantinga, Engaging Gods World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 87.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 1.14.21-22.