By: Christopher West
In 2010, when Avatar became the top grossing movie of all time, I thought I should see what all the hype was about. Reluctantly, I went. And I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, I agree with much of what has been said about it’s unoriginal plot (Dances with Wolves in space). And there’s certainly plenty to criticize from a theological point of view (besides the overt eco-religion it espouses, the plot itself rests on a dangerous body-soul dualism that imagines one’s “consciousness” can be transferred to another body).
Still, I think there is much to like about this film. Beyond its breath-taking visuals and awe-inspiring special effects (it’s as much a game-changer as Star Wars was in its day), I was especially taken in by the three simple words with which the Na’vi people greet one another: I see you. As the movie explains, it means more than seeing the other physically with your eyes. It means seeing into the other, understanding the other, embracing the other. It means seeing the other person’s heart, the other person’s person. And here James Cameron, the movie’s writer and director, may well be drawing directly from St. Augustine (in the film, Sigourney Weaver’s character is named Grace Augustine — hmmm). It was the Catholic “Doctor of Grace” who said that the deepest desire of the human heart is to see another and be seen by that other’s loving look (see Sermon 69, c. 2, 3).
This yearning to see and be seen, like the beauty of the distant planet Pandora itself, harkens back to Eden, to the original way of “seeing” upon which John Paul II reflected in his Theology of the Body (for more on how Avatar points to Eden, see Bill Donaghy’s excellent article on catholicexchange.com). As the late Pope expressed it, the first man and the woman “see each other more fully and clearly than through the sense of sight itself.” They see each other with an “interior gaze” (see TOB 13:1) — a gaze that sees “into” the other, creating a profound bond of peace and intimacy (or shall we say “in-to-me-see”?).
An “interior gaze” is precisely what the Na’vi express when they say, “I see you.” And that, I believe, is one of the appeals of Avatar: it calls us to a different way of seeing one another, and the world around us. Unfortunately, Avatar’s green agenda pushes the limits of honoring creation over the edge into a kind of nature worship, as if creation itself were a goddess. But isn’t this error simply the twisting of a truth? What is the truth that “nature worship” distorts? As I was pondering this question, I was reminded of a remarkable statement of St. Louis de Montfort in True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. There he writes of how St. Denis was so taken by the “wondrous charms” and “incomparable beauty” of the Blessed Virgin that “he would have taken her for a goddess . . . had not his well-grounded faith taught him otherwise” (True Devotion 49).
Revealing the “unknown gods”
I’m speculating here, but I wonder if it just might be that some of the goddess worship of various cultures throughout history is a universal sense of the mystery of Mary, or even a kind of Marian encounter — but they mistake her “incomparable beauty” for a goddess because they don’t know the true faith. And perhaps rather than dismissing such goddess worshipers as “pagans” we should show such people the same compassion that St. Paul showed the Athenians with their famous altar “To an Unknown God.” Instead of dismissing them, Paul yearned to tell them who this unknown God really was (see Acts 17:22-23).
In this same spirit, shouldn’t we say to all the “earth-goddess” worshipers of history: “Let me tell you the name of this mysterious and beautiful feminine presence you feel. She is not divine, she is one of us. But she is so beautiful, and we are indeed tempted to mistake her for a goddess, because she has been divinized by God. And this is a testimony of what the true God wants to do with each and every one of us (see Catechism 460). Do not worship her! But do let her beauty awaken the hope in you of participating in the divine life which is the source of her beauty.” In this way, rather than condemning those misguided by nature worship and eco-religion, we would be lovingly leading them to true worship. And at the same time, we’d be saying, “I see you.”