James Cameron, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the nature of nature

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Ross Douthat examines the underlying values of James Cameron’s movie Avatar and links it to a tide of pantheism coursing through Hollywood in particular and America in general. As a nation, Douthat argues, we have almost from our inception tended to collapse distinctions and seek unity, a tendency Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s: “When the conditions of society are becoming more equal… [t]he idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.” We Americans, it seems, are born to pantheism as the sparks fly upward.

Douthat believes that we should fight, or at least question, this impulse. He doubts whether nature “actually deserves a religious response.” The traditional monotheistic religions confront the problem of evil, struggling to reconcile a loving creator with suffering and death. Pantheism can’t address this basic human concern, according to Douthat, because nature “is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its ‘circle of life’ is really a cycle of mortality.” Religion, he believes, exists in part to pull self-conscious humanity, simultaneously of nature and outside it, out of this tragic cycle. Without religion—Christianity, for Douthat—there is no escape “upward,” only a downward abandonment of our consciousness. Pantheism leaves us with only dust and ashes.

Since the Madroño Ranch mission and vision statements rest comfortably on a foundation of Christian pantheism—defined as finding God in all things—I can’t help but respond. Here’s why I think Douthat’s definition of Christianity and its relationship to the material world—i.e., nature—needs to be questioned.

Christianity arose at the confluence of two distinct and, in some ways, contradictory traditions: Judaism, which tended to see the divine as simultaneously transcendent and thoroughly enmeshed with created matter, and Platonism, which opposed the corruption of the material to the purity of the eternal. The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, endorsed the latter view by asserting the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which asserts that creation did not arise from eternally preexisting materials and that God created the universe from scratch.

The poetic cosmology of the creed, however, left room for multiple interpretations. My personal favorite comes from Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662), who set the scene for Eastern Orthodoxy and declared that Jesus was the first person to become fully human and thus, paradoxically, divine. Jesus thereby reopened the clogged conduit between the created and divine realms, and his call to humanity is to live fully, as he did, into the image of the divine imprinted in all of us. Western Christianity, however, preferred a top-down model in which the initiative for divine-mortal interaction was exclusively unilateral, leaving humanity in the dust, so to speak.

I present this radically reductive, tongue-in-cheek summary to suggest that the relationship between God and creation (and humanity and the rest of creation) may be more complicated than some Western Christians (like Douthat) believe. Shortly after reading Douthat’s column, I read another recent New York Times article by Natalie Angier. In it, she describes research being conducted on the complexity of plants, specifically on “their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar….” Says one researcher, “Even if you have quite a bit of knowledge about plants, it’s still surprising to see how sophisticated they can be.” Attributes we’ve always ascribed to humans alone seem to be much more widely spread than anyone imagined, moving out of the animal kingdom, even. Using and eating plants may be a much more fraught enterprise than we’d supposed. If the right relationship between humans and animals has inspired a multigenerational series of philosophical and theological contortions, what will happen when we find that algae are, like us, just a little lower than the angels?

One of the things that’s becoming clear to this utter non-scientist and spastic theologian is that the created order becomes more intricate and surprising the more we study it, repeatedly requiring us to question assumptions that we had thought were beyond questioning. “Your job as a scientist is to find out how you’re fooling yourself,” says astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter. I would say this is true in most human endeavors, most particularly if you’re claiming knowledge of God. (Which I do all the time. I figure God has got to be a bossy oldest daughter, like me.) Does nature deserve a religious response? How can it not?

Douthat may have been saying that nature is not worthy of worship, but worship is not the only religious response available to us. According to many Christian thinkers (and doers), we are called to love even our enemies because they too are formed in the image of God. What might it mean to find the image of God outside the narrow confines of humanity? Surely we would need to love that image with the same constancy and self-discipline required to love our irritating fellow humans. Rather than trapping us in the tragic cycle of mortality, this kind of commitment—to love the natural world as we would love God, our neighbors, and ourselves—strikes me as precisely what leads to wisdom, even if it means collapsing traditional distinctions (sorry, Alexis!) between heaven and earth.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (still!)
Martin: Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

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3 Responses to James Cameron, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the nature of nature

  1. Joy says:

    I wish more theologians were "spastic" in the way you are, Heather, rather than spastic in the way that, say, a colon is. But I digress.

    I hadn't seen the Douthat piece (I stopped reading him once he left The Atlantic), but I love the Angier article (hell, I'd read her version of ingredients on a cereal box.)

    What I'm trying to say is that I love this here thing you wrote, Heather. It made me wonder if you saw this article by one of Pam's professors at EDS:


    Being the sole member of the obscure sect known as "Pantheistic Whyheads," it made my day, nay, my whole year, to read this sentence: "We Americans, it seems, are born to pantheism as the sparks fly upward." I'm so lucky to know you (and that cutie husband of yourn.)

    xoxoxo Joy Howard

  2. Anonymous says:

    Heather –

    Thought, I might have been the only one interested in that peculiar Douthat piece. I have a little different take on it though. I think he completely missed the point Cameron was making.

    To my mind, the essential tension in the movie is about gender. The Sgt Rock mercenary character embodies the idea of the threatened patriarchy unmoored from any balancing efforts of the feminine, and hell bent of killing off the perceived threat to it's traditional power.

    As such it's a reflection on contemporary politics and the way every issue of national significance seems to quickly devolve into a contest to define the opponent as un-manly.

    What Douthat defines as pantheistic – is really about bringing the feminine – traditionally associated with matter generally, and the earth in particular – back into balance with the male.

    While he is essentially correct that Christian church evolved in opposition to this balance and as a tool to support the patriarchal authority and privilege of the priest class as the source all legitimate interpretation of devine will, I still think the larger conflict turns on more basic issues of gender.

    Would love to visit with you about this when you have a chance.


  3. Work in Progress says:

    "Christian" pantheism is an oxymoron. You have chosen to create a religion and a god to your liking, not the one revealed in the Bible.

    This, my friend, is called "idolatry".

    Picking and choosing an "interpretation" (e.g. Maximus the Confessor) external to the actual authors of the Holy Scriptures because you like it is the oldest sin in the world. We all want to be god. We all want to exalt ourselves and proclaim that we are gods (or a portion of a god).

    Here is the revelation provided to us in the Bible. "You (we) are not god or even a small portion of god."

    God is the Potter we are the clay.

    God is God!

    El Shaddai!

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