Panentheism & Paternalism

James Cameron is one of the most successful directors of the last few decades, having helmed numerous critically-acclaimed films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. In 2009, he brought audiences to the world of Pandora with the visual masterpiece, Avatar. The film is about a disabled marine, Jake Sully, who inhabits the body of a genetically engineered Na’vi—the blue-skinned, humanoid, species native to Pandora. Jake eventually falls in love with a Na’vi woman and helps save her people from the Resources Development Administration (RDA), an Earth-based corporation that is ravaging the homeworld of the Na’vi for valuable natural resources. Upon its release, the film gained great critical and commercial acclaim, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time.

While talks of a sequel arose immediately, Avatar: The Way of Water was not released until 2022. With a thirteen-year gap after the first movie and a runtime of over three hours, there was great concern about the success of the film. However, critics and audiences responded favorably to the movie, with it becoming the highest-grossing film of 2022 and the third-highest-grossing film of all time. The Way of Water is set sixteen years after the original film and centers on Jake and his family. The RDA returns to colonize Pandora and seek revenge on Jake, which leads him and his family to leave their home and flee to safety. They join a distant water clan, which accepts them, teaching the Sullys their ways.

Worldview of The Way of Water

The Avatar films contain a mix of religious views. The concept of an avatar comes from Hinduism, in which a god takes on human flesh. This may sound familiar to Christians, as we believe the second person of the Godhead became incarnate as Jesus. The avatar concept is represented in the Avatar films by humans being incorporated into synthetic Na’vi bodies. In a sense, Jake Sully is viewed as a Christ figure, in that he takes on the form of the people he saves.

The planet Pandora and its inhabitants form more than an ecosystem; they are more like a nervous system, in which all life is connected on a deep biological and spiritual level. The Na’vi goddess, Eywa, is not necessarily a deity, but a planet-wide consciousness that protects the balance of life. Thus, the worldview presented by Avatar is a mix of paganism—nature worship—and panentheism—with Eywa being both within and beyond the ecosystem of the planet Pandora.

This view may seem intriguing or even attractive to some people, but the Bible paints a very different picture regarding our relationship with nature. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Colossians 1:16 says that in Jesus “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” The Bible teaches that God’s power and divine nature are evident through the created world, but many people wrongly worship creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:20-23). God created the world; it is not an extension of him or a part of him. Our planet is a creation, as are humans, and all nature is completely dependent on God. We are to worship God only—not angels, other humans, or nature. We must care for the planet, not because it is divine, but because God created it to be our home. He commanded us to be good stewards of the beautiful world he designed for us (Genesis 1:28). While every Christian ought to be concerned about creation care, we must be careful that environmentalism does not become elevated to the level of nature worship.

Family and Community

While The Way of Water incorporates some religious views contrary to biblical teachings, it does present a healthy view of family and community. Twice in the film Jake Sully states, “A father protects. It gives him meaning.” In a society where men are degraded and fathers are deemed unnecessary, it is refreshing to see a man presented in a positive light—not just as an action hero, but as a loving, engaged father. Jake’s sense of purpose is not from the pursuit of wealth or success, but in caring for his family and community. He does not seek battle for the glory of victory, but to protect his loved ones and his clan. Jake also knows when to humble himself and to seek peace amidst conflict. He is not a perfect father, but he is loved and respected by his wife, his children, and his clan. As our culture increasingly promotes selfish individualism and our families are in shambles, it is wonderful to see family and community portrayed so positively in a blockbuster movie.

Mother Nature or Father God?

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother.” However, as Chesterton continues, Christianity teaches “that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us….”1 Chesterton did not mean that nature is a living person as we are, but simply that the world around us was made by the same Creator. Humans are unique in that we are the only part of creation that was designed in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Contrary to the beings who inhabit Pandora, we are more than just a piece of our planet’s ecosystem; we are the crown of creation. We have a responsibility to care for nature not because of an obligation to “Mother Nature,” but out of respect for Father God and everyone else who lives on planet Earth.

Although Avatar: The Way of Water presents a faulty view of our relationship to nature, it offers a correct view of our relationship to our families and communities. In the biblical creation account, God said it is not good for humans to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were designed to live in community, to pursue not just our own interests, but others’ as well (Philippians 2:4). Our ultimate meaning is to be found through love and service first to God, and then to those around us. The Way of Water is a good example of how the content we consume can be a mix of good and bad, and why it is important for Christians to filter everything through the lens of Scripture.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at