Repost: Avatar – Some Bahai Thoughts

I read this post on a friend’s blog and thought it was so good you all might enjoy it!  So here is my first repost.  From now on if I see posts from other blogs that talk about films and spiritual themes I will try to bring them to your attention.  Without further ado:

Avatar: Some Baha’i Thoughts


At long last, the film “Avatar” has arrived. From the critical acclaim this movie is generating it would seem that the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming has taken place. I personally have long had an immunity to hype, so am looking forward to what will at best be a good movie and at worst a chance to sit in the dark and eat Sour Patch Kids and popcorn. Part of what makes me excited about “Avatar” is the possibility it might offer a glimpse of what a really good “John Carter of Mars” movie could look like (that’s the movie I’m waiting for!).

In addition to the discussion of its special effects wonders, “Avatar” has prompted some interesting cultural commentary. Two of the more interesting I’ve read are by Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Reihan Salam of Forbes.com. Douthat comments on the theological dimensions of the film:

“Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.

As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”

Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.

At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.” (Read the whole thing here)

Salam critiques “Avatar” for it’s take on capitalism and modernization:

“After thousands of years of ignorance and stagnation, a kind of miracle happened that radically transformed humanity’s relationship to the wider world. This explosion of wealth has been periodically interrupted by war and famine, yet it has never been fully undone. And though it has involved serious downsides, the prospect of returning to a primeval state strikes most of us as insane. Modern life can be exhausting and even demeaning. It is, however, preferable to spending most of one’s waking moments foraging and hunting in a desperate struggle for survival.

Or is it? That is the question James Cameron asks in his brilliant science-fiction epic Avatar. The villains of Avatar are, well, you and me. Rapacious humans from an environmentally devastated Earth have arrived on an alien moon called Pandora in search of a precious resource called “unobtainium.” The only hiccup is that the richest source of unobtainium lies beneath the habitat of the Na’vi, a race of long-limbed humanoids who live in blissful harmony with their environment. So naturally the humans, being ruthless and acquisitive by nature, decide that corporate profits matter more than the lives of the Na’vi, and they launch a brutal military assault that, as you can no doubt guess, ends in tragedy. Throughout the film, the Na’vi are portrayed as superior to the humans. The irony of Avatar is that Cameron has made a dazzling, gorgeous indictment of the kind of society that produces James Camerons.(Read the whole thing here)

Reading these columns got me thinking about a few things. First, my impression of the Baha’i Faith is that it does not support the notion that material progress, whether scientific, technological or economic is antithetical to spirituality. Materialism is not the inevitable outcome of modernization and a return to some kind of pre-industrial, back-to-nature, edenic utopia (if this were even possible) is not the answer to humanity’s current problems. It is in finding the balance between the spiritual and material, the practical and the metaphysical that we can save our souls and our planet.

“Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised from the heights of the happiness of mankind, awakening the slumbering, granting sight to the blind, causing the heedless to become mindful, bestowing hearing upon the deaf, unloosing the tongue of the mute and resuscitating the dead.

The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertaineth to the world of phenomena, promoteth the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind. It compriseth the laws, regulations, arts and sciences through which the world of humanity hath developed; laws and regulations which are the outcome of lofty ideals and the result of sound minds, and which have stepped forth into the arena of existence through the efforts of the wise and cultured in past and subsequent ages. The propagator and executive power of this call is just government.

The other is the soul-stirring call of God, Whose spiritual teachings are safeguards of the everlasting glory, the eternal happiness and illumination of the world of humanity, and cause attributes of mercy to be revealed in the human world and the life beyond.

This second call is founded upon the instructions and exhortations of the Lord and the admonitions and altruistic emotions belonging to the realm of morality which, like unto a brilliant light, brighten and illumine the lamp of the realities of mankind. Its penetrative power is the Word of God.

However, until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained. For although, on the one hand, material achievements and the development of the physical world produce prosperity, which exquisitely manifests its intended aims, on the other hand dangers, severe calamities and violent afflictions are imminent.

Consequently, when thou lookest at the orderly pattern of kingdoms, cities and villages, with the attractiveness of their adornments, the freshness of their natural resources, the refinement of their appliances, the ease of their means of travel, the extent of knowledge available about the world of nature, the great inventions, the colossal enterprises, the noble discoveries and scientific researches, thou wouldst conclude that civilization conduceth to the happiness and the progress of the human world. Yet shouldst thou turn thine eye to the discovery of destructive and infernal machines, to the development of forces of demolition and the invention of fiery implements, which uproot the tree of life, it would become evident and manifest unto thee that civilization is conjoined with barbarism. Progress and barbarism go hand in hand, unless material civilization be confirmed by Divine Guidance, by the revelations of the All-Merciful and by godly virtues, and be reinforced by spiritual conduct, by the ideals of the Kingdom and by the outpourings of the Realm of Might.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 282)

A second thought is that abandoning the God of monotheism and embracing nature as an object of worship is also not the answer to the excesses of materialism, or environmental devastation. It is not belief in God that is the problem, but failure to recognize the divine reflected in Nature and act accordingly.

“Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.

Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe.”
(Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 141)

I am well aware, O my Lord, that I have been so carried away by the clear tokens of Thy loving-kindness, and so completely inebriated with the wine of Thine utterance, that whatever I behold I readily discover that it maketh Thee known unto me, and it remindeth me of Thy signs, and of Thy tokens, and of Thy testimonies. By Thy glory! Every time I lift up mine eyes unto Thy heaven, I call to mind Thy highness and Thy loftiness, and Thine incomparable glory and greatness; and every time I turn my gaze to Thine earth, I am made to recognize the evidences of Thy power and the tokens of Thy bounty. And when I behold the sea, I find that it speaketh to me of Thy majesty, and of the potency of Thy might, and of Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur. And at whatever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine omnipotence. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 271)

I’m hoping to offer a review of “Avatar” and additional comments once I’ve seen it but would love to hear from readers who already have. What did you think of the movie? What do you think its underlying theological and social messages were? Did you agree or disagree with them?

You can also read a review of the film from a friend of mine here.

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The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED — Innovation, Hope, Cooperation, and Hardwork

Film:The Future We Will Create Movie Poster

The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED, 2007

Starring Daphne Zuniga, Al Gore, Rick Warren, Peter Gabriel, Larry Brilliant, Marjora Carter and others.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Hailed “the hottest gathering in the world” by Wired magazine, TED (Technology Entertainment Design) is an annual event where an eclectic group of brilliant minds exchange bold ideas for the future. Actress Daphne Zuniga is your host on this all-access tour of the conference. Guests include former Vice President Al Gore, musician Peter Gabriel, environmentalist Majora Carter, as well as comedians, authors and innovators from around the world.

My Thoughts:

I love TED.  I had never heard of this conference nor this documentary about it before NetFlix recommended it and I am so thankful it did (I am beginning to see a theme here… I promise not to gush too much about NetFlix any more… I just as frequently discover great films from my library and from friends).  Ok, back to the point.  Apparently TED is this great conference by invite only, in which technical innovators, scientists, artists, and social advocates come together to both speak about what they have been doing as well as to help each other achieve their dreams to better the world. The people who attended TED seem to live this mantra:

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“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi
All these ideas were mind blowing.  There was an architect there who was working to design open source plans for developing countries so that they can build safe, efficient, sustainable, and inexpensive homes, schools, and clinics.    There was a medical scientist who had helped with the UN mission to eradicate smallpox and was now working on preventing a bird flu pandemic.  There was an 11-year-old violin virtuoso, and a beat poet.  The found of one laptop per child.  The list goes on an on.
There was such diversity of thoughts, of methods, of action, and yet such love and respect for one another here.  Whether scientist or artist, religious or atheist, these people all came together with the goal of changing the world for the better.  They were united by a common purpose which reminded me of this beautiful passage:
Consider the flowers of a garden: though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm, and addeth unto their beauty. Thus when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity.
This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man’s sovereign soul, and the soul’s power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for co-ordination. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
What I didn’t realize was that Bono’s One Campaign was born from TED.  And even though the conference is invite-only, it is not exclusive but has an outward orientation.  Anyone can access and watch the speakers from their website.  This film of the conference really made me beam because it speaks to how much through education, hardwork, and cooperation we really can work together to solve the World’s problems.  This conference was all about unity.
So powerful is the light of unity that it can envelop the whole earth.
~Bahá’u’lláh
I can’t help but stress it enough.  Al Gore spoke of global warming which is a global problem.  But Rick Warren, a respected Christian minister also spoke.  Both religion and science recognize the power behind a united purpose.
1As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. ~ Ephesians 4:1-6
Or from a scientific point of view:
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“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Albert Einstein
Perhaps my thoughts have been all over the place, but I highly suggest you check out TED.  The great thing about the conference is that it was a mix of the biggest ideas, as well as ideas that are actually working, on the ground, right now to make the world better.
Your thoughts?

The Man in the White Suit — Innovation, Fear, and Greed.

Film:

The Man In The White Suit Movie Poster

The Man in the White Suit , 1951

The Man In The White Suit Movie Poster

Starring Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood

Synopsis:
This film is a story of an altruistic inventor, Sidney Stratton (played by Sir Alec Guinness) who has discovers a fabric that will never get dirty, and never wear out. He is determined to bring this fabric to market, however both the textile factory workers (the proletariat) and business executives (the capitalists) see it as a threat that will eventually put them out of business. This film brings up questions regarding the nature of innovation, who benefits, and who is harmed, as well as the factors that impede it (namely greed and fear).

Aside: If you haven’t seen this film, which is probably the majority of people, and you want to I recommend you fast forward until Sidney Stratton discovers the miracle cloth. Until that point the plot is very slow and muddled, but the second half is great and is where all the conflict, drama, and moral questions occur.

Thoughts:

I would like everyone reading this post to imagine the implications of Sidney Stratton’s miracle cloth. Think about it. If a cloth never got dirty, and never wore out, it would never need replacing. That means that time and energy and resources would be saved in not having to clean or replace your clothing. However, on the flip side jobs would be lost, and production would go down having (what I see as a temporary) negative effect on the economy. What would be the moral thing to do in this situation?

To market the cloth that could potentially allow people to be free from wasting resources to clothe themselves, aiding the consumer, or to prevent the cloth from going to market to protect the workers and the industrialists? I see it as the former case, since both the workers and industrialists can adjust over time to produce something else that is needed. In the short term it would probably first be good for the industry as it could be marketed at a higher price, but then could be disastrous for the industry if people decided they no longer needed new clothes and demand went down (though honestly, how many of us have many more clothes that we need because we like them stylistically?).

The capitalists and workers have parallel discussions regarding the cloth midway through the film. Both are initially pleased by it, thinking it a wonder, before realizing the personal implications on their future. The workers fear job loss, and the industrialists exhibit signs of greed. In the beginning of the discussion between Textile Mill owners, Birnley, the owner of the plant in which Stratton worked and made the discovery asserts that “Some individuals will suffer temporarily, but I will not stand in the way of progress.” He then points out inventions like the Cotton Gin, which changed the way textile manufacturing worked. He argues this would be the “greatest step forward” but another industrialist counters “over a precipice.” This latter Capitalist argues that the prior innovations increased production, whereas this would decrease production and therefore cripple the industry, and that’s when Birnley’s mind is swayed.

Outside, the workers look at Stratton’s brilliantly white new suit, some praising it, while others look on cynically arguing that owners would never go for it. One quips, “What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that doesn’t get blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something else?” indicating that they never were produced, they stayed figments of the imagination.

This line brings up the point that this tale is truly an allegory and any innovation could be substituted for this “miracle cloth”. In fact the film was prescient, in that 50 years later a documentary would be made on exactly how Industry Leaders (and others who benefited from the status quo) prevented another innovation from occurring. That film was called Who Killed The Electric Car? This premise is no longer a work of fiction.

In fact, at the end of The Man In The White Suit, it turns out the miracle cloth was unstable and ended up disintegrating, ending the threat. So in reality, it was just the prospect of change that caused all the panic- the worker strikes; the industrialists kidnapping and attempting to bribe Stratton; and the angry mob chasing him down and threatening his life.

This brings me to the spiritual implications of the film. Our hero, Stratton, holds many noble qualities. He is altruistic, he is committed to knowledge, he does not care about pay or credit for his findings, and in fact is willing to share the credit. However he is naïve. In fact, by the end of the film there are only two people on his side, the main female character Daphne, Birnley’s daughter (played by Joan Greenwood), and a little girl of about 7, indicating that only the innocent and idealistic truly have humanity and not their own self interest at heart.

Can we truly not be self-interested? Or at least can we not be short-sighted and think of the longer term benefits? In the long term the cloth (or the electric car, or whatever else) can better society, but in the short term it takes so much effort for the individual to fight the interests of those “in charge”.

In fact, one could look at the founders of major world religions to see how people react to change, even positive change, which they do not understand. Jesus was crucified for bringing a new message, and Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned and exiled for forty years for ushering in a new day. Or if you are into politics you could look at the Progressive movement during either turn of the century and the recent US election of Barack Obama.

On that I will end with a quote from Bahá’u’lláh which counsels us regarding insight and greed:

“O children of understanding! If the eyelid, however delicate, can deprive man’s outer eye from beholding the world and all that is therein, consider then what would be wrought if the veil of covetousness were to descend upon his inner eye. Say: O people! The darkness of greed and envy becloudeth the radiance of the soul even as the clouds obstruct the light of the sun.”

~ Bahá’u’lláh, from The Tabernacle of Unity