Have you seen the movie Avatar? It has a lot of significance on the topics of technology and spirituality – and it’s a really entertaining film, although a little long. Check it out if you haven’t already!
It clearly portrays the idea of a ‘second self’. Jake, a paralysed Marine, takes part in a technological experiment. He is physically laying in a laboratory, plugged into wires. But he’s able to wake up inside the body of his avatar, where he can run, fly, and live an entirely new life.
The term avatar comes from Sanskrit: “The Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from the verbal root ”to cross over” joined with the prefix ava “off, away , down” (source)
It was often used in Sanskrit to mean ‘descending from heaven to earth’, describing a deity coming to earth and taking a human body. In English the closest word we have to translate it with is “appearance” , “manifestation” or ”incarnation”.
Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us who engage in the online world, have an avatar. Dictionaries now list the word as a recognised term for an online alter ego:
“An avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user’s alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities” (source)
So like Jake in the movie, when we’re online we find ourself in a different setting, with different scenery, protocols, challenges and opportunities. We have a kind of ‘second life’ there and need to be aware that it could become divorced from our true identity.
Jake couldn’t walk in real life. When living through his avatar he could. He had no girlfriend in real life, but fell in love with someone through his avatar who reciprocated his feelings. He began to prefer his avatar life and only went back to his physical body when he had to. In the end he chose his avatar body and left his physical body permanently.
How do we handle our online identity in a way that is healthy and honouring to our Creator, ourselves and each other? In a recent post I concluded that we shouldn’t aim to be identical in each sphere, as online and offline will bring out different aspects of who we are. It’s about authentic congruency – where we aren’t identical, but we are holistically ‘one person’ across both spaces.
Like I said a moment ago, one of our translations of the Sanskrit ‘avatar’ is ‘incarnation’. Interesting for us as Christians, eh? Some people have drawn comparisons with Jesus, asking if his human form could be described as his avatar. What do you think about that?
Concern has been expressed about this analogy, as it may lead us into Docetism (the heresy that argued Jesus’ human body was just an apparition and wasn’t important). If his physical body was his avatar, then he never truly left heaven or became separated from his Father. He would have been physically present in heaven, as well as on earth (like Jake laying in the lab, and being on Pandora, simultaneously).
The death of Jesus would lose significance due to this. An avatar dying would presumably just result in the person waking up in their true body. Whereas the Gospel hangs on the fact that Jesus actually died and rose again – not that he just went back to his true form, then 3 days later returned to his avatar.
Even if it’s not a fitting analogy for Jesus’ incarnation, the movie does have strong spiritual overtones, some of which resonate with Christianity:
- Jake laid down his own physical reality to step into a new world, becoming like one of the Navi people, to try and save them from military destruction. This messianic style of story is reminiscent of Jesus coming to earth, to be like us and rescue us.
- The sacred trees (the Tree of Souls and the Home Tree) could be echoes of the two trees in Genesis?
- Pandora seems so perfect, as though alluding to a pre-fall world, where people and nature worked together as one. Was the Eden era of existence something like this?
- Is the lure of the precious stone they are fighting to possess, reminiscent of the fruit eaten in Eden?
- Could Eywa represent the Holy Spirit, at work at creation and fully connected to it?
- One writer has suggested Sigourney Weaver’s character name (Dr Grace Augustine) might be an allusion to St Augustine’s doctrine of grace? (source)
Avatar got some criticism from Christians, especially Stateside, as it endorses New Age and the worship of Mother Earth.
Also, Jake living through an avatar suggests an odd kind of dualism, where a person’s soul can be attached to more than one physical shell. It implies that our body simply becomes a hard-drive, where our inner data can be downloaded (source) When pondered upon, it’s clear that the whole film alludes to Transcendentalism , Gaia Theory, and Shamanism. It’s a heady mixture of spiritual ideas, but well worth watching to stir up some debate.
For me the movie was really eye-opening, as it illustrates just how real and appealing living life through technology can be. It’s an advert for the benefits online life can bring us, and a warning that we should never let it eclipse our real-body interactions and world. And it’s a really entertaining watch – have plenty of popcorn ready and a box of tissues!
Over to you:
- Have you ever thought of your online identity as an ‘avatar’ or second self?
- Do you feel more free and able when living through your avatar, like Jake in the movie?
- Do you like the idea of explaining Jesus’ incarnation as his ‘avatar’?