Avatar, the Vatican and the Haiti crisis. No, this isn’t the start of some perverse joke in which the three of them walk into a bar and hilarity ensues. But truthfully, the billion dollar blockbuster, the helm of the Catholic Church and the devastation from the natural disaster have more in common than you might think.
It started with the release of Avatar, the science fiction film that has entranced reviewers and audiences alike with its psychedelic 3-D rainforests and representation of the Na’vi, the coolest blue people since the Smurfs. One of the defining themes of the movie is the connectivity between all elements of nature – the bioluminescent flora and fauna are intertwined with the native humanoids via a complex neural network (which, interestingly, can be accessed by plugging one’s nerve-ponytail into the desired recipient). And while the creators of Avatar have received an enormous amount of praise for their work, they have also been criticized for the messages (ranging from anti-imperialistic to anti-militaristic) conveyed in the film. Yet there were two harsh evaluations that stuck out to me: the official review from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, as well as the review from Vatican Radio.
The Vatican ridiculed the idea of the natives of the foreign planet having such a strong relationship with the world around them. According to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature.” In the same vein, Vatican Radio said Avatar “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.” Vatican Radio went on, saying in the Avatar mindset, “Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.”
I understand the Vatican may feel threatened by director James Cameron’s spiritual everything-is-connected depiction of life. After all, for the past 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has had to struggle to maintain its relevance and its dogmas in a continually changing society. However, by shunning the role of nature – whether on a far-off fictional planet or our own – the Vatican has closed itself to the respect and humility needed to cope with the current situation.
This brings us to the crisis in Haiti. The Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated Jan. 12 by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. You have seen the pictures and the videos and the news reports. You have seen the overflow of corpses, the sobbing survivors and the vast endlessness of collapsed infrastructure and mutilated bodies. And in the midst of everything taking place in and for Haiti right now – medical relief, food handouts, United Nations peacekeeping, donations via text messaging – it is crucial to remember the cause. The instigator of this tragedy was an earthquake, a natural disaster, an uncontrollable and unpredictable event sent from a remorseless and indiscriminate Mother Nature. As humans, we chisel and chop and drill and drain from our planet, with comparatively minor repercussions. But occasionally, as in Haiti, we are given cruel reminders that reinforce the fact that, despite how much we may mark our planet, we are never in total control.
The Vatican press reviews of Avatar came out before the Haitian earthquake, and even if they were released after it, I doubt they would have changed any of their words. However, after seeing the funeral of Haitian archbishop Joseph Serge Miot on television Sunday, I was overwhelmed with a disheartening sense of irony: even the most powerful, the most revered, the ones who claim to be protected by an invincible force are immune to the destruction imposed by nature. And in that realization must come a greater respect and awareness of the sheer strength of our environment.
Just last month, the pope warned against “absolutizing nature” or “considering it more important than the human person.” Yet less than 30 days later, a massive earthquake killed nearly 200,000 people and left another million homeless. If that is not absolute, I have no idea what is. And while we may be cautioned by the Catholic Church to not venerate nature, we have clearly been shown – nature doesn’t think much of us, either. Am I suggesting that we all trade in our cars for Priuses and start eating only organic tomorrow? Of course not. But as we help the Haitians recover in the wake of catastrophe, it is important to feel slightly humbled by the unbridled power of the living world around us. We are better off – both individually and as a species – because of it. I will bet you the Na’vi would agree.