The Incarnation and James Cameron’s Avatar

Science fiction can be a great place to illustrate philosophical and, as it turns out, theological concepts. Really, it’s one means that we can use to get our intuitions going about the plausibility, or even coherence, of ideas. Science fiction can be a great place to propose what philosopher’s call “thought experiments.”

James Cameron’s Avatar is one place some theologians have turned to pump our intuitions about how the Incarnation might “work.” William Lane Craig finds some value in the film, and Jason Dulle (a Oneness Pentecostal I’ve discussed before) does as well. This isn’t to say that Craig or Dulle (or anybody else, for that matter) finds a perfect analogy for the Incarnation in Avatar. Again, it only provides a thought experiment that we then analyze for the relevant points of contact between what we’re trying to illustrate and the illustration itself.

I take it that many (if not most) people, in America at least, have seen the movie or are aware of its basic framework. But as a reminder for those who have seen it, and to get the ol’ intuitions going for those who haven’t, I’ll give a brief rundown of the relevant parts of the story. Then I’m going to discuss why some may have been too quick to dismiss Avatar as an analogy for the Incarnation. It seems to me that if we combine some work that Katherin Rogers and William Hasker have done, there’s a decent (albeit still distant) analogy for the Incarnation here.

A Man with Two Natures?

The events in Avatar take place on a moon called “Pandora,” which humans are trying to colonize. There are two problems with this colonization program. The first is that the atmosphere on Pandora is not hospitable to human life, and the second is that the planet is inhabited by a hominid-like species called the “Na’vi.” Since humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora, they initiate the Avatar Program so that they can easily explore the planet.

In the Avatar program, Na’vi bodies are created so that they can be remotely controlled by humans. These human “controllers” enter a psionic link vessel that allows them to control the Na’vi bodies. But how does that work? Essentially, the vessel puts the controller into a sleep-like state and projects the human personality (and it seems, consciousness) into the Na’vi body so that it can be controlled. I think of it like virtual reality, only the human individual somehow actually inhabits the Na’vi body.

The main protagonist in Avatar is Jake Sully. He is a former Marine with crippled legs, and he becomes a controller with the promise that, if he does what he’s asked, his legs will be scientifically restored. In his human nature, Sully is wheelchair-bound, white-skinned, a certain height, and can’t breathe Pandora’s air. But in the Na’vi body he controls, Sully is ten feet tall, blue-skinned, has fully functioning legs, and can breathe Pandora’s air. So, when he’s controlling the Na’vi body, it seems like Sully is a man with two natures: a human one in the vessel, and Na’vi one somewhere else.

There are a number of points already that aren’t quite right for imagining how the Incarnation might “work.” That is, the picture that Avatar gives us isn’t ready-made for our purposes; some assembly (or rather, modification) is required.

Next I want to turn to a consideration of the Incarnation according to Katherin Rogers, and a few modifications of the picture Avatar gives us that, I think, can complement Rogers’ account.

The Incarnation is God Doing Something

Katherin Rogers’ proposes (in “The Incarnation as Action Composite”) that the Incarnation means God (specifically, the Word) is doing something. She asks us to consider a video game analogy to illustrate her point.

Suppose that a fifteen-year-old boy named Nick is playing a video game. While he is playing, the state of affairs “Nick Playing” takes place, or obtains. Obviously, when Nick is playing the game, he is controlling a virtual, two-dimensional character (call this “Nick’s Character”). So, the state of affairs “Nick Playing” means that Nick is controlling Nick’s Character in a virtual world.

Now comes the connection: Nick is analogous to the Word, Nick’s Character is analogous to the concrete human nature of Christ, and the Incarnation is analogous to the state of affairs “Nick Playing.” I take it that this means that “Christ” refers to that state of affairs, the Incarnation, where the Word assumes (distantly analogous to “controls”) a concrete human nature. We avoid Nestorianism—the view that Christ is two persons—simply by noting that no state of affairs is a person, so neither is Christ. But Christ includes the Person of the Word, which I’ve said is the Word doing something.

Rogers goes into quite a bit more detail, and I think much of what she says is interesting. For now, I want to draw in the additional connection to Avatar. In the movie, Jake Sully is analogous to Nick and the Word, his Na’vi body (or nature) is analogous to Nick’s Character and Christ’s concrete human nature, and his controlling the Na’vi nature through the psionic link unit is analogous to Nick Playing and the Incarnation. When Sully is in the psionic link unit, a state of affairs analogous to Nick Playing and to the Incarnation obtains. For simplicity, let’s call this state of affairs “Sully Controlling.”

Where I think Rogers’ analogy needs a crucial supplement when it comes to how the mind of the Word and the mind of Christ’s concrete human nature relate to one another. This is where I think William Hasker’s work can come into play.

Hasker’s “Avatar Model”

Hasker focuses on the Christ’s two minds in his paper “Incarnation: The Avatar Model.” As the title should indicate, Hasker actually uses Avatar to illustrate the points he makes in the paper. Hasker seeks to address some psychological problems that Chalcedon raises. Since (he says) Chalcedon points toward a “two minds” Christology, how can this actually be the case? And how can this happen without the Incarnation involving two persons, which is a result any Christology should seek to avoid?

As things occur in Avatar, our state of affairs “Sully Controlling” isn’t quite right as an analogy for the Incarnation. Hasker suggests the following modifications to the movie’s framework to make the analogy closer.

First, the relationship between Sully and the Na’vi nature he controls should begin to occur as soon as that Na’vi nature is formed. In the movie, there’s no connection until that Na’vi nature is fully mature.

Second, Sully’s (or any other human controller) human nature cannot be in a sleep-like state when the psionic link occurs. Instead, Sully should have full awareness of his human body’s surroundings and be able to carry on a generally normal human life while he controls the Na’vi nature. This may require a “miniturized” and implantable psionic link device in Sully’s brain.

Hasker doesn’t tell us how this could be. But I don’t think this is too difficult to imagine. That is, I don’t think there’s anything immediately implausible with the idea that a miniature virtual reality device could be implanted in somebody, thereby allowing them to do precisely what Hasker is suggesting.

Third, Hasker says that the

controller’s awareness will include within itself also an awareness of the experiences and actions in the Na’vi body; however, the consciousness residing in that body will not have awareness of the controller’s surroundings and experiences. (pp. 128-129)

In other words, Sully in his ordinary human consciousness can know what’s going on in the Na’vi nature (and its associated consciousness), but the reverse is not the case.

With these modifications in place, we have a closer analogy between “Sully Controlling” and the Incarnation as a state of affairs. Sully controls the Na’vi nature from the moment it begins to exist, he can carry on activities constitutive of a normal human life while he is controlling it, and there’s an asymmetrical relationship between his human consciousness and his Na’vi consciousness.

How Does This Help?

When applied to “Sully Controlling,” Rogers’ analogy and Hasker’s modifications help us understand, at least a little bit better, how the Incarnation doesn’t involve any contradictions. The two areas I want to focus on are how we can say the Word dies, and how the Word can have limited knowledge.

Suppose that Sully hunts an animal while “Sully Controlling” obtains. There’s a real sense where we might say that Sully hunts the animal, even though it’s by virtue of his Na’vi nature that he does so. So there are some things true of Sully because they occur in his Na’vi nature.

We might say the same thing about the Word’s death on the Cross. As his divine nature, the Word cannot die. But it seems right to say that, due to the Incarnation obtaining and the connection the Word has to Christ’s human nature, that when the human nature dies, the Word dies. It’s true to say “the Word dies” on the Cross. This is no doubt still difficult to understand or imagine, but there’s at least no obvious contradiction here.

Rogers doesn’t say this, but due to Hasker’s suggestions we can also understand how Christ can at least seem to report his limitations in knowledge. Suppose that, in his Na’vi consciousness, Sully doesn’t know where his human body is located. Because of the asymmetrical relation I’ve already discussed, he cannot report this location through his Na’vi nature. There’s a very real sense that Sully can say “I don’t know where Jake Sully is,” even though, in his ordinary human consciousness, he knows exactly where he is.

So too with the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word cannot report the day or the hour of his return in his human nature. So he can report that he doesn’t know it. And yet, in his divine nature, he clearly does know the day or the hour. Again, this is still difficult to understand or imagine, but there’s no obvious contradiction here.

All that to say this: Sometimes, with the right modifications and philosophical framework, science fiction can help us understand difficult topics in theology. If anybody you know has said that Avatar doesn’t give a good analogy for the Incarnation, I would, with the right modifications, beg to differ.


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