James Cameron, writer and director of Avatar and winner last night of the Golden Globe for Best Director, does not score points for subtlety. The guns are big and loud. The love story is predictable. And the names? There's unobtanium, the element pursued by corporate bigwigs on earth. There's Pandora, the name of the planet where the story unfolds, and an obvious sign that this story will not end well. There's also Dr. Grace Augustine.
Grace, played by Sigourney Weaver, is the lead scientific researcher on Pandora. Her name suggests connections to the Christian faith, and yet the film doesn't make them clearly. The first words we hear from Grace's mouth are, "Where's my cigarette?" She is brash and assertive, dismissive of Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who will soon become the film's hero. Jake and Grace both have avatars, which means they can enter a pod, fall asleep, and wake up inhabiting the body of one of the Na'vi, the natives of Pandora.
Grace is more "herself," or at least more likable and free-spirited, in her Pandoran body. She smiles more. She revels in the foliage, in learning about the foreign ecosystem. In the past, she started a school for Na'vi children, who still flock to her side. And along the way, we get a glimpse of Grace's understanding of Pandora's spiritual dimension.
Much has been made of Avatar's pantheistic spirituality. But pantheism—defined as the belief that "God is everything and everything is God"—isn't quite the right word for it. The people of Pandora believe that all life is interconnected, trees and plants and animals and humans (or whatever we're supposed to call the tall, lanky blue creatures). But the Na'vi also believe in a personal deity, Eywa, who listens and responds to them.
As a scientist, Grace believes that the spiritual beliefs of the Na'vi have a biological basis. Every living thing on Pandora really is connected, biologically speaking, and pulses with an energy that fuels the planet. She is not dismissive of the Na'vi's spirituality, yet she does equate it with biological fact.
But then Grace gets wounded by gunshot, and Sully asks the Na'vi to use the power of Eywa to heal Grace. Surrounded by chanting Na'vi, Grace lies before the "throne" of Eywa (the center of a huge tree). The tendrils of Eywa encircle Grace in both her human and avatar body. Apparently, the hope is that Grace's consciousness can move from her dying human body to her healthy avatar body. The transition, however, fails. As Grace is dying, she says, with joy, "Eywa. I see her."
These final words become Grace's statement of faith. She uses the language of the Na'vi to acknowledge Eywa as more than a biological reality. For this tribe (as for followers of Jesus), seeing involves more than the physical use of eyesight. It involves understanding, knowing, giving and receiving from one to another. So when Grace says that she "sees" Eywa, she is acknowledging the spiritual reality behind the biological truth. She is acknowledging a personal deity. And perhaps, in her death, there is grace at work.
Amy Julia Becker is a writer, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, wife to Peter and mother to Penny and William. She blogs at Thin Places.