In the famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo there is the memorable scene of the creator God extending his finger to the outstretched hand of the newly formed Adam. The imagery makes clear that Adam is a creation of God, not an extension of him. Creator and creation are distinct.
That is the clear understanding of the Judeo-Christian worldview. In contrast to Eastern religions, where God is seen as everything (pantheism), or in everything (panentheism), the biblical teaching is that there is an eternal, personal and infinite God who is not to be confused with his creation.
For millennia the West was based on the monotheistic religions which viewed creation as the finite result of an infinite God, while the East has been shaped by monism (the belief that all is one) and pantheism. But recently these two opposing worldviews have experienced a massive crossover.
There are various reasons why East and West have lost their distinctive differences, and become so entwined. I here wish to focus on just one area. Western popular culture and the entertainment industry have done much to promote the pantheistic worldview and New Age spirituality.
Whether it be popular films such as the Star Wars series, or bestselling New Age tomes such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, on all sides the West is being inundated with Eastern thinking and New Age concepts.
The most recent – and most spectacular – example of this is the runaway hit film, Avatar. It is a classic example of the pantheistic worldview, dressed up to suit modern Western tastes. It is thus quite a part of the New Age revolution which has conquered so much of the West over the past few decades.
Part of the reason why the New Age appeals so much to Westerners is that it offers the Eastern religious system but without much of its more demanding religious and ethical emphases. People are free to choose in the New Age spirituality what they like, and little or no demands are made on them.
Many of the people today who tinker with the East are really just imbibing in the New Age smorgasbord. They pick and choose those aspects which they like, and leave those which they don’t. It is all very Western really, fitting our consumerist lifestyle. Thus Eastern thoughts and concepts have very much become a part of Western life.
And films like Avatar are in many ways just a reflection of this. Instead of a creator God who stands outside of us, and places expectations and demands upon us, in the new Easternised spiritualities of the West, people are free to call the shots and determine what is right and wrong, true and false.
Indeed, they get to be God. That is the real attraction of the New Age worldview. Instead of a transcendent God with whom we must do business, and bow to, we in fact are all a part of the divine already. We just need to realise that we are already God, that we are already divine.
And sadly, many Christians have bought into this explicitly non-Christian worldview as well. Many Christians seem to think they can simultaneously hold to Christianity while dabbling in New Age beliefs and practices. I have spoken to many such persons.
Indeed, how many Christians would have gone to a film like Avatar and left it all agog, without even being aware of how in so many ways it is promoting a decidedly non-biblical point of view. Of course many people have warned about how this new paganism is creeping into the churches.
Peter Jones of Westminster Seminary, for example, has written numerous volumes on these dangers. Readers should consult The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An Old Heresy for the New Age (P&R, 1992); Spirit Wars: Pagan Revival in Christian America (WinePress, 1997); Pagans in the Pews (Regal, 2001); and Capturing the Pagan Mind (Broadman & Holman, 2003).
Earlier C.S. Lewis had warned about the dangers of pantheistic thinking. In the 1950s he had penned these words: “I freely admit that, believing both, I have stressed the transcendence of God more than His immanence. I thought, and I think, that the present situation demands this. I see around me no danger of Deism but much of an immoral, naive and sentimental pantheism. I have often found that it was in fact the chief obstacle to conversion.”
Indeed, it is biblical Christianity which provides the right mix between divine transcendence and divine immanence. God is wholly other and separate from us (his transcendence) and yet he chose to become one with us in the incarnation, and he dwells with those who seek to follow him (his immanence).
There is no possibility in the biblical worldview of confusing who we are and who God is. Indeed, just today I read a great line in the third and final volume of John Goldingay’s magisterial Old Testament Theology. He says this: “The difference between God and us is that God never thinks he is us”.
Exactly so. But the tendency amongst so many Westerners influenced by pantheism, Eastern thought and the New Age movement is to think we are God. That type of thinking runs counter to the entire biblical belief system. We are doubly alienated from God: first, by creation, and secondly, by sin. The first renders us finite; the second renders us fallen.
Both these obstacles must be overcome, and we cannot do the overcoming ourselves. It is God who has taken the initiative here, becoming incarnate so that we might become (in the right sense of the word) partakers of the divine nature. And of course to get right with God, we must come to him on his terms, not our own.
But for those who want to call the shots, who want to pretend they are already divine, the Christian answer will never do. Lewis again had all this rightly explained a half century ago. Writing in his classic 1947 volume, Miracles, he wrote that pantheism “is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind”.
Why so? It is so congenial to unregenerate man because it simply means “what man says about God, and not what God does about man”. In biblical Christianity God is sovereign and we are not. No wonder people prefer pantheism. As Peter Kreeft rightly noted,
“Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images-of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.”
Ever since our first parents fell, people have been looking for a way to get back to God, but on their own terms. The way of the cross is simply too hard and too demanding for many. But a worldview which tells us we are already God, well, that is something most people can readily sign up for.
But it is a false path to salvation. There is only one path whereby we can get right with God, and that path goes through a hill with a cross on it, and it goes through a person, Jesus Christ. The masses may marvel at the God-is-everything philosophy of a film like Avatar, but only those who have come to an end of themselves will realise that reunion with God is something that God decides and God lays out the specs for.
We either bow the knee to him and his designated means of becoming reunited with him, or we devise our own paths. But Jesus made it clear that there is only one path. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt 7:14).
Philosophies like the New Age, and films like Avatar readily appeal to us. They allow us the right to set the boundaries and determine the rules. They assume mankind is already alive and part of the divine. Biblical Christianity, by contrast, assumes that we are all spiritually dead and alienated from God. That is why Christ came – not to tell us we are already part of the divine, but to show us how to flee the wrath to come, and how to become who we were truly meant to be.