Beautiful costumes and dancing...and a condemnation of atheism and evolution. Why?
My wife and I recently attended a performance by the Shen Yun performing arts company in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Shen Yun means "the beauty of divine beings dancing" and purports to share five thousand years of Chinese culture and history through dance, song, and narration.
The orchestra was delightful, the hosts were entertaining and informative, the costumes were stunning, and the dancing and choreography were nothing short of mesmerizing. The solo performance of the ancient two-stringed erhu was enchanting.
Billboard advertising mentioned that the performance would portray "China before Communism." Before the night is over, attendees realize that Shen Yun is not just a dance company but also advocates for awareness of the tragedy that has been the Communist rule of China. A dance number tells the story of forced organ harvesting and the program alludes to the 100 million Chinese citizens who suffered or died at the hands of their own government.
Shen Yun is operated by Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, a religious movement founded in China in the early 1990s and rooted in the Buddhist tradition. It advocates self-improvement through study, exercises, and meditation. Its adherents "strive to attune their lives to the underlying qualities of the universe: Truth, Compassion, and Forbearance." Shen Yun's artistic director, referred to throughout the show's program brochure only by his initials, D.F., is none other than the founder of the Falun Dafa movement, Li Hongzhi. Falun Gong was then and is still prohibited and heavily persecuted in China. Its founder and adherents now live in an exile of sorts in the United States and are affiliated with Fei Tian College and Fei Tian Academy both located in New York state. Founded in 2006, Shen Yun now boasts eight companies performing in some 150 cities around the world.
Even though the show's English\Mandarin narration is cheerful, charming, informative, and non-confrontational, Shen Yun has become the subject of some controversy because it points to atheism and evolutionary theory as the source of the suffering of the Chinese people. The dance numbers themselves have no words, but there are two moving vocal solos performed by Chinese baritone Peng Huang and Vietnamese tenor Tung Lam The where the English translation makes the accusation:
In Peng Huang's performance:
"We see now what drives the world's decline
Atheism and evolution are the chief culprits
For modern thought and ways everyone pays
Heaven awaits those who keep to tradition and the good."
And again, Tung Lam The sings:
"...the age of destruction imperiled all things...
I now spread the truth at the Creator's behest
Tread not the path of modern ways or thought
Earthly glories cannot to heaven be brought
Atheism and evolutionary theory harm mankind
Stay true to tradition and the good; sell not your soul
Fail ye not, for your kingdom's lives above await salvation."
Come again? What do atheism and evolution have to do with Communism? How are they the "chief culprits" of "the world's decline?" And why throw shade at them when you know that large portions of your western audiences are sympathetic to them?
Turns out, they have a lot to do with suffering under Communism, but not in a way most westerners would be familiar with.
Communism is a historically recent incarnation, so to speak, of one side of a very old debate. This debate, which has raged on for thousands of years, is basically over whether or not the material world is all there is.
Is the material world all there is? And are we, therefore, left to figure things out on our own? Or is there something beyond the physical world, i.e. the metaphysical, that has something to teach us? Or maybe even direct us?
According to the Hebrews, nearly three and a half millennia ago Moses declared the latter: that man was not alone and man was not his own. He declared that a God existed outside of us, created us, and provided dictates for us to follow. The universe was ordered and we could discover it and harness it through observation, reason, and action.
Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus disagreed and said that because everything is in a state of change our senses are invalid and can't be trusted because they can't sufficiently detect the changes around us. This is where the idea comes from that "you can't step into the same river twice." The world around us can't really be known.
Cratylus, a disciple of Heraclitus, took it so far as to stop talking altogether on principle because words can have no meaning since they can't refer to anything static. He would wag his finger to signal that he was hungry - curious since his finger-wagging was simply a substitute for the word "hungry" which represents a temporary state and yet, proved to be useful after all. Turns out, the first postmodern was a premodern.
One hundred years later, another Greek, Parmenides, disagreed with Heraclitus and said that the universe is eternal and that change is an illusion.
And so, over the course of the next two thousand years philosophers, theologians, and scientists built on these ideas, sparring back and forth across the centuries. Zenos, Pythagoras, the Pluralists, the Atomists, the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus of Nazareth, the Roman Empire's adoption of Christianity, St. Augustine, the spread of literacy and protoscience during the Middle Ages, Maimonides, Aquinas, Copernicus, Luther, Calvin, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and so many others.
The Hebrews taught that mankind, even kings, are subject to a higher law, God's law, in their relations with one another. This was a revolutionary concept in a time when authoritarian rule meant absolute rule.
Aristotle taught that societies are built by friendships of virtue, that virtue is character built over a lifetime of right-living, that right-living is making choices in accordance with reason, and that reason is a divine voice in each of us teaching us how to choose wisely, like the Gods.
Cicero agreed with the Hebrews and in his famous dialog "On the Commonwealth" taught that human laws are subject to God's law and must align with it or they are unjust.
And so was born the idea of democracy, of reason-based government, of a mixed system of governmental responsibility shared by citizens, monarch, and aristocracy.
Its faults notwithstanding, the Catholic church nurtured education and the sciences over centuries. For hundreds of years, all men of science were also men of God who saw it as their duty to understand the world their God had created.
In Meditations, René Descartes, of "I think, therefore I am" fame, stood on the unsuspecting shoulders of Ockham and Francis Bacon and divorced religion from science. Though he believed in a God who created senses that would not lie to us and deduced from reason that God exists as the embodiment of that which is most perfect, he believed science, not theology, would provide the meaning men sought. He advocated for a radical skepticism of all received wisdom.
Others followed: Machiavelli's Prince, Hobbes' Leviathan, Spinoza's Ethics, Hume's Treatise, Voltaire's Lettres, Rousseau's Social Contract, Diderot's Encyclopédie, Kant's Critique, Bentham's Utilitarianism; a series of brilliant thinkers rejected revelation and wrestled over reason and passion, creating a sophisticated and formidable framework of ideas that laid the foundation for the French Revolution, a God-free form of government, which itself paved the way for Fichte, Hegel, and Marx, which gave us Communism.
Communism was meant to bring about the end of history and free mankind from the chains of their oppressors, but to do so all power had to be given to the state. Gone were the metaphysical limits on man's laws imposed by the Judeo-Christian tradition and Greek teleology. Gone were limited government, due process, and other staples of liberal societies. Instead, during the twentieth century some 100 million people died by way of execution, man-made hunger, famine, war, deportations, and forced labor as men wielded that power to bring about the utopia.
And what of "evolutionary theory", the second "culprit"? Charles Darwin, for all his brilliance and the contributions of Origin to our understanding of the natural world, cleared the way for the deification of science and Nietzsche's formal proclamation of the death of God.
The death of God means that Rousseau's "general will" or voice of the people is the highest law. But someone has to do the ruling and that someone is ever-susceptible to Lord Acton's observation that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is one of the great tragedies of history that of the two great traditions rising from the West; the metaphysical revolution of America that created the most prosperous, free, creative, and generous society ever - and the materialist revolution of France that invented total war and made all human rights gifts from and subservient to the state, China and so many other nations chose the latter.
For all their many faults, governments and societies formed and informed by a mixture of the metaphysical (revelation), reason, and empiricism do much better than those that leave out the first ingredient.
Even many atheists and agnostics raised in the West, like Dr. James Lindsay, say that, God or not, man is not what religions say God is and none of us therefore can ever be entrusted with absolute power. Hence, the liberal tradition - built on that very concept. making limited, government, debate, argument, and compromise the best we can hope for as human beings.
As America and much of the West embrace Marx-based ideas today, it is hopefully not too late to heed the warning of those who have been there and done that.