A Missionary to Postmodern Savages
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
By Sohrab Ahmari
Publisher: Convergent Books
Review Author: Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Sohrab Ahmari’s multifarious Unbroken Thread is a letter of advice to his young son, Max. The child’s patron saint is Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz. Ahmari writes, “My ultimate aim in this book is to make sensible the path of a Kolbe and thus to encourage a rethink of our own, modern path. The life of the mind amounts to vanity, or something worse, if that doesn’t actually improve how we live. And not just how we live, but also how we die.”
So the father’s advice is about life and death. And it absolutely contradicts the relativist values of our postmodern age, which sneers at any and all authority except its own. Ahmari stands against all that we have become. Christendom is no more, and the West has been reduced to “the love of unbound personal liberty and wealth.” The author warns us that “the general tendency of modern life is to defeat or circumvent the inconvenient material realities standing between us and our desires” (emphasis in original).
Liberalism is leading to the tyranny of transhumanism, an unconstrained market, and gender ideology. Ahmari looks ahead:
In tandem with these economic and technological developments, social liberalism ceaselessly alienates the individual from the natural — from nature as an ordered, end-directed reality. This is especially true when it comes to the family, now almost entirely open to reconfiguration in ways that were unthinkable as recently as a decade ago. The next frontier appears to be “chosen families” — biologically unrelated people who form pseudo-families, assuming the roles of mother, father, or sibling for each other, with or without sexual involvement. (emphasis in original)
Charlie Manson, call home!
This “gnostic liberalism,” marked by “the desire to leave behind all human limitations and responsibility,” is an iteration of the cardinal error so well known in the previous century: the deification of man and the denial of God. Ahmari explains:
Western-style liberalism and Communism shared this faith in the basic goodness of all autonomous human beings…. Despite their differences over how to free humanity from all natural and traditional constraints, whether to do so collectively or individually, the two ideologies were twin children of the same parent philosophy. In this sense, the Cold War world was, in fact, united. Its two halves were riffing on the same melody in two different keys.
With a passionate trepidation about the future, like Joseph de Maistre and others before him, Ahmari asks: “If we discard all the old, inconvenient authorities that restrained the beastly side of our natures, isn’t it more likely that we will end up becoming beastly people?” He aims to teach his son about the indispensability of tradition grounded in authority. Unbroken Thread is about “the wisdom of submitting to limits.”
This letter to Max bears a powerful message of faith and its components. But it can be read in a variety of ways, some contradictory.
First, it appears as an intellectual tour de force, showcasing a succession of eclectic thinkers to address essential questions regarding the purpose of our existence and to guide us through this vale of tears to life eternal. Thus, C.S. Lewis teaches about the limitations of science. St. Thomas Aquinas stresses both faith and reason, warning about deploying the latter alone. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel restores the indispensable beauty of the Sabbath, while anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner guide us “into the African bush, to discern how structured ritual undergirds community.” Both Howard Thurman and St. Augustine lead us to appreciate the Lord’s protection of human dignity, individually and collectively. Hans Jonas exposes the pitfalls of Gnosticism. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman bests William Evert Gladstone, an anti-Catholic bigot, and his liberal rejection of authority.
Second, Unbroken Thread is a procession of virtues explored and reinforced from a variety of Christian and non-Christian sources selected from all over the world to dazzle the reader. From Africa, Ahmari invokes tribal Ndembu customs in support of ritual, arguing about their sophistication, indispensability, and certain structural compatibility with Catholic rituals, at least in an anthropological sense. He further shows how Confucianism dictates filial piety, stressing its unconditional primacy. Alexander Solzhenitsyn expounds on the degeneration of liberty into license, and Andrea Dworkin points out that our private sexual choices have public consequences, frequently damaging.
Third, the book is a practical manual of how to lead a good and decent life as reflected not only in the teaching of the Church but — perhaps especially — in other religious and cultural traditions.
Fourth, Ahmari offers a powerful critique of liberalism. Consider this nugget:
Liberal societies do coerce. Even more, the notion that we can’t know, much less legislate, humanity’s highest end is itself a metaphysical, even spiritual claim, and it stands at the heart of the modern project. Its god is the unbound self. And the worship of such a god will inevitably have political consequences: vast accumulations of capital, much of it concentrated in very few hands; a ceaselessly disruptive culture offering kaleidoscopic lifestyles; a heavily armed commercial empire. (emphasis in original)
Fifth, Unbroken Thread can be reduced to a potentially nefarious exercise in insidious syncretism, pushing alien ways into a Catholic tradition already reeling from an excess of ecumenism or, if you will, “ecumania.” But that would be misreading the intentions of the author.
Sixth, the book may be viewed as a deception and propaganda (fide) operation camouflaging powerful Catholic truths, with resounding messages planted and disguised under the veneer of the said syncretic and pagan points of reference.
Seventh, I therefore choose to see Ahmari as a missionary addressing postmodern and nihilistic savages weaned on multiculturalism and syncretism to prompt them on the way to conversion to the Catholic faith. His argument can be reduced thus: See, it is not just Catholic squares like St. Augustine or St. Thomas who say so; cool non-Christians and pagan others repeat the same, if in a different manner. Seneca on death, for example.
The seventh option suggests itself not only because of the structure of Unbroken Thread but also because of the background of the author. He is not a cradle Catholic; rather, as an adult, he embraced the faith through his own intellectual and spiritual choice. This background and his evolution are indispensable to comprehending Ahmari’s work. Now a journalist, public intellectual, and Catholic convert, he grew up in Iran in a “culturally Muslim” (Shia) family. In his household, crass American pop culture served as an antidote to the totalitarian regime of the ayatollahs. Thus, well infused with our nihilism and consumerism, the Ahmaris emigrated to the United States when Sohrab was 12. They settled in Utah, where they underwent an assimilation of sorts, while rebuffing their Mormon neighbors’ attempts at conversion.
Talented Ahmari plunged headlong into the opportunities offered by the United States, which led him to impressive international achievement. Propelled outside our disintegrating American mainstream, as a journalist he reached the pinnacle of the charmed, globalized world of the post-Christian, really anti-Christian and anti-national, power. And he found it wanting.
Ahmari’s search led him to abandon globalism and convert to Catholicism together with his wife. His work has moved away from neoconservative circles and closer to a St. Joseph the Worker paradigm, sympathetic to the little people and, especially, our Burkean “little platoons.” He now argues that capitalism is a tool, but “market fundamentalism” can become quite destructive and nefarious if not contained within a Christian context, that forever wars should not substitute for a U.S. foreign policy, that our home should be our priority — those sorts of things.
Of course, there are some bones to pick with Unbroken Thread. Ahmari can stand accused of cherry picking on his intellectual journey. For example, why Hans Jonas and not Eric Voegelin? Confucius’s teachings on filial duty are fine and dandy, but what about his views on women? “Beat your wife every day; if you do not know why, she will” has been seared in my mind after reading it somewhere in my Harvard Classics almost 40 years ago. How is that compatible with Christianity? Perhaps it is true that feminist revolutionary Andrea Dworkin was a postmodern counterpart to St. Augustine on sex, but the latter never called for the legalization of incest as a tool to destroy the family.
I could go on, but, ultimately, I find Unbroken Thread efficacious for missionary purposes. The verdict on Ahmari is that he explicates Christian universalism and orthodoxy through a multicultural and heterodox lens. If savages such as Dworkin can lead others to convert, good for the author and for the Church.
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