The Unbroken Thread:
Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos
by sohrab ahmari
convergent, 320 pages, $36
Twenty-twenty was a tough year for the tradition-minded, and so far, 2021 isn’t any better. Those of us who prize the traditions of American governance discovered that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights aren’t worth the parchment they’re written on if We the People can be frightened into accepting emergency government. Our churches, schools, museums, concert halls, and sports fields can be shut down by politicians filled with the righteous purpose of Slowing the Spread. Never mind our traditional liberties. We must have no other gods before the god Science and his prophet, Dr. Fauci. (In a recent press briefing Fauci stated, “That’s one of the things that I think is such a good thing about our system here, is that we are ruled by the science, not by any other consideration.”) Then there were the demonstrations and riots incited by Black Lives Matter and Antifa, respectively (if not quite independently). These were not nonviolent demonstrations led by Christian preachers, as in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. They were organized by anti-Christian ideologues, a fact that seemed to cause small unease to the few who could be bothered, or were allowed, to find this out. Corporate boards, university presidents, professional societies, media pundits, and Hollywood panjandrums tripped over each other in the rush to profess solidarity with BLM. They locked arms and opened their wallets to wipe out white supremacy, systemic racism, and all the evils to which pale flesh is heir. If we had to burn down everything we had inherited from the past, like Sherman marching through Georgia or the Vandals sacking Rome, that was just the price of purity.
What made it all worse for traditionalists was the complacent reactions of our woke friends and liberal sympathizers to the bonfire of the verities. When we tried to explain why we were afraid to sever our ties to the past, why we needed to practice our religions, why we didn’t want our history to be presented to our children as one long story of injustice and oppression, we bumped up against what Sen. Pat Moynihan used to call “the liberal expectancy”: the belief that modernity would inevitably supersede religion and other traditions. In any case, what was best in all that, our friends told us—the music, the paintings, the poetry, a few fine examples of classical and Gothic architecture—if suitably adapted to modern sensibilities, could be preserved for the study of future generations. The statue of that Hispanic saint or black Christian abolitionist or the formerly admired U.S. president could be moved indoors to a small room at the back of the museum. The idea that such things belonged to traditions that needed to be kept alive, outside the museums, well, that could be “problematic.” You didn’t want people believing in all that. If you felt the need for something uplifting, far better to embrace “spirituality.” Hot yoga, meditation, and mindfulness would do, sustained by environmentally sound energy bars and raw vegetable juices. We liberals don’t deny the importance of the spiritual, your friend might say, eager to tell you of her experiences of transcendence at Machu Picchu or in the redwood forests of California. The spiritual makes you, well, spiritual, and that’s good, isn’t it? Or if you are not spiritual, that’s fine too, isn’t it? Traditional religions, by contrast, are full of unscientific and, frankly, offensive dogmas. They make demands that don’t fit into your schedule. A tradition should be like a piece of knitting: You should be able to put it down, then pick it up again when you need a calming and inoffensive activity.
If you have friends like that, you might think of giving them a copy of Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Or if you yourself are tempted to believe that woke anti-traditionalists have a point, you might buy it for yourself. Ahmari’s book explains why, to paraphrase Dean Swift, the cancelling of traditional religion, as things now stand today, may be attended with some inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good effects proposed thereby.
Jonathan Swift’s delicious satire Against Abolishing Christianity is surprisingly apposite today, but Ahmari understands that irony is no vehicle for persuading anti-traditionalists, by temperament as solemn as the brutes. If you wish to appeal to woke-ish modernity, you need emotion, not humor. So Ahmari begins by sharing his anxieties about the world his young son, Max, will inhabit by the time he reaches young adulthood. His hopes for the boy are those of any successful parent of the professional classes: acceptance at an elite university, a fulfilling and well-paid career. But how will studying at that university affect him, and how will the unchurched friends he meets there affect him? Will he be able to remain in the traditional religion, Roman Catholicism, that Ahmari has raised him in, that Ahmari himself embraced as a young man? The book tells us a little of Ahmari’s own remarkable path to Christian faith, from a middle-class family of Westernized Iranians under the mullahs, to American freedom, to questioning whether America was too free in the wrong ways, to acceptance of Roman Catholicism as the source of a more demanding but more genuine freedom.
Ahmari’s book is intended to articulate to his son as he grows up, and to others who may be open to persuasion, why a worldview hostile to inherited moral traditions destroys social harmony and cripples our humanity. Ahmari does this in an exceptionally engaging way, by raising twelve questions that challenge modernist assumptions about traditional religion. Each question occupies a chapter, but instead of elaborate arguments we are given biographies. Ahmari tells the stories of individuals who discovered some truth known in traditional religions that the modern secular world has failed to understand. The stories are fascinating and range across the globe and sometimes thousands of years into the past. Some of the biographies are familiar (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Confucius, Solzhenitsyn, and Seneca), whereas others will be known only to a few (the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner, the black theologian Howard Thurman, and the philosopher Hans Jonas).
Ahmari began writing the book in the autumn of 2018, long before anyone imagined the calamities of 2020, and finished it in May of 2020, before anyone imagined how long those calamities would last and how destructive they would become. So it is surprising how applicable his questions are to 2021. In the first chapter, Ahmari uses the life of C. S. Lewis to critique scientism, the anti-traditional and amoral religion that now dominates public health policy and starves our souls. A master storyteller, Ahmari tells how a smug young man at Oxford, made secure in his apostasy and sinfulness by the belief that his ideas were modern and scientific, was surprised by joy, a joy he eventually recognized as God’s grace. Transcendent beauty, truth, and goodness kept breaking through his carapace of pseudoscientific certainty and turned Lewis into the mightiest voice of Christian apologetics in the second half of the twentieth century.
Those of us whom scientistic tyranny has isolated in our homes, cut off from parents or friends, and forced to live a disembodied life on our computers, may find our predicament illuminated by Ahmari’s account of the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas and his intellectual pilgrimage. Jonas, the greatest modern authority on gnosticism, came to see this ancient heresy as akin to the existentialist philosophy of his teacher, Martin Heidegger, who embraced Nazism in 1933. Ahmari shows how the gnostic worldview, which sought radical freedom through the denial of our fleshly selves—which is also a denial of the cosmic order that rules our flesh—shares elements with certain extreme liberal tendencies in modern America. Moral indifference to abortion, euthanasia of the elderly, transhumanism, and rejection of the limits of bodily life in general—of incarnation—are paralleled in the perennial gnostic heresy that limits personhood to active rationality, will, and agency.
Ahmari himself is not given to radical dualisms. He does not pretend that everything about traditional religions is good and every attempt to reform them is bad. This becomes clear in his chapter on Howard Thurman, the theologian of civil rights. The chapter is titled, “Does God Respect You?”—a way of asking whether Christianity is complicit in racism. Ahmari takes us back to the racist world of early-twentieth-century America, where casual contempt for people with darker skin was a ubiquitous feature of society and upheld by law and custom. Too often, this way of life was tolerated by Christians and justified in language drawn from the Bible and Christian tradition. Ahmari sketches how Thurman’s search for dignity as a black man turned into a struggle to find and articulate the authentic voice of Christ, the voice that defended the poor and oppressed against those who had corrupted divine commands. Thurman’s theology lifted up the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. and helped make the message of the civil rights movement one of love and racial harmony as well as justice. Modern race activists drawn to the Marxist tradition, bent on spreading hatred of “whiteness,” would do well to choose instead the Christian tradition of protest that Thurman helped rediscover.
Ahmari’s story about Thurman signals that he is not ready to surrender the term “progressive” to anti-traditionalists, nor willing to be jammed into a box labeled “conservative,” in the sense of “defender of the status quo.” Of course, no Christian thinker of any depth will side in a more than tactical way with the interest groups that go under the labels “progressive” and “conservative” in American political life. The struggle for souls is fought on a different battlefield. Ahmari shows his independence of conventional battle lines in the culture wars through his surprisingly sympathetic account of the life of Andrea Dworkin, at one time considered America’s most radical feminist. He is appalled, as anyone should be, at the abuse she endured at the hands of men led astray by the “sexual liberation” movement of the sixties. In Ahmari’s telling, Dworkin’s sufferings turned her into an “Augustinian moralist” with a message our time still needs to hear. The modern American attitude to sex was sick, she believed, stained with violence, perverted by the commercial exploitation of lust, and protected by absolutist conceptions of privacy and free speech. Dworkin exposed the perverted sexual mores that American liberalism was desperate to keep private and campaigned for government regulation of pornography to protect women. Ahmari largely shares Dworkin’s critique of American attitudes to sex. He agrees that rights to free speech and privacy cannot be absolute but are subordinate to the moral ends governments have a duty to sustain.
We come close to the heart of Ahmari’s defense of traditional religion in the chapter titled, “Should You Think for Yourself?” Here, Ahmari recounts the debate between William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister of Great Britain and luminary of nineteenth-century liberalism, and Father (later Cardinal, now Saint) John Henry Newman, Great Britain’s most famous convert to Catholicism. “Thinking for yourself” is the fundamental tenet of modern liberalism, given philosophical heft by Kant’s famous definition of Enlightenment as “freedom from tutelage,” from which he derives the practical corollary, Sapere aude! Dare to know! This, for a liberal, means, Dare to question your inherited beliefs! Many people who pride themselves on their modernity might be willing to admit limits on their theoretical liberalism in order to protect certain common moral values, even if those values cannot be demonstrated by the lumen siccum of scientific rationalism. But you can’t really call yourself a liberal without asserting the sovereignty of your own conscience over any and all attempts to dictate to it.
The debate between Gladstone and Newman was set off by the publication of Pastor Aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council (1870), which declared the pope, when speaking ex cathedra, infallible in matters of faith and morals. Gladstone was driven apoplectic by this decree and wrote a response, The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation (1874). In it he rejected Rome’s attempt to dictate the consciences of British Catholics and suggested that the latter would need to remonstrate with the Church if they wished to place themselves beyond any suspicion of harboring dual loyalties.
In his response, Fr. Newman wrote that there need be no conflict between obeying one’s conscience and submitting to authority, especially if that authority had remained stable and undiminished in its essence over more than eighteen hundred years of Christian teaching. Ahmari likens this to the fact that his boy Max has an instinctive awareness of morality but is misled by his impulsiveness, and so needs an adult to set him straight when conflicts arise.
As one goes deeper into Newman, however, one must move beyond this analogy. In his masterpiece, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), Newman argues that the important decisions in human life cannot be answered by formal logic (including the type of logic used in scientific reasoning) and that therefore neither science nor pure practical reasoning can guide our lives. What must guide our lives is a type of reasoning, analogous to Aristotle’s phronesis, which weighs probabilities in light of our innate moral sense, but which is aware of our moral weaknesses and the likelihood that we will go wrong without the corroboration of sound traditions and reliable teachings.
In short, the assent of a morally honest person requires humility and holiness and, yes, obedience to authorities that merit our respect through long tradition. Purely logical and scientific reasoning does not give us answers to any questions of existential importance, and if the liberal mind convinces itself that it is guided by science, it is simply deluded. It lacks the self-knowledge that would enable it to see how the propositions to which it assents, and the propositions it rejects, are dictated or excluded not by reason but by a corrupt will—what Newman called a “counterfeit conscience.” It is no true conscience that teaches us that infanticide, or sexual abuse, or denial of the full humanity of people unlike ourselves, or denial of the natural limits of the body is morally acceptable. If those conclusions masquerade as scientific or rational, then our consciences need to strip off the masks and expose the smirk of sinfulness that lies behind them. People who live in our time, who have witnessed the unravelling of our lives and societies that has issued from the perversion of reason, will understand why reason must be, not the slave of the passions, but the obedient son of faith. Taking reason in its wider sense to include phronesis, it is rational to be reverent toward ancient traditions.
America is often said to be a forward-looking country, shallowly rooted in past traditions. Tradition is something you escaped from in the Old Country; when you came to America you were free. Whatever your ethnic or religious background you became an American simply by accepting its liberal creed, as stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This mechanical understanding of citizenship has led the new American oligarchy of Big Tech, big corporations, Big Media, and their willing lackeys in government and academe to believe that America can easily be made to give up its older traditions. All that needs to be done is to switch out the old ideological software and mandate an upgrade to the new, improved version: America 2.0, America the Woke. Failure to upgrade may lead to denial of service.
None of this is true, of course. Human societies don’t work this way, and human beings don’t work this way, as Ahmari’s book eloquently reminds us. His chapter on Solzhenitsyn underlines one lesson of the great Russian writer: The imposition of ideological uniformity cannot bind societies together. It can only destroy them. Human beings are bound together by religion, by love of their religion, and by love for one another enabled by religion. In the West our societies are knit together by traditions of family life, private association, civic cooperation, as well as by religious and civic ceremonies. Traditional religions tie us to times and places wherein we enact our membership in the community and are forced to restrain our selfishness. Traditions bind us in ways we recognize as beneficial to ourselves and our families; they do not coerce us for the benefit of our betters. Traditions teach us good manners and how to treat one another with respect. Respect for others does not come from diversity training (rather the opposite); it comes from the belief taught by many ancient religions that you should treat others how you would like to be treated yourself. Truth does not come from parroting the words of a “mission statement”; it comes from believing with heart and mind—the kind of belief that only deeply rooted traditions can impart.
American tradition teaches us that real liberty cannot be guaranteed by words written on parchment; it has to be defended by virtuous citizens. But an individualistic “spirituality” is no teacher of virtue, and virtue-signaling signals no virtue but rather, merely, the possession of correct opinions. The virtue-signaling of the woke is in fact the opposite of virtue, a sign of cowardice, herd behavior. The inability to distinguish moral theatrics from real virtue is what happens when a society throws away its most valuable moral traditions. Without traditions, we become radically selfish or join herds of strangers as a way of showing that we belong with the best people. When we lose our traditions, civic and religious, we lose our country and impoverish our souls. Readers of Sohrab Ahmari’s new book will be grateful to him for reminding us of how serious that loss could turn out to be.
James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University.