Unbroken Thread
May 30, 2022

I liked Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread more than I expected to. The subtitle refers to “the wisdom of tradition,” and I expected a book pointing to generic “tradition,” drawn from classical, Christian, and other sources, as our social Savior. We need to renounce that kind of Messianism as strenuously as Jesus denounced the Pharisaical worship of the tradition of the elders. However much we may learn from tradition, not even Christian tradition can heal or save. Only Jesus can do that.

Fortunately, most of Ahmari’s book is more explicitly Christian than I thought it would be. As a critic of liberalism, Ahmari doesn’t think free societies can survive unless they’re embedded in a thick culture that answers the big questions of existence. “Tradition” fattens liberal order to human scale. His books answers a series of twelve questions having to do with “the things of God” and “the things of humankind.”

Each chapter poses a question and focuses on one main thinker who strove to answer it. “Is God Reasonable?” includes a little biography of Thomas and a summary of his theistic “proofs.” “Does God respect you?” is about the life and work of the American mystic, Howard Thurman, who inspired the civil rights movement.

Ahmari answers the question, “What do you owe your body?” by summarizing Hans Jonas’s work on Gnosticism. John Henry Newman is brought in to answer the question, “Should you think for yourself” with a resounding No: “It is impossible to be one’s own pope,” Ahmari advises (182).

Along the way, Ahmari tells intriguing stories. One chapter is a biography of the husband-and-wife anthropology team, Victor and Edith Turner, whose work on tribal rituals led them to the Catholic Church.

Ahmari humanizes the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (who said, “men are shits and take pride in it”) by recounting her childhood exposure to sexual abuse. Dworkin, he says, is quasi-Augustinian on sex. Like Augustine, she insists that sex is not simply good clean fun. On the contrary,

it is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable, not attached to personality, no respecter of boundaries; ending not in sexual climax but in a human tragedy of failed relationships, vengeful and bitterness in an aftermath of sexual heat, personality corroded by too much endurance of undesired, habitual intercourse, conflict, a wearing away of vitality in the numbness finally of habit or compulsion or loneliness and separation (quoted p. 213).

This is, as Ahmari says, pretty much Augustine without Jesus.

A couple of chapters lived up to my fears. Ahmari answers “How must you serve your parents?” with a chapter on Confucius that never mentions Jesus’ hard sayings about family (“Let the dead bury their dead”; “hate your father and mother for My sake”).

He blurs the distinction between Christian and other family ideals, speaking of the continuity between Confucianism and “all traditional filiality norms” (158).

The final chapter on death summarizes the stoic teaching of Seneca, and, weirdly, never mentions the resurrection. Worse, Ahmari says things that directly contradict resurrection faith: “Death gives sense to life” (259) and “The state of being alive – fully alive – is possible only in relation to an endpoint, death” (261), both of which negate the meaningfulness of eternal life. The closest he gets to resurrection is a passing comment that Christians hope for “a face-to-face meeting with God” in heaven (261).

Ahmari joined the Catholic church in 2016. I trust the gospel will continue to penetrate his imagination and that his future books will be more radically Christian than this one.

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