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    PloughCast 9: Sohrab Ahmari, Ernest Becker, and the Meaning of Tradition

    Creatures, Part 3

    By Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    June 16, 2021

    About this Episode

    Pete and Susannah discuss Kelsey Osgood’s piece on Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. How did Becker, as a Jew struggling through secularism, face the fact of our slavery to the fear of death - and how did his refusal of the cold comforts of distraction open the way for real meaning to emerge?

    Then, the hosts speak with friend of the pod Sohrab Ahmari, about his recent book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.

    The traditions we are raised to respect shape us. How did the birth of Ahmari’s son encourage him to write a book wrestling with the ways that traditions can help answer some of the basic questions of human life? What does it mean to be rooted in tradition, and why would one want to be? What happens when traditions are bad? And how can we understand “traditionalism” not as a good in itself, not as a bespoke lifestyle choice, but as the guiderails of a community in which we, and our children, can flourish?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and turn to faith

    Peter: First up today, on this episode of The PloughCast, we look at Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. It is a weighty topic, but it’s in our nature to avoid death, and how do we transcend that? I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of Plough.

    Susannah: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough. We’re also excited to be talking with Sohrab Ahmari about his new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.

    Peter: This is the fourth in a series of six podcasts, where we’re talking about Plough’s nature issue that’s right here and hearing from some of our contributors. And now to the conversation.

    So, this is a topic, death, that we don’t normally address just for fun, but we have this beautiful article from Kelsey Osgood, a wonderful writer down in New York City, on Ernest Becker, famous for The Denial of Death, a classic. Have you ever read that book?

    Susannah: I have not read The Denial of Death. This made me want to.

    Peter: Probably we should first summarize a little what Kelsey writes here. So Kelsey is a good friend, she’s a convert to Orthodox Judaism, she’s actually working on an amazing project about millennial women who convert to hardcore religions.

    Susannah: Can’t wait for that.

    Peter: Yeah. And so she’s obviously drawn to some of these big questions of life. And of course, death is one of the big looming ones that lots of people try to avoid thinking about. But after this past year of Covid, maybe a lot more people have been forced to grapple with the reality of that. And in this piece, she writes about her own experience, starting as a grad student. She’s taking care of a terminally ill author, right? Who’s really difficult to look after.

    Susannah: He’s not dying well.

    Peter: He’s not dying well. And her grad school mentor tells her to read Ernest Becker. And Ernest Becker seemed to be one of these God-adjacent people, although apparently by some accounts, he converted on his own death bed at age forty-nine; he died of colon cancer. If Freud would say that everything we do is about sex, Becker, it seems to me, is saying that everything we do in our lives essentially is attempting to distract ourselves or deal with or address our fear of death.

    And he spends the book shredding all of the different things that we do in order to try to deal with our fear of death. And he dismisses psychoanalysis, although then he later kind of tries to say, Well, maybe there’s a way to tweak it. And he is critical of religion in certain ways, but he also ends up saying something like – or at least Osgood reads him as saying – “only a god can save us.”

    This is the solution, this is the only solution to this fear of death. And that is something incredibly appealing and important for Christians to remember, because I think that Becker is entirely spot on. And so much of what our culture does in attempting to talk about death, even in a sort of healthy way, is to say things like, Well, death is a part of life, death is natural, it’s nothing to be feared, embrace it.

    And Christianity says, No, death is an enemy, and Jesus fixed it. And, as the author of Hebrews says, Jesus specifically came to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). Humans have been enslaved to the fear of death, and now we’re set free of that slavery. And it reminds me of this stupid YouTube video where a guy is talking to his girlfriend and she’s talking about just the enormous amount of pressure she feels, this pain that she’s going through. And he keeps trying to cut in, to interrupt, and she says, Stop trying to solve the problem, let me just explain my feelings, and stop being so solve-y.

    And he’s like, Okay, but finally the camera zooms out and you can see that she has a nail stuck into her forehead. Her boyfriend says, “You know, I really think probably if you just took the nail out of your forehead, things would get a lot better for you, and you wouldn’t feel so much pain and pressure.” And that’s the Jesus-approach to the fear of death. He just defeats it, it’s the enemy, it’s dead. Kelsey is of course Jewish, not Christian, but she is an Orthodox Jew, and it seems pretty clear that she has a belief in personal immortality, the immortality of the soul. And, you know, personal immortality, you can’t beat it. You can’t beat actually defeating death, it’s kind of the way to go.

    Peter: Well, it was moving to me to read many of the Orthodox Jewish prayers relating to death. We also have another fantastic piece in Plough, by Atar Hadari, who’s an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, over in the UK, writing on the Psalms that are said at funerals, and specifically about his father’s funeral. And I remember reading it and being struck that this Jewish liturgy for funerals almost expresses a hope in a resurrection more strongly than many Christian funerals that I’ve been to, and it’s repeatedly expressed.

    I do kind of wonder though, about one thing, as I was reading this about Ernest Becker’s book, (and Kelsey’s beautiful article, which you should certainly read, and we don’t want to just rehash it here, because you should actually read it). It reminded me of a book that I did read recently which came out last year, by Yale professor Martin Hägglund, who’s a socialist philosopher. His book This Life came out last year. I disagree with it strongly, but it’s superb.

    Essentially it attempts to prove the opposite of where Becker seems to have landed. He says, Actually, mortality, finitude, the fact that we don’t have endless time is the strongest argument for – is the only argument for – using our life in a good way. Any hankering after eternity, he argues, hinders us from living a good life. The first half of his book is a huge argument against any type of religion, any type of belief in immortality. His argument is essentially that if we really did have endless time, there’d be no reason to do anything, there’d be no reason to do worthwhile things, no reason to do good things, and life would just become insipid. The second half of the book, not coincidentally, is an impassioned argument for democratic socialism.

    And I really enjoy the book because he engages deeply with Kierkegaard, Augustine, Dostoevsky, many of the same people that Becker engaged with in his book, and you would think he would be on the believers’ side, and yet to Hägglund, it’s their works themselves that actually evince a certitude that it’s actually just this life that matters; Christians don’t really, truly believe in the next life. He even ends with Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the words he said on the day before his assassination. Hägglund claims it’s kind of evidence that Martin Luther King had two sides of his brain. And the “good” Martin Luther King, who was working for justice, didn’t really believe in his own personal immortality, otherwise he wouldn’t have done the work, because if you can live endlessly, then why do it?

    Susannah: That’s Leon Kass’s argument, or he comes very close to that kind of thing. And I think that there’s a way in which Christianity – not to be annoying, not to be a Christianity stan, but –

    Peter: Well, we are kind of Christianity stans on this podcast.

    Susannah: There’s a distinction between eternal continuation of life or prolongation of life, which strikes me as potentially nightmarish, and Christian immortality or resurrection. Because we don’t really know what the eternal life is going to be like, or how it’s going to be. And we also believe very strongly that what we do here impacts how that is going to go down for us, in fact.

    Peter: So what we’re doing now does matter, contra Hägglund.

    Susannah: What we’re doing now does matter massively. And in part it matters because it’s going to be in some way amplified, caught up in the eternal life.

    Peter: As I said, I couldn’t disagree more with Martin Hägglund, but it’s a really, really good book for Christians to read, because it’s a well-stated challenge. And what he elides though is Christianity’s teaching: what you said at the beginning, Christ’s teaching that death is the enemy. Death is a real enemy that needs to be fought and required the ultimate sacrifice to win out over.

    And when you are with somebody, say, suffering with cancer, I think many of us can say from personal experience that death is an enemy, it’s not going “gently into that good night,” “as the leaves fall in autumn,” right? It’s a horrible thing, and it’s really only belief in a resurrection that isn’t just a natural process, as if the soul just sort of naturally lives on, which addresses that: a resurrection that really did require Jesus to suffer and die, to give us the new life of the kingdom to come. It’s only in that context that belief in the resurrection makes sense when you’re actually with somebody who’s facing the end of their life.

    And that’s one thing I did want to talk about. Down from the level of ideas here, Susannah, I think that moderns, including modern Christians, because of what we actually do when it comes to death, the rituals of death, actually play into the fear of death. Many people die in a hospital, they stay there, you call the undertaker, the undertaker takes the body away, there’s some type of preparation of the body by professionals off somewhere.

    The body is not still the beloved person’s. I mean to be blunt, it’s in a cooler in a business somewhere, and then it’s brought out and displayed and people visit and feel awkward. Kelsey speaks of the contrast between her secular friends and her Orthodox Jewish friends around a death that she recounts in this piece. And then there’s a funeral that’s sort of designed around the needs of people to be able to fly in and fly out and not disturb their work schedules too much.

    For me, one of the highlights of living in the Bruderhof community is actually oddly enough when somebody passes away, because in a community life – now I realize this is not just in the Bruderhof, it actually was the case for most traditional cultures – the family really literally is around the dying person, we do quite a bit to make that possible. And I know when my grandfather died, it was very meaningful for us to ourselves wash the body, dress him, and prepare the place where he’d be. And then we have this kind of custom of somebody always being with the person up through the funeral.

    And we’ll do that all at home.  I remember doing this once with a brother [fellow Bruderhof member] who had died very abruptly when I was living in Germany and how for the neighbors, it was very almost freaky: the idea that you would have a dead body in your house for several days. And in a way they really appreciated it, and one of my friends who’d lost his mother early just came and would sit by the body during the wake, which lasted three or four days. And I think it was almost a chance to experience something that he hadn’t.

    And then to build a casket yourself, to dig the grave yourself, to lower the coffin in yourself and fill the grave up yourself. . . . Those are all things that – I just – I’m not saying this in a sort of Bruderhof cultural nationalist . . . .

    Susannah: You are totally a Bruderhof cultural nationalist.

    Peter: But I feel for people who don’t have the chance to do that for their loved ones, because I think it’s so important to just kind of accept the bodily nature of death and go through it, to see it, to feel it, to touch it, for it not to be this scary thing. And it really helps you also come to terms with the fact that, Hey, this is going to be me someday.

    Susannah: My grandfather, when he died, was at home, actually in the house that I live in now, which is my great-grandparents’ house. He’s got six kids and they were mostly all around him, and actually one of my uncles was in the bed with him when he died and then they washed his body and – well, did not dig the grave themselves. My grandmother had died earlier, but when he was dying, when grandpa was dying, it was right after I’d converted. And I told him that I was thinking of death as kind of a graduation, and I think that that’s kind of stuck with me: I do think of death as graduation. And I think we should think of seniors as, kind of, I don’t know, seniors in college.

    Peter: Graduating senior class.

    Susannah: Yeah. And about to go out into this kind of other world where their real lives are going to start in a way. And yeah, I was very glad to be able to have very tiny little bits of conversation about that with him before he died. I was pretty chicken about talking about it though, because I was chicken about talking about my faith.

    Peter: Right, right. Well, and it’s tough, right? I mean, my last conversation with my grandfather, he was so matter of fact about it, he said “I’ve lived this happy and fulfilled life.” And he alternated in the last days of his life with – we just read stuff aloud, it was C. S. Lewis and then Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries, and then Louis Armstrong, and it just went on a cycle and he really was actually one of these people for whom, in one sense, it wasn’t a big deal. And I think there was that kind of childlike faith that you see in people who have lived a life of service, whether or not they’re actually believers, that can kind of guide them through those last things.

    Well, there is an aspect to this too, though, where in modern culture you’re seeing more and more of an emphasis on sort of a customized death, and it takes the form of everything from elaborate plans for customized funerals to, in fact, the desire to control the moment when one goes.

    Susannah: And I think we have to distinguish between both aspects. Obviously actual euthanasia or assisted suicide is a lot worse than cutesy hipster morticians, which are apparently a thing that Kelsey mentions here. Euthanasia is worse than hipster morticians. But I think they’re both aspects of the same thing: trying to make your death an expression of your aesthetic, or a part of meaningful life a kind of consumerist or artistic way.

    Peter: Well, I’d like to conclude with quoting a Hasidic tradition from Kelsey Osgood’s piece. She says this is one of her favorite teachings and it is, I think, rapidly becoming one of mine.

    It was said of Reb Simcha Bunim, that he carried two slips of paper one in each pocket, on one he wrote Bishvili nivra ha-olam – “for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote V’anokhi afar v’efer,  – “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary as a reminder to himself.

    So on one side, “for my sake the world was created” and the other, “I am but dust and ashes.”

    Susannah: I actually bracketed that too, and she says that she got a necklace made for herself with that engraved on each side. And I love that so much that I think I might . . .

    Peter: . . . think you might copy that.

    Susannah: I think I might copy that.

    Sohrab Ahmari’s The Unbroken Thread

    Peter: So we’re delighted to welcome Sohrab Ahmari, the New York Post op-ed editor, and the author of a new book. Susannah, let’s see it.

    Susannah: There it is, it is The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. And it is twelve chapters of – is it twelve chapters? Yeah. It’s twelve chapters, each of which looks at a particular figure whose life’s work was an answer in some way or another to one of these gigantic questions. And much like the Decalogue, you divided it up into the things of God and the things of man.

    Peter: Sohrab, is this book the Jordan Peterson book that should have been written?

    Sohrab Ahmari: I have to say I’ve not done any serious engagement with Jordan Peterson’s work, other than watching some of his debates where he “demolished” various BBC interviewers. But I will say, I think to my publishers, it was attractive to develop a book that has twelve things in it, but I don’t know why I picked the number twelve.

    Peter: It’s a good number.

    Susannah: It’s a good number.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Number of Apostles, what have you.  And I had twelve questions, I didn’t have ten questions, so then there you go. I mean, I think, to give a frank answer, maybe the publisher wants to position it in the Jordan Peterson space, but I didn’t think of it like that.

    Susannah: It’s a lot better than Jordan Peterson.

    Peter: And I’m a quasi-Jordan Peterson defender, but there is a lot more in this book. And I really appreciated reading it. I also think that a lot more people will appreciate it than even might think they would want to read the book.

    Susannah: Yeah, you get in there with, like, Dworkin and Howard Thurman as well as obviously Augustine and C. S. Lewis and so on, and that was really well done; I thought that the selection was really well done.

    Peter: We should talk about tradition, because that’s what it’s about, right? Being guided by tradition. There is a quote from Joseph Ratzinger in one of the early chapters, perhaps the first, speaking about how in former times people grew up surrounded by tradition, and it would give them a shape to their lives. And it was really fascinating to me to hear more about what it was like for you growing up first in Iran under the Ayatollah and then coming to the United States: appreciating the unconstrained freedoms of American culture, and then gradually growing more critical of them.

    What I could really relate to was the way that the birth of your son changed the calculus for you on some of these things. Could you talk a little bit about that?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. Thank you, Peter. It’s absolutely true. I mean, especially for someone from my background and my milieu, when you get married, it’s not much more than a small change: it feels like you’ve been dating and then you keep dating together in a house;you’re playing house in a way, until children come, and suddenly everything becomes more – I hate to use a cliché term, but everything does become more existential. Everything suddenly becomes more serious; you’re responsible for this little creature’s life. And for me, also, the strange thing happened where in my twenties, when I was starting out in journalism in London and in New York, I was just kind of basically being almost a paradigmatic liberal subject, just traveling around;the world seemed to be made for people like me; I never thought about death in a serious way. Suddenly when we learned we had a child on the way, I had this sense of Posterity with a capital P looming over my whole life. What am I passing on? And so I have not much more to add than what you said, that everything really becomes serious when you have children, because there’s this projection of your own self into the future, which you have to try to shape.

    Peter: And what seems really terrifying about that is the sense that, What will this child’s life be like, and what will actually shape him? And it seems to me where we’ve come to as a wider society is that parents really are able to make some decisions about how they live their own lives, but really what shapes a kid is far beyond our control. And I think that some of the things that I found most fascinating about this book is the question, How does one bring up a child with a sense of tradition, with a sense that there is something that I belong to that I owe something to, that I might have obligations to in a way that actually kind of has real traction when it comes to life decisions that I might make?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Over against a wider ambient society that tells that child there are no obligations that you should even worry about that you don’t consciously accept. At the most extreme, obviously, you’re now seeing there are liberal ideologues who question baptism and circumcision as impositions on a child who can’t consent yet – so that’s an unacceptable imposition on the child’s life. And that’s the extreme case, but in much more diffuse and subtle ways, society tells us that the world is about keeping your options open, the world is about maximizing your choices. Freedom is really just your ability to choose from among contraries: you can wear blue shoes or red shoes or black shoes and that’s freedom.

    And all those forces work against any sense of obligation to the past, of inheriting something and passing it down, all those things we associate with tradition. Ratzinger calls it “the firm program” of the past.

    Susannah: And the thing about the book which is, I don’t know, very appealing to me is that as well as this sense of the importance of tradition, you’re using these actual existential questions. I just want to throw some of these out here to let people know what they would be getting into if they read it: “How do you justify your life?” “Is God reasonable?” “Can you be spiritual without being religious?” “Does God need politics?” “Should you think for yourself?” That was my favorite chapter. “What is freedom for?” “What do you owe your body?”

    The cool thing about the structure is that you’re not just presenting a set of answers without searching. And you’re presenting these people as searchers, who have come to, in every case virtually, accept some form of traditional wisdom, but not as an arbitrary thing, but as the end of a process which was intelligent and responsible.

    And even the chapter “Should you think for yourself?”, which was about Newman, showed Newman getting to the idea of the assent of the will and the assent of the intellect to authority through intense questioning and without being bullied or bullying himself into it. This is genuinely free and yet a free acceptance of constraint in a way that increases your freedom.

    Sohrab Ahmari: So yeah, I will just say very briefly. . . someone else pointed this out and I don’t think I consciously made the choice, but it worked out in a way that I’m very proud of. I like about the book that, except for a few people – someone like Thomas Aquinas is so at home in Christendom, in the Latin West, as it existed in his time. And obviously there are various forces that trouble him and to which he responds.

    But except for him, all the other characters are searchers, are not at home in some ways.  Andrea Dworkin obviously, very much alienated from her own time, even from the feminist movement, let alone wider American society. John Henry Newman, rebelling against Victorian Anglican trends, and very much becoming an outcast after his famous conversion. Alexander Solzhenitsyn obviously exiled, not fitting into the communist order, but also then coming to the West and finding himself reviled: once he starts criticizing the West, he’s reviled as a reactionary and a theocrat and a mystic.

    So, I did not really consciously set out to make it so, but it’s nice, because in a way that speaks to our condition and suggests that the search for good and true traditions is always fraught, is always arduous and we can put ourselves in the shoes of these figures rather than just receiving Tradition with a capital T, stable, untroubled so to speak, unproblematic.

    More Ahmari: How do you judge tradition?

    Peter: And that’s what I appreciated so much about the book too. It wasn’t a series of propositions from tradition to be applied to hot button issues, but it really was a truth-seeking book. I’d love to hear, Sohrab, your thoughts on this word tradition. I mean obviously there’s an etymological meaning of “handing down,” but from a Catholic perspective, there is a “Tradition.” But tradition as you use it in this book is a broader concept.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah, I’d love to address that complex of things that you raised right there, Peter. So I’m a Catholic and that means that I revere, I try to bring my own life into coherence with, something called Tradition with a capital T, which is an authority, one of the sources of authority in the Catholic Church alongside Scripture and living papal and magisterial authority. And some of that capital T Tradition is reflected in this book: there are emblematically Catholic figures, patristic figures, in the book.

    But there are also traditions with a small t present in the book, including, as Susannah pointed out, some surprising figures who, if they were still around, might not have liked to be placed alongside the other figures in this book, not least Andrea Dworkin.

    Peter: Luckily you didn’t have to ask them.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Luckily. At one point I was pondering writing about one living figure. But then it would have been odd - just like one - so I didn’t go there. But nevertheless, the capital T Tradition venerates natural reason and the idea that divine Wisdom is sort of sprinkled among the Gentiles, among the peoples. And so the kind of traditionalist ecumenism reflected in the book doesn’t threaten my loyalty or adherence to the capital T Tradition, because what a Jewish philosopher like Hans Jonas, in his critique of Gnosticism – his discovery and then critique of Gnosticism, and through a critique of Gnosticism, then a critique of various modern trends – jibes with the capital T Tradition.

    So I do have that as a kind of standard against which to judge traditions, and that means that I also am not bound , in this project, to respect any tradition merely because it was handed down. Because there were things that were handed down – pagan society or the American slavery in the Jim Crow era or what have you – there were things that were handed down that were bad, that contradicted truer and better traditions. But in so far as there’s coherence among them, an adherent of capital T Tradition can be at peace withand even draw on the wisdom of the small t traditions.

    And just one last point is that, although these figures in the book are really disparate figures and very diverse, from modern to ancient, and spanning the whole globe, there is an interior coherence and integrity to each chapter in the sense that ultimately what we discover is, in each case, that tradition stands for what looks like a limitation: on the will, on the intellect, on appetite, on desire.

    And we see the working out of the same strange paradox where that limit is actually examined more closely as a source of liberation, a source of happiness and freedom, and the loss of the limit, although it looks like liberation at first, in hindsight ends up standing for the loss of freedom, the loss of true freedom or the loss of happiness, the loss of a sense of being at home in the world and so forth.

    Susannah: We need a skeleton, otherwise we would just be blobs, and ineffective; we wouldn’t be freer without the rigidity of a skeleton; we wouldn’t be freer if we didn’t have skin, so we were just open to everything. The thing that really kind of turned my brain inside out the most in the book was the discussion in the Newman chapter of the idea of authority and conscience as not being at odds with each other – which obviously I knew, but it’s one of these things where you know it, and then you follow the idea again and you see it again for the first time, and that was one of those really good reading experiences. Just the idea that we have this narrative of the independent conscience standing up against authority, and that is obviously very good, and you give examples of when that has been the case: Schindler, et cetera. But normatively and in the way that it kind of ought to work and often does work, authority informs conscience, authority and conscience are allies. And that seems to me to be almost the through-line of the whole book. Authority and freedom, even, freedom properly understood.

    Sohrab Ahmari: I should just set the context. This comes in the context of the famous Gladstone-Newman debate in Britain in the ninteenth century where, after the First Vatican Council made its declarations, including the declaration of Papal infallibility, Prime Minister William Gladstone, the emblematic liberal of the ninteenth century said, Well, that’s tantamount to a kind of moral murder of Catholics, they can no longer exercise their consciences on whatever moral dilemmas come their way, but now their conscience is hostage to a Bishop in Rome. And Newman, the famous convert to Catholicism, issues this counter-blast in the form of the “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.” And there are many arguments in it, but the central strand is -  and it’s kind of mind blowing, you’re right - he does it so elegantly;  I try to restate the argument in a much briefer fashion. He argues that rightly understood conscience and authority are the same thing under different aspects; that the true conscience is only a conscience in so far as it reflects the dictates of a moral law, natural law, divine law. And in so far as any authority is the true authority, it’s a support to the conscience. So the two aren’t, as we often assume, opposed to each other.

    And if you treat conscience as authority’s enemy, then various sacrifices of people who really stood for the freedom of conscience become illegible to us, right? So if Oskar Schindler’s sacrifice didn’t reflect the dictates of some authority, some kind of larger objective moral order, then his sacrifice also kind of rested on nothing. And therefore, in so far as the Pope is issuing infallibly binding dictates on the conscience of Catholics, if he is not ultimately vindicating their consciences and doing so perhaps over against their own desires – what they want to think – then he’s undercutting his own authority, and then that really would be tantamount to moral murder.

    But Newman carefully shows that that’s not ever what the popes have done. So yeah, I mean, I’m very proud of that chapter and it’s also helped me.  In writing it out, it’s helped me navigate various things, including - well, there’s a reason why I don’t get into a certain kind of ecclesiastical debate that so roils the Catholic sphere in the Anglophone world, like, “the Pope did this.” I steer clear of those, in part, having worked through these questions in the writing of that chapter.

    Susannah: If your first instinct when Pope Francis says something is to get irritated about it, there’s something going on there.

    Sohrab Ahmari: There’s something wrong, and that’s precisely what Newman says, if your first instinct is to say, I’m going to disagree with this, because someone is exercising authority over me, and I’m worried about my own conscience, you’ve misunderstood what the conscience is.

    Peter: I also found the material on Newman fascinating. So from an Anabaptist perspective, obviously it’s an interesting point, although, of course, I think common to anyone living in a real Christian community where one is part of a body, one recognizes one is part of the body of Christ and that means that one’s conscience, while important, isn’t the only thing that matters.

    Sohrab Ahmari: And there’s authority in Anabaptism obviously.

    Peter: Well, there certainly is.

    Sohrab Ahmari: From higher structures.

    Peter: Because the church is not just a club, it’s not just an association of people who vote on what this club should do, right? It’s the body of Christ who is the king and to whom one owes allegiance, and at the end of the day, at least in Anabaptist theory, although of course the reality often falls short in human life, it ought to be the Holy Spirit who guides us in what we do, and it’s really a little bit irrelevant what my personal opinion of the matter may be, much less my preferences.

    I do think though that there’s one aspect to sort of the radical reformation approach to this that is worth getting into a little bit. And that is what happens when you have a bad tradition, right? Traditions, at least the lowercase t traditions can obviously be really awful, right?

    Susannah: As the chapter on Thurman talked about.

    Peter: And you have a whole chapter on Howard Thurman who’s combating the evil segregationist politics of the South, which was a culturally established tradition that people were raised in and which taught them how to act; it certainly restrained the desires of those most subjugated to it.

    Sohrab Ahmari: And it had ecclesiastical legitimation.

    Peter: Exactly. It had a whole theology to buttress it, and yet it was challenged successfully. And so on what basis do you challenge tradition? How do you reform bad traditions? Because just the fact that it’s tradition doesn’t render it safe.

    Sohrab Ahmari: No, that’s absolutely right, and I would refer to the life of Thurman who challenged bad tradition not from a place of, “Well, here’s  what I think,” but from a deeper engagement and a more astute engagement with the gospel, with what’s been handed down by the apostles. Specifically, I mean, obviously he focused on the biography of our Lord, basically noting that in every way Jesus was an outsider: that he was a Jew, which meant that he was part of kind of relatively small political community that at the time was enmeshed in, but also kind of threatened by, Greco-Roman power. Then, that he was a poor Jew: I mean, that was the notable thing about the fact that he was born in a manger, that when his mother fulfills the Levitical obligation to do the offering for the firstborn, she uses two turtle doves, which is what Leviticus sets aside for women who can’t afford the turtle doves and lamb.

    But at any rate that suggested that Mary was a woman of modest means, and all these biographical facts tell us, as Thurman put it, that the religion of Jesus really means something as a social and political force in so far as it speaks to the condition of, as he put it, people with their backs against the wall at any given point in history. And at that time, and in many ways still today, that meant African-Americans in American society. So, to me that’s a much sounder way to reform tradition than to reject tradition, which I think then leaves you vulnerable. To reject all tradition leaves you vulnerable to ideological sway, market forces, what have you: there has to be some kind of rock, a place of continuity and assurance,a more commanding height from which you can survey and judge traditions. And in his case condemn actually-existing traditions in his time: heological language that kind of constantly associated Black people with imps and devils, which was something that really got on his nerves. And he pointed this out, but he did it from a place of tradition.

    Peter: As did too, actually, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is the focus of another chapter in the book, because there is a way of understanding fascism as a replacement religion that’s a sort of a spawn of that liberal way of thinking.

    Susannah: It’s sort of free-floating traditionalism almost. And so, I mean, the opposition to that kind of free-floating traditionalism, it seems to me, is a better tradition.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Free-floating traditionalism and, I would say, some neopagan impulses, which, by the way, I detect in some kinds of Twitter sub-spheres on the right: unreasonable paganism, it’s not the classical tradition that’s so beautifully blended with the church’s teaching, but a strange paganism. And I think you could detect that in fascism as well. I’m not sure where I’m going with that other than just the kind of side observation.

    Susannah: Circling back to the Aquinas chapter. I mean although Aristotle came down with the force of tradition, Aquinas did not accept Aristotle uncritically.

    Sohrab Ahmari: That’s a really good point. That’s a beautiful place for me to try to bolster my answer to Peter’s question. Joseph Pieper has that little wonderful little book on Saint Thomas. And he says that unlike the Aristotle-fetishizing rationalists at this time, the Latin Averroists, Thomas actually was kind of moderate. He was like, “Well, the Philosopher is right about some things, but here’s where I disagree and here’s why.”

    And Pieper discusses the reason Thomas could approach Averroes and Aristotle and Avicenna and all these other interlocutors in this cool-headed way, where he approaches each one where there’s disagreements, he plays up, but doesn’t worship any of them, and today you can be a Christian and you can respectfully read Marx, you can respectfully read Heidegger the same way. It’s precisely because there’s one authority, one tradition to which he has such absolute fidelity, that it gives him the confidence where he doesn’t need to be in thrall to Aristotle, but Aristotle doesn’t also need to be . . .

    Susannah: Pushed off.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Yeah. In a defensive way, which was the approach of the anti-Aristotelians, the anti-philosophy types, in the medieval era. There’s a kind of security that comes with being bound to a tradition.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    More Ahmari: Communities of Tradition

    Peter: So obviously you’re hoping in writing this book is to encourage people to acknowledge tradition, to not buck against it. But you have a son, I’ve young kids: Is there hope for that? Pragmatically, realistically, how does a family actually do that? Have you kind of thought how this becomes more than just one other lifestyle choice – “Hey, I’m a kind of tradition-minded guy, this is my flavor, this is my personal brand” – to where this actually has hands and feet? Because it seems that you would need some type of community to make it happen, it can’t be an individual decision for tradition.

    Sohrab Ahmari: That’s absolutely right. So the book is a kind of invitation to tradition. I think that some of the book’s friendly critics pointed out that it’s very clear that it’s written by a Manhattanite, and it’s addressed to, in a way, persuadable liberals or persuadable urbane kinds of people who might just be predisposed against tradition, and they might encounter this and not agree with everything, but be like, There’s something there, maybe I’ll look into this a little bit more.

    And that’s all the book tries to achieve. But beyond that, I’m kind of resolutely against the idea that you can do this on your own, to say, Our family is going to be like this. It has to be a collective endeavor, and it has to be, therefore, a political endeavor. And if I were to step beyond The Unbroken Thread and the book, and maybe think about what my next step will be intellectually, I want to consider  so many of the forces that make it hard for people to live ordinary, decent sorts of lives, virtuous lives, lives where tradition has a coherent place and isn’t just a lifestyle choice. So many of the forces that work against that are economic forces; it has to do with the material substrate of society.

    And so that’s why I’m very actually allergic to a kind of moralism or traditionalism that just offers nothing but kind of exhortation, “We should all just go to church and get married,” without paying attention to how, most notably, the way we organize our economy, especially for kind of downscale workers, working-class people, makes it very difficult for them to do that. And so people in my socio-economic class might pick up “traditionalism” as one more lifestyle, and we’re economically enabled to do that, but that doesn’t change the political community. And that injustice, frankly, should gnaw at the people who just think of it as a lifestyle choice, because for many it isn’t.

    So no, absolutely it has to be a political endeavor, and I increasingly think a matter of political economy, rethinking a lot about how we organize labor, how we organize relations between labor and capital, the disparities between the two, the eye-watering economic inequalities. That’s not really in the book, it’s hinted at in the book, but this is looking beyond the book to a large project.

    Susannah: Are you going to expand your Augustine chapter into a whole neo-Augustinian politics?

    Sohrab Ahmari: Not the Augustine chapter, but I’m kicking around another book project. I’ll give it a preview, which makes this podcast worthwhile for listeners. So it’s not just listening to another podcast about The Unbroken Thread, here’s a little kind of bonus: I want to write a book about how we’re living in a dystopia. Patrick Deneen makes this point really well in Why Liberalism Failed: that liberal societies are very good at imagining dystopias. We see that the society we live in, if you just kind of crank up its interior development, eventually, very quickly, you could end up in Blade Runner 2049, we see how dark that is, but we can’t turn the crank the other way. So I’m possibly writing a book about dystopian movies and their relationship to the current political order.

    Susannah: That’d be extremely cool.

    Peter: Okay, well, I can’t wait to read that book and talk about it, although there’s so much here that we could go on more about. Thank you, Sohrab, for joining us in the midst of your kind of busy book launch season.

    Sohrab Ahmari: Thank you for having me, this was a wonderful conversation and hopefully we can catch up in person soon.

    Susannah: More beer, we agree to have beer.

    That’s all we have time for today. And if you like what we’re doing, tell your friends to give us a listen as well!

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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