MANY A BOOK has touted the importance of tradition in the pursuit of the good life. To my mind, the measure of such a work’s success is the likelihood that it will persuade someone who comes in unconvinced.
The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, by the New York Post firebrand and Catholic convert Sohrab Ahmari, initially offers high hopes on this front. Ahmari is an excellent writer, and his first few chapters are able examples of the genre. To support the notion that there’s more to knowledge than scientific fact or that a belief in God is logical, he employs the sorts of arguments and examples you might expect to find in, says, Bishop Robert Barron’s well-regarded Catholicism documentary series. But the project is ultimately hampered by bizarre storytelling choices and sneaking signs that the author hasn’t been entirely honest about his agenda.
Ahmari opens his chapter on filial obligations by deriding a real-life modern woman for the sin of accepting payment from her wealthy in-laws for professional services performed while helping them expand their charitable foundation. “Understanding what a huge amount of time and energy this would take,” the woman explained, her parents-in-law had insisted on compensating her and her husband for their work. Ahmari, aghast, mockingly speculates that the couple might soon start “using Excel to track billable hours for time spent” on everyday family activities—and then uses his imagined scenario as evidence that we’ve collectively forgotten what we owe our parents. But it’s not clear most readers would share Ahmari’s horror at the idea of compensating family members for their labor, and that lack of shared intuition puts the whole section on shaky footing.
Likewise, it’s hard to think of a poorer way to introduce the thought of St. John Henry Newman, a brilliant but by no means infallible 19th-century theologian, than by presenting his life as a foil to the idea that you should “think for yourself.” Newman was a prominent opponent of “liberalism in religion,” which he defined as “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” Yet rejecting moral relativism doesn’t mean forfeiting the right to exercise reason, question authority, and “test everything; retain what is good” (as St. Paul puts it in the Bible).
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