Autobiography tends toward self-absorption and self-justification. The Christian memoir should be an exception to this, as Christian testimony is not about the one offering it, but about the One who made it possible.
Sohrab Ahmari’s entry into the genre, From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, is interesting and well-written. He has a novelist’s sense of detail and anecdote in the service of narrative, and an essayist’s ability to turn a phrase. There are moments of pathos, wry observation, and humor (“I flew to Seattle in search of class prestige and the classless society”). He is one of the better young conservative writers, and this book shows it.
But literary achievement is fleeting; testimony is imperishable. Ahmari recounts his life in order to reveal Christ’s glory.
Contrary to some internet misinformation, Ahmari came to Christianity from Western materialism and relativism, not from Islam. Of his conversion, he writes that “I had turned my back against Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad, whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul by the time I entered adulthood.”
His childhood recollections of Iran are fascinating nonetheless. Born in the 1980s, Sohrab was raised in middle-class comfort amid the circumspect remnants of artistic and bohemian circles. His parents drank alcohol and had an excellent supplier of contraband VHS tapes. Their faith “amounted to a kind of liberal sentimental ecumenism.” Despite mandatory religion classes in school, Shiite Islam never gained much purchase in his soul. He was already an atheist when he arrived in the United States as a precocious, English-speaking teenager.
He wanted to love his new nation, for “while still living in the ayatollah’s Iran, I had given myself over to the American Idea”—or at least to what he thought it was (“our own little circle of Iranian intellectuals, writ large.”). However, the small Utah town where he and his mother settled was mostly concerned with football and Mormonism, neither of which attracted him. He was a bright, haughty misfit in high school—smart enough to get good grades and avoid serious trouble, but still suffering some culture shock and not nearly as sophisticated as he thought himself.
Reading, fueled by intellectual aspirations, saved him from permanently wallowing in adolescent mediocrity and bad taste, but it also led him to Nietzsche, who overwhelmed him. If Ahmari is now too dismissive of Nietzsche as a stylist and philosopher, it is understandable. It is one thing to study a lion from a distance or in captivity; it is another to be hunted and overcome by one in the wild, and a man who barely escaped that fate may find little to praise in the blond beast.
After his high-school discovery of Neitzsche, Ahmari drifted through college and the works of various existentialist writers (loosely defined), then to communism and postmodern thinkers like Foucault. It was heady stuff. Imbibed without foundation or discipline, it induced intellectual intoxication, and he became a card-carrying communist pseudo-intellectual with a fondness for drunken hookups when he could get them. But this life left a spiritual hangover that would take years to heal.
At the Foot of the Cross
Upon graduation, Ahmari joined Teach for America, and the real world quickly broke him of his Marxism and identity politics. When he left teaching for law school, he had become something of a conservative. By the time he finished law school, he had become a conservative writer. His career prospered, and he fell in love and was married.
His spiritual journey, punctuated by encounters with God, followed this worldly success at a distance. The story of the Passion had moved him even in his atheist days, now he also began to appreciate the Christian foundations of much that was good in Western civilization. By 2015 he read scripture and religious books, articulated Christian doctrines, attended church, and even prayed, but he would not commit himself to a public profession of faith. Guided in particular by Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, he had come to understand, even assent to, Christianity, but he was still “in no rush to ascend Calvary.”
The angry unbelief of youth had given way to an embarrassed half-belief. This changed after an attempt in early 2016 to report on migrant caravans by embedding himself in a group of men being smuggled from Turkey into Europe. The Christian faith of his contact (himself a convert), shamed Ahmari: “it occurred to me that, with his Baptism, Alireza had bound himself to Christ in a way that was infinitely more concrete and meaningful than my bookish half faith could allow. I still only admired the Cross from a polite distance. This simple man had thrown himself at its foot.”
The ugliness, squalor, and cruelty of his days among the migrants roused Ahmari from his complacency. The safe house he stayed in “was on fire with degradation—and sin. How to escape those flames…was the only question that mattered to me.” He had become too comfortable in half-belief, and tarried there without reaching the rest of Christ and his kingdom. But “the house on the Cape of Olives warned me that there was no time to waste. I, too, had to throw myself at the foot of the Cross without delay.” The embarrassment, pride, and comfortable hesitation that held him back were overcome.
Swimming the Tiber
There was now urgency to his knowledge that “our Lord’s gift of radical absolution on the Cross was the only thing capable of repairing the brokenness in me and around me.” However, there was still a final decision: Which church to join?
He spent a few months at the door of evangelical Christianity before turning to Roman Catholicism. I do not begrudge him this choice, and concede the merits of his criticisms of much modern evangelical worship (“cheesy, irreverent”) and preaching (“weak sauce”). However, even Protestant readers who are well-disposed towards Catholics may bristle when, with the convert’s customary zeal, he recounts how he became unable to “fathom how others called themselves Christians without submitting to Rome’s light yoke.”
Had Ahmari been longer in the Catholic faith, he might have more humility on these points. Over years of regular Mass attendance, I have observed beautiful liturgies in beautiful churches, ugly liturgies in architectural abominations, and everything in between. I have heard good homilies, and some that were mediocre, superficial, and even heretical.
The claim to Catholic superiority in preaching and aesthetics is suspect, at best, and unnecessary. If the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church are true, then it would be better to attend a Catholic Mass with an ugly liturgy, a poor homily, and an unworthy priest than a non-Catholic service with every intellectual and aesthetic advantage. Ahmari need not have tried to make the contingent details of his conversion representative.
Despite the distraction of these inter-denominational quarrels, Ahmari’s testimony emphasizes what Christians have in common. The truths about God and man that he had learned through experience and instruction became a living reality for him. The heart of Christianity is the person of Jesus, for “only the self-sacrificial love of God could make right what was crooked in human nature.” Jesus is not reducible to a moral teacher, political liberator, or any other human attempt at a solution. Rather, “Jesus was God, come to bring God and reconcile man to him.”
The younger Ahmari play-acted at saving the world through revolution. The older Ahmari realized that the real problem of the human condition is not poor political or economic organization, but sin, his first of all.
Ahmari is a political commentator—and a good one—but his hope is now elsewhere. Without God, mankind will plunge headlong into Hell. “I had already accepted the Fall as the most penetrating account of what ailed the world and me…who else but the self-sacrificing God-Man could set right what had gone wrong in the Garden? None other. Nothing and no one else worked. Only Christ Jesus.”
And so he was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Saved from fire, by water.