Sohrab Ahmari - Tradition Will Set You Free: Ep. 38
Hosted by Rabbi Dr Ari Lamm
American society is deeply in need of a moral and cultural revival. Any successful version of that is going to need to be both revolutionary enough to ignite the imagination and true enough to the stories and values of our past, to the liberty and freedom embedded in the promise of America to keep us grounded. What resource can we possibly uncover that could satisfy these conditions? This week, Rabbi Lamm unpacked all of this with returning guest Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor of the NY Post and bestselling author of “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.”
They spoke about the different approaches to Western history found in Catholicism and Judaism; Sohrab’s perspective on the legendary Jewish thinker Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Bob Dylan’s music; the significance of religious conversion; why Jesus’s Jewishness matters; what wokeness gets right and what it gets wrong; the ongoing relevance of “Fight Club”; and much more!
This is Good Faith Effort with Ari Lamm. And here’s your host, Rabbi, Dr. Ari Lamm.
Ari Lamm [00:00:21]
Hello, hello and welcome to Good Faith Effort, The World’s Most Dangerous Bible podcast, the podcast where we show you how the values and ideas of the Bible can illuminate the most important conversations in society, from politics to pop culture and beyond. And today, Good Faith Fam, we have with us the first guest ever to appear on Good Faith Effort, today making his triumphant return to the pod. He’s the op-ed editor of The New York Post, the author of the wonderful new bestseller The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. He’s Sohrab Ahmari. And we’re going to talk about exactly that: the importance and the beauty of tradition. Especially in American society, that, at least according to one very culturally influential attitude, has mostly outgrown the need for such a thing. So I want to set it up through the book of Deuteronomy. The Israelites are preparing to enter into the promised land and they’re going to build a new society to serve as a model for human flourishing and virtue. And Moses warns the people that they won’t simply be working with a blank slate because the promised land was actually full of idolatry. The kind of public cult that entrenched the powerful in their positions, victimized the vulnerable, encouraged the constable to ignore the terrible injustices and inequities in their society. And the Israelites would need to dismantle all of this if they were going to begin anew. And that’s why in Deuteronomy Chapter 12, verse two, God instructs Moses to command the people, “You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall possess serve their gods.” Now, thousands of years ago, the great Jewish sages of antiquity contemplated this passage and they asked, what exactly does it mean to rid the Holy Land of idol worship? And the sages answered, You need to “LeShareish Achareiha,” which in Hebrew means, you need to make sure all the root causes of idolatry are uprooted as well. It’s not enough simply to get rid of all the idols or all the altars themselves. The Israelites needed to confront those forces, whether within the human soul or within society, that bring idolatry about in the first place. The fear, the self-regard, the lust for power, the blindness to any sort of truth or beauty that’s not fashioned in your own image. And it’s an extraordinary thought. But actually, just this past weekend I happened to be thumbing through an old book of biblical commentary, and I came across just like a stunning interpretation of this tradition by one of the great Hasidic masters of the 19th century. And he pointed out that the Hebrew phrase that means to uproot, “LeShareish Achareiha,” can also mean to put down new and better roots. So it’s insufficient, he argued, simply to destroy the root causes of idolatry. You need to replace those roots with something else. Other, nobler roots. And this, I think, is the most crucial lesson for those of us who care about the success of the American experiment. Because I think there’s the sense these days that the best way to create an America of which we can be proud is to learn to, you know, better respect each other’s differences and pursue our individual ambitions totally unmolested. And so what we need, above all, therefore, is not a set of, you know, substantive values that we can coalesce around, but a set of procedures, you know, very useful and admirable ones, to be sure, but basically what we need is the machinery of, you know, of liberalism. But if the Bible has anything to teach us, it’s that procedures aren’t enough to cure social ills. Man cannot live on procedure alone. You can’t just uproot idolatry. You need to replace it with other, better, virtuous roots. So what kind of roots can Americans put down or perhaps rediscover in the coming generation? To unpack all of this, I brought on the author of a book that I think has gone farther towards helping us answer that question than any I’ve read in quite some time. He’s the op-ed editor of The New York Post, author of the best selling new book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. My incredible friend, Sohrab Ahmari. Sohrab, thanks for coming on.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:04:16]
Thank you, Rabbi, for having me. Am I the first repeat guest?
Ari Lamm [00:04:20]
You’re the first repeat guest, and I’m very excited about this.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:04:24]
Very kind of you.
Ari Lamm [00:04:25]
So before getting to your book, I actually want to start with probably my favorite piece of writing that you’ve ever done, which actually gets, I think, right to the heart of the question of what America needs in the coming generations to, like, refound itself and achieve its aspirations for human flourishing virtue. And that is your eulogy for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom who passed away last year. And it appeared in First Things. And I think, you know, and I said this publicly, both on social media and in various synagogue capacities, I actually think that it was the one eulogy that I read for Rabbi Sacks that I believe he would have loved the most.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:05:07]
Thank you. Yeah, I heard from his family. They were very kind about it. They were very generous.
Ari Lamm [00:05:12]
I’m not surprised at all. And the eulogy acknowledged the potential difference, you know, like all for the sake of heaven, of course, between the traditional Catholic account of the encounter between Greek reason and biblical faith and the Jewish account, or at least Rabbi Sacks’ account. So can you unpack that difference? Because it’s something that you take up or at least one part of it you take up in your book. So can you unpack that difference a little bit?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:05:32]
Sure. Beyond disagreements about revelation, there is also an epistemological difference between traditional Jews and Catholics with respect to the synthesis of faith and reason. This is the Catholic account, so let me recount it. That God was preparing the people of God, the Jewish people, even before the Hellenistic conquest, preparing them to articulate their faith in the one God in ever more universalistic terms, so that there’s this tendency in the exilic literature that suggests a drawing toward or a preparation for then what was to come with the Hellenistic that conquest when the Greeks bring the God of the philosophers into encounter with the Jewish people. And that synthesis of the two comes into even closer harmony with the advent of Christianity, where in the gospel of Saint John, God, not only that he takes flesh, but that he is reason itself. He is Logos itself, who takes flesh. And this is the kind of small-o orthodox Catholic account of that kind of late antique period and what it means for the church and what does it mean for humankind. Rabbi Sacks largely rejected that telling. And in the eulogy that you’re speaking about, I lay out his view. His view is that, that the God of the Bible is not the God of the philosophers, that not much about him can be proved using the methods of classical and medieval metaphysics. So that he is a God of narrative, even in the difference between the languages, Hebrew, which I don’t know, and Greek, which I don’t know. But in the rabbi’s telling- I actually speak Persian.
Ari Lamm [00:07:12]
The other great language of rabbinic institution.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:07:16]
Greek tends towards abstraction and Hebrew tends towards story and that it was really Saint Paul. You wouldn’t say Saint Paul, but it was the Pauline revolution to attempt to create a religion that bridged the gap between the two, bridged them through the figure of Jesus, logos made flesh. So that’s in a way, as counter to my own views as you can get, to be very clear. But in the eulogy, I just brought it together because to me, Rabbi Sacks had clarified the differences and that for me was more useful than if he had affirmed my views as a Christian, which obviously he wouldn’t. So I should note, just to not leave us with the tension, that he then concludes by saying that nevertheless, the loss of that Greco-Roman and then later medieval synthesis has been a great tragedy for humankind and has put us in the position where we are, where either we have irrational faith or on the other hand, we have an account of rationality that’s too narrow to account for things like faith and morality. We have pure scientism and so that lament that he has for the loss of ,say, Aquinas’ authority in the West is very beautiful, especially for someone who ultimately thinks that it was a flawed synthesis.
Ari Lamm [00:08:28]
And that’s exactly where I was hoping we would end up, because one of the most fascinating things about your book, The Unbroken Thread, and the larger project that I see you kind of undertaking, which is really rethinking the American project, not in order to tear it down, but in order to build it up into something that we can be proud of and that deserves pride. If you look at sort of the American past, there’s sort of like this dominant Protestant stream, this like mainline Protestantism, that all of the rest of American society, its civil institutions and its general kind of popular culture, kind of mooch off of for their cultural and spiritual vitality. And the collapse of mainline Protestantism has kind of left us with a void. Like a spiritual, cultural, political void. And the question is what to do about that. So I think there’s sort of people who either pine for the restoration of that general American Protestantism or even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, that really is what they’re doing when they say we just want to go back to how it was. Like that’s really what they’re pining for, ultimately. Then there’s like this caricature of a certain stream of Catholic thought, which is like, well, the Catholics just want to come in and turn America into like a Catholic monarchy or what have you. Now, that may be true of some people. And I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but at least as a reader of your book, one of the things that really struck me was the very broad palette that you’re drawing from. You know, you’re citing Catholic figures, you’re citing St. Thomas Aquinas, but you’re also citing just, you know, just sort of general Christian writers, C.S. Lewis. But you’re also drawing from Rabbi Heschel. You’re drawing from,
Sohrab Ahmari [00:10:02]
Ari Lamm [00:10:02]
Yeah, from people across a really wide spectrum. And it seems to me that this is kind of where we come back around with your eulogy for Rabbi Sacks. Because one of the things that I think unites you and Rabbi Sacks is just a horror at whatever came after that traditional synthesis of faith and reason in the West. So for the Catholics, this is the way things were supposed to be. Rabbi Sacks thinks that it left what to be desired, but sort of, as you put it, the kind of narrow scientism or the Gnostic faith or this sort of glorying in faith as totally irrational and reason have nothing to do with faith. I think Rabbi Sacks was just as horrified by those things as you were. And in fact, Rabbi Sacks talked about those things as how we got to the Holocaust, Stalinism, and some of the other terrible atrocities of the 20th century. And so what I think is remarkable about your book is that it does, in a way, even though it’s built, and this is your second chapter, god is a God of reason. It is built in that traditional Catholic synthesis of faith and reason. But at the same time, would it be fair to say that it is incorporating elements of the Rabbi Sacks-ian position and just drawing from a broad variety of traditions and stories in order to create something in America that would, if it were successful, be rather unique in world history?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:11:23]
A lot of people have commented on the accumanism of the choice of traditions that the book draws from. We should note just briefly that it’s a book posed as 12 unasked questions. We all agree something’s gone wrong with the West. We all feel it in our politics. We feel it in our cultural politics, in our racial tensions, in our inability to deal with a lot of things. When a crisis hits, it creates enormous disunity instead of unity, like the pandemic or what have you. So we all feel something’s gone wrong. In order to attempt to suggest that there is a better way, and that way is broadly encapsulated by the word tradition, what’s been handed down, I posed 12 unasked questions, each of which unsettles one of our kind of liberal, technocratic, secular certainties. And then I explore each of those through the life of one great thinker. And as you suggested, only about a fourth are Catholics, the rest are, there’s Seneca the Pagan, Hans Jonas, the agnostic Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Heschel, Confucius even. And the reason I did that as a Catholic, obviously, I have a particular account of tradition with a capital T, which is one source of authority in the Church, the Church fathers and their interpretations of essentially the Christ event and the birth of the Church and kind of the support they give to our orthodoxy. But there’s also a tradition with a small t, which is how I look at other traditions. And the reason I can do that confidently as a Catholic and not feel threatened is that you believe in the power of moral reason, of precisely the kind of morally charged storytelling that Rabbi Sacks discusses with respect to the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic tradition, that there’s this thread of wisdom running through the traditions of the peoples, of the agendas that is not in tension with the Christian tradition and in fact, coheres with it. And as readers encounter the book, they’ll see that although these questions are disparate and the figures through which we explore them are disparate figures, in each case we run up against kind of the same insight just applied in different realms of life. And that insight is profoundly in tune with Psalms, by the way, and I’ll get to that why, but that human beings find liberation in various kinds of natural and traditional and of course, divine limits, and that the loss of those limits sold to us in kind of liberal modernity as liberation, paradoxically leaves us less free. So the emblematic case of that is my chapter on the Sabbath. The Sabbath restriction looks like an imposition. Hey, I want to do whatever I want every day of the week. I want to shop. I want to work. And that’s how a lot of seculars got rid of the Sabbath, whatever tradition they came from. And then at the end of the process, on the other side of it, they find that they’re more harried, more stressed out.
Ari Lamm [00:14:05]
This is one of those cases where, like there’s an empirical element to this. As a Saturday Sabbath observer, I’m like a very proud religious fundamentalist fanatic. Right. But like, you know, as someone who observes the Sabbath, with all of its like, Jewish legal restrictions, I know this is a common experience I have with other Sabbath observers. I genuinely do not understand how people who don’t have a sabbath, doesn’t have to be my Sabbath, I do not understand how they function the rest of the week. It just is incomprehensible to me.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:14:31]
Yes. So it’s the easiest example I talk about most with audiences when I tell them about the book is, something that looks like a restriction is paradoxically a source of freedom and its loss leaves us less free. And this is an insight that’s woven through all those traditions that I marshall in the book. Hans Jonas, the other major Jewish thinker in the book, was a great critic of Gnosticism, and Gnosticism was, ultimately, the ancient Gnostics ultimately sought to transcend the embodied as a reality. All Gnosticism has this idea that spirit and matter are in tension with each other. Spirit is good, matter is filthy and degraded and terrible, and the goal of life is one way or another to allow the spirit to transcend the material. Obviously, that runs so contrary to the spirit of the Hebrew Bible, because everything God creates is good. And so much of Jewishness is rooted into reality, in acts of feasting that are physical and have to do with the body.
Ari Lamm [00:15:26]
There’s a reason why many of the Gnostics ended up deciding that the God of the Hebrew Bible is just like some crazy…
Sohrab Ahmari [00:15:32]
Always in tension. They are always opposed and arguably, arguably some of the earliest forms of anti-Semitism are some of the Gnostic “prophets,” quote unquote, right. The, Marcion couldn’t reconcile the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament, so he decided that the God of the Hebrew Bible is basically a demon. He couldn’t be the God of the New Testament.
Ari Lamm [00:15:52]
Sohrab Ahmari [00:15:53]
So there’s a real anti-Semitic strain to that. But anyway, again, we see that the body as a source of, as a source of responsibility, as a limit to accept. And when you try to get rid of the body, you end up with things like gender ideology, which ultimately imprisons because their demand of you to affirm things that are contrary to reality. Again, the loss of the body as a limit actually leaves us less free. So anyway, that’s how I reconcile the fact that I believe in one tradition. And yet I think that traditional actors like you and me across our theological differences can work together because there is this universal wisdom of the people.
Ari Lamm [00:16:34]
And I actually want to pick up right there. Basically, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling the last couple of weeks and right before, so in-flight Wi-Fi is fine, but you can’t, like, stream with it. So in like the twenty minutes between when I board the plane and when I take off, I’ve been watching snippets, one after another of the Scorsese Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, on Bob Dylan, which is like unbelievable. It’s so good. I mean, I’m rewatching it. So I’m finally at the end of it. And one of the things that strikes me about it is here you have these 1960s bohemians. On the one hand, you have Scottish folk singers in Greenwich Village like Liam Clancy saying things like, oh, we were just like free from tradition. We had, you know, we were free from our families, blablablablabla. And yet you can just see how deeply enmeshed they are in tradition and not just deeply enmeshed, but like consciously, deeply enmeshed in tradition. And blues, gospel, jazz, folk music, from Ireland, from Scotland. And they realized that nothing that they do makes any sense without tradition. They even talk about how this made a whole mess of taking credit for songwriting, because what would it mean to take credit for a song that’s just so deeply drawing on the beauty of old and making it new? Aside from the fact that you know, how ironic that all these bohemians in Greenwich Village are so endebted to tradition, the one point that I really wanted to pick up on is that Dylan is unusual because he actually completely adopts this tradition and he’s not born into it. And he says very explicitly on many occasions and in the documentary as well, that he actually had felt no connection to his actual past. You know, he’s like a Jewish kid in Duluth, and he basically erases his actual past, but inserts himself into this tradition wholesale, which means that he doesn’t actually reject all tradition. Right. Which is one of the major mistakes of contemporary liberalism or kind of liberalism-lite. It’s just that he seeks after a tradition that comports with his sense of truth. So it’s not enough to just say, I do what my parents tell me. There has to be some marriage of story and reason, which I guess gets us back to the Catholics and Rabbi Sacks. So what do the 60s bohemians understand about the importance of tradition and truth that moderns don’t? I feel like today we have this, like, facile sense of the blessings of modernity or that I can do whatever I want and not have to worry about anything that’s happened in the past. And I think we kind of trace that genealogically to the 60s. And yet you kind of look around Greenwich Village at this time and you don’t see anything of that sort. I mean, you see, like, weird expressions of that. But there’s a much clearer sense of tradition to my mind. Where have we gone wrong along the way?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:19:17]
Well, I would say that the trends that were underway in the 60s have accelerated so that we’re on the other end of even more radical transformations. What I found interesting, in another question that people pose with respect to the book, you said that Dylan self consciously adopted a tradition for himself. And that’s something that is not a criticism, it’s an observation leveled about not just my book, but my work as a whole in the sense that as a Catholic convert.
Ari Lamm [00:19:44]
Your first book is a book about conversion, about your conversion.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:19:48]
It’s about conversion. And then with this book, there’s something modern about the fact that I self consciously set out to make the case for tradition. And it’s true because traditions, normally, much of it is taken for granted. You can reason about it. You can reject it. But you take it for granted that this is what I’m embedded in and I do something with it. Do I pass it on? Do I modify it? Do I renew it? Did I reject it entirely? And I think we’re at a point where that that’s not possible for a lot of people, certainly for people, especially my class or our class, the kind of career mobile laptop class, it’s less and less possible for us because our lives are so in constant dislocation and so forth that you can’t easily assume a tradition. You have to adopt one. You have to cultivate it consciously. And I don’t have any point to make about that. I just think it’s just the reality. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop that search for traditional wisdom and to try to make it new for a new age. I mean, it just seems because the alternative is, it’s just utter deracination and tragedy, frankly. And I would also think, I think fear, fear I would say. Fear and indecision. One of the things that I observe about a lot of my peers, kind of upper middle class, educated professionals in the city, is that they’re bereft of tradition and it’s been sold to them as liberation. And so now you can do whatever you want. You should keep your options open, though. And that’s the kind of phrase. And keeping your options open means they don’t actually commit to anything, nothing irrevocable. Marriage, they’ll date for like ten years and then kind of just halt.
Ari Lamm [00:21:20]
And ultimately, those are the firmest, strongest shackles you could possibly put on yourself.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:21:24]
So your freedoms exist at a level of potency. You don’t actually do anything. And this is why tradition for me is an imperative, is that to know where you’ve come from, to have a sense of order, continuity, there are these steps stretching behind you and steps possibly moving forward and there’s guardrails along the way. You then leap forward and you, and then you can live courageously, I think. This has been tradition’s effect in my own life. I was career wise, I was successful in my twenties. Just like living in London, New York, blah, blah, blah. But it was much more relaxing in a way to, A) get married, become a father, adopt the face that has kind of this rich, moral framework. And I don’t have to solipsisticly look into myself every day and be like, what do I really believe? Like who am I? As a, that’s kind of been answered. You know, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a believer. And then I can actually act in the world with this. I don’t know. But I think it’s, you take this for granted.
Ari Lamm [00:22:26]
It’s so freeing.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:22:28]
So freeing. You say, I don’t need to like, by the way that makes it sound like I’m, it’s facile or that there’s no challenge. And faith, of course, there’s challenge in faith. Of course, there’s like an abyss lurking where you think, is this all nonsense? Am I just believing? There are moments like that. And you constantly think, am I fooling myself? Am I a hypocrite? That’s the challenge of faith. But that challenge is in weirdly enjoyable too. So I don’t want to make it sound like everything has been answered for me. I just move forward. No. In a way it’s more challenging than to not have faith and tradition. Ultimately, there’s this kind of direction. And you’re not just sort of, I hate this sense of floating in life that so many of my peers, just floating through. It seems inhuman.
Ari Lamm [00:23:08]
That was amazing. And hold on just one sec. We’re going to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.
Ari Lamm [00:23:18]
And we’re back, so one really fascinating thing that I encountered in your book that just piqued my interest because it’s kind of, speaks to my background, is you actually have a section in one of the earlier chapters on the importance of Jesus’s Jewishness. The first time I ever published a piece in the in The Wall Street Journal it was actually about this. There is a long history of anti-Semites seeking to strip Jesus of his Jewishness. This was famously a project of the Nazis and some of the, you know, notorious Aryan thinkers. And it’s been sort of like a repeated theme throughout history. I think what people know less about is the long and deep tradition of some of the greatest Jewish thinkers in history engaging with this question as well and insisting on Jesus’s Jewishness, not because they have any wish to claim Jesus the Christian. You know, we don’t, for obvious reasons. But Jesus as a Jew is actually something very important to the medieval, the medieval sage, the Tashbetz, to the early modern sage, Rabbi Jacob Emdin, one of the greatest Jewish authors in history. Can you speak a little bit about this? Why is it important that Jesus was Jewish?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:24:28]
I should say that that chapter is in the context of an attempt at drawing out to what Christian political theology means for the individual.
Ari Lamm [00:24:36]
Why does God care about politics?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:24:38]
What does God care about you as an individual? And the subject of the chapter is actually a Protestant thinker, Howard Thurman, who was a kind of a spiritual guru of the civil rights movement. He was a generation before Martin Luther King and he wrote a book called Jesus and the Disinherited, which Martin Luther King carried with him when he went traveling up and down the country campaigning for civil rights. His argument is not that complicated, but he basically says that if Christianity is to mean anything in our collective lives besides issues of salvation, it has to be a religion of the poor and it has to speak to people in any given age who are the masses, the poor, not just in the sense of the abject poor of the beggar, although Christianity speaks profoundly to that. I think right now there’s a church in New York by Penn Station called Church of St. Francis of Assisi, and there’s a statue of a beggar kind of with his hand outstretched, asking for money, but there’s a stigmata. There’s a, there’s holes there. Right. So it’s to remind you that, at least in the Christian telling, that God himself was marginalized and poor at one point. I mean, again, it’s a very Christian paradox that I think even if you theologically don’t buy it, there’s, aesthetically it’s drawn lots of people who aren’t Christians that there’s something about that. But anyway. But why does his Jewishness matter for Howard Thurman? And I think for me and the argument I put forward is that you cannot isolate Jesus of Nazareth. You cannot abstract the fact that he’s a member of a community that was politically besieged, a community that had been, ever since the Hellenistic conquest, and then almost immediately after the Romans take over, in one way or another, it finds itself assailed by this more powerful pagan civilization. Now, we just spoke about how there’s a great value to my mind in the intellectual encounter between the two, between Jewish revelation and Greco-Roman reason. But Howard Thurman makes the point again, I think correctly, that what that meant on a given day for the average Jew circa two thousand years ago, was humiliation. It was political disempowerment. It was the sense that like a Roman centurion could, like, insult your wife on the streets. What that, what would that, it’s sense of that.
Ari Lamm [00:26:51]
Or put an idol in your temple.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:26:53]
Or put an idol in your temple.
Ari Lamm [00:26:54]
Even at the national level.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:26:55]
So that has political consequences for the religion of Christianity. If its founder, you have to think about it, as a Jew in late-antique Middle East. He’s a member of a besieged community. He’s a member of an oppressed community. In everything in Christianity, it has a kind of passage down the ages. Right. So, for example, in Catholic Christianity, that is. So Jesus gives St. Peter the keys and says, I’m founding my church upon the rock of you, Petrus, Peter. That has carried on the, kind of incarnational element has carried on through the ages in Petrine authority, the authority of the Popes. Well, the idea of of Jesus as a Jew who is part of a besieged community also has relevance beyond its own immediate geopolitical context, which is obviously over, that we have to pay attention to him as a member of a community and not just as an individual. I think it’s a very obvious point or maybe a simple one, but strikingly put by Thurmon nevertheless.
Ari Lamm [00:27:53]
I think that’s like a really good opportunity just in terms of story, in terms of a sensitivity to the political, to just shift gears before we close. And that is we find ourselves now at a moment where that kind of searching, that kind of thirst for something more, has made its way into our politics one way or another. So like some of you know, contemporary American politics is like deep silly and unserious, and we should, like, reject that and rail against it and replace it. But there is kind of one phenomenon of contemporary American politics that I find myself just more ambivalent about than I would have thought. And that’s kind of like the Woke-liberal divide, which, you know, I’m sure there are more accurate ways to describe it.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:28:33]
That’s pretty good, though.
Ari Lamm [00:28:33]
But yeah, right. I’m saying like to caricature it, I think it’s sort of like on the one hand, you know, you have a group of people who see injustice, you know, in every single crevice, nook and cranny in American society and are looking for a way to undo it and to create alliances in communities that will be able to come together and do something different. And on the other side, you have people who sort of tend to be more elite or more or kind of, you know, more associated with like the Old School of American Political Power, who sort of say, well, no, there’s a good and right way of doing things in American life that we more or less perfected in the last couple of decades. And why are you messing with success? It’s kind of like how the other Beach Boys react to Brian Wilson trying to make pet sounds, is “don’t F with the formula.” And, you know, to be more generous, I don’t want to be a caricature too much. But, you know, it’s sort of the idea that there actually is great goodness in American life, you know, and there’s great virtue in sort of the liberal procedures that we’ve set up. They that encourage and require, in fact, epistemological humility. But I think I’m the kind of person who like temperamentally and politically, my instinct would be to kind of be on the side of the liberals. And I suppose if I had to pick a side, that’s probably where it ends up. But I have found myself with more, more sympathy for the woke side of things than I thought I would have going into it. And I wanted to just like unpack it a little bit and get your sense of it, because I feel like we might be kindred spirits on this level. Could be just be putting myself out there. Like the woke kids kind of remind me a lot of like the student activists from the 60s. Right. Who are, or rather let me let me rephrase it. The liberal reactors to wokeness kind of remind me of like the establishment parents of the 60s. Right. So like the types who were like horrified by the excesses of the hippies and the campus agitators. And they weren’t wrong, per se. Right. Like the student radicals were bad and sometimes evil and sometimes in quite like ridiculous ways. And some of them were Stalinists and obviously completely inexcusable and horrible and wrong, like asymmetrically wrong. But fundamentally, they believed in something and they were like desperately searching for meaning. And they saw their parents, like the postwar generation, proclaim, you know, like a color TV, a foreign car and a country club membership to be like the pinnacle of human achievement. And they rightly perceived them as like the latter day descendants of Nineveh. And I remember actually my grandfather, who was ,very harsh words for the students activists and for the New Black Panthers. He thought they were anti-Semites and he thought they were they were quite evil in some serious ways. But he actually said about them in a sermon, you know, they’re far superior to and more promising than the previous generation, the one that matured after World War Two and whose only real interests were job security, good pay and a house in the suburbs. So when I look at the young radicals today, I think, like in spite of themselves, they’re sort of like students of George Washington, who, you know, well understood that free speech and free enterprise are like negative liberties that are going to collapse without the indispensable supports of religion and morality. And fundamentally, they wanted something to believe in. And they, you know, the young radicals back then and now, I think they want moral vision. They want eschatology. They want priests and prophets. They want a calling to a higher purpose. And they knew and they know today that their parents don’t believe in any of that. So they rejected them. Then, of course, like they threw the baby and maybe like the whole damn family out with the bathwater, you know, which meant chucking biblical tradition and wisdom out the window as well, which was terrible. And, you know, all that was left for them was liberation and self-creation. But fundamentally, I think what they want, you know, they see their parents lionizing Martin Luther King Jr. as if Dr. King was some sort of like political science professor who wanted to create an American society where anybody, whatever their race or creed, could be hired by a hedge fund. But actually, he was a preacher who was preaching the book of Deuteronomy, whose vision of the mountaintop and gazing upon the biblical promised land and everything he was preaching was incomprehensible without a sense of biblical faith and that old time religion and tradition. I don’t know any other way to say it. So like I find myself oftentimes, like in sympathy with the woke revolt against liberalism, even if ultimately, as I said, I have to choose a side, I’ll choose the liberal side. But as someone who’s coming from a perspective, first and foremost, I don’t mean to over speak, but I think I’m right here. You know, first and foremost, your allegiance is to God and to the Church. At the end of the day, do you feel that kind of sympathy for the woke side of things? And how do we suss that out if we’re to move forward from this divide?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:33:03]
You and I are so close on this because,.
Ari Lamm [00:33:07]
I had a feeling.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:33:08]
As between like my friend Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams.
Ari Lamm [00:33:13]
Who I love.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:33:14]
Yeah. And on the other side, the minions of Ibram Kendi, I’ll choose Chatterton.
Ari Lamm [00:33:21]
Sohrab Ahmari [00:33:23]
No question. And just a matter of kind of a choice between two warring sides, because I know, like the other side will be, you know, some of them would send me to the gulag if they could, right?
Ari Lamm [00:33:37]
Oh, my God. You’re like on the first train out, man.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:33:40]
And whereas, whereas Chatterton would make good company in the gulag. That said, I’m very much with you because I think that, first of all, from the point of view of what the liberals are attempting to do is just like, well, everything is fine. We have procedures, free speech. It’s not enough. Those procedures are fine. And we should obviously protect them, especially religious people being a minority, increasingly in secular, progressive America. Sure. But it’s not a sufficient account of why we have societies, what we aim to do with societies. The aim of societies ultimately is common good. It’s peace. And that to use the cliche, but that does require justice. Right. And so the liberal just saying banging his drums about just procedure is leaving all sorts of appetites, political appetites that come with being a political animal as human beings are, he’s leaving those dissatisfied. And so then you get a kind of genuinely credal politics that’s using the language of justice and the rectifying historical sins and so forth. And it’s a lot more powerful. And so the liberal becomes, you know, you can take pot shots from your Substack, but these people will conquer the institutions.
Ari Lamm [00:34:50]
Like for that reason, I think like wokeness to me is like a religion in desperate search of a God.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:34:55]
Yes. But here’s what I would say, though, is I also feel that same sympathy for the wokes, right. Not sympathy, but appreciation for the fact that they feel that their parents generation has left them something impoverished. This is a narrow view of like. The problem, and here I’ll go back to your 60s analogy, the problem is that they’re rejecting the very thing that could.
Ari Lamm [00:35:18]
That could save them.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:35:19]
That could save them. Yes. Because the problems with the 60s was that they were right. The kids of the 60s were right, that their parents had given them a conformist, in a bad way, soulless world, and their parents had turned education from the quest to know what’s true, what’s good, what’s beautiful, to this kind of disparate, disorganized, just stuffing your mind with various facts and kind of technical knowledge that didn’t feed the hunger of the soul. They were right. The problem was that they set their sights on tradition as the enemy. They misdiagnosed the enemy and the forces that they decried. Large capital consumer capitalism loves its subjects to not have tradition. They want you to be kind of deracinated and willing to just go with whatever wins and not have any kind of solid grounding, whether in God, faith, family, political community, anything like that. And so then you get, why did the generation of 60s, why are all its radicals now basically like EU bureaucrats?
Ari Lamm [00:36:22]
Sohrab Ahmari [00:36:23]
Right. None of them became that at the end of the day, their own personal lives, Danielle Kambandi, Joschka Fischer in Europe, all these kind of 60s radicals are now, they’re foreign ministers. They’re members of the European Parliament. In the United States. It’s Bill Clinton. It’s Obama. It’s the guy in the C Suite at Goldman Sachs.
Ari Lamm [00:36:45]
I’m like even in culture, right? It’s like Dylon’s getting Nobel Prizes and Bruce Springsteen is doing like million dollar podcasts on Spotify with the president.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:36:53]
It wasn’t all that rebellious because the rebellion by turning against tradition just accelerated the processes that the 60s radicals decried. And similarly, I would say about the wokes, that by attacking the church, they’re burning churches, by chopping at American identity and sort of taking an axe to American identity, why is it that every major corporation has embraced the wokes? It doesn’t see them as, if wokeness was a material threat to the interests of the trustees of Ivy League universities and Amazon and Apple and the Walton family and Walmart Corporation and maybe others, they would shut down the wokes like that. They aren’t. They’re happy to have you create people who have no identity, no past, who hate their own past, who hate their religion. So it’s the least subversive kind of thing. I think that process is repeating itself. The tragedy of the 60s was that it wasn’t really radical.
Ari Lamm [00:37:48]
It reminds me like of Fight Club. Right? So like meaning the only person Ed Norton is destroying is himself. Right? Like, Nike doesn’t care at all what happens to Ed Norton. In fact, Ed Norton’s Fight Club is fine and dandy because it’s like something that kind of distracts Ed Norton while he keeps buying more stuff.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:38:06]
Ari Lamm [00:38:08]
So, you know, just to close it up, the book is just so extraordinary. I really encourage everybody to read it. If there is one chapter that, you know, you feel like this is the chapter, like, I really want people to to really focus on. The whole, obviously have to read the whole thing. There’s one chapter I want to highlight, like, what’s your go-to chapter? Like, either it’s the favorite one you wrote or your favorite one to read or reread or your favorite one to recommend. What’s the one chapter?
Sohrab Ahmari [00:38:35]
I guess it would be the chapter about the centrality of ritual and why you can’t be spiritual without being religious. And it’s told through the lives of a pair of British anthropologists who studied African religion. And they were card carrying Marxists.
Ari Lamm [00:38:51]
And they go on quite a journey.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:38:54]
And when they returned from Africa, having studied African ritual, they actually become believers and they are received into the Catholic Church. So that’s the personal drama. But also because I think it just speaks to a lot of kinds of spirituality I imagine you also encounter in the Jewish community, right. The sense that organized ritual is a betrayal of true spirituality. So I don’t need that stuff. I’m just going to take dead sea salt bath and do yoga or whatever. That’s enough for me to access that. And the central insight of this couple, Victor and Edith Turner, was that actually a lot gets done in communities through religious ritual and nowhere else can you access those solutions the way that it equalizes the powerful and powerless, the way it lets you access this otherwise forbidden zone, the way it conditions you to imagine what society could be like because you have this liturgical vision, this prefigurement of what society might be like in an ideal sense, that then can become a blueprint for judging your existing society. All of this happens in religious ritual and and nowhere else. So to be fully human means to submit to ritual. And obviously, I mean to think about the Jewish community to make that all set, very concrete, that bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah as markers of adulthood. Right. Why is it that traditional societies all have some version of that? Confirmation for Catholics. There’s something that happens in that process where you say, I am now an adult, I am a member of this community, and that means something. Compare that to the secular transition from teenagehood to adulthood. What do we mark that with? Nothing. So then you wonder why people don’t ever become adults. They just play video games into their 30s and 40s. So there might be something to the idea of marking adulthood, this transition from puberty to adulthood that nowhere else can you do it without ritual.
Ari Lamm [00:40:47]
And to your point about ritual and tradition as freeing, that actually empowers young people in most cases who are not yet ready for adulthood in like the traditional sense. Like, you know, these rituals are a 13-year-old becoming an adult in the Jewish tradition or a 12-year-old becoming an adult in the Jewish tradition. We wouldn’t think of adulthood in that sort of conventional way in a contemporary perspective. But what it does is it empowers a child to actually choose to become an adult. It gives you that moment of actually saying, yes, this is what I want. This is the world I want to join. This is the community I want to be in, as opposed to just kind of like floating into it and being drawn into it, either against their will or unconsciously, like there’s something so freeing and liberating about tradition or religion in that respect.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:41:29]
Ari Lamm [00:41:29]
This is amazing. Sohrab, thank you so much for coming on. This was awesome.
Sohrab Ahmari [00:41:33]
Thank you for having me.
Ari Lamm [00:41:42]
America is deeply in need of a moral, cultural, spiritual revival. We all know this, and any successful version of that is going to need to be both revolutionary enough to capture the imagination and ignite that fire in our souls, and it’s going to need to be true to the stories and values of our past, to the liberty and the freedom embedded in the promise of America. And I think on both those counts, the answer is tradition, the kind of tradition that Sohrab is talking about. We find in our past some of the most groundbreaking things that have ever been thought, and accomplished. Revolutionary ways of thinking and being. And as Sohrab said,, we find the kind of framework for human affairs that, far from being constraining and limiting, actually frees us to pursue kindness, justice, and virtue to the fullest extent, to build the kind of world we know we’re capable of building for God. So with that, all I have three or four words. Let’s get to it. All right. That’s it for now. This is Ari Lamm making a Good Faith Effort. I’ll see you next time.
Good Faith Effort was created and written by Ari Lamm. If you enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple podcasts or your podcast app of choice, because it really helps others find the show. Our executive producer is Josh Kross. The show is produced and edited by Paul Rueste. This is a Joshua Network podcast presented by Bnai Zion. Follow us on Twitter @gfaitheffort. Follow Ari @AriLamm and sign up for our email list at thejoshuanetwork.com