It is not very often that a Reformed evangelical confessional Baptist has the opportunity to review a memoir by a once-secular Iranian Muslim-turned-atheist-turned-Catholic. That memoir belongs to New York Post opinion editor, Sohrab Ahmari, someone I’m delighted to call a friend.
From Fire, By Water forces the reader to reckon with ultimate claims. So much of modern Western culture is satisfied dwelling within the penultimate. But even as an atheist, Sohrab was never comfortable living this way. Yes, debauchery and moral excess characterize the early parts of his life story, but even in his licentiousness, he was always tormented by the immediacy of the ultimate and the claims of a troubled conscience. His story calls us out of the shadowlands of neutrality and toward decision and commitment.
A Journey of Extremes
The story of Sohrab Ahmari is one of extremes. By turns, he was a rebel Iranian expat, an atheist, a bohemian dissident, an anti-Mormon provocateur, a communist, a lawyer, a teacher, a libertine, and finally, a Christian.
A precocious child of middle-class bourgeois Iranian parents, Ahmari grew up in post-revolutionary Iran, steeped in a malaise of faux-devotion to the Iranian regime coupled with a love-hate relationship with the West. Islam, as he describes it, was more a matter of cultural conformity than of personal piety. Amid a culture of repression and teenage sexual angst, young Ahmari finds himself in an unhappy family with a more or less absent father. In Iran, he observed ironclad authority coupled with cynicism toward the state. Ahmari’s childhood dalliances with Islam were more a flirtation with superstition than personal devotion.
Despite his cursing of God as a child, it was not until his later adolescence as an immigrant living in Utah that Ahmari formed the convictions that would catapult him into atheism as a student at university and then law school. Always given to the world of abstraction and philosophy, Ahmari gravitated to whatever worldview was consonant with his core belief that God did not exist.
His intellectual shifts were the products of wherever his reading took him. There were many stops along the way, including a period as a hapless Communist party apparatchik. For his atheism, there was Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For his existentialism and nihilism, there were Sartre and Camus. For posh dismissal of metanarratives, there was Foucaultian postmodernism.
In each of these ideologies, the self-interested person seeks a pathway to a materialist eudemonia through freeing oneself of ancient wisdom or ancient boundaries. Assessing his own intellectual promiscuity, he writes, “like any fashion maven, I tried on every modish theory I came upon along the way. None left me wiser than I was before.” Like any man of the Left, Ahmari had also bought into the idea that an omni-competent state (despite its murderous and tyrannical impulses) was the culminating reality of this miserable life, because it promised a revaluation of morality and an egalitarian society. Interestingly, it was his tenure as a Teach for America educator that disabused him of the notion that government distribution of a particular good—in this case, education—brought about any lasting achievement.
Ahmari describes his ideological wanderings as those of “resentment, confusion, and ideological crankery.” The more philosophies he tried out, the more alienated he felt. He did everything in his power to banish God. For Ahmari, a life without absolutes meant that man was forever consigned to self-doubt.
But then Ahmari read of Jesus’ sacrificial death. He could not compute the notion that an innocent would die on behalf of the fallen. This power inversion upset the dialectic of historical progress, in Ahmari’s view. As he writes,
The old ‘thou shalts’ and the heartbreaking sacrifice that I read about in Saint Matthew’s Gospel were a bulwark against totalitarianism, perhaps the only durable ones. The God who revealed himself in the moral law, and who condescended to be scourged and crucified by his creation—this God was the liberator.
As he vacillated between extremes, exhaustion set in. Each ideology, in its own way, promised an escape that ended up in chains. He became aware of each’s propensity to immanentize its version of the eschaton. In a moving sequence depicting why totalitarianism is at the root of all non-divine ideologies, Ahmari writes,
To restrain man’s hand against man, he had to be bound by some absolute authority outside himself. Unbounded by such an Absolute Other, man would follow the siren song of political evil and use any means in pursuit of political ends. It was wrong to think that belief in God was impossible after Auschwitz; rather, Auschwitz was possible because God had been pronounced dead and all the old “thou shalts” declared null and void.
At this point, Ahmari would not yet have called himself a Christian. Still, the empty casings of his philosophical past were bringing him to a breaking point.
It was a weekend bender of debauchery and misery in New York City that forever changed him. For all his self-confidence, Ahmari confesses that he could never eliminate the feeling that he owed a cosmic debt. Whether we call this a violation of the natural law, or a function of the conscience, he could not, he admits, “break the cycle of transgression.” A guilt-laden Ahmari wandered into a Catholic mass, and despite the feelings that he was too smart for such institutionalized tomfoolery, he was drawn to the immensity, “the all-encompassing serenity,” and holy splendor of Christian worship. Wracked with guilt and the offer of forgiveness, Ahmari was overcome with regret. The experience of being at the end of one’s self is what brought Sohrab Ahmari to Jesus Christ.
Even still, Ahmari was uncomfortable with calling himself a Christian, as he was more appreciative of Christianity’s cultural achievements than he was willing to commit to Christ personally. Still, as he grew increasingly skeptical of the progressive moral values of his past, he had no use for the West’s moral relativism and decadence. He had a growing understanding of how science was different from scientism (science could explain the cosmos, but not answer why there was a cosmos to begin with). His materialism and empiricism, he understood, could not explain the thrall of the divine. He could not explain love apart from the idea of the immaterial soul.
The God of the Bible embarrassed Ahmari, until Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses exposed Ahmari to a textured reading of the Pentateuch that breathed life into the Bible in a profound way. He became convinced that the picture the Bible painted of reality and humanity revealed it to be a living text, what many theologians refer to as the “self-attestation” of Scripture. Ahmari came to understand the Bible to be an accurate depiction of life’s struggle and life’s redemption.
In describing his conversion, Ahmari writes that
I didn’t convert publicly to score a point for Team Jesus against Team Muhammad. . . If I was reacting against anything, it was against the materialism that had taken root in the West beginning in the nineteenth century. 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.
In Christianity, Ahmari found a divine deposit of true truth on which to base his life, a truth that removed the angst that comes from the vicissitudes of intellectual intrigue.
Honesty in One’s Beliefs
Ahmari’s memoir tells the story of an arrogant, philosophically inclined youth battling with the inner recesses of pleasure’s deceit, philosophy’s vanity, and the aching sting of the conscience. Ahmari confesses to a vapid immaturity alongside his intellectual curiosities, which only led him into a cycle of despair.
Yet the book is remarkable for its intellectual consistency. Both Ahmari the atheist and Ahmari the Christian demonstrate the consequences of ideas borne out in action. As the existentialist, Ahmari writes that he sought to act “heroically, in the full knowledge that my actions would mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.” But as a Christian, Ahmari is now committed to a code of morality that Christians believe is true based on both general and special revelation. This is why the Ahmari of 2019 is a fierce and intimidating critic of the West’s relativizing morality—a morality that dispenses death through euthanasia while also telling women that they are men. This moral plasticity is rejected by biblical religion. The morality that Ahmari lives with is not a morality of consensus. It is a morality of divine origin. It is absolute, binding, and authoritative. It is given, not created. As is clear from the book, there are only two ways to live: in light of God’s absolutes or in rejection of God’s absolutes. Ahmari has done both and found peace only in the former.
The examined life does not allow for neutrality. In the drama of life and morality, straddling a fence is not allowed. The Creator God of Genesis exists, or He does not. That stark reality shapes every horizon that colors humanity’s existence. The mind will choose to see God as the foundation for everything that is true, good, and beautiful; or else the mind will reject this foundation and substitute in the place of God the imperial Self. From Fire, By Water is a story of one man’s conversion, but it is more than that. Ultimately, it is a story about the question that each person who lives on this earth must answer.
As a Reformed Protestant, I do disagree with Ahmari’s claim that the magisterium of the Catholic Church is bound up with papal authority and that Protestantism’s decentralizing ethos—Sola Scriptura—means death by a thousand cuts. While I found some of his criticisms more aesthetic than intellectual, the purpose of this review is not to comment on the merits of his Catholicism. Knowing Sohrab as I do, I consider him a Christian brother.
From Fire, By Water is a book that I would place in the hands of any young, over-confident, over-zealous skeptic. It’s a book that college-age kids need to read as they flirt, perhaps for the first time, with new ideas that sound avant-garde and rebellious for rebellion’s sake, but only end up disappointing. From questions and doubts about God, to chasing after the intellectual trends of whatever one is reading at a given moment, to grappling with the surrealism of existence, From Fire, By Water is a humbling self-portrait of one man’s attempt to try on every idea under the sun, only to be left cold, naked, and stranded in the dark until Christ is found.