FROM FIRE, BY WATER: My Journey to the Catholic Faith
by Sohrab Ahmari
Ignatius Press, San Francisco
Hardback: 240 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
As a convert to Catholicism myself, I never cease to be intrigued by conversion stories.
Despite a massive decline in the number of people who identify as Catholic in the last couple of decades, there has nonetheless been a steady flow of converts to Catholicism. Increasingly, many of them are from non-Christian backgrounds. In From Fire, by Water, Sohrab Ahmari explores his spiritual journey.
For many converts, composing their conversion story, or recoun-ting it live on shows such as EWTN’s The Journey Home, can be challenging, as in doing so, one has to reveal one’s innermost self, as Ahmari has done in From Fire, by Water.
Born in Iran, Ahmari was raised as a member of the Islamic faith. However, Ahmari describes him-self primarily as a convert from atheism and Marxism. Like a number of educated Iranians, Ahmari’s parents were heavily influenced by Western secular values, which they imparted to their son. Furthermore, he found the atmosphere in Iran after the revolution in which he was raised – that demanded outward conformity to the strict interpretation of Shi’ite principles – repressive. For example, people could be flogged for a whole range of offences, including alco-hol consumption, and playing cards.
Ahmari not only found this imposition of morality oppressive, but he also developed contempt for the hypocrisy of the morality police. Not only did he observe his parents and other adults try to circumvent the strictures, but also on more than one occasion he witnessed his parents and other people successfully bribe the morality police to avoid being arrested for breaking the strict moral code.
At one point, Ahmari asserts that, if the Islamic Republic of Iran collapsed tomorrow, it would leave behind the world’s largest community of atheists. However, Ahmari admired the heroic stand Ali Hussein – a grandson of Mohammed – made, who died fighting his opponents, and who, as a consequence, is venerated by Shi’ite Muslims.
By his teenage years, after Ahmari had migrated to the United States with his mother following the collapse of his parents’ marriage, he had essentially abandoned belief in God. As a teenager and young adult, he became fascinated by the writings and thought of philosophers such as Karl Marx, and Existentialists such as Sartre.
As with many converts, one particular strand or facet of thought is central to Ahmari’s conversion. In his case, an extremely important facet was the understanding of the human person, particularly human weakness. Thus, one of the first serious challenges to his Marxist/Existentialist worldview was when he was a university student.
Attending Utah State University, which had a high number of Mormon students, Ahmari tried to shock fellow students by leaving lying around a copy of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – an egregious novel first published in 1962, designed to outrage conservative America – only to find a copy of the King James Bible lying around. Reading St Matthew’s Gospel through in its entirety, Ahmari was impressed by Jesus, a righteous man who willingly submitted to his sacrificial death, a death he could easily have avoided.
After graduation, Ahmari went to teach with Teach for America (TFA), an organisation dedicated to teaching underprivileged teenagers in low-income areas. Ahmari came to realise that Marxist understandings of the human person – that bad behaviour is caused by unjust social structures – are inadequate. Instead, by observing a colleague who adopted a zero tolerance approach to bad behaviour and laziness, Ahmari concluded that the primary explanation for human behaviour was character.
Reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941) also shook his faith in Marxism, particularly the observation that God’s moral laws acted as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Ahmari understood that the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western democracies was an integral reason why they upheld and protected the dignity of people.
Ahmari went to work with TFA in Massachusetts. However, while he adopted a rigorous work ethic, he was a heavy drinker. After a particularly heavy drinking session, he entered a Catholic church by chance while Mass was being celebrated and during the consecration he had a profound spiritual experience of the presence of God.
Over the following years, he threw himself into studying at Law School, writing articles for journals, ultimately opting to become a journalist. He also met and married his wife.
Although his marriage was happy and he enjoyed his work, there still remained an inner void. Reading the works of Jewish bioethicist Leon Kass, and interviewing him in 2013, resolved objections to religion based on science. Kass argues that scientists ask and answer the “how” questions about the universe; however, science cannot answer the “why” questions, which religion answers.
Perhaps the critical turning point for Ahmari was when he went undercover as an investigative journalist, pretending to be an asylum seeker trying to enter Europe illegally. His experience, particularly of dealing with those involved in people smuggling, shattered any remaining belief in the perfectibility of human nature.
After completing this assignment, he returned to London where he was living. Although still interested in Catholicism, he began to attend an Evangelical church. He realised 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” (p189). However, he was unimpressed by the casual worship of the Evangelical church.
After leaving a worship service one Sunday, he walked past Brompton Oratory, just as Solemn High Latin Mass was about to begin. Entering the church, he was entranced by the liturgy, and the following day met an Oratorian priest who instructed and subsequently received him into the Church.
From Fire, by Water is an extremely well written and fascinating conversion story. Its pages contain a cogent examination of some of the major flawed understandings of human nature.
The author balances adroitly an exploration of these ideological strands as well as the exploration of his life story in such a way as to make the ideas explored accessible to the average reader, and to engage them. This is a work this reviewer found extremely hard to put down in the course of reading it.
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Michael is a Melbourne-based writer. An electronic version of his own conversion story, Blasphemous Fables and Dangerous Deceits: Why I Became a Catholic, is available from Smashwords.com