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Invisible Influences

I appreciated Mark Bauerlein’s recent essay “System’s Failure” (November 2023) on some of the many flaws in “systemic bias.” There is, however, a much easier way to dismiss the whole enterprise out of hand: when proponents are unwilling to start with the government’s K–12 education and the impact of welfare policies on family structure and stability as primary examples of systemic racism. Then we can know with utter confidence that they’re unserious or morally bankrupt.

D. Eric Schansberg
indiana university
new albany, indiana

Mark Bauerlein replies:

I’ll go with that, Mr. Schansberg, so long as we compile empirical evidence of the impact of such policies on minority families. We agree that genuine reform doesn’t aim at fuzzy “systems” or processes that can’t be detailed. It identifies specific practices and hard information, such as welfare benefits that prolong the circumstances those benefits are said to improve. Such cases, however, don’t attract the systemic racism hunters. They seek invisible influences: causes that cannot be pinned down concretely. The kind of discrimination that can be stopped or fixed without an entire transformation of the whole system doesn’t please them. The radical temper will not rest content with unradical solutions.

Critical Theory

I appreciate Carl R. Trueman’s attempt to baptize, as it were, the terminology and concepts of critical theory, such as “social construction” and “systemic racism” (“Critical Grace Theory,” November 2023). I fear, however, that Trueman underestimates both the degree to which such terms have been ideologically debased and the bad faith that animates their present-day usage. I doubt there is really any such thing as a “social construction,” for example, since society is not an agent that can build anything—individuals and collaborating groups of individuals can, institutions can, but not society. The term “diversity,” for its part, while not derived from critical theory per se, has come to mean simply non-white (as when an individual of color is referred to as diverse). Trueman makes an admirable attempt to rehabilitate the term “systemic” by suggesting, for instance, that we find the idea of “systemic idolatry” in the prophet Isaiah. But systemic does not mean simply pervasive. For minimal coherence we would have to distinguish systemic racism not just from individual racism, but also from institutional racism.

A system is not a culturally constructed pattern of behavior, as per Trueman, but a form of organization. A corporation is plagued by systemic corruption, for instance, if it has systems in place (promotion procedures, formulas for awarding bonuses, and so forth) that encourage individuals or the company itself to behave corruptly. But in the present intellectual climate the term “systemic racism” does not carry the definite meaning, which would sometimes apply and sometimes not, but virtually all racism now is categorized as systemic. The animating motivation is not so innocent. “Racism” is an inherently accusatory term, and the concept of systemic racism functions principally to enable the diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy, which actually implements the ideas of critical race theory, to implicate everyone in racism, and thus morally intimidate anybody who might think of resisting its prescriptions, while professing to accuse no one.

Concepts such as “social construction,” “systemic racism,” and “diversity,” I am afraid, are at this point irredeemable, and attempts by Christian intellectuals to appropriate them amount to waving a white flag at those who so aggressively promote a virulently anti-Christian agenda.

Joseph Cosgrove
providence college
providence, rhode island

Carl R. Trueman replies:

I am somewhat puzzled by Joseph Cosgrove’s response. Much could be said, and any reply in a letter column is doomed to be inadequate. I will focus therefore simply on the notion of social construction. He regards this as problematic because “society” does not construct anything and seems to see its use as denying human agency. That is not necessarily the case. Take, for example, language. This is a socially constructed system, one that each of us inherits. It is not the result of any individual action, nor of any institution. Yes, one could make the case that it is the result of “collaborating individuals,” but none of these individuals pre-exists the society into which they are born and whose language they learn. That points to what I mean by “social construction.” The use of the term does not in itself negate human agency or responsibility either in language or in other areas of social existence. We choose the words we use, even if we draw on a pool of socially established words, idioms, and speech acts. Furthermore, as I was not advocating for the present use of a term such as “systemic racism” as legitimate, I am not sure why he seems to hold me to account for doing so. The whole burden of my article was to argue that such present notions, and the theories that underpin them, are basically flawed, and that the Bible and St. Augustine offer the best framework for addressing the sins of our day.

Nouvelle Théologie

Edward Feser has written very intelligent things about religion and science. However, Feser’s history of the nouvelle théologie begs the question of what was really at issue in its contestation of neoscholasticism. It was certainly not trying to oppose contemporaneity to Aquinas, but rather, in part, claiming that Aquinas was being read through distorting post-Baroque lenses, while acknowledging that both the characteristic empiricism and characteristic rationalism of modern thought had roots in these distortions.

In the first respect, Blondel, de Lubac, Bouillard, and their successors developed in great detail what they took to be more accurate readings of St. Thomas. They insisted that there was no pure nature in his theological vision, that he had a synergic view of the operation of grace, and that his metaphysics—like all the “Peripateticism” derived from the Arabs—was an eclectic mixture of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic elements.

In the second respect, they contended that arguments to God and to faith purely from our analytic understanding or from totally “external” empirical evidence, disregarding religious experience and hermeneutic elaboration through time, were in fact typically modern biases: both positivist and extrinsicist. Blondel certainly did not think that truth was not about being, but rather tried to rethink both being and our access to being in terms of a fuller sense of life and action. Bouillard was not abandoning the need to think of grace in metaphysically causal terms, but trying to correct what he saw as an early modern distortion of such an understanding.

Nor were these perceptions viewed askance by all Thomists. Gilson was close to accepting all of them, and even Maritain clearly resonated with some of them.

It is the case that, besides ressourcement, the new theologians sought to integrate into a Christian vision a stronger post-Renaissance sense of subjectivity, situated perspective, temporality, historicity, and creativity—both of nature and humanity. Yet these things all have some prior Christian roots, notably in Augustine. Augusto Del Noce was the opposite of any sort of liberal, and yet he showed just how certain currents of southern European thought (including the French and echoed in Leibniz) had actually somewhat questioned and qualified the scholastic-derived assumptions of modern philosophy in a loosely Augustinian and humanist fashion.

The Communio branch of the new theology has failed not because of its rejection of Aquinas, but because it has not hitherto developed a new metaphysical synthesis, as demanded by its own “integralism,” and implied in its own ultimate genealogical background in figures like Félix Ravaisson. It is this kind of Catholic project that was first and disastrously interrupted in Germany in the 1860s, leaving it to the Russian sophiologists to carry forward. Although I am an Anglican, even if I were a Catholic, I would fearlessly say that the papacy backed the wrong horse at this point.

The serious Catholic thinkers of today, like Piero Coda, Andrea Bellantone, and Emmanuel Gabellieri, in the wake of lone voices like Jean Trouillard and Stanislas Breton, are all advancing to a more speculative exposition of the new theology. This will point the way to an admittedly needed new coherence of Catholic intellectual vision.

John Milbank
university of nottingham
nottingham, united kingdom

Edward Feser replies:

I thank John Milbank for his comments. One can agree with the nouvelle théologie writers that the nature/grace distinction is sometimes presented too simplistically. But it doesn’t follow that the notion of pure nature is per se suspect, or that Aquinas was not committed to it. That he was committed to it, and rightly so, is in any event something that Lawrence Feingold, Steven Long, and other contemporary theologians have ably argued. Moreover, it is not open to Catholics, at least, to dismiss the notion—given, for example, Pope Pius XII’s warning in Humani Generis against those who would “destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order.” Milbank himself has acknowledged elsewhere that Pius had nouvelle théologie writers like de Lubac in his sights.

One can also agree that there is an important and too often neglected Neoplatonic strain in Aquinas’s thought, alongside the Aristotelian strain. But it doesn’t follow that the Aristotelian strain is not more fundamental. And thus it doesn’t follow that a viable Thomism can proceed without the defense of at least the most general features of Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature.

Where arguments for God’s existence are concerned, the Thomist claims that their key metaphysical presuppositions, such as the real distinctions between actuality and potentiality and between essence and existence, can be defended on general philosophical grounds. Once established, the Thomist claims further, the existence of God can be shown to follow by demonstrative reasoning. How this goes when worked out in detail is something many Thomists have tried to show. But general remarks about praxis, extrinsicism, and so on cannot suffice to cast doubt on the effectiveness of such arguments.

A critic has to explain where, specifically, such an argument goes wrong—which premise is dubious, or which inference fallacious. One might object that, even if such an argument succeeds, grace is nevertheless necessary for a person’s mind to be open to it. All well and good, but that doesn’t entail that the argument itself cannot be evaluated independently of considerations about grace.

Milbank holds that the nouvelle théologie has been misrepresented and its key insights underappreciated. My point, though, is that this is certainly true of the neoscholasticism the nouvelle théologie attacked, as Kirwan and Minerd’s volume shows.


For a long time, I had assumed that the most magnanimous view of Christianity by a normative Jewish theologian in the twentieth century was that of Franz Rosenzweig: Judaism is the sun, Christianity the rays of the sun. While never certain that making Christianity the PR branch of monotheism is the most accurate or even the kindest take, Rosenzweig clearly meant it as Judaism’s tribute to Christianity. Lapide goes considerably further. I am indebted to my friend Mark Gottlieb for this fascinating article about a fascinating man.

Resurrection is no stranger to Judaism. We invoke it daily in our central prayer, the Amida: Mechayei Hameitim, God who resurrects the dead. Of course, God is doing the resurrecting, not being resurrected. Yet the core of Lapide’s claim, that he can accept that a human being was resurrected, is not necessarily incompatible with Judaism’s theological stance. After all, once you grant omnipotence, it is remarkable what a God can do. Centuries of enmity swamp theology however, and given the chronicle of Jewish–Christian relations, such a claim becomes explosive.

Lapide does still keep the iron curtain of the divide—what God resurrected was a man, not God’s self. Lapide intends to validate the historical claim but deny the theological one. Or perhaps, more openhandedly, Lapide is offering back to Christianity a sort of dual covenant theology in order to grant Christianity legitimacy in a Jewish theological framework. I do not expect a stampede toward Lapidism; most Jews do not feel the urgency of creating a theological framework for understanding Christianity. The general Jewish view has been to resist the allure of the majority culture as opposed to justifying its claims. Nonetheless, without being persuaded by Lapide, I tip my kippah to an ingenious and generous read of the Christian faith.

David Wolpe
harvard university
cambridge, massachusetts

It was a pleasure to read my friend Mark Gottlieb’s article on Jewish attitudes to the Resurrection of Christ. His timely comments about anti-Semitism toward the end, comments more important now than when he wrote the article before October 7, should be pondered by all.

On the specific issue of Jesus’s Resurrection, it was interesting to learn of Pinchas Lapide’s treatment of Christ’s Resurrection and also to note with delight Gottlieb’s own conclusion that Christianity needs the Resurrection of Christ lest it “quickly demythologizes its own narrative and turns into a milquetoast universalist ethic.” Amen. The history of liberal Protestantism bears grim witness to this claim and left me wishing that many of those professing Christianity had the same grasp of their faith as Gottlieb clearly does.

The Resurrection only fulfills this function in Christianity because of its place in the overall person and work of Jesus Christ: the claim that he is God Incarnate and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Recall Christ’s rebuke to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his Resurrection: “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 25–27). That is the real area of disagreement with Judaism, and that is where the discussion needs to take place: in the realm of biblical hermeneutics.

Jewish acknowledgment of the Resurrection of Jesus seems to me to be a really positive move and to open the way for serious Christian–Jewish discussion. And the reminder of the Jewish context of Christian origins is both historically and politically important at this moment in world affairs. As Gottlieb acknowledges, however, it is not the mere fact but the significance of the Resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah that is the ultimate key to the matter. Jewish–Christian discussion must therefore press on to hermeneutics, not simply stop at the historical plausibility of the empty tomb.

Carl R. Trueman
grove city college
grove city, pennsylvania

Mark Gottlieb replies:

Philip Roth, the bad boy of twentieth-century American Jewish literature, kicked off his sometimes-brilliant career with a short story suggestively titled, “The Conversion of the Jews.” First published in the Paris Review in 1958, only to appear a year later in Roth’s breakout collection, Goodbye, Columbus, the short narrative thought experiment about an emotionally distant Hebrew School teacher and his precocious but troubled charges leaves many readers uneasy and confused. But for all its bluster and faux subversiveness, Roth’s story does offer one powerful observation, put into the mouth of Ozzie Freedman, the ringleader of the afterschool crew: “But making light . . . I mean when you think about it, it’s really something,” Ozzie said. “Anyway, I asked [Rabbi] Binder if He could make all that in six days, and he could pick the six days he wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse.”

My good friend, Rabbi David Wolpe, channels young Ozzie in his thoughtful letter—transferring the argument from one Christian teaching on the virgin birth to another, namely, the Resurrection—underscoring the belief that, with G-d, all things are possible. Modern man, Lapide reminds us, has lost the sense of the miraculous and supernatural. He will need to recover the supernatural in history to make his way back to a better, more comprehensive, grasp on reality. Judaism and Christianity are at one in this truth, even as they draw the lines differently at times.

I was also pleased to see Carl R. Trueman’s provocative and direct—in the best possible way, of course—letter. For Trueman, the Resurrection only serves its central function in Christianity “because of its place in the overall person and work of Jesus Christ: the claim that he is God Incarnate and the fulfillment of the Old Testament.” Of course, by definition, an orthodox Jew like Lapide cannot affirm these christological claims. Remember, Lapide is offering a Jewish theology of the Resurrection, and more broadly, a Jewish theology of Christianity, not an orthodox Christian one. As Trueman correctly notes, this, namely the claims of Jesus’s divinity and fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies of messiahship, are “the real area of disagreement with Judaism.”

And that disagreement must persist to the end of time if both faith communities are to maintain their identity and integrity. I fear that if we “press on to hermeneutics” as Trueman suggests, we might frustrate each other in the attempt, losing the sense of shared providential story Lapide’s theological narrative provides. If by biblical hermeneutics Trueman has in mind the worthy goal of Jews knowing their Hebrew Bible better—at least as well as Trueman and his Reformed coreligionists—then he has my full support. Jews, the original People of the Book, should know their book as well as they know their Talmud and other rabbinic sources. This is, regrettably, not always the case. But if Trueman means something more, as I suspect he does, I’m less hopeful—and less excited. As the late revered Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik cautioned, there are real limits to fruitful expressions of Jewish–Christian dialogue. Sometimes the wisest way forward is to quit when you’re ahead.

Image by Takomabibelot licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.