INTRO BY DEB: Claude Alexander is a leading voice in evangelical Christianity. In addition to serving his own congregation, he has led the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference (the world’s largest gathering of interdenominational African-American clergy) and served on the boards of Wycliffe and Christianity Today. He brings a the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, a commitment to biblical authority, and a dedication to reconciliation. We were privileged to have him join us at a recent BioLogos gathering of top Christian pastors, scientists, authors, and educators. On the final morning of the event, Rev. Alexander shared his reflections on the ways the science conversation plays out in the African American church and in his own life.
I am the son of two physicians, a psychiatrist and a general practitioner. I joke that I had my mind and my body worked on at the same time! Science was always a part of my upbringing, giving me a love for science and a respect for those who pursue it. When I told my dad that I was coming to this BioLogos conference, he was glad because he saw it as an extension of the investment that he had made in my life. And I have tried to extend his investment into my ministry.
Being at this conference has been a rich and rewarding experience in many ways. Elaine Howard Ecklund in her presentation [editor’s note: coming soon at BioLogos] lifted up the matter of disparity between races among professional scientists. She shared the story of meeting an African American physicist who was one of only three African Americans in his sub-field, nationwide. As a pastor of a primarily African American congregation, I’ve reflected on the reasons for this disparity, the tension, the perceived gap. One reason is the mistrust that comes out of historical injustices perpetrated upon African Americans in the name of science. Just consider the Tuskegee experiments in the mid 20th century, where poor blacks were infected with syphilis by government scientists. Or talk to people 60 years or older who grew up on the east side of Baltimore. They will tell stories of friends who had some mental disability; they would see them in the neighborhood one day and then poof! They were gone and never seen again. They were believed to have been taken not by law enforcement, but as test subjects at local facilities in the name of science. Such things are historical injustices that breed mistrust of science. And that mistrust is then communicated generationally.
A second reason for racial disparity in science is a lack of “self-efficacy” among young people. Those of you in education know that part of coming to the educational process is efficacy, that is, your ability to see yourself as able to perform and able to contribute. Part of that self-perception comes when you experience success, but another part is when you have examples, role models that look like you. When you see their ability, it makes you believe that you are able yourself. And so, when there are only three particle physicists in the whole country who are African-American, if you do not have access to those individuals either by way of media or by way of personal experience, it is hard for you to see yourself as having efficacy. That is where BioLogos can play a role, in exposing young people to role models of scientists.
What we have done together at this conference—reflecting on an individual and a group level—is part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. However you read Genesis 1, one of the things that you must come away with is that the God who creates is also the God who evaluates, reflects, and makes judgments. Our capacity to evaluate, to reflect, and to judge is a decidedly “God” thing that is an intrinsic part of our humanity. However it happened, at whatever stage the image of God was conferred, we must admit that it is something that is decidedly and distinguishably by God, in us.
Often times people will discount science because they see science—and particularly evolutionary science—as negating the notion of us coming from God. But this is really a matter of “through.” The Scriptures consistently affirm that we come “from” God. Jesus says “I came from” God, but we all know that he came “through” a womb. “From” speaks to origin, “through” speaks to process. Often times, discussions of process are seen as discussions of origin, when they are decidedly different. If we are able to make that clarification, perhaps that eases some of the tension.
This became real to me in October of 2011 when my brother, then 38 years old, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. This is a survivable cancer, with a 75% survival rate for a 38 year old male. But in less than seven months, he was dead. As my father and I sat in that room— my father with all of his medical training and a trainer of doctors himself, and I with all of my theological training, all of the God talk in my head—we both sat in that room and my brother was dead. None of our collective training, none of our understanding of process, mattered. We had to accept mystery. The doctors did not expect him to be dead; they scratched their heads. It was an event that they could not predict or imagine. And for all of the prayers that I prayed, and prayers that our congregation prayed, and all of the Scripture that I knew, I too had to accept mystery about how all this works. It seems to me that that is something that both scientists and clergy must learn to accept: mystery.
At that point, the matter of origin and process faded. At that point the only thing that would help is destiny. Not where you came from, or how you got to here, but where are you going. The connection is that the God of origin is also the God of destiny, of destination. As the apostle Paul says, “of him, through him, and to him on all things.” And if you take away “of,” then you question “to.” But when you are able to affirm that the wonders of creation are of him, then you are also able to affirm that all of it is through him, and it is pointing and headed, to him. To him be glory and honor! Amen.
Concluding Thoughts by Deb:
I wanted to close with a few reflections on what I’ve learned from Claude Alexander and other African-American leaders in recent months. While I’ve known of the racially abusive Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in my experience as a white evangelical this was an event in the distant past. While obviously horrible, I didn’t see much connection to our lives in the 21st century, when research involving humans in the U.S. is held to high ethical standards. But I learned from Rev. Alexander that such incidents are not so distant. For African Americans, these episodes of racial oppression are a living memory, shared through the generations and leading to distrust of science.
This distrust is compounded by the false use of the evolutionary science to promote social Darwinism and racist views. The subtitle of Darwin’s Origin of Species, if you haven’t read it lately, is “Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, which certainly contributes to the tension, even though Darwin was using “races” to refer to varieties of plants like cabbage rather than human racial groups. Others have claimed that the science of evolution supports polygenism, the idea that races originated separately and unequally, although this was broadly denounced for both scientific and theological reasons even in the late 1800s (in fact, the idea that only white people descended from Adam and Eve is laughable today, when abundant evidence points to the origin of all humans in Africa).
Like all Christians, we at BioLogos are utterly committed to the value of every human life, regardless of race or ability. We abhor the misuse of the science of evolution to promote racist ideas. Instead, we celebrate the unity of the human race, which has been abundantly confirmed by scientific evidence from genomic studies. We are all descended from the same early humans. All humanity is one family.
Looking ahead, modern genomics has great potential to improve healthcare for all, with medical treatment customized according to each person’s unique genetic make-up. In 2003, Francis Collins spoke at an important meeting at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University (a historically black university) and later shared his reflections in the journal Nature in an essay titled “What we do and don't know about 'race', 'ethnicity', genetics and health at the dawn of the genome era.” As Ari Patrinos wrote in the same issue of Nature , “We are genetically far more nuanced and variable than is reflected in just skin coloration.”
Pastor Alexander’s larger point is that our origins, whether genetic or cultural, do not define us. Our identity, our definition, is ultimately in Christ. For of him and through him and to him are all things!